Planning a Wheelchair Accessible Trip | Traveling the World in a Wheelchair
You guys! It's summer and I'm not traveling right now and I'm so BUMMED about it! I know a lot of people aren't traveling right now BUT I hope we're all using this time to plan our next trip so when the time comes and we can travel again, we're ready to pack up and go! Let's be honest, the anticipation of planning a trip is the only thing keeping me sane through COVID lockdown right now.
To me, traveling is like breathing. It's an essential to my life. It keeps me grounded and reminds me that there is a world out there beyond my own. Thinking of all the possibilities, meeting new people, trying new foods, learning more history, and imagining myself there on a nice relaxing beach on an island somewhere sunny keeps me rolling...always.
Over the past 10 years, A.J. and I have been navigating the world, him with his super strength and me with my feist and my wheelchair, checking off our bucketlist, and adding on new places to see and things to do at the same time. So basically, the list will go on and on like Jack and Rose's love (haha) and one day, we'll have seen everything we want to see (or at least one can hope).
While planning our adventures, we are fully aware that wheelchair accessibility is unequal in all areas and there are many challenges that present themselves along the way. But inaccessibility has not been a deterrent for us from trying out new places because we believe everywhere is possible (even if I must be piggy-backed). It is something we figure out and plan for once we've decided on our next adventure. We continue to travel in a wheelchair, despite the challenges because it is something that sparks joy for us and helps us feel like we are living our lives fully. Isn't that what life is all about? Growing through challenges, seeking adventure into the unknown, believing that anything is possible, and living a life we're proud of?
We decided a long time ago, that where Martina has a will to go, A.J. will make a way to get us there because YOLO and we will break all barriers to get there--we gotta make the most of what we've got. I am hopeful that as we continue to travel, the world will make more efforts to meet us halfway and make traveling the world in a wheelchair a bit more accessible for all of us. I hope that as people of all abilities read my blog, they will be empowered to go out on their own adventures and see the world.
We've put together this checklist to give you some tips and tricks from our 10 years of traveling in a wheelchair so you can plan your next accessible adventure. Planning is key to limiting the stressful situations you can easily get into as a wheelchair user in a foreign place, and allow you to have as great of an experience as possible. Honestly, each of these could be a post of their own, but we'll give you snippets in this post for now. We hope that whether you're a traveler in a wheelchair, or a friend, or a traveler on your way to your destination, you find this list insightful and helpful! We've included links to different products we've found useful as well.
When booking a flight, we like to put me on the aisle seat because it's easier to transfer onto from the aisle chair. Always note on your reservation that the seat is for someone in a wheelchair, so the airline can plan accordingly. I like to check in at the counter, especially in a new airport because they can send someone to help you navigate through the security counter (often times a little more quickly), and also help push the wheelchair so that your companion (if you're traveling with one) can focus on carry-on's or kiddos or carrying on kiddos. I usually have my littlest one on my lap and can help keep track of her, as well as a carry-on slung across the back of my chair (filled with all the medical essentials, kids items, valuables, and in-flight entertainment). A.J. usually has our other carry-on and keeps track of our two older children. The TSA pass helps speed up the process a bit by allowing me and my children to go through faster and skip the pat down (SO WORTH IT).
At the gate check-in, I always let the attendants know I'm there so they can tag my chair so it stays on board and is delivered to me at the next gate (I've had the wheelchair go through baggage before, and it's no fun to wait for the airline to find a loaner chair and get that to me before I can get off the flight and snag my wheelchair at baggage claim. They're getting better at this, but trust me on this one). Ask when you need to get back for boarding (usually 30-45 mins ahead) because you'll often be the first to board (if you're late like I've been in the past, it's kind of a pain to board last - hitting everyone on the way to my seat). Use the restroom before you board because honestly, those lavatories are just too tight. I always have to have someone (A.J. or strangers) carry me onto the toilet and it is not comfortable. However, for longer flights, I've learned to use a foley catheter so I don't have to go to the lavatory at all.
