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What is Accessible Travel

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 15% of the population in the world live with a disability. With 7.5 billion people on the planet, that means around 1 billion live with a disability. That’s why today, more than ever before, it’s increasingly important for world travel to be available to all. The accessible travel movement is a call to action to make global travel more available, safe, and joyful for those who may be affected by a physical disability, use a wheelchair, have a health condition, or those with special needs.

Finding information on accessible travel is a critical part of planning for individuals with disabilities and those traveling with these individuals. It can be difficult to find relevant information all in one place. In this guide, you’ll find helpful links to accessibility resources, destination-specific tips, and other ways individuals with disabilities can advocate for themselves and others when traveling.

Globally, The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) recognizes specific requirements for ethical accessible tourism, and destinations can even earn the distinction of being an “Accessible Tourism Destination.” In the United States of America, the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was put into law in 1990, stipulates specific accommodations and prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities. Cities across the United States, particularly metropolitan areas, have begun the slow and challenging process of massive infrastructure improvements to make their cities more accessible, like New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). For example, according to Curbed NY, in New York City, only 117 of the 472 MTA subway stations are fully accessible. Curbed also provides a map of the available wheelchair accessible stations.

It’s our mission to increase awareness about accessibility in travel so that the world’s destinations continue to improve. Use this guide as a starting point in your research, whether you’re at the beginning of your vacation planning or about to depart. While this may not cover everything there is to know about accessible travel and travelers’ rights, compiling information in one place about accessible travel is our small way of making the traveler’s journey less about searching the Internet for info and more about enjoying your travel experience. Blogs, forums, and message boards are another way travelers with disabilities find information on accessible attractions, accommodations, and itineraries.

Maureen Shaughnessey Edge's First Top Cruiser

Before You Go

Choosing Accessible Travel Destinations When you’re traveling with a disability, whether that’s low vision or using a wheelchair, you may have to research your destination extra carefully to make sure you are able to navigate without stress and anxiety. Contacting a travel agent or getting in touch with a certified accessible travel concierge to help you plan the details on the ground can be helpful, as they can research accessibility-friendly things to do and plan your itinerary for you. Travel agencies often offer accessible travel packages, information on destinations, particularly those run and compiled by travelers with mobility restrictions and disabilities. The blog Accessible Getaways is run by a couple who regularly travel while accommodating a motor injury. AccessibleGo can help you search by destination and has information on accessible attractions and destinations all over the U.S.

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, going to the websites of destinations often has helpful planning tips for that area, like. Destinations like Florida even include a list of Florida-specific accessible itineraries and businesses from wheelchair rental companies to accessible beaches. Cruises are also is an option for travelers looking to have itinerary decisions more clearly delineated rather than relying on independent research, as cruise ships are legally required to meet certain ADA compliance regulations. Rather than choosing an entire country or continent, with accessible travel, it’s better to hone in on one or two cities that have a wealth of information available. This is just a sample of the destinations that you could look into for your own travels.

In the United States, museums are legally obligated, based on the American With Disabilities Act (ADA), to be equipped with certain museum access requirements, so as you research things to do on your vacation, museums have a high likelihood of being more accessible than other activities. Call ahead or visit the website of the individual museum you’re interested in going to for detailed information on their accessibility offerings, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, or The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. There are also a variety of blogs that highlight New York museums equipped for low-vision travelers.

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., Pantou, which gets its name from the Greek word for “everywhere,” offers a comprehensive directory of European destinations and services that are accessible for all types of disabilities.

Checklist: Information to Bring With You

Anytime you travel, you’re bound to have a detailed packing list. The same is true for travelers with disabilities and their caretakers. Be sure to bring these items along with you whether you’re traveling by land, sea, or flight.

  1. Bring documentation and medical information, including allergies.
  2. Valid identification, and a passport no matter where you go.
  3. Bring medications in your carry-on rather than your checked luggage, and make sure all medications are clearly labeled to make the process of traveling, whether you’re going through airport security or settling into your hotel room, easier.
  4. If you or the person you are traveling with take prescription medications, a list of all the medications you take, the time you take the medicine, and any other instructions for your wellness are helpful in case of an emergency. Bring extra doses of all medicine just in case.
  5. If you have a service dog, be sure to have up-to-date vaccinations information, treats, and food to make sure your service dog is comfortable on any long trips.
  6. For those with a mobility disability or those who travel with a wheelchair, you may want to bring along a portable battery or extra parts just in case. This will vary based on your type of mobility assistance and your preferences.

