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Have Disabilities, Will Travel

Vacations are part of the American dream. But are they also part of the dream for people who use wheelchairs or walkers or canes, or for those folks who can't walk more than a block without getting winded? Is travel a realistic option for people with disabilities?

Gladly the answer is a qualified yes. Barrier-free travel takes more planning and research, but it is possible.

That's good news for all travel junkies, as it's nice to know you don't have to give up globetrotting should you suddenly join the growing ranks of disabled Americans. At last count, the US Census Bureau estimated that 20% of the population is disabled; and that figure is expected to rapidly rise as baby boomers continue to age. Chances are, you or somebody you know has a disability.

With that in mind, let's have a look at the basics of barrier-free travel.

In The Air

Many trips involve air travel, and the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) covers access on US airlines. Before you even begin to shop for airfares, learn your rights under the ACAA.

Once you arrive at the airport, the procedure is pretty simple. If you tire easily, you can request an airline wheelchair at curbside or at check-in. If you have your own wheelchair, you can keep it until you board the aircraft.

At the gate, an aisle chair is used to board passengers who cannot walk. This high-backed narrow chair has two or four small wheels, and you are belted in, and rolled down the aisle to your seat. For an easier transfer, you can request an aisle seat with a moveable armrest. When you arrive at your destination the same procedure is repeated in reverse. General rule for wheelchair-users is, first-on last-off.

Although the procedure is pretty basic, there are many variables involved with air travel. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you head for the friendly skies.

  • Choose US carriers for the best access.
  • Reconfirm all access arrangements directly with the airline at least 48 hours in advance.
  • Consider your toilet options and plan ahead. Airline accessible lavatories are quite small and you need to be able to walk a few steps to use them.
  • Consider switching to gel cell wheelchair batteries. Gel cells are merely disconnected for air transport, while spillable batteries are removed and packaged separately.
  • Allow plenty of extra time to get through security. Carry your wheelchair repair tools in your checked baggage.
  • Advise the gate agent you would like to preboard the aircraft. Assistive devices only get priority space in the onboard closet if you preboard the aircraft.
  • Stay in your own wheelchair until you transfer to the aisle chair at the door of the aircraft. Gate-check your wheelchair, and have it brought directly to you at your arrival gate.
  • Attach clear assembly and disassembly instructions (in Spanish and English) to your wheelchair or scooter.
  • Remove any loose or protruding parts from your wheelchair or scooter. Protect your joystick with some type of hard covering. A plastic cup and packing tape works well.
  • Let a little bit of air out of your wheelchair tires. Carry on all gel cushions. Baggage compartments are not pressurized.

Finally, if you encounter any problems along the way, contact the Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO). The CRO is an airline employee who is specially trained on travelers' rights and airline responsibilities under the ACAA. All US airlines are required to have a CRO on duty 24 hours a day.

On the Ground

Flying is not the only mode of travel. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) covers access on all US ground transportation including trains, buses, rental cars, hotel shuttles and public transportation. Learn your rights under the ADA so you know what to expect.

All Amtrak trains have at least one accessible coach car, and all stations have an accessible boarding option. Some Amtrak sleeper cars also have accessible bedrooms. Amtrak publishes an excellent Access Amtrak guide which details all access options.

If you'd prefer to take the bus, call Greyhound's ADA Assist Line at least 48 hours prior to your departure to request a lift-equipped bus.

If you take your own car, don't forget your parking placard. Most US cities (except New York City) honor out-of-state placards. It's also valid in Canada.

In some cases, you'll also need to plan for accessible ground transportation. Many airport shuttle companies have accessible vehicles. Shop around and make you reservations well in advance.

Find out if your hotel has a free airport shuttle. Under the ADA, hotels that offer courtesy transportation must also provide free accessible transportation.

Most rental car agencies offer a variety of adaptive equipment for rental cars. Depending on the location, 24 to 48 hours notice is required for installation of hand controls and spinner knobs.

Some people travel with their own hand controls; however most insurance policies exclude rental cars with customer installed equipment.

Alternatively, you can rent a lift-equipped van from Wheelchair Getaways or Accessible Vans of America. These national companies have franchise locations throughout the US.

Don't exclude taxis, buses and metro trains as many of these are accessible. For the best scoop on accessible transportation, contact the Center For Independent Living in your destination city. Nobody knows how to get around better than the locals.


Cruising is often billed as the most accessible vacation option; however some ships are more accessible than others. For best access choose a large ship built in the past three years.

