How to Plan (or Not Plan) an Accessible Vacation
Article originally featured on NewMobility.com
Meet five wheelchair users who rolled into adventures, some planned out and some more spontaneous, two as far away as Europe and three right here in the United States. They share their experiences and some tips they picked up along the way.
Germany – Switzerland – Italy
Advice: “You aren’t really going to know what you’re capable of doing or who you are until you travel.”
Alejandro Arroyo, a C5-7 incomplete quad, was a year post-injury when he and his wife, Judy, decided to take a trip for their wedding anniversary two years ago. A week before the trip, they booked tickets to Frankfurt, Germany, and rented a Volkswagen Golf to maneuver the narrow European streets. They had no plans, no itinerary.
When Arroyo arrived in Frankfurt, the car rental company offered him an upgrade to an SUV. In the excitement of the moment, he quickly agreed, losing sight of the narrow streets and big transfers. “I totally forgot why we planned on the small vehicle,” he says.
After installing the portable hand controls he’d packed, he and Judy drove to the interstate and headed south. They ended up in Switzerland. “Lucerne is a beautiful, idyllic, old-world town in the mountains,” he says. “The food was amazing … when you could get in the restaurant.”
At one restaurant, the staff carried him down the steps. Accessibility was also lacking at the hotel, despite its good reviews, as the elevator door wasn’t wide enough for his manual chair. He used a long piece of wood to transfer from his wheelchair onto boxes that the staff placed inside the elevator car for him. Rather than being bummed out by the experience, Arroyo says, “I don’t let things like this bother me. I just see it as an adventure.”
They headed south to Italy and spent time in Milan and Genoa before booking a room at a 12-bedroom hotel overlooking Lake Como. Remember the big SUV? By the time they arrived at the hotel, the vehicle was missing both side-view mirrors and its front bumper. So much for an upgrade.
But this mountainside hotel was a gem with a full-size elevator, an accessible bedroom, bathroom and balcony. “We fell in love with this town. If we can retire in Italy, this is where we’re going,” says Arroyo. “I really didn’t want to leave.”
Would he have done anything differently? “Yes and no. I knew about travel agencies that could locate accessible hotels and attractions, but I didn’t value what they had to say. I regret that. But we got through it,” he says. “Looking back, it made me and my wife stronger together. We got to know each other’s limits. And we also learned to not take things so seriously.”
National and State Parks in the Western United States
Advice: “Spend time online researching accessibility. If I have any doubts or questions, I call and talk with a person about the accessibility.” In May 2018, Ann Combs, along with her husband and two boys, 11 and 15, took a three-week road trip out West.
"Our goal for this vacation was to do as much as we could in those three weeks,” says Combs, a T12-L1 para. The family packed in day trips to national and state parks in Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “I’m pretty sure Utah is one of the most beautiful states in the U.S.,” she says, adding that Zion and Bryce National Parks in Utah are must-sees. “Both Bryce and Zion had bus systems with lifts to get around the park. I’d definitely like to go back and spend one or two weeks just in Utah.”
Most of the parks had accessible restrooms in the visitor centers and at least one accessible walking path. However, a FreeWheel still came in handy on the rougher trails. A big part of the trip’s success was Combs’ ability to plan. “I picked the places, Googled how long it would take to get from one site to the next, and looked for towns in between our destinations for accessible bathrooms. I did use Imodium one day because I was really concerned about finding a bathroom.” The family’s goal was to be frugal, but not cheap. “We booked hotels with free breakfast. I packed forks, spoons and bowls. Instead of stopping for ice cream, we’d go to a grocery store to buy a gallon of ice cream. We also bought snacks so we wouldn’t pay higher prices inside the parks.”
Advice: “Go with the right mindset, don’t expect to rely on the ADA, and embrace the difference in culture and the way things are done. If you fight it, you’re not going to enjoy the experience.”
When Wendy Crawford turned 50, she decided to celebrate the milestone by traveling to Italy. The boot-shaped nation had always captivated the C5-6 quad with its culture, style, architecture and food, so she planned a trip to the Tuscan towns of Florence, Fiesole and San Gimignano.
Once she got there, she discovered organizing accessible housing and transportation was more difficult than she expected. The architecture that enchanted her made for some inaccessible housing and the picturesque, narrow, winding roads proved to be more adventurous than expected in the large lift-equipped van her husband drove. “If I could do it over, I would find an accessible travel agency to help me,” she says. The people she met in Italy made the trip memorable and worth the access headaches. She remembers fondly the traditional Tuscan dinner served by Graziella and Fernando, the hosts at the villa she rented, and the server who brought a bowl of warm, soapy water so she could wash her hands when a restaurant’s bathroom was inaccessible. “I traveled with my sister, as well as my husband and a friend/caregiver, and the people really made it special,” says Crawford. She adds that having several people to help lift, transfer and push her proved invaluable in less-than-accessible situations and on the cobblestone walkways. “I felt like I was in a movie — it was surreal. But I always feel like that when I travel.”
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Advice: “There will be bumps on any trip because this world wasn’t built for us. It’s up to us to adapt.”
A few years ago, “Catfish Chris” Lanham, a C5 quad, was ready to catch something bigger than a catfish. So he, his family and some fishing buddies drove to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for a week of saltwater angling.
He hauled his Action Trackchair on a trailer with a built-in lift, as well as a portable Hoyer lift to use inside the cabins the group rented. If a bed is too low for his lift, he has a method for dealing with it. “We run to Walmart and buy four stacks of paper plates. Then I place plates under each foot of the bed. It gives you the perfect bed height,” he says.
“The whole purpose of the trip was to go fishing as much as possible,” Lanham says. And he’s not joking. The group would fish for days at a time. Then he’d go inside the cabin for his bowel program, catch six to eight hours of sleep, and do it all over again.
“For most of middle and high school, I grew up in Georgia, 30 miles from the beach. Every weekend I went fishing. Saltwater fishing was one of my favorite things to do before I got hurt,” says Lanham. “With the Trackchair and my friends, I was able to go out on the beach shark fishing for the first time in 15 years.”
The first night of his trip to Alabama, while fishing from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., Lanham caught his first shark since his injury in 2002. He reeled in the 4-foot, 45-pound blacktip shark with a custom-made rod and reel. The fishing pole was strapped to his right arm with a wrist brace and an electric-powered reel pulled in the shark.
Walt Disney World Resort
Advice: “Do your homework and plan. Make sure your specific needs can be met. It’ll ease the stress of the trip.”
Laura Reynolds fell in love with Disney the first time she stayed at one of its resorts. To begin with, she appreciates how cost-effective the company’s packages are. “If I fly to Florida and rent a van, it gets really expensive. But Disney includes accessible transportation from the airport to the resort and transportation between the different parks.”
In addition to her trips to Disney World, Reynolds enjoys Disney’s cruises. Her most recent one was a five-night excursion on the Disney Dream. The accessible room was spacious enough for Reynolds, who uses a power chair due to cerebral palsy. The bathroom, with a roll-in shower, was also fully accessible and the beds were not too high for transfers.
Other accessible features she enjoyed included a swimming pool lift, a beach wheelchair on Disney’s private island, Castaway Key, and accessible seating during the evening theater performances. Not everything was as perfect as a fairy tale, though. The ramps to get on and off the ship were quite steep, and in Nassau, Bahamas, the sidewalks were difficult to maneuver in a power chair.
What made this a great trip? “Everything met my needs, and the accessibility is what made me want to return,” she says. “And being in the Bahamas is kind of like paradise.”