On the Road, Accessibly

A visitors bureau website can help you find wheelchair accessible beaches, such as this one in Gulf Shores, Ala.
Article Highlights:
  • Barbara and Jim Twardowski find road trips a fun and accessible way to get away from the daily routine.
  • The authors share family travel experiences and tips for making road trips as stress-free and enjoyable as possible.
  • The book 22 Accessible Road Trips Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers by travel writer Candy Harrington details some excellent routes and accessible attractions.
by Jim and Barbara Twardowski, RN on October 1, 2012 - 9:00am

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 4

When our family travels, we prefer driving to flying. Driving, in our wheelchair-accessible minivan, is simply easier. I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) and use a large, bulky electric wheelchair. If traveling by air, I forgo my independence and take a smaller manual wheelchair.

Our van and my wheelchair have been modified, allowing me to be the front passenger or driver. Hand controls, wheelchair locks and an automatic side door with ramp provide greater comfort and convenience. With the touch of a button, the van lowers itself, the door slides open and a ramp extends out of the vehicle. I roll into the vehicle and remain in my wheelchair — there’s no awkward transferring to a car seat.

Jim and I joke that we look like the Clampetts from the old “Beverly Hillbillies” television sitcom. You won’t find a rocking chair tied to the roof of our van, but there are plenty of other necessities. Try taking an extra wheelchair, a transfer board or a portable ramp on a plane! Sure, if we’re traveling to another country or our schedule is tight, we’ll fly, but our favorite mode of transportation is the family van.

Once, we drove more than 2,000 miles with our teenage son to visit colleges across the country. Minneapolis in May was delightful; Christmas in Washington, D.C., was surprisingly easy to navigate; and Orlando was magical. Closer to our home in southern Louisiana, we’ve spent wonderful weekends in New Orleans, sipped cocktails beside the emerald blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and seen world-class exhibits in Houston museums.

After logging all those road miles, we’ve picked up some tips for making trips as stress-free as possible.

Where and when to go

Take short excursions close to home before embarking on a lengthy cross-country trek.

Travel during the low or “shoulder” season (in between the high and low season). Most places are less crowded and the prices more affordable. For example, a one-bedroom condo in Gulf Shores, Ala., rents for approximately $1,250 a week in the summer and about $1,400 a month from November to January.

Consider the ages, interests and physical stamina of every family member. When our son was young, vacations frequently were spent in a condo on the beach a short three-hour drive away. One of our most relaxing trips was to a state park. The furnished cabin had a well-stocked kitchen, screened porch and fishing pier. When our son was a toddler, we took him to children’s museums, forts and zoos. As he grew, we added natural science museums, historical sites and theaters to our list. Now, most of our vacations are to major cities. We also plan our trips according to the weather. We’ll visit Chicago in the fall, not the freezing winter.

Organize trips around favorite activities. Our family’s itinerary almost always includes seeing theatrical productions. Use Festivals.com to find events and celebrations.

Predetermine the accessibility level of the places you want to see. Ask friends for recommendations. Check out convention and visitors bureau websites, guidebooks and travel magazines for inspiration. Go to Quest Magazine and search for To Boldly Go articles.

Allow time to rest, relax and rejuvenate. Stop after a five- or six-hour drive — especially if only one person is driving. We’ve driven 10 and more hours in a day, but it’s exhausting. When going someplace new, leave early and arrive before nightfall. Nothing is more frustrating than hunting for a hotel in the dark.

Before leaving home

Plan your route. Even if you’re not a member (although we highly recommend it) go to AAA. The AAA Trip Tik Travel Planner allows users to plot trips with multiple destinations. Invest in a GPS, but be aware it’s not always accurate. Visit state tourism websites, or roadside visitor information centers. Review routes online using Google Maps (click on “Directions”).

Stock the car with a first aid kit, hand wipes, flashlight, water, and an umbrella or rain poncho.

Make a list of what to pack and check off items as they’re stowed in the suitcase or car. (Keep the list stored with your suitcases and use it each trip.) It’s so easy to forget the phone or wheelchair charger in the rush to hit the road.

Bring a manual wheelchair in addition to a power chair. My manual chair has provided me access in tight quarters and down city streets without curb cuts. A portable ramp can come in handy, as can a transfer board.

Bathrooms and breaks

Find a family or unisex bathroom in an unfamiliar town by stopping at hotels (look for newer buildings), malls, Starbucks and hospitals. Having a GPS can be extremely helpful when looking for the nearest bathroom. Two free apps, Toilet Finder and Sit or Squat, can be useful too.

Stop and stretch your legs. If you can, stand. Occasionally, I’ve even gotten out of my wheelchair and ridden on the backseat to elevate my legs.

Drink plenty of fluids and carry a small ice chest in the car. Pack bottled water and healthy snacks.

Be attuned to the driver’s needs. Stop early if he or she is tired. Take breaks to eat, but keep the meals high in protein and low in carbs to avoid feeling sleepy.

Where to stay

Lodging close to attractions usually costs more. However, choosing a conveniently located hotel allows me to return for a nap or to elevate my legs.

Make reservations early as the number of accessible accommodations at any property are limited. Be specific about your needs. For example, state that you need a roll-in shower.

When selecting hotels, compare amenities. A new, super-fast website, Room77, instantly searches rates and compares amenities at hundreds of hotels.

Traveling is fun. Seeing new places and getting away from the daily routine is exhilarating. After your road trip, drop us a line and let us know how it went. We’re always looking for new accessible destinations to explore.

The Twardowskis are a husband-and-wife writing team from Mandeville, La., who are frequent contributors to Quest. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Contact them at thewritetwardowski@gmail.com.

22 Accessible Road Trips: Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers, Candy Harrington, 2012, 320 pages, paperback, $21.95, Bang Printing. Available at 22 Accessible Road Trips or through major booksellers.

The book 22 Accessible Road Trips Driving Vacations for Wheelers and Slow Walkers is travel writer Candy Harrington’s fourth. Recognized as an expert on accessible travel, Harrington has covered the topic for 16 years and is the founding editor of the online magazine Emerging Horizons.

I think people are growing weary of air travel, with the long lines, excessive baggage fees and ever-changing TSA regulations, so I wanted to give folks another option. Road trips are excellent for anybody with mobility issues, as you can take things at your own pace, pack along everything you need and stop whenever you want,” said Harrington

The new book describes 22 road trips in the Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern states. All the routes are loops that begin and end with a gateway city. “That way if you want to do a fly-drive trip, you can also do that,” said Harrington, who included accessible van rental information for all the gateway cities.

Harrington details:

  • the best time of year to travel each route and when to avoid it; 
  • one or two memorable dining options along the route;
  • not-to-be-missed special events or quirky roadside attractions; and
  • descriptions of things to do in the gateway city — perfect for the beginning or end of the road trip.

Most of the routes usually can be completed in two weeks. Some routes have more sights and attractions along the way, while on others the drive is the big attraction.

“The “Essential Arizona” and “Utah’s Big Five” routes include a lot of great windshield views, so you don’t even have to get out of your car to enjoy them,” said Harrington.

The routes offer a great deal of flexibility and a variety of attractions such as Lincoln County Courthouse in rural New Mexico (where Billy the Kid made his famous last escape), the “Field of Dreams” movie site in Iowa and a full-scale replica of Stonehenge on the banks of the Columbia River.

Harrington spent six years researching the book and logged more than 80,000 miles on countless trips across the country. When asked, “What is the one item you never leave home without?”, she responds, “My sense of humor — it’s essential.” (Note: She also packs snow chains or cables because the weather is so unpredictable.)


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