The ship itself is only half of the accessible cruise equation. Port access is equally important. Alaska offers the best port access as it falls under the jurisdiction of the ADA. Additionally it's well touristed by wheelchair-users, which makes a difference in local attitudes.

If your heart is set on the Caribbean, travel agency owner Connie George suggests Royal Caribbean International's Explorer of the Seas, which sails from Miami and calls on Nassau, Labadee, St. Thomas and San Juan.

The most popular port on this itinerary is Labadee, which offers free loaner beach wheelchairs. Says George, "I have wheelchair-users who keep cruising back to Labadee because of the great beach access."

Connie's best tip for cruisers? "Remember to request pier assistance when you book your cruise. Disabled passengers are given priority boarding upon advance request, and it really streamlines the whole process."

Beyond Wheelchairs

The ADA also mandates access for people with sensory disabilities. Many hotels can provide text telephones, closed caption TV decoders, visual smoke alarms and visual door knockers upon advance request.

Most properties constructed after 1992 have Braille and raised letter room numbers and elevator markings. Braille menus are not required under the ADA, but some restaurants provide them.

Contact the property directly to confirm access features, and reconfirm any access requests 48 hours in advance.


Proper planning is the key to a successful trip; but where do you start? The internet is the best place, as it has the most current information.

Start with the government websites which contain detailed information on the ACAA and ADA. Then, use search terms such as accessible travel, barrier free travel, disabled travel, senior travel, wheelchair travel or handicapped travel to find content driven barrier-free travel websites.

How do you tell a good website from a bad website? Look for unbiased first-person information. Many websites just post press releases or offers from their advertisers. Just because a website comes up at the top of a search engine doesn't mean it contains the most accurate information. Scrutinize the content carefully and make sure the person reporting the information actually visited the destination. First-person reporting is essential in barrier-free travel.

Bigger is not necessarily better either. In fact, it's better to have 200 good resources than 10,000 outdated ones. Two of my favorite websites are Moss Rehab and Global Access. Both offer first hand information and neither website garners advertising revenue from travel agents or tour operators.

Be on the lookout for print access guides in your web search. More and more organizations are publishing these free guides, which contain detailed access information on everything from hotels and ground transportation to restaurants and tourist sites. In fact, Access Northern California just released the new edition of Access San Francisco. Request your free copy from the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

For access to the great outdoors, check out the national parks website. Keep an eye out for boardwalks as most offer great access to nature.

Finally, the best preparation is a healthy game of "what if". Ask yourself questions like "what if my wheelchair breaks while I'm on vacation?" Having some well thought out solutions to these "what if" scenarios helps ease that pre-trip anxiety.

Veteran traveler Bonnie Lewkowicz sums it up best, "Be prepared, know your rights and travel with an open mind. Expect some glitches, but realize that things will work out in the end."

Tips For Finding An Accessible Room

  • Look for properties constructed after 1992. The Americans With Disabilities Act took effect in 1992 and properties constructed after this date usually have better access.
  • Always call the property directly. On-site reservation agents often have first-hand knowledge about access features at their property.
  • Never just ask for an accessible room. Request the specific access features you need.
  • Not all accessible rooms have roll-in showers. Ask a lot of questions about the bathroom facilities. Never assume anything.
  • Avoid yes or no questions. Ask the clerk to describe the accessible features of the room.
  • If the reservation clerk can't give you specific access details, ask to speak to somebody in the housekeeping department.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for measurements. If door width is a concern, ask for that measurement. Don't forget about the door width of interior (bathroom) doors too.
  • If room size is a concern, ask the reservation agent to fax you a floor plan of the accessible room.
  • If fatigue is a factor, request a room near the elevator or in the main building.
  • Ask the reservation agent if an accessible room can be blocked for you. If the answer is "no", find another hotel.

Finally, if a reservation agent gives you ambiguous answers or sounds inept, call back later or contact a different property. Always trust your instincts!

Barrier-Free Favorites


San Diego, California
(858) 279-0704
Great weather, lots of barrier-free attractions and free power beach wheelchairs on Mission Beach.


Connie George Travel Associates
(610) 532-0989
The hands-down expert about access on cruise ships and barrier-free shore excursions.

Undiscovered Britain
(215) 969-0542
Ann Litt offers itinerary planning, group and individual tours to the UK, and has a great database of (personally inspected) accessible hotels and guest houses.


