Archive: Travel with Disabilities
Foot-loose and fancy-free is not so easy if you have a disability. Which countries take better care of travelers with physical limits, and how? Any practical tips for those dreaming of travel but concerned about mobility?
We have a handicapped son, who did not go on our trip with us, but we
began to notice on our trip that Europe DOES NOT make allowances for handicapped
people to use their facilities. Would make it most difficult for someone
in a wheelchair to visit. We were in Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland
Sherman, TX USA 06/09/01
I am a legally blind person who uses a white cane for mobility. I recently went to London and found that people are pretty friendly to white cane users.
When we arrived at the airport, I didn't even ask for assistance, but they ushered us up to the front of the line for customs.
At the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey the guards and guides allowed me to touch some exhibits. At the jewel room at the Tower the guard let me stand for a long time and examine each piece. She had embossed examples of the crowns and scepters that I could feel.
As others have said, the Tube needs to be more accessible. On many of
the trains the names of the stations were not announced. My sighted parents
even had some trouble determining at which station we had stopped.
Houston, TX USA 03/21/01
As a junior in college, I spent last July on a study-abroad program in Pau, a small city in the south of France. I have been in a wheelchair all of my life, as I have Cerebral Palsy. As you can imagine this makes traveling a little more complicated, but not impossible. Here are a few tips for my fellow adventurers:
1. If you are already an avid traveler, make your own arrangements (even if you are going with a group like I did). You are the only one who knows what kind of help you need/want.
2. If you are a novice traveler, contact a travel agency and explain your needs; they will be more than happy to help (for a price of course).
3. No matter what mode of transportation you are going to use it is possible to make arrangements for assistance. I have traveled by taxi, planes, European metro systems, European trains, and donkey, believe or not! (Read the donkey story at http://www.cwu.edu/~observer/2000/ and click on my name then gavarnie).
Traveling by bus, train, taxi and plane, it is possible to make arrangements
for help making connections, picking up luggage, and getting on and off.
For example, when I flew from Seattle to Paris on TWA, I was able to make
seating arrangements in the bulkhead. I do this for two reasons: one,
it puts you close to a restroom, and two, it gives you more floor space
for equipment. I was able to also make arrangements for someone to escort
me from gate to gate for connecting flights. This is great because it
eliminates the threat of getting lost enroute, stuck in customs/security,
and missing your next flight, because the airlines are expecting you.
They can also help carry things.
Ellensburg, WA USA 03/08/01
Many hotels that say they have an elevator do not have one that goes down to the ground floor. They often only go to the first floor. The Hotel Helvetica in Munich, which Rick recommends, has one that goes to the ground floor. I would contact them in advance and tell them your situation.
On the floor where I stayed, the shared shower was in a very large room with a lock which I would think would be ideal. They speak very good English and are very nice.
They also have a website with pictures. It didn't look nearly as good
when I was there, and the breakfast is bad, but the people are nice and
the room was fine for the price.
My husband and I just returned from 27 days in 11 European countries by train and using my Amigo scooter, as I am disabled. I found Rick's website, books, and videos very helpful. Planning ahead, but also tailoring plans as you go, was essential for us.
My husband is able-bodied and was able to lift the scooter, if necessary. Many train stations have a device to lift a person in a wheelchair or scooter into the train. But, you have to be assertive to get it.
I would have learned a few phrases if I had thought ahead. We did best in Italy with a little HS Spanish.
We opted for a private sleeper rather than a couchette so we had room for the scooter, and privacy. It costs a little more, but one train even had a private bathroom (Bergen to Oslo, Norway).
We did the "Norway in a Nutshell" tour and the funicular in Bergen. The Norwegians were very helpful, and Flam and the fjords were beautiful with fall colors.
Germany was the toughest, and that's ironic because they have a very structured system and trains were often only in the station for a few minutes.
My advice: go while you can. Don't put off the trip of a lifetime. I
worried about using the scooter, but realize now how it expanded my horizons.
I wish Europe had been a little more accessible, but they are trying.
And travel with an able-bodied person who is willing to help, as needed!
Baltimore, MD USA 11/20/00
I recently injured my leg severely when on vacation in Greece. After Greece I continued my trip to Rome, and I managed somehow to walk. Rome is not handicapped-friendly. There are no curb cutouts, and few ramps or elevators. There are many different types of cobblestone, and varying degrees of steps, and curbs.
