Last updated on January 11, 2024
From when I was about five, my Mum used a wheelchair. Despite this, we went on holiday around three times a year, and she never let her disability get in the way of doing the things she wanted. Some of my fondest memories are from the holidays we took together as a family to places like Spain, America and France. Recently, a man called Josh wrote to me about a charity called Vitalise
, which helps people with disabilities to travel. I’d never heard about it before and was delighted to find out that such a service exists. Josh asked if he could write a guest post for Bridges and Balloons with tips for disabled travellers and I was more than happy to agree. He’s produced a comprehensive guide for disabled travellers, which I hope will be of use to you or anyone you know who has a disability. Introducing Josh…
The Disabled Traveller’s Guide to Planning a Long Holiday
There is absolutely no reason that, as a disabled person, you can’t have the same enjoyable experience travelling as others do. Below you will find some important guidelines that will help you to plan a successful trip.
The following advice is based on personal experience. I have travelled with my mother who became a paraplegic following an accident. I also became disabled several years ago. Additionally, I spent a decade providing therapy to patients with chronic health issues and physical rehabilitative needs.
So let’s begin!
- To start with, pick two or three destinations that appeal to you. If you have a physical disability, remember to take that into account when choosing. For example, some places may be very hilly.
- Schedule an appointment with your doctor. Discuss with him/her your decision to travel and the potential destinations you’d like to visit. Ask them what they believe is most feasible health-wise and listen to any medical concerns they may have.
Consider whom you are travelling with:
- For example, when my family and I took my mum on a cruise, I brought along her home care provider. The additional expense was worth it, and gave me peace of mind that if she was not up to a day off the ship, she could rest and be looked after.
Make the travel arrangements:
- Contact all parties involved (airlines, trains, hotels/resorts, cruise lines, etc.).
- Be assertive regarding your specific needs. If you aren’t comfortable with this, pick an advocate to do so (family, friend or travel agent)
- If you use a travel website to book your travel plans, you still need to call the airline, train, hotel/resort directly to ensure your specific needs are met. I need bulkhead seating on flights due to the fact my braces do not fit under seats. The airlines are very helpful regarding this
- You should always get travel insurance. This is especially important if your health tends to be inconsistent and you have to cancel the trip.
- Order any necessary medical alert bracelets/identification etc, if you don’t already have these
- Make sure you have medications and/or needed medical supplies ahead for the entire trip. These items may not be available at your destination may prove to be very costly.
- If you have a motorized scooter or wheelchair, contact the airline and discuss the transport rules for the vehicle. Be prepared to answer questions about the battery. If it is not feasible to transport it, look for a local medical supply store at your destination to rent one from during your trip.
- Medical equipment does NOT count as a carry-on (example: c-pap machines). Therefore you can still take an additional two carry-ons (or whatever the airline’s limit is). Medical equipment should NEVER be checked-in.
- Have a detailed medical history prepared, and in your possession at all times, in case of emergency – including any allergies you may have.
2-3 months ahead (these also apply to anyone travelling with you):
- Make sure you have a current passport, if it is needed. If you are applying for the first time, they can take several weeks to be processed, if not longer, so get the ball rolling early.
- If you don’t need a passport, make sure you have relevant ID and that it is current. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not. Especially if you don’t drive, there is no compelling reason to check it even yearly. You won’t be allowed to pass security with an expired ID.
1 month ahead:
- Plan your wardrobe for the trip. Consider clothing that is comfortable, suitable for whatever activities you have planned and ensure they are non-constraining.
1 week ahead:
- Touch base again with all service providers (airlines, train lines, hotels/resorts, etc.) to ensure all your necessities are in place as you had previously arranged. Note the name of the person you communicate with in each instance if necessary to refer back to later. A manager is best.
- Go over all your preparations to make sure you have planned accordingly and all medications and/or medical supplies are in order.
2 days ahead:
- Pack all your non-essentials.
- Go to the bank or bureau de change and get your foreign currency/traveller’s cheques if required. If possible try to get some smaller denominations in there which will come in handy for tipping helpful hotel staff, taxi drivers etc.
The night before:
- Finish packing.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
The day of travel:
- Upon arrival at the airport or train station, politely reaffirm your special needs, whatever they may be with the staff
- Arrive early, beyond the recommended two hours. Any metal in your body will set off alarms, braces will have to be removed and wheelchairs scanned.
- NEVER check-in your medication, but keep it in your hand luggage instead.
Throughout the trip:
- Pace yourself! Getting exhausted will ruin the trip. Your activity level should have been considered in the planning phase.
- Don’t forget to take your medications as prescribed.
- If you have an exercise regimen that important to your health, continue to do it.
Travel Disasters to Avoid:
Disclaimer: These incidents are true, but were not the result of travel plans I had made.
- My older brother knew how much fun Mum had had on the cruise so he made arrangements for my youngest brother and her to join him in Las Vegas while he attended a medical conference. He got her a handicapped accessible room and arranged for an electric wheelchair rental. All seemed to be under control. Then the wheelchair arrived. The joystick was on the right side, and she was left-handed.
Moral of the story: If you need to rent any type of electric wheelchair or scooter, make sure it is the specific type you need.
- My daughter, then twenty-one, helped my mum respond to a letter she got in the mail offering a free cruise if you went to a seminar about timeshare condos. My daughter did request a handicapped accessible room. However, this low-rate cruise line’s doorway to the room was not wide enough to allow my mum’s standard sized wheelchair to pass through. Each time she wanted to enter/leave the room, staff had to be called to assist. One person had to lift my mum briefly, while another collapsed her wheelchair enough to fit through the door. It was a nightmare for her, as Mum very much valued her independence.
Moral of the story: Don’t assume all doorways to handicapped accessible rooms are created equal. Ask for doorway width.
- Not to pick on my older brother, but he was also responsible for a hotel room fiasco. The family made the long drive to bring Mum to visit. Upon checking into the hotel, we found out the room was on the second floor. I inquired about the location of the elevator. There was none. There were no vacancies, so a first floor room was not a possibility. Ultimately, my brother and two oldest pre-teen sons lugged her up/down the stairs in her wheelchair
Moral of the story: Make sure your reservation meets your needs!
- Do not hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Most people are very willing to assist you. In fact, they will leap to open a door, often before you ask, if they perceive you need help.
- Relax and enjoy! You deserve it!
This article was written on behalf of the charity Vitalise, who are dedicated to helping people with disabilities of all kinds to enjoy the wonders of travel. They run three specialist accessible centres in the UK as well as offering support and advice to both carers and disabled travellers.