Whether it’s London or an African safari, traveling abroad with a disability is becoming more accessible and these tips will make your overseas trip easier.
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.
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, has been arranging customized accessible trips for nearly 20 years.
“It is absolutely worth going abroad,” Litt says. “Once you leave home, things will be different. Be a little flexible and roll with the punches.”
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 who specializes in disabled travel.
Coordinating multiple hotels and transportation is a complex undertaking.
Barbara Twardowski, on the platform, boards the Eurostar — the high speed train that travels between London and Paris.
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.” Her clients live all over the world and travel everywhere from South America to Antarctica.
One of the most popular trips for wheelchair users is an African safari. Guests are seated while they view the animals from an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicle and Arnold says the safari lodges are spectacular.
“They are small, and the staff caters to your every need,”she says.
Cruises are also a nice option.
“You only unpack once, disability access is good and there is a doctor on board,” Arnold says.
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 (towd.com), where you can find valuable links to destination information from Algeria to Zimbabwe. For example, if you’re traveling to Britain, the country’s official tourism information is online at visitbritain.com.
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 visitbritain.com returned more than 2,000 links to “disability” information. One 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 registered with the Radar 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.
Make a list of your “must-see” attractions and visit their websites to review wheelchair accessibility information before your trip.
Work With a Travel Agent
When you use a wheelchair, orchestrating travel arrangements requires tremendous organizational skills and attention to 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 use one of the following resources:
-American Society of Travel Agents (asta.org), the largest association of travel agents in the world, has a search feature on its website that allows you to find agents listing “Disabled/Accessibility” as a specialty.
-Disabledtravelers.com offers an impressive list of companies that specialize in accessible travel.
-The Society of Accessible Travel and Hospitality (sath.org) expands travel opportunities for people with disabilities with its network of professionals and consumers.
John Sage is the president of Sage Traveling, a company that specializes in customized accessible travel. Hiring an expert like Sage can save money and time.
“Many people find Venice difficult due to all the bridges, but it’s actually really easy if you know all the step-free routes to get around them,” Sage says. “It’s one of my favorite cities to visit with my wheelchair.”
Every wheelchair user has different needs depending upon his or her strength, age and type of chair he or she uses. Sage Traveling plans trips for people in motorized wheelchairs, even to some of the more challenging destinations.
“The keys are to stay in a neighborhood that is wheelchair friendly, understand the accessible bus route options and book accessible van transportation in advance where needed,” Sage says.
Buy travel insurance at the time that you book your trip. 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.
Arnold 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 (travel.state.gov). (Arnold personally recommends Travelex.)
Pack Like a Pro
Carefully pack only what’s 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, doesn’t count as baggage.
Have a wheelchair maintenance check before leaving home. Pack any tools needed for minor repairs.
Check with your cell phone service provider to determine how your plan works abroad. Program in useful numbers such as your travel agent, the U.S. Embassy and your hotel.
If you can, travel with a manual wheelchair rather than a power chair. Manual chairs are more portable (fitting inside trunks) and can be maneuvered up curbs.
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 your itinerary. Exchange a few hundred dollars into the currency of the country you are visiting before you leave home.
Given the expense of a trip abroad, overcoming jet lag and adjusting to the time zone, experts recommend that you go abroad for a minimum of 10 days and no more than three weeks.
Don’t plan every minute of the trip. Leave ample time to simply relax at an outdoor cafe or even sleep late.
If it’s your first trip abroad, consider visiting an English-speaking country, unless you’re fluent in another language. Trying to communicate in a foreign language about complicated special needs can be exhausting.
“Travel is very personal and if you need extra assistance — ask,” Arnold says. “I’ve found people want to be helpful. It’s your vacation — don’t be shy.”