As I'm transferring into my seat from the aisle chair, I politely give the attendants instructions on how to store the chair. I say "politely" because I don't mean for it to sound bossy, but more of an assertive plea to take care of this item that is an extension of me. I always try to build rapport and be extra grateful for their help. As I'm learning, they are learning as well. On flight, wear compression socks if possible. My legs always struggle with swelling, so this is a must. I also pack a little pillow to help with my back. If you struggle with poor blood circulation as I do, a blanket is a really good idea too. And I always sit on my own cushion to avoid pressure ulcers. Don't be afraid to ask a flight attendant for help if you need it.
We have stayed in all sorts of places--hotels (via hotels.com and booking.com, hostels (via hostelworld.com) , AirBnb's, etc. and we know they come in all shapes and sizes. We generally select them based off of proximity to most of our activities (or proximity to transportation), accessibility, and cost. Often times, when booking online, these places will have filters that will help narrow it down according to accessibility, but it's important to contact the management or house owners and check for features that you need. Most important for me is having an accessible restroom because I want enough room to do everything by myself (shower, toilet, hygiene, etc.). I take careful note while scrolling though photos of the place and I ask owners/managers to check just in case. I never remember the dimensions of my wheelchair (but I probably should, lol), but I tell them I need to turn around fully in the wheelchair, and ask, "Is that possible?" If at an Airbnb, I check to see if it's a multi-story and if elevators are available. Usually, that information is available by messaging the owner. For hotels, I always call after booking to ensure they've made note that it needs to be accessible because I've had hotels not read the notes and completely fill up the accessible rooms for people who don't need them. Even with these extra precautions I have had times when a hotel still didn't have an accessible room and I just had to make the best of the situation. I also just joined this group on Facebook, People Like Us Exchange, where you can exchanges homes with other travelers. They have some cool accessibility filters available.
(Wheelchair accessible magical toilets in Japan!)
Generally, we try to use public transportation and plan on the extra time it takes to get to our destination. We think it's a fun way to experience local life, observe other people's behaviors, see a little more of new places, and it's cheap! However, we do weigh in accessibility and time as well. Most countries with metros/subways like Singapore and Japan have fully accessible metros with level cart to ground and elevators to get from one floor to the next (albeit, not always one above the other so you have to search around a bit). However, some places like New York City do not provide elevators at every stop, so it requires more research and planning through their city website. We've also been to places like Rome and Lisbon where not all (if any) of their buses were wheelchair accessible and have had to break down the wheelchair to get it onto the bus. Phnom Penh has many tuk tuks, which are these carts pulled by a motorcycle, and we have used bungie cords to tie the wheelchair behind the cart and sometimes break it down and stick in the ride with us. Depending on availability within the country, app transportation services such as Lyft (enableAccessMode), Grab, and Uber (wheelchair accessible vehicle WAV) have been sooooo helpful and safe. Getting the biggest car possible for wheelchair and luggage is so worth it. We have, on occasion, rented vehicles, for example in Hawaii. Google will pull up many places under "accessible car rentals in xx (city)." Since my wheelchair can break down this means we can use just about any vehicle that will fit us and our stuff, but if you have an electric wheelchair this may be a little tricky, but definitely call the car rental company to check because you never know what they offer.
Google and Trip Advisor are my best friends as I'm planning activities out for everyone in the group. I look at all the possible activities, pick out which ones sound interesting and talk about them with my travel buddies, finally (the fun part) we pick out the ones we want to do. Then, I go on to researching accessibility and how to make it work. I once went indoor skydiving in Denver. I wasn't sure how it would work initially. But then, looking it up on Google, watching some YouTube videos, and actually calling the company to go over the mechanics helped me figure it out, and when the day came, it was ALL FUN. And the same goes for other adaptive sports like monoskiing, which requires researching equipment. If you're ever in Utah, USA, be sure to check out Wasatch Adapative Sports for adaptive ski lessons and rentals.
