By Rick Steves, John Sage, Susan Sygall, and Carole Zoom
The creaky, cobblestoned Old World has long had a reputation for poor accessibility. It's the very charm of Europe — old and well preserved — that often adds to its barriers. But Europe has made some impressive advances toward opening its doors to everyone, including travelers with limited mobility.
Wherever I go in Europe, I see locals using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, and canes to get around — on the streets, in museums, in restaurants, on trains. Even though Europe generally lacks accessibility requirements with the force or scope of the ADA, Europeans with limited mobility are, of course, living rich and full lives. Clearly, travelers with physical disabilities can certainly have an enjoyable and worthwhile vacation there, too.
Anyone with adventure in their soul can take advantage of what Europe has to offer. Consider your own situation thoughtfully in choosing which attractions to visit, which hotels to sleep in, which restaurants to dine at...and which things you might want to avoid.
John Sage owns Sage Traveling, which plans and books accessible travel to Europe for senior and disabled travelers. John has taken his wheelchair to more than 120 European cities and has run into his share of challenges during his travels — but he also says that the obstacles can almost always be overcome. Here, I've included excerpts, in John's own words, from his top tips for traveling in Europe.
Do your research. I often hear that "Venice is not wheelchair accessible" or "Paris has poor accessibility." While there are certainly some accessibility challenges, the truth is that the more research you do, the more accessible your trip will be. Avoiding bridges in Venice and hills in Paris is entirely possible. Did you know that Herculaneum's ruins are nearly identical to Pompeii's, but are wheelchair-friendly? And that cruise passengers with disabilities can enjoy incredible experiences such as reaching the top of the Acropolis in Athens or entering the Sistine Chapel in Rome by using specially designed wheelchair lifts? Your vacation doesn't need to be a struggle. Do your homework and your trip can be filled with fully accessible hotel accommodations, accessible routes between accessible tourist attractions, and wonderfully accessible travel experiences.
Book hotels far in advance. It is almost always cheaper to book your accessible hotel accommodation far in advance. And it is also necessary! Many hotels in European city centers have only one or two accessible rooms. The best ones get booked very early. For travel in the summer, make your reservations in December. Remember, a hotel's accessibility status does not only depend on its interior features such as elevators, grab bars and roll-in showers. The location is just as important.
Carefully plan your route. If you know what you're getting into before you arrive in Europe, you'll have a much easier and enjoyable time on your trip. There'll likely be numerous ways to get to the tourist attractions you're so eager to see. Some routes will have wheelchair ramps, smooth pavement, and flat terrain; others may have steep hills, bothersome (and even dangerous) cobblestones, and flights of stairs. Research the accessibility of sidewalks, bus routes, subway stations, and the location of accessible building entrances before your trip. Check for accessibility information in the online visitors guides for your destinations — but be aware that not all guides will offer this type of information and some of them may be outdated as access features change all the time.
Stay in the most accessible parts of town. This is one of the hardest parts of planning your trip. You may have found a great accessible hotel, but what will you find when you walk (or roll) out the front door? Are there hills and stairs in all directions? Will you have to roll over cobblestones? Are there accessible restaurants nearby? It's crucial to research the hotel's neighborhood. You can use Google Maps' Street View to get the lay of the land, then email the hotel with your questions.
Figure out accessible public transportation options. When choosing a hotel, don't forget to factor in the price of transportation. If you have to pay for a taxi to get to accessible restaurants, accessible shopping, and the tourist attractions, that hotel "deal" you found won't feel like such a good deal after all. In cities such as London, Paris, and Barcelona, stay near an accessible bus stop. In Berlin, Istanbul, and Venice, stay near an accessible metro, tram, or boat stop. In Florence, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, stay right in the middle of town so you can walk/roll everywhere.
Rely on the experience of other travelers with disabilities. You're certainly not the first person with disabilities to visit Europe. Find out what accessibility challenges other travelers encountered and how they got around them. Check recent posts at travel forums such as Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic to find previous travelers' experiences. Or seek out a travel agent who specializes in accessible travel. You can also find accessibility reviews of multiple European destinations at Sage Traveling.
Have a backup plan. Even on the most perfectly planned accessible vacation, something can go wrong. If it does, how will you deal with it? If you prepare for all the possible problems, travel with someone who can help you during your trip, and remain flexible, unexpected events won't turn into potential trip-ruining problems. What will you do if a part on your wheelchair breaks? If a train strike occurs in Italy, how will you get from Florence to Rome? With backup plans (such as packing vital spare parts for your wheelchair), you won't have to put your vacation on hold.
Consider a tour. A company that specializes in accessibility will lead you on the flattest, smoothest, shortest tour routes.
Before you take a tour or hire a guide, ask these questions:
- Is the tour guide a licensed professional? How much training has the guide received?
- What route will the guide use? Does it involve curbs, steps, steep hills, or cobblestones? Where are the accessible bathrooms located? Will the guide physically assist you if needed (for example, push a manual wheelchair)?
- Is this a private tour, or will you be with other travelers? Are you expected to keep up with more able-bodied tour members?
