Vacation Abroad (Accessibly)

Foreign travel with a wheelchair is possible — and fun!

by Barbara & Jim Twardowski on January 1, 2011 - 11:18am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 1

If you dream of seeing the world but hesitate because you use a wheelchair — don’t.

Of course, it will be challenging. Countries that are hundreds of years old are going to present physical barriers, but there will be much to see and do.

Every place you want to visit may not be accessible. Even in the United States, wheelchair users face obstacles every day, despite significant advances initiated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If you want to meet new people, explore a different culture and go sightseeing, you will have to get out of your comfort zone.

Luckily, the world is becoming more aware of people with disabilities. You can hail an accessible cab in London, take an elevator up the Eiffel Tower and sleep in a wheelchair-accessible villa in Spain.

Travel agent Ann Litt, who owns Undiscovered Britain in Pennsylvania, has been arranging customized accessible trips for nearly 20 years.

“It is absolutely worth going abroad,” says Litt. “Once you leave home, things will be different. Be a little flexible and roll with the punches.”

In other words, if you want things to be the same  — stay home.

Determine your destination

Unless you’re on an organized tour with a guide or on a cruise, “one of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to see multiple countries,” says Christine Arnold, a certified travel counselor (CTC) who specializes in disabled travel.

Coordinating multiple hotels and transportation is a complex undertaking, notes Arnold.

Foreign travel is challenging in a wheelchair, but well worth the effort.

Arnold, who has multiple sclerosis and occasionally uses a scooter or cane, has visited more than 40 countries. Her favorite expression is, “I have not been everywhere, but it is on my list.”

Arnold — whose clients live all over the world and travel everywhere from South America to the Antarctica — says African safaris are a popular destination for people who use wheelchairs.

Guests are seated while they view the animals from an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicle and “the safari lodges are spectacular. They are small, and the staff caters to your every need,” says Arnold.

Cruises also are a nice option, says Arnold. “You only unpack once, disability access is good, and there is a doctor on board.”

Not every cruise ship is headed to the beach. Arnold especially enjoys European river cruises. She recently took one from Rome to Barcelona. If time permits, you can opt to stay a few days longer at the final stop and explore the city.

Do your homework

An international journey begins long before you leave home. Arnold advises to start planning at least six months prior to the departure date.

Before you pack a suitcase, research your destination. A wealth of information is available on the Internet.

Start with the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory, where you can find valuable links from Algeria to Zimbabwe. For example, if you’re traveling to Britain, the country’s official tourism information is online at

Many tourism organizations post accessibility information. You may need to try several search terms such as “accessibility,” “accessible,” “disabled,” “handicapped,” “special needs" and “wheelchair” to locate this information. If none of these terms retrieves information, try “senior” and “elderly.”

For example, searching the Visit Britain website returned more than 2,000 links to “disability” information. One such link explained that many accessible public toilets in Britain are locked to prevent vandalism. Before visiting Britain, you can purchase a key that unlocks any of the 7,000 accessible toilets that are registered with the National Key Scheme.

Peruse the library and bookstore to find guidebooks on your destination. Zero in on what you want to see on your vacation. The number of books that cover accessibility in foreign countries is extremely small and most are several years old. Global Access News has a list under “travel books.” A favorite of ours is Rick Steves' Easy Access Europe: A Guide for Travelers with Limited Mobility.

Working with a travel agent

When you use a wheelchair, orchestrating travel arrangements takes tremendous organizational skills and attention to the detail. It can help to work with an agent who has experience or specializes in accessible travel.

To find such an agent, try to get a personal referral, or check:

  • American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the largest association of travel agents in the world, which has a search feature on its website that allows you to find agents listing “Disabled/Accessibility” as a specialty;
  • website, which offers an impressive list of companies that specialize in accessible travel; and
  • SATH, the Society of Accessible Travel and Hospitality.

A destination’s accessibility depends upon an individual's unique needs, says Howard J. McCoy, III, CEO of Accessible Journeys, which has been booking accessible trips for 25 years.

McCoy has rented a vehicle with hand controls for a client vacationing in England and arranged for porters to carry another client to the top of Machu Picchu.

Be sure to research your destination before leaving home.

More and more clients are opting for a customized vacation without a tour guide, says McCoy. The travel agent books the flight arrangements, transportation and accommodations, and should be able to advise about the accessibility of attractions. Some will even help rent medical equipment.

Clients need to have a realistic expectation of what a vacation will cost, he warns. “Remember the difference in the value of the dollar. A $200 hotel stay will cost approximately $350 in Britain.”

An agent can help you determine how to allocate your budget. For example, centrally located hotels are more expensive, but you might not need to hire an accessible vehicle to get around.

Travel insurance

Buy travel insurance at the time that you book your trip.

Says Arnold, “Most travel insurance companies cover a pre-existing condition, but only if you purchase the insurance within 21 days of putting down the first payment on the trip.”

She warns travelers to purchase the insurance from a third party and not the company that is arranging your trip, in the event the company goes out of business.

A list of travel insurance companies can be found on the U.S. State Department’s website. (Arnold personally recommends Travelex.)

Pack like a pro

Carefully pack only what is absolutely necessary. Leave empty room for souvenirs.

Check the airline’s website for guidance on luggage size and weight. Medical equipment, such as a wheelchair, does not count as baggage.

Bring your physician's phone number and the after-hours phone number. Bring all medication in original containers. Pack these in a carry-on bag, along with other not-easily-replaced items such as passport, glasses, contacts and itinerary. Exchange a few hundred dollars into the currency of the country you are visiting before you leave home.

For a detailed list of what to pack, see the Eagle Creek website.

Bon voyage!

Although the idea of traveling to another country when you have a neuromuscular disease may be daunting, it is possible. Thorough planning and research of your destination can help overcome obstacles.

“Travel is very personal and if you need extra assistance — ask,” says Arnold. “I’ve found people want to be helpful. It’s your vacation — don’t be shy."

The Twardowskis are freelance writers living in Mandeville, La. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT).

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