Make sure to look for disability related discounts--many older places have them such as the Louvre, the Vatican, and American National Parks. Sometimes, some interesting activities are not worth the hassle for me at the moment, so we save them for next time. We're still looking to figure out how to make Mario Kart driving work for us in Japan for next time. Apparently, they don't have adaptive carts just yet, so if you have any ideas, let me know!
I plan routes according to proximity so we can hit up more places and save ourselves some hassle of wheeling back and forth unnecessarily. Oftentimes, this helps me determine where I want to stay in relation to the activities. And remember, save your itinerary somewhere you can easily access it, otherwise, you'll forget. I know that for us, we're trying to hit so many places that I forget which was where. Having the itinerary as a PDF and viewable on my phone has definitely come in handy.
Packing can be tricky as a traveler, let alone a traveler with medical needs. You have to balance packing light so you can be as independent as possible but having enough of all the essentials available to get through the day comfortably. Here is a short list of what I always pack on my trips in my carry-on and checked luggage, but can be adapted as needed. You can also find links to some of my favorite products for life and travel in a wheelchair here.
Carry-on bag (preferably with zipper and lock): passports (and a copy of passports), research visa requirement (some places like Vietnam require a visa before entering the country), credit cards (and extras and notify your card companies/banks), phone, flight info, itinerary, directions (GPS), book, laptop, a bit of medication, snacks (avoid the hangry traveler!), light make-up, hand sanitizer, camera, sunscreen, lumbar pillow (this one self-inflates and helps your posture!), neck pillow (this one contours!), your seat cushion (doesn't count as an additional item. yay!) and now, diapers, wipes, extra trash bags, and things to keep kids entertained.
Medical items: Regular daily medication, traveling medication (Emergen-C, Pepto Bismol, Tylenol, Imodium, Tums, Zyrtex allergy pills, Visine eye drops, Neosporin, terrasil (for skin breakdown)), vitamins, extra catheters, gloves, pads, depends, compression socks, sanitary wipes, first aid kit, etc.
Quick fix wheelchair tools: Allen wrenches (stick them in your checked luggage then transfer to day pack when you reach your destination). Battery packs and charger (if needed).
Checked luggage (preferably with lock): season appropriate and versatile styled clothes, shoes, power adapter depending on country voltage, bungie cords (totally comes in handy, see pic in Cambodia), all charging cords for electronic devices, and hygienic items.
Disability parking pass and disability notes (for any discounted access)
6. Flexible itinerary
Something I'm getting better at as I'm planning my trips is becoming more flexible and planning in more flexibility. Before life in a wheelchair, I would just jump from one place to the next with no second thoughts. But since being in a wheelchair, I'm moving a little more slowly than I'd like especially with kids and the unexpected variables that brings into play. For example, the wheelchair wasn't gate checked and now I have to wait for it to get to me, so I can exit the plane, or the plane didn't park at a terminal with a tunnel, so now I to wait for someone to bring up another transfer truck bed to lower me down from the plane, etc. I've since learned that I need to give myself enough time to get from one place to another, and that I might not get to see everything. Like I mentioned before, I usually plan a few top activities I want to do that day, I do my best to plan on how it's going to work, and I make note of it and communicate it to my travel crew. I also plan on bathroom time, so I don't stress overfill my bladder and accidentally leak on myself. True life, you guys.
7. Stay positive and be brave. We've done some great planning, but things don't always work out the way we have in mind. Late flights, inaccessible buses or trains, extra steps we didn't plan on, etc. Stay calm. Stay positive. This is all part of the adventure. As long as we keep positive, everything will be OK. And be brave, don't be afraid to ask for help. I can't tell you how many times people have helped me and A.J. get down several flights of stairs because there was no elevator, or how many times we've had to ask for directions because GPS didn't work. Communicate your needs. If you're starting to feel stressed, take a deep breath and look out at the scenery. Enjoy the journey and think, "This will make for a great story once this is all over." You're a bad A, you can take on the world!
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out! We're happy to help. Also, a portion of any product you purchase via our links come back to us, so thanks for your support!
Until next time, adventure on and stay safe!