The best environment was the Vatican. That is, they will assist some who is handicapped only if you call ahead and make this be known. They wouldn't let me rent a wheelchair to get around the sites. "You have to order to rent one well in advance," they said. So, plan ahead if you think that you will need one.
The trip was fantastic! I made the best of a difficult situation. At night my friend and I rented a cab for two hours. The cost was roughly $100. It was worth it! The cab driver took us up to each and every site that we wanted to see and explained what we were seeing. It was beautiful! I planned to see the sites at night by foot before my accident, but I highly recommend this way even to the non-injured. Make sure that you find a driver who speaks English, and one that can explain the city to you.
Go to Rome with an open mind, a free spirit, and spend a little extra
money to experience a memory that will last a lifetime! Good luck to you!
Moorestown, nj USA 11/04/00
My mother had a stroke at 51 and becomes tired very easily. Plus, she has severe diabetes. Since her stroke, I've taken her to Ireland/England for 16 days and to Venice for 5 days. The Irish and English countrysides were best, because she could sit in the car and see tons of scenery while I drove. Then, I planned easy stops in manageable smaller cities or towns. The larger cities — Dublin, London and Milan — were more exhausting. Since it was my second trip to Venice, I planned lots of vaporetto boat rides (her favorite times were in Murano and Burano, anyway) as well as many hours sipping wine and eating munchies (and people watching) at sidewalk cafes.
This year, I'm driving her from Paris, through the eastern French countryside,
into Provence and the Riviera, before relaxing for the last 3 days in
Monterosso (where the walks aren't so steep as in the other Cinque Terre
towns). With careful planning and a relaxed itinerary, we've been able
to enjoy priceless time together.
Chicago, USA 05/02/00
The Salzburg train station is a nightmare for anyone with limited mobility.
Salzburg is worth visiting, but I'd suggest arriving by car or bus to
avoid the train depot altogether.
Lakewood, Wa USA 04/25/00
Re: Comment on London Underground by Conni Haynes (below, dated 11/98).
We boarded the Underground in a handpowered wheelchair in 1996 from Heathrow.
It was only six inches up into the train. We rode about 20 stops to Picadilly
Circus. No lift, but we were directed to go to Covent Garden, where there
was supposed to be a lift. "Yes, it's over there: up one whole story of
stairs!" We then backtracked to Green Park Station (near the hotel near
Berkeley Square) and found a two-story double-wide escalator bringing
us to within one story of the surface. Richard took some carry-on luggage
to the hotel, and brought back the porter. Intending to do a firemans'
carry of the star of our show (Lydia) and then return for the folding
wheelchair, we were suddenly assisted by a passerby, who insisted we could
all three men carry her to the surface in her chair. We did so. The passerby
dropped his wallet and cel phone, but we made it, and other strangers
were eager to return our newfound friend's valuables to him. We made it!
Also, we found that the hand chair could be loaded onto a London taxi
with Lydia in the chair, sitting sideways in the back of the cab. (Do
not try this at home! Richard is a 200-lb., 40-something able-bodied man.)
Oakland, CA USA 03/04/00
When a blind friend of mine travels, he takes a small tape recorder.
He tapes all sorts of things — from pub conversations to train announcements
to the sounds of nature. These tapes are his "photographs." It is so much
fun listening to the sounds of places he has visited. I think I'll take
a tape recorder on my next trip!
Cambridge, MA USA 12/25/99
I agree with Connie (below) that the London tube system is very bad for
the disabled — or even healthy but slow-moving elderly people. During our
trip to England 2 years ago, my husband and I were appalled as we watched
tiny grey-haired ladies struggling up the seemingly endless flights of
stairs, clinging to the handrail and pulling themselves up. There were
hardly any elevators or escalators, certainly nothing reserved for the
handicapped. The same applies to parents with infants in strollers. You'll
be carrying that stroller up dozens of stairs.
VA USA 10/13/99
While traveling in Italy this September my husband and I were surprised
and pleased to see many wheelchair travelers. This was especially true
in Venice, a city I would not have considered wheelchair-friendly at all.
We were impressed with the help given by the vaporetti personnel. Without
fail they helped people on and off even during the most crowded periods.
They were skilled and attentive. Of course Venice has a big job, maybe
an impossible one, in becoming fully accessible to handicapped people.
Among other things, the number of bridges with steps only is tremendous.
We did see several mechanical lifts that had been installed to aid wheelchairs
in accessing buildings, and a few bridges with ramps as well as stairs.