(888) 771-7171
Microtel offers good access at affordable prices. CEO Mike Leven's goal is to be "the preferred hotel chain for people with disabilities."

Millennium Copthorne Tara Hotel
(866) 866-8086
A great accessible lodging choice in London, this Kensington property has accessible rooms with ceiling track lifts, roll-in showers, bedside emergency call buttons, remote lighting controls and automatic doors.


Global Wildlife Center
(985) 624-9453
This drive-through wildlife park in Folsom, Louisiana features roll-on access to their open air tour vehicles. Visitors are encouraged to feed the animals -- lots of fun!!

Fantasy of Flight
(863) 984-3500
This Polk City, Florida aviation museum features a wheelchair accessible flight simulator. Just roll in and start the program.

Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area
(541) 574-3100
Wheelchair-accessible tidepools near Newport, Oregon.

AAA Horse & Carriage in Stanley Park
(604) 681-5115
Horse-drawn trolley tours of Vancouver's Stanley Park. The vintage trolley cars have ramp access and the free shuttle bus is lift-equipped.

Nina's Dandy
(703) 683-6076
Docked in Alexandria, Virginia, Nina's Dandy has roll-on access and an accessible head. It's the most accessible "dining cruise vessel" I've ever seen.

Top of Page

Europe Offers Options

What can you expect to find access-wise in Europe? Actually, it's a mixed bag. On the one hand Europe boasts historic sites, cobblestone streets and lots of steps; but on the other hand there are also some nice accessible choices. Take London for example.

Says Ann Litt, president of Undiscovered Britain, "London is a wonderful choice. It presents no language difficulty, and there are several centrally located hotels that have adapted rooms with roll-in showers. London black taxis can now accommodate most wheelchairs and most streets have curb-cuts."

I heartily concur. In fact, on a recent visit I found wheelchair-access at Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, The National Portrait Gallery, The Houses of Parliament and the British Airways London Eye. And, you can roll right on to City Cruises millennium boats, for a barrier-free sightseeing cruise on the Thames.

Hotel access in England is improving too, and the availability of adapted rooms is expected to increase in 2004, when the Disability Discrimination Act is fully implemented. Still there are many accessible choices available today, such as London's Copthorne Tara which has adapted rooms with ceiling track lifts.

Down on the Continent, access standards and laws vary from country to country; however some terminology applies across the board. For example in Europe, an "accessible room" features an accessible route of travel but offers no specific amenities; while an "adapted room" contains a bathroom, shower and toilet that are adapted to comply with access standards. Also remember, in Europe the first floor is not at street level. If you want a room at street level, ask for a room on the ground floor.

Best advice for planning a European trip? Ask a lot of questions! Don't assume that "accessible" or "barrier-free" means the same thing in Europe that it does in the US.


  • ACAA Information
    Common questions and answers about air travel for wheelchair-users.
  • New Horizons
    Information for the air traveler with a disability from the Department of Transportation (DOT).
  • Airline Security Information
    DOT Fact Sheet regarding heightened security and the civil rights of people with disabilities.
    Airline Security Information
  • DOT Hotline
    Toll-free hotline for information and assistance on disability-related air service problems.
    (866) 266-1368
  • ADA Home Page
    Information and technical assistance on the ADA by the Department of Justice.
  • Access Amtrak
    Free print guide detailing Amtrak's accessible services.
    (877) 268-7252
  • Greyhound ADA Assistance Line
    (800) 752-4841
  • Project Action
    An on-line database which lists accessible transportation options throughout the US.
  • Centers For Independent Living (CILs)
    TIRR sells an updated list of CILs in the US. Available in a variety of formats for $10.
    (713) 520-0232
  • Wheelchair Getaways
    Accessible van rentals.
    (800) 536-5518
  • Accessible Vans of America
    Accessible van rentals.
    (888) 282-8267
  • Global Access
    First person experiences and a good collection of barrier-free resources.
  • Moss Rehab
    Travel tips, resources and access information.
  • National Parks Service
    Access information available on many national parks, monuments and recreation areas.
  • Access San Francisco
    A free access guide to the City by the Bay.
    (415) 391-2000
  • European Commission Access Guides
    Free PDF access guides for 18 European countries.
    European Commission Access Guides
  • Emerging Horizons
    A magazine focusing on accessible travel.
  • Barrier-Free Travel: A Nut's & Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers
    A comprehensive book about the logistics of barrier-free travel.
    ISBN 1-4010-1964-1
    (888) 795-4274