- How many people with disabilities have they guided in the past year? (You want a guide who is active enough to be aware of the latest regulations or updates regarding accessibility.)
Anticipate your trip! You've done as much planning as you can. You've relied on the experience of other travelers with disabilities, and you're prepared for the unexpected. Now it's time to get excited about your trip. Majestic cities, beautiful art and architecture, fascinating history, exquisite food, and wonderful experiences await you.
More Tips for Wheelchair Users
Susan Sygall is the CEO and cofounder of Mobility International USA, a nonprofit that links people with disabilities with work, study, teaching, volunteer, exchange, and research opportunities. It also offers a blog, resource library, and database of disability organizations. Sygall has been traveling the "Rick Steves way" for decades. Here, she shares some of her best tips for traveling in Europe with a wheelchair. Thanks to MIUSA's staff for help with this advice.
People who use wheelchairs, like so many of our nondisabled peers, want to get off the tourist track and experience the real France, Italy, or Portugal. Don't accept other people's notions of what is possible — I have climbed Masada in Israel and made it to the top of the Acropolis in Greece. Whether you travel alone, with friends, or with an assistant, you're in for a great adventure.
Pack light. I use a lightweight manual wheelchair with pop-off tires. I take a backpack that fits on the back of my chair and I store my daypack underneath my chair in a net bag. Since I usually travel alone, if I can't carry it myself, I don't take it.
Plan for eventualities. I keep a bungee cord with me for the times I can't get my chair into a car and need to strap it in the trunk or when I need to secure it on a train. Bike shops are excellent for tire repairs if you get a flat.
Check your chair at the gate. I always insist on keeping my own wheelchair up to the airline gate, where I then check it. When I have a connecting flight, I again insist that I use my own chair.
Don't let bathroom access stop you. Bathrooms are often a hassle, so I have learned to use creative ways to transfer into narrow spaces. To be blatantly honest, when there are no accessible bathrooms in sight, I have found ways to pee discreetly just about anywhere. You gotta do what you gotta do. Bring along an extra pair of pants and a great sense of humor.
Look for freight elevators. If a museum lacks elevators for visitors, be sure to ask about freight elevators. Almost all have them somewhere, and that can be your ticket to seeing a world-class treasure.
Let wheelchairs help you. People who have difficulty walking long distances may want to bring a lightweight wheelchair or borrow or rent one when needed.
Insist on your rights. Don't confuse being flexible and having a positive attitude with settling for less than your rights. I expect equal access and constantly let people know about the possibility of providing access through ramps or other modifications. When I believe my rights have been violated, I do whatever is necessary to remedy the situation, so that the next traveler or disabled person in that country won't have the same frustrations.
Break down barriers. Try to learn some of the language of the country you're in. It cuts through the barriers when people stare at you (and they will), and also comes in handy when you need help going up a curb or a flight of steps.
Learn from locals. Remember that you are part of a global family of people with disabilities. Always get information about disability groups in the places you are going. See the sidebar in this page for a number of helpful organizations. They have the best access information, and many times they'll become your new traveling partners and friends.
What Accessibility Means in Europe
This section was contributed by Carole Zoom, who has traveled to more than 30 countries with her scooter-style electric wheelchair and ventilator.
The concept of accessibility varies by culture. In the US, access means that an individual can use elevators, lifts, doors, entrances, and other features without any assistance. Individual autonomy is central to the American concept of access, as enshrined in the ADA.
Europe, on the other hand, subscribes to a medical rather than political model of disability. Policy tends to be focused on helping people with disabilities navigate a society built for nondisabled individuals — instead of helping society find ways to accommodate their needs. For example, in Europe an entryway with one step is considered accessible: The law assumes that disabled people will use manual wheelchairs that can be rolled up a step and/or will have family members assisting.
In the US it's illegal to discriminate based on what kind of mobility device a wheelchair user chooses. But in Europe, mobility scooter users have fewer rights than wheelchair users; scooters are seen not as a medical necessity, but as a convenience item for people who can still walk to some extent. Scooter-style wheelchairs are not allowed in some museums and other public facilities — you may be asked to walk if you can or to transfer to a manual wheelchair. If those are not options for you, be persistent in explaining your situation to museum staff.
Given the age of many buildings in Europe, elevator access is often not a reality. A US citizen would assume a hotel is accessible upon hearing that it has an elevator. But many older European elevators are not large enough for American-style electric wheelchairs and scooters. Before you book a room, ask the hotel concierge for photos and exact measurements to ensure your style and size of wheelchair will fit. A hotel that hesitates to provide the info or photos you request is unlikely to be accommodating; in that case, move on and choose another.
Unlike in the US, European transit companies that operate planes, ships, trains, and buses may require advanced documentation of disability. If you need specific assistance, have your doctor fill out forms attesting to your needs before you travel, then contact the transit provider's medical desk at least 72 hours before your departure to ask how to submit them. Always confirm and reconfirm your reservations for assistance on all modes of advanced-ticketed transport.
We have an increasingly barrier-free world. But Americans going abroad need to be more aware and vigilant about accessibility than they are used to at home.