Traveling with disabilities

According to recent statistics, about 38 million people in the United States have a disability. Here, in the US, disabled people are accustomed to even sidewalks, sturdy railings, handicap ramps, elevators, and other numerous conveniences.

In the US, traveling with disabilities is more comfortable than in many other countries, but you should not deny yourself the enriching experience of going abroad.

Advanced planning is crucial for the accessible travel 

Traveling in wheelchairStart planning your trip early, six or more months in advance. Decide what mobility equipment you will use: a cane, a walker, a scooter, or a wheelchair. 

Check if your health insurance covers medical emergency overseas. Our friend Amy went on a South American cruise a few years ago. She is an older woman, but she is not handicapped. Amy slipped on the ship’s deck and broke her foot. She was taken to the hospital by a helicopter. Amy’s insurance covered everything, including the medical evacuation. I call that proper planning! 

Find a companion to travel with you. It will be easier, of course, and more fun.

Buy a plane ticket to choose the aisle seat. You will be first to board the plane and the last to get off. Make sure you have enough time for a connecting flight (at least 2 hours between flights).

If you plan to rent a car – check with the rental company if they have the type of the vehicle that you need.

Before visiting the museum, call and find out about the elevator that could fit a wheelchair. If their lift is too small, ask if they have a freight elevator.

The majority of cruise ships have special accommodations for disabled travelers. Make sure that your cruise line has all items you need (such as medical oxygen or a wheelchair). Please keep in mind that some cruise companies require people with disabilities to travel with a companion.

 Booking hotels abroad

Do not rely on the website description of the hotel. Call it directly. In most countries, hotel clerks speak decent or even excellent English. Prepare a detailed list of questions; describe your needs.  The answers you get will help you to decide if you should stay at some particular hotel or not.

Ask about hotel surroundings:

  • Find out if the hotel is in the area which has only the cobblestoned streets without sidewalks. European towns are famous for streets that have this distinctive charm. However, it is not easy to ride a wheelchair through all those “charming” cobblestones.
  • How close are the markets, pubs, and restaurants?
  • Are there hills around the hotel?
  • Is there a designated handicap parking?
  • Do they have a bus stop nearby? Will the local buses accommodate your wheelchair? Public transportation can be better and cheaper than taxis.

Ask if the hotel entrance and lobby have the following accessible features:

  • Level or ramped access to the main entrance
  • Automated door opening
  • Lobby level accessible restroom
  • Elevator to floors

Before booking a hotel, ask if the room has these features:

  • Wider doorways
  • Mid-height light switches and power outlets
  • Grab bars in bathroom
  • Roll-in shower
  • Low shower controls
  • Shower seat
  • Raised toilet
  • Enough space to move a wheelchair around the bed
  • Low shelves and hangers in the closet

Once you found a hotel that meets your criteria, reserve a handicapped room right away. Some hotels have just a few of such rooms, and they get reserved in advance.

Each person’s needs are different. Depending on the type of your disability you can ask other questions. Be patient: the customer service in some hotels may be not very polite or professional.

Choosing a travel agent

Some travel agents have experience arranging trips for disabled people. Before hiring one, ask about their experience with your type of disability. If you found such travel agent, stick with him/her for the future trips. The knowledgeable agent can save you money and will help to avoid a lot of aggravation.

Good travel agents can advise where to go. They may know about the countries that have sights which were not convenient for the disabled people but recently became accessible (like Machu Picchu in Peru, and Acropolis in Greece).

What if you need a doctor

 If you are going to spend a few days at the same place, try to find a local doctor (or, better, a couple of doctors) who speak English. Again, do it in advance. You might not need a doctor during your trip, but the knowledge that you know one will give you peace of mind.

 Bring a phone number of your regular doctor and his description of your condition written in the language for lay people. Pack your medications in a carry-on bag. Make sure you have enough. You do not want to waste your precious vacation time looking for more meds in a foreign country.


Notify Airline Company two days in advance that you need wheelchair assistance.

 Use reflective gear or put reflective stickers on your wheelchair or scooter. It will be useful not just at home, but especially during your travel in the unfamiliar surroundings.

Many disabled people prefer to travel with their own wheelchairs. The manual wheelchair with the pop-off tires will make your trip more comfortable.

Prepare plan B

You have to plan in advance and always be ready for plan B. If you cannot get inside one museum, go to another. If the restaurant that you chose in the book is not accessible, go to the next one on your list.

Stay positive. Be friendly, be flexible. Don’t plan to do too much in one day. Leave extra time for everything, including some rest between sightseeing.

Everybody is entitled to a wonderful vacation.  Traveling with disabilities is much more accessible nowadays than it used to be even a decade ago. Don’t let your disability keep you from seeing our beautiful world.