Traveling with Disabilities

In the US, the ADA requires that travelers with disabilities receive equal treatment to their non-disabled counterparts. Canada and much of Europe have similar laws. But the reality is that travelers with disabilities can face greater difficulties, and this can be especially true in locations without legal protections, and where there are physical challenges at the location due to geographic or historic features. However, with careful planning, disabled travelers can see and enjoy traveling the world.

Planning is key to ensure anyone’s travel goes smoothly. It’s even more critical when there are special needs to consider. Here’s some pointers to help your travel go smoothly. (And these are good pointers whether you have a disability, limitation or just a special need or interest!)

Getting Started:

  • Start with a realistic assessment of your individual limitations. Describe them in writing so your service providers have a clear understanding of your needs. Can you navigate stairs or is an elevator or ground floor required? Do you need additional space to maneuver a wheelchair or other equipment? Do you require handicapped facilities such as grab bars and accessibility in bathrooms? Will you need assistance getting on and off transportation? Can you keep up with group tours or will you need to go at your own, slower pace? Will you need assistance or special access to enjoy travel features such as beaches, cobblestone streets, and hills.
  • Determine specifically where you want to go and what you want to do. Are there bucket list items you don’t want to miss out on? What level of depth do you desire for each item?
  • What pace will you require? Do you need downtime planned in your schedule? Do you need to exercise or stretch periodically?
  • Will you be bringing any equipment with you or will you need any arranged at your destination?

Planning and booking your vacation:

  • Understand the legal accommodations you should expect where you plan to travel. Check the Destination pages on the state department website at
  • Plan as far in advance as possible to have the greatest availability and to give sufficient time to address your specific requirements.
  • Work with your travel agent to ensure that they understand and request your special needs.
  • Consider your flight options, especially for long distance flights. Would one long flight with the fewest plane changes be best, or would shorter flights with an opportunity to stretch, better meet your needs? Allow sufficient time between flights, especially where customs and immigration will occur. Try to select aisle seats near the restroom.
  • Consider alternative travel options that might accommodate your requirements (but don’t compromise your travel wishes!). For different people, in different places, you might travel independently, in a small group, on a guided tour, or on an ocean or river cruise. Each offers different features, and different companies offer different opportunities.
  • Select locations, accommodations, transportation and tours that provide the features you require. Shop around to find what will work the best for your specific needs, and for providers experienced in working with special needs travelers.
    Understand clearly what your medical insurance will and will not cover on your trip. Obtain travel insurance including medical coverage and medical evacuation.
  • Be sure you have written confirmation of all your travel bookings.

Getting Ready To Go:

  • Be sure you have sufficient prescription medication for your entire vacation, plus up to a week extra in case of delay. Carry your medications in the original prescription bottles, and a letter from your health care provider describing your medical condition, medications, potential complications, and any other pertinent medical information. Be sure to have a phone number available where you can reach medical assistance at any hour of the day. If any of your medications are narcotic or psychotropic, check to see if the countries you plan to visit have any restrictions on them at:
  • Check with your doctor to see if you will need to adjust your medication schedule
  • Check your cell phone carrier to arrange service in the event you require it.
  • Leave a copy of your itinerary and passports with a trusted friend (and/or travel agent).
  • Notify your bank and credit card company when and where you will be gone.
  • Start early, and pack comfortable, easy to wear clothing for all the weather and activities you have planned.
  • In your carry-on, pack all your medications, essential toiletries, and a couple days underwear, socks and t-shirts in the event you have any travel delays.
  • Notify and remind all travel providers of your needs and requests (a good travel agent will do this for you).
  • If you’re taking equipment with you (like a wheelchair) be sure to carry some spare parts, especially if your destination includes features like cobblestones that could wear it.
  • If you’re traveling on your own, plan your route so you know the best way to get around and to the places you’ll visit. Understand transportation options, building entrances, sidewalks and the like, before you leave home.

While you’re Traveling:

  • Expect the Unexpected. Go with the flow! But don’t settle for less than you deserve.
  • Allow plenty of time to get through security. Let the airline know you have special needs and ask to board early, and if you need assistance getting on and off or cart or wheelchair service. Remind/repeat your requests before landing. You can choose how much to reveal about the nature of your condition, but be sure they know you have special needs and what they are.
  • Accessibility can mean something different in your destination than it does at home. Some countries offer more human support than infrastructure or technological solutions. Be open to the differences, and ask questions so you’re comfortable with the method.

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