Why Accessible Family Travel Matters

Traveling with a wheelchair can be challenging. Here are some tips and tricks for getting around from parents who have been there and done that.

Father pushing child in wheelchair at the top of seaside hill.

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There is nothing I love more than traveling with my family of five. Heading out on an adventure, our bags packed, and our hectic routine a distant memory.

Traveling with kids is pretty much always tricky, traveling with a child with disabilities can be even harder. Add in a wheelchair and medical equipment that my middle son has needed since he was three years old, and I could easily get overwhelmed enough to just stay home. Instead, I think ahead and put extra effort into making the trip as smooth as possible.

I'm always looking for help, so I contacted some experts for tips and tricks on navigating our wheelchair accessible adventures.

Getting There

Traveling by plane can be complicated for wheelchair users. They need to be physically lifted and transferred from their wheelchair to a seat on the plane. The wheelchair is then stored in the cargo area. The whole process can make it easy for a wheelchair to get damaged. Cory Lee, a regular traveler who blogs about his accessible adventures, does his best to make sure his chair arrives safely. "This includes taking parts of my wheelchair in a carry-on bag, bubble-wrapping my joystick, and clearly communicating with airline staff how to best take care of my wheelchair," he says.

Amanda Devereaux, a parent in Iowa, recently used TSA Cares to help her daughter, who is non-speaking, uses a medical stroller, and gets distressed waiting in long lines. "We called TSA cares 48 hours before the flight. Someone met us at the security line, and we were moved up to the front so that they could facilitate a speedier trip through security."

Through the program Wings for All, children with intellectual disabilities can go through a trial run of the air travel process beforehand, says Kerry Mauger from The Arc. "The program is available in 70 airports across the US and gives children a real-life experience to navigate the airport."

Rather than flying, some of our most recent vacations have been accomplished in an accessible van. We can pack a lot in a rooftop cargo box and stop as often as we need to along the way. I pack a small suitcase with clothes and toiletries, making our stops quick and easy.

Nicole Bryson, owner and President of FT Mobility, a Vehicle Modification company in New Jersey, delivers wheelchair-accessible van rentals to airports throughout the tri-state area. "We're a proud member of a national organization called Wheelchair Getaways," she says. "The company has over 250 locations across the country where you can rent a van by the day, week, weekend, or month."

If you plan to drive or rent a van, look into the accessible parking spots in the state you are visiting. For example, accessible parking is free in Burlington, Vermont.

Other transportation options might include trains, buses, subways or taxis, but I always do research ahead of time since these options aren't consistent or easy to find. For example, my family had a great experience taking the subway in New York City and Washington D.C., but not every entrance was wheelchair accessible.

Finding Fun Activities

From beaches to cities, there are many ways to find accessible adventures my whole family can enjoy.

When we plan a beach trip, I call the hotel to find out if they have a beach wheelchair available for rent, and that it's easy to access from our room. When my son was younger, beach wheelchairs were too large for my son, so we opted to push his own wheelchair as far as we could along a beach walkway and then carried him to a blanket.

We've had the same experience with pool lifts that are too large for my son, so I look for pools that have a zero-gravity entrance, or steps with a gradual increase in pool depth, making it easier to assist him into the water.

Museums and other city attractions are often wheelchair accessible. We've seen quite a few Broadway shows as a family. Call the box office or look the theater up online to understand what they offer.

Many museums and institutions offer wheelchair accessibility, along with special spaces or days dedicated to embracing neurodivergence.

And don't rule out adventures like those at the National Parks. "The National Park Service is committed to expanding accessible hiking options for visitors with disabilities, and each national park website now contains information on accessible infrastructure," explains John Morris, founder of Wheelchairtravel.org. "Wheelchair users and people with disabilities can enjoy free admission to America's parks and nature reserves with the Access Pass."

Wherever you end up, Sofia Bravo from Wheel the World suggests "planning at least five months in advance. Research the destination to ensure it suits your child's specific needs and yours," she says. "Consider seasonal variables such as weather and peak season, which will mean that all activities are more crowded, making it harder to move around."

Where to Stay

Typically, I prefer to book a suite at a hotel. The extra space is ideal for our additional equipment. The kitchen makes it easier for me to store my son's formula and specialty food. The laundry machines come in handy too. Hotels in general often have large, open entrances with automatic doors without a steep threshold. For now, since my son is small, we can get away without needing a fully accessible room. But I know that will change as he gets older.

Sandy Gilbreath has been traveling with her now adult son Cory Lee for years. "Always call the hotel directly and ask specific questions pertaining to your child's own accessibility needs. I ask if the room has a roll-in shower and if the bed has any clearance underneath it for a Hoyer lift. When booking activities, I ask if there are steps at the entrance or throughout the activity. Asking exact questions requires the worker to think in more detail before answering."

Airbnb now has an adapted category on their site. Renters can look for specific needs such as a step-free bedroom and the home is flat and on level ground. Hosts submit photos of their accessible features and provide a written description which are reviewed for accuracy.

I haven't yet taken my family on a cruise, but it's at the top of my list since most cruises have ramps, elevators and flat decks. "Cruising is definitely one of the most accessible ways to travel," agrees Jamie Santillo, an Accessible Travel Agent. "Travelers should book a cruise as early as they can," adds Kristy Lacroix, a Certified Accessible Travel Specialist. "Some ships have 43 accessible cabins and some only have 4." Lacroix maintains a list of accessible island tours. Something that may be easier to find by contacting an accessible travel agent directly such as Lacroix and Santillo, whose services are free to travelers.

Wherever I end up, a few weeks before I head out, I walk through a typical day caring for my son to ensure I have everything I need including extra medication, spare medical supplies and clothes. I also keep in mind that, regardless of my planning, it's almost inevitable that I'll forget something. As long as our basic needs are met, and we are safe, I go with the flow and learn for next time.

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