The freedom to travel has been awarded to all of us–and from our side of the world to crossing the oceans abroad–countries are welcoming with open arms those who are disabled or have health issues.
Those of you with disabilities or limitations can have an extraordinary experience that will be safe, accessible, and ultimately a blast. It will, however, take some careful planning. If you have been longing to travel to a foreign country or to one of the many beautiful places in the U.S., but were afraid to do so, hopefully this will inspire you to take that first step toward making it happen.
Every person has their own unique needs and interests, so target your travel research on what your needs are. Here are some suggestions:
- Check visitors guides or tourism offices online (or contact the museum or attraction you want to see) and find out what their accessibility options are for the local sights. Find out what public transportation is accessible, and plan your tours around that.
- Make sure that the neighborhood around your hotel is accessible (restaurants, sidewalks, etc.) and find out how close it is to accessible public transportation.
- If there is no elevator for visitors at a museum or a sight you really want to see, don’t hesitate to ask if there is a freight elevator that you could use.
- In some countries, accessibility may mean that a person is willing to physically carry you up the steps. You can decide whether you are comfortable with this or not. When asking questions about accessibility, be specific in what you are looking for.
- Many countries offer mobility scooter rentals that will make getting around easier.
- If there is a sight you would love to see, but the main route has steps or a steep hill, etc., find out if there is an alternate route or another means of getting there.
- Book your hotel room as far in advance as possible. Many hotels abroad may have only one or two accessible rooms.
Another resource to check out is the U.S. Department of State’s website. Input the name of the country you are interested in and click on Local Laws & Special Circumstance and scroll down to Mobility-Impaired Travelers. Be aware that not all countries require accommodations to be accessible, so here you will find links to sites that will inform you of accessible hotels, public transportation, assistance at airports, and more.
To find the location of the closest reputable hospital or medical facility, check with the Embassy or Consulate of your destination country at the U.S. Embassy (under U.S. Citizens Services and Security Messages and Local Resources).
Familiarize yourself with any conditions that could affect your health:
- Are you traveling to an area that is higher in altitude?
- What is the air quality? Is there a lot of pollution that could affect your breathing?
- Are there good medical facilities or pharmacies in the area?
- Does your health allow for vaccines or immunizations that may be required by the country you are traveling to? You can get a waiver from your physician if you are unable to have the required vaccines; however, not every country will honor them.
- Are you up-to-date on your routine immunizations and flu shot?
- Be sure to carry a letter from you doctor describing your medical condition and any prescription medications, including the generic name of your prescribed drugs. Find out if they are legal in that country.
- The additional physical activity during travel can be quite strenuous— sudden changes in diet and climate can have serious health consequences for the unprepared traveler. You can avoid this by being prepared.
Find Out What Your Health Insurance will Cover in Foreign Countries:
Obtaining medical treatment and hospital care abroad is expensive, so be sure to know if your insurance will cover you during your travels. Some insurance companies will not, while others may require you to use designated physicians or hospitals. Medicare does not cover participants when traveling abroad. Most health insurance providers do not cover a medical evacuation (transporting you to a hospital back home or to one abroad). These costs can end up costing you anywhere from about $10,000 to upwards of $100,000, depending on your location.
Travel Medical Insurance:
You may want to look into purchasing travel medical insurance, if you do not have coverage abroad, or if it is limited. Most travel medical insurance covers medical evacuations. Be sure to find out if preexisting conditions are covered. You may be required to purchase the insurance within a specified time frame of your first travel deposit in order to have your preexisting condition covered.
Enroll in Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP):
Prior to your departure, be sure to enroll in STEP with the U.S. Department of State. This will enable you to receive security notices and assistance in an emergency.
Check the Airport Layout and Transportation Services Available:
Oftentimes connecting flights end up being (or so it seems) at the opposite end of the airport. There are services available at many airports that can assist you if you are disabled or have difficulty walking. Several airports offer some type of transportation service that takes passengers from one terminal to another. You can go online and get a map of the layout of the airport and find out what transportation services they have to offer and where they are located.
You can also contact your airline to see what type of personal transportation service they may offer. Many have carts that will transport you throughout the airport.
Traveling with a Wheelchair or Scooter:
Newer aircraft with 100 or more seats must provide storage area for foldable wheelchairs—early boarding privileges—and give you priority in storing your wheelchair or mobility assisted device in the cabin. Wheelchairs can also be checked at the gate for quick availability.
- Find out what type of converter or adapter you will need for your battery (if you have one) for your destination country. Be sure to bring some spare parts, in case your wheelchair breaks down.
- Check with your hotel or other accommodations to see if there is an elevator, and make sure the door into the room and the bathroom are wide enough for your wheelchair. Just a reminder that the accessibility standards in the U.S. will not apply in other parts of the world.
- Aircraft with an accessible lavatory are required to have a wheelchair on board to assist passengers with special needs while on the plane. The cabin crew will wheel you to the lavatory; however, you will need to be able to get in and out of the restroom by yourself.
- Cruise ships have a limited number of accessible facilities. The Department of Transportation states that cruise lines cannot charge disabled passengers extra if they have to upgrade to a higher class of accessible cabins, if the less expensive ones are sold out. Passengers with disabilities have priority on the larger accessible cabins.
- Some of the older ships may not be as accessible, so be sure to check with the cruise line prior to booking. For a recommendation on the best cruises, check out the article “Best Ships for Cruisers with Disabilities” on CruiseCritics.com.
Shipping your Luggage:
- Another option to help you on your journey is to have your luggage shipped. There are delivery services that will pick your luggage up from your home, ship it to your destination, and deliver it to you upon your arrival.
Resources for Disabled Travelers or Those with Health Issues:
It provides information on the accessibility in other countries, as well as tips for traveling with disabilities and organizations abroad that can provide assistance.
It provides general guidelines on health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions, insect-bite protection, and more. They also offer an International Travelers’ Hotline at 877-394-8747 where you can get more information on health related issues when traveling.
This organization provides information on vaccinations, health risks, food and water safety in other countries, as well as international travel tips. It also informs travelers on on qualified doctors (who speak English) and medical facilities that will provide a higher quality of medical treatment. You can contact them at 716-754-4883.
This is a nonprofit membership organization that provides resources to people with disabilities in many facets of travel. You can contact them at 212-447-7284.
The TSA provides resources online for travelers with disabilities or medical conditions. You can also contact TSA’s helpline at 855-787-2227 for information on screening policies at airports.
This site provides reviews of accessible tours that are geared toward individuals with disabilities or health issues. It also includes travel tips and access to articles published on accessible travel.
Most of all, have a terrific journey. You are an inspiration to us all!
For more travel insight, check out my book,
Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad
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