As you start to plan your trip, take some time to sort out your challenges and needs. Do you use a wheelchair, walker or cane? Are you hard of hearing or visually impaired? Do you need oxygen? How far can you get on your own? Will you be flying, or taking a train or bus? Renting a car? Where will you be staying?
What steps on your trip will involve special equipment? Call bus, train and airline companies ahead of time to discuss special accommodations. And if you're bringing a wheelchair or other wheeled device, find out whether it can be stowed onboard. If you're flying without a wheelchair but need one to get around in the airport, you can ask for an airport wheelchair and an attendant to navigate you easily from place to place. The best time to discuss your needs is when you make your reservation. In many airports, however, you can simply ask for a wheelchair when you arrive for departure. Just leave a little extra time; you may have to wait a few minutes. At the end of your trip, an attendant will meet you with another wheelchair.
Traveling with oxygen requires additional logistics — but again, planning ahead can make all the difference. If you're flying, check with the individual airlines because all have different policies that can change without notice. Also check with train companies and cruise lines. Inquire when you make your reservation and again 48 hours before your departure. You cannot bring a filled home-oxygen tank with you on a plane — or check one with your luggage. Some airlines will allow an empty tank onboard. You will, however, be able to obtain a portable concentrator that meets with the airline's requirements, both for the flight and for your wait time in airports. In all cases, you'll need your prescription for oxygen and your doctor's letter of approval for air travel. Airlines may add fees of $50 to $150 for each leg of a trip, so book a direct flight if possible to avoid multiple charges. For more helpful advice, check with the National Home Oxygen Patients Association.
Finally, consider an upgrade. Access to the lounge can make your wait at the airport more relaxing, and so can the extra space afforded by a first-class seat. In any case, choosing an aisle seat may make it easier to get to the restroom or receive extra assistance. Also remember that you can board either first or last — whichever is easiest for you — no matter where your seat is.
Many kinds of travel — but most certainly air travel — involve security checks. Be aware that even if you are in a wheelchair, you may need to remove your shoes or go through a pat-down search. It's a good idea to check with the Transportation Security Administration, or call TSA Cares at 855-787-2227, to get as much advance information as you can about what to expect.
First and foremost, be sure to speak directly with someone at your hotel to discuss your needs. And be aware that you may confront extra challenges in hotels outside the U.S. Some that advertise themselves as "wheelchair friendly" or that pitch services for visitors with disabilities can still present serious obstacles. Elevators may not reach all floors, and stairs may sometimes be the only option. Also lost in translation: Bathrooms in Europe and elsewhere, even those designed to be accessible, may not be what you're used to in the U.S. If you're bringing medication that needs to be refrigerated, ask whether your room will have a fridge or if you can get access to one on the premises.
Hotels in the United States are required to have visual-alert systems so that deaf guests know when the phone rings, someone knocks at the door or a fire alarm goes off. But European hotels may not have these systems. If yours doesn't, you can rent or buy visual alerts online or at a medical supply store.
If you're renting a car — either in the U.S. or abroad — Avis Access, part of Avis Cares, will provide scooter rentals, transfer boards, hand controls, spinner knobs and other devices to help with access and usability. If you have a U.S.-issued disability parking placard, bring it along. Countries in the European Union will recognize it, but be sure to display it on your dashboard instead of on your rearview mirror.
Are you considering a cruise? Many cruise lines have amenities for travelers with disabilities. Holland America offers a wheelchair-accessible system that makes it easier to get on shore. Royal Caribbean's Freedom Class ships provide wheelchair lifts at swimming pools and hot tubs. Norwegian Cruise Line has a dedicated toll-free number that connects travelers to professional experts who can assist passengers and make sure the onboard staff is properly prepared to help. And some Princess ships distribute kits for passengers who are blind or hard of hearing. These cruise lines all have ships with about 30 accessible cabins as well.
The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, an organization working to improve the quality of life for people with paralysis, has rated the top 20 most livable U.S. cities for wheelchair users. The list includes some surprises (New Orleans and hilly Seattle) and some of America's top tourist destinations (Reno, Miami, Orlando, Chicago and Portland, Ore.). Cities with great resources for their residents will naturally welcome visitors with disabilities, so go for it.
Overseas, travelers with physical disabilities generally find major cities in Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia easier to navigate than destinations in Spain, France and Italy. In the United Kingdom, wheelchair users can buy a RADAR (Royal Association for Disability Rights) NKS (National Key Scheme) key to gain access to some 6,000 locked wheelchair-accessible toilets around the country. There's an app in the iTunes store that can help you locate the facilities.
There are also companies that specialize in travel for people with mobility disabilities. These services can help you manage every detail of a trip. Flying Wheels Travel makes individual travel arrangements and offers customized, escorted tours and group travel experiences around the globe for a worldwide clientele. Other companies and travel agents specialize in various places or parts of the world. Do an online search to find them.