Traveling when disabled can be particularly hard and planning for it isn't easier. There are travel agents and operators who specialize in package deals for disabled people. But planning an independent trip, especially if traveling in a wheelchair, can be exhausting. If you're traveling independently for the first time, or are making a trip with someone who is disabled, consider these tips.
Before you go
Plan as far ahead as you possibly can. Many airlines will only allow one wheelchair per plane; many hotels have only a certain amount of accessible rooms and wherever you are going you need to let people know if you require special assistance when you arrive. Get in touch with the airline as soon as you can before flying. Make sure they can provide transport to get around the airport, if you need it, as well as help to get on and off the plane. Call hotels to request wheelchair ramps and find out about 24-hour room service - just in case you need it.
Research your destination. Accessibility can be very limited in some areas. Check with websites and guidebooks for details on accessibility for most cities. Cobbled streets, lots of old, tall buildings without elevators, or hilly towns can make travel difficult if you are in a wheelchair. Check on the transportation options available as well – especially if traveling on a budget. Are the trains, subways, or boats easy to get into? Will they transport wheelchairs? Taxis are a failsafe method of getting around in most places, but can be expensive.
Research your hotel. The excellent access-able.com website has a searchable worldwide list of cities that will suggest accessible hotels or hostels around the world. If booking on your own, call the hotel in advance and ask about the services that they have for disabled travelers. Don't rely on agents for information; make sure you speak to the hotel directly. Access-able.com advises you ask the person who picks up the phone if they have been in the rooms themselves. If they can't give you specific details about the room, ask to speak to someone who has stayed there. Then ask them to describe every facility in detail with open-ended questions, rather than simply asking whether they have it or not. Make sure you get all the details. If possible, get a written confirmation about the services they have available, especially if wheelchair access is needed.
Ask others. Forums can be the best way of finding information that isn't available anywhere else. The Thorn Tree forum for travelers with disabilities is great for asking questions. It also includes horror stories about people being told they would get things that were not provided. Be very careful about getting written confirmation if you've been told you can expect any sort of special service.
Pack carefully. Make sure any medication that you will need is in your carry-on luggage, just in case your checked bags are lost. Some medication needs to be kept below certain temperatures. If you're traveling somewhere hot take a cooler bag with you and confirm that the hotel you're staying in has a mini-fridge in the room. Carry spare prescriptions if possible, just in case you lose anything, and ask your doctor to write the generic medicine name rather than a brand name in case this differs by country.
Get private health insurance that covers you while you're abroad. Some insurers only cover you for medical services within the United States, so check before you go.
In the air
Confirm with the airline 48 hours before you travel that they have details of any special requests that you've made. Check-in as early as you can if you need help with boarding and follow up on the following:
- Request that your wheelchair is stored on board, rather than put in the hold. Planes will usually only allow one wheelchair per flight, so an early check-in can help ensure that this is yours.
- Label your wheelchair or scooter clearly, with the gate you're departing from, where you're going, where you're staying and a home address - just in case.
- Ask if there is an aisle spot available so you can go to the toilet more easily during the flight. Also ask if there is a particular attendant who can help you.
On your trip
All trips can be ruined by planning on doing too much in one day or visiting too many places in a week. Don't overdo it.
Be prepared to explain to people exactly how they can help you if you need assistance. Most people are willing to help carry or push a wheelchair, but are often too shy to offer unless you ask them. If you need help crafting your plans or organizing your trip, Access Travel Center has information about special needs travel, accessible and senior travel, and offers information on van rentals, medical transportation, and mobility products for disabled travelers.
If anything is not what you've been promised, the only thing to do is complain. Refunds can be hard to obtain once you've returned home. Demand a new room if you need to, or even a new hotel.