It was enough, all in all, to make Venice a destination to those in wheelchairs
or otherwise needing some accommodation.
CA USA 10/04/99
For diabetics traveling with insulin that must be refrigerated, take
a look at www.childrenwithdiabetes.com. They have a product section that
includes coolers. On the web site see the FRIO Wallet. FRIO also makes
a product for keeping insulin and insulin pens cool without ice for several
hours in 100-degree weather. I also recall a battery-powered cooler, but
can't recall where I saw it. It was not cheap, but was supposed to be
effective. You might look at the American Diabetes Association's web site
as well (www.diabetes.org).
Austin, TX USA 09/30/99
For people with low vision, don't forget to bring travel-size binoculars
and a magnifying device for reading small print. Adaptive signage in the
Benelux region is nonexistent, which will certainly have implications
for an aging world of travelers.
Actually, I became disabled while traveling in Europe. We were hiking in the Cinque Terre (don't take your eyes off that trail!) when I fell and managed to break my leg in three places. Some WONDERFUL volunteers from Vernazza ran up the trail, hauled me out (no small effort — I'm about 50 pounds overweight) and got me to a hospital in La Spezia. It was disconcerting to spend a night in the hospital, but now I can look at it as an adventure.
My best tip for any traveler with drug allergies: be certain you leave the states knowing what name the drug(s) you can't take is/are marketed under in Europe. We found that not all nurses, technicians (or unfortunately even doctors) have the same level of training, and they may not be familiar with the chemical name for the drug you're allergic to. It definitely delays getting pain medication — even if the drug(s) you're allergic to is not in the pain relief category.
We managed to rent wheelchairs in most cities since I couldn't have a walking cast and we knew that cabs would become outrageous QUICK. It helped that we were "home-basing," so we could easily modify our day trips, and the staff at each hotel became very familiar with anything we needed since we stayed 4-5 nights at each hotel.
Rome is almost impossible to get around in — it was very frustrating for us and we really do love Italy. In Florence, anyone in a wheelchair gets moved to the front of the line at the Uffizi and the Duomo. A Venice society offers free wheelchair use for disabled tourists; your hotel can make arrangements. Austria had very reasonable chair rental fees, but Munich was out of sight and we had a chair with a flat tire we couldn't fix.
Touring ruins was not a great idea, but we also found how genuinely kind people can be. Italian grandmas wanted to feed me, people at the Vatican wanted to pray for me, cab drivers would go out of their way to help and (believe it or not) would subtract money off the fare (which we still paid, of course, but the gesture always amazed us). It was a great conversation piece/ice breaker and we met many more people than we probably would have met otherwise. Also, it caused us to slow down to a marvelous pace — we lingered at every meal and made sure we found daily rest in a park.
I wouldn't want to repeat the experience (who wants a broken leg and
a cast?!), but it was just a minor inconvenience and may actually have
been a great asset to our trip.
Sunnyvale, CA USA 08/04/99
While hobbling around Berlin, leaning on my cane, grumbling about my
knees, I found that, while fun, quick, and easy, the U-Bahn and S-Bahn
are not all that handicap-friendly. Escalators are rare, and I only encountered
one elevator down to the U-Bahn I needed. Then I checked out the bus schedules!
Buses, though not quite as quick, are a heck of a lot more handicap-friendly,
and will eventually get you where you need to be. Make sure you have the
address where you are going written down to show the driver if need be,
so he can tell you where to get off. And you'll get to see more and better
sights than if you'd booked a tour. What fun — I can't wait to go back!
Seattle, WA USA 07/27/99
I have non-visible MS (no assistive devices or outward disability) but I tire easily, need to stay cool and need to take more breaks than most people my age. My husband and I spent 6 weeks in 9 European countries with a rail pass this spring. We came home a week early because I was just too tired, but otherwise only had to modify our plans a bit because of my MS. My advice is to take it easy, do what you can, enjoy that and don't try to go on someone else's vacation.
There is a lot more walking and climbing than I was used to so I had to rest often (but there are usually benches with nice views). We choose accommodations that were either centrally located or near the train station (usually the same thing) which made sightseeing easier. I am very used to my car and the ease of travel it provides. We had to slow down and we didn't see quite as many different places or sites as we had originally planned but what we saw was definitely worth it. I overdid it early on and paid for it later.
In Cinque Terre Rick suggests staying in Vernazza, but Monterosso was better for us since it is flatter and easier to walk around. We visited Vernazza for a day and it was beautiful. We climbed to the top of the fort/castle but with my situation more than a few hours of it would have been too hard.
In Venice, Rick suggests just getting lost. It sounds really romantic
and I wish we could have, but getting lost leads to excessive unplanned
walking. In my situation that is not a good thing since it can wipe me
out for a day or more. We found a great map of Venice with a maze on it
(how appropriate) at the Florence train station. And for me, one day exploring
Rome meant a day before and after for resting.
Minneapolis, USA 07/26/99
I traveled in the Paris, London, and Stockholm underground systems with
my 74-year-old grandmother. Of the three, Paris was the worst! If you
have any type of disability that makes climbing stairs difficult (or you
just don't like it) I recommend the bus. You don't get there as fast,
but you see a lot more! London was a little better. But there were still
a few stairs you had to climb. Stockholm was great. You can take an elevator,
or "hiss" in Swedish, from the train to the street. No need at all to
climb stairs (even though there were about 5-15 at some stops).
Anchorage, AK USA 07/17/99
I have had both hips replaced and walking a lot can be painful. We bought
folding cane/seats, called "Sport Seats", at a sporting goods store in
the US (less than $15), and I used it as a cane, or unfolded it for a
seat when waiting in long lines. There were several times I could have
sold it for several times its price.
No. Little Rock,, AR USA 07/12/99
If you are visiting London and require dialysis but wish to be near
all the sights, try The London Clinic, 5 mins from Oxford Street and beside
Regents Park. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggestions by others helpful. I suggest visiting Nuprodx.com for a
nifty folding chair/commode for those with disabilities.
Bloomington, In USA 05/13/99
I once traveled with a person in a wheelchair through England and in Paris.
I found some problems with older hotels, but most managers were extremely
helpful, except for one jerk who asked why my friend had even come! Most
London theatres have special accommodations for the disabled if you book
ahead and ask for it. There are also special taxis for the disabled. Best
surprises were in Paris. At the famous Jules Verne restaurant on the Eiffel
tower, I was told by the hostess, "Ce n'est pas une probleme," and four
waiters promptly showed up and carried my friend, chair and all, up the
curving staircase! What a country!
Sanibel, FL USA 05/02/99
I have a partially paralyzed leg and I use a cane to walk. I am pretty slow on stairs, etc. I found that my biggest problem on a recent trip to Europe was my travel companion/husband, who often walked off and left me struggling alone when we were catching trains!
Note to those who travel with the disabled:
The U.S. is pretty disability-friendly, and there are usually alternate routes handicapped persons can take to avoid stairs, high curbs, and the like. This is not so in Europe. Forging ahead on your own path and letting the disabled person find his/her own way independently may be a fine strategy for home use, but please don't try it abroad! Fortunately, I was able to find friendly passers-by who were able to give me a hand at strategic times, but there were some very disheartening moments.
Of course, my fellow traveller insisted on bringing two weeks' worth
of clothes in his suitcase, while I had three days' worth in mine, so
manuevering his luggage took a lot of work, and perhaps he really did
forget about me in the stress of getting from place to place! Which brings
me to another tip for the disabled: Make sure that you can handle your
luggage yourself if you have to — my travel bag is essentially a briefcase.
Austin, TX USA 03/21/99
In London you can see the Changing of the Guard without fighting the crowds, from *inside* the Palace gates! Disabled travelers and their companions are permitted inside the gate, into the Palace forecourt (where most tourists *never* get to go), by special advance arrangement.
Write ahead to the Lord Chamberlain's Office, Buckingham Palace, with the following:
Dates you'll be in London Number in your party and details about disabled travelers Contact information — phone, fax and address — for you while in London
Try to be flexible in the date you'd like to see the Changing; and then phone the Palace to follow up when you arrive. You should be sent a lovely letter or fax confirming the details of your visit — makes a great souvenir! We arrived at the Palace quite literally at 10:45 am — crowds start gathering with the sun, and by the time we got there Queen Victoria's statue was literally wearing a lap robe of tourists — presented our fax at the gate, and strolled right in.
Important note: No photography inside the forecourt!!!
Other notes for disabled visitors to London:
All cabs are required to be accessible to the disabled by the year 2000. About 60% are accessible now; this means that they have ramps available to allow chair-users to wheel directly into the wide back seat areas. Some cabdrivers are more accustomed to using the accessibility features than others — look for the wheelchair symbol on the passenger window.
The Victoria and Albert has an excellent map detailing wheelchair access routes, and virtually all of the museum is accessible, though you may have to go a counterintuitive route at some points.
Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London are partially accessible; enough to be worthwhile. (Although the cobble- stone courtyards of the Tower will rattle the wheelchair user's teeth and make the pusher feel like they're in training for the Olympics...)
Most top sights (including the Abbey, the Tower, and the V&A) give a
variety of discounts for disabled travelers. These may be half-price tickets,
free admission, free admission for the person pushing the wheelchair — if
one isn't mentioned, just ask.
Washington, DC USA 03/16/99
we spent a month in GB last fall and had no problems inspite of the fact
that i do not do stairs. my only caution would be to remember to ask for
ground floor rooms as their "first floor" translates to our second floor.
dayton, oh USA 02/01/99
My husband and I planned our trip to Europe while I was doing chemotherapy for systemic lupus. It was something that I could look forward to during a very trying time. Our friends and family thought we were crazy but we diligently did our research and planned a two week whirlwind trip that included London, Paris, Nice, Milan, Munich, Amsterdam, and Brussels.
#1 rule: Always find out about accommodations. Many hotels in Europe do not have lifts or elevators. Instead, they have very steep and narrow steps.
Also, we were able to tour the Louvre at a leisurely pace by getting
a wheelchair. Just check in at the info desk in the main hall. You will
have to give them your passport but will get it back when you give the
chair back. (P.S. Don't forget to make copies of your passport!)
Aiken, SC USA 01/26/99
Info from journeywoman.com...London Regional Transport's Unit For Disabled
Passengers offers free info on lifts & ramps @ individual Underground
stations. Also Braille maps. Address: 55 Broadway, London,England SW1HOBD
Telephone 0171 918 3312
Kingwood, TX USA 12/19/98
I wound up in Rome with an unexpected disability, a flare-up of knee problems. Don't plan to rent a wheelchair there — they just aren't available. I wound up on a polio type crutch. They don't seem to have the armpit version.
Don't take tours of specific spots in Rome-Vatican, Colosseum, etc.
You'll be much better off on your own as they won't wait for you. Enjoy
less labor intensive activities, coffee in front of the Pantheon and at
Piazza Navona were good for me. Pace yourself, be selective, spring for
taxis.I now have a folding cane that goes in my backpack just in case.
Houston, TX USA 12/18/98
The average travel agent hasn't a clue about booking a reasonably priced
accessible room. Agents invariably try to book me in 5 star hotels. Networking
with other disabled people about their travel experiences is the only
solution. For over two years my web site Global Access, a Network for
Disabled Travelers has worked to alleviate this problem. Check our archives
for first-hand reports on Europe, Asia, South America and the U.S. http://www.geocities.com/Paris/1502/
Cardiff, CA USA 12/03/98
My best friend and I have limited mobility due to arthritis but we wanted
to go to England with our husbands and make the most of the trip. Our
first attempt left us a little frustrated but eager to see more. For our
second trip we took three-wheeled scooters. We rented a van, using AutoEurope
and the internet, saved 10% for an internet booking, and were able to
see at least twice as much in the same amount of time. Our husbands put
the scooters into the back of the van. We stayed in B&B's where the hosts
did not mind recharging the batteries on the scooters for us. We did find
the having our own extension cord and adapters were necessary as most
B&B's did not have such items available. We got to see as much as our
husbands the second time around. Our next trip will be in September and
we are already planning where we can take those nift three-wheelers.
Clayton, CA USA 11/30/98
Having MS, I have found pensions better than youth hostels. If you need
that down time in the afternoon, it's ok to go back to your room and grab
a nap, whereas many hostels are closed during the day. I strongly agree
with Rick on planning rest breaks within periods of heavy sightseeing.
Being in a new country can be tiring, so take care of yourself by giving
yourself minivacations and time out.
Mt Vernon, IL USA 11/29/98
Take advantage of boarding first when offered, grab those pilows as
you walk down the aisle, ask where the elevators are,and most of all do
not be too proud to ask for help: whether it is lifting a bag or needing
a hand most people are glad to help.
tucson, az USA 11/28/98
London's Tube is not handicapped friendly. There are no elevators (they
call them lifts) and the walking between the escalators (that go from
Hell to Heaven) are almost impossible with luggage. Just plan on your
own transportation. Otherwise the people were great over there and I felt
very much at home.
Portland , OR USA 11/28/98