Your Rights

Because of the Americans With Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination laws around the globe, there are certain rights you possess as a traveler that are meant to protect travelers. This helpful post from Smarter Travel outlines your rights as a traveler with a disability when traveling by air. Still, traveling with a disability can be uncomfortable when airlines and hotels are catching up to the needs of their travelers; items like bed heights, shower handles within reach within hotel rooms, and air travel lavatories still aren’t optimized for persons with a disability. This can be discouraging and lead to resentments between travel providers and their passengers.

Maureen Shaughnessey Edge's First Top Cruiser

Getting There

Air Travel

Airlines cannot refuse to provide transportation services to you due to a disability as part of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The Americans With Disabilities Act was also designed to protect persons with disabilities from discrimination of any kind. Before you travel, it’s recommended you call the airline to secure your travel arrangements so you can inform them about your disability in advance; this will help the airline provide you with more information on what to expect when you fly. Check out these resources for more information:

  • Wheelchair Travel and Abilities.com both have content devoted specifically to air travel
  • For travelers with a hearing disability, check out the National Association of the Deaf, which has information about what is required by airlines to service a deaf traveler.
  • Transportation.gov also provides helpful tips about what is discriminatory and what is not when traveling by air, as well as accommodations for assistive devices, wheelchairs, service dogs, and more.

Making Car Trips More Accessible

An accessible road trip opens up a whole new world of travel possibilities, new routes, and parts of the world to see. For those with hearing or vision disabilities, seeing the United States via train like Amtrak is a popular option. Equipping your vehicle with a ramp for a wheelchair is a must when taking a road trip with a person with limited mobility or who uses a chair. If you have an electric lift on your ramp, you may want to write down the information of the manufacturer just in case you need to troubleshoot any issues. For drivers with a physical disability, taking regular, consistent breaks from driving to rest and recuperate is essential on a long car ride. Check out JJ’s List, which connects people with disabilities with businesses, for their post on accessible road trips.

Accessible Cruising

Taking a cruise vacation is another option for travelers with disabilities and caretakers who are traveling with them. Special needs cruises and accessible cruises have made incredible strides at building accessible staterooms on cruise ships which include bars and railings, including signage in Braille for those with vision disabilities, or offering extra assistance when embarking and disembarking. The National Association of the Deaf also specifies requirements for cruise lines to make them accessible for deaf travelers.

Depending on regulations, some cruise ships like Celebrity Cruises even allow service animals onboard. It’s highly recommended you reach out to a customer service representative during the cruise planning process to customize your cruise experience and accommodations. Some cruise lines encourage travelers to fill out a special needs form to make sure your exact specifications are met and expectations exceeded during your cruise.

Popular travel blogs like Fodors offer their point-of-view on cruise ships for travelers with disabilities, including planning tips. Special Needs at Sea compiled a variety of links to different cruise lines and provides information on cruise accessibility, too.

Maureen Shaughnessey Edge's First Top Cruiser

Resources

Wheelchair-Friendly Travel

Traveling with a wheelchair offers specific challenges for the person, and can often be an anxious prospect to figure out if your destination, restaurant, or attraction will have wheelchair ramps and accessible features for you. Whether you’re packing for your trip or deciding to take an accessible cruise, information about wheelchair-friendly travel is quickly increasing each year. Some resources like Scootaround even recommend specific wheelchair-friendly destinations around the world to keep in mind during the travel planning phase.

For general information on traveling with a wheelchair, check out Wheelchair Traveling.

Traveling with Autism

A person with autism has a unique set of needs when traveling, as autism falls on a spectrum and varies from person to person. Some people with autism may be highly sensitive to noise and may need a quiet environment. Others may find long travel days exhausting, which makes it preferable to plan low-impact activities. Persons with autism may be distressed by large crowds, long lines, or sudden itinerary changes.

  • Autism Speaks is a resource for general information about autism.
  • Autism Travel offers tips, resources, and a travel directory of Certified Autism Centers.
  • The National Autism Association also provides educational programming and information on autism, including the latest advancements in diagnosis and support for families.
  • Autism on the Seas is a vacation resource in collaboration with Royal Caribbean that provides staff-assisted vacation cruise packages to travelers with autism and their extended family.
  • The Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality offers these 10 need-to-know tips for traveling with autism, which include a list of items that are must-haves on your trip, ways for caretakers to prepare travelers with autism for their adventures, and more.

Millions of people are affected by hearing and vision disabilities all over the world, whether they have low-sight or their hearing has been affected by age. There are many helpful resources to make traveling with a hearing or vision disabilities easier. For those who are deaf or need hearing assistance, the National Association for the Deaf offers basic information about transportation and travel while deaf.

For persons with disabilities who enjoy a video experience, The Christopher Reeve Foundation offers a series of videos on accessible travel, including renting a car, air travel, hotels, and more. Closed captions are also provided with hearing disabilities.

More Online Resources and Apps

  • Lonely Planet message boards for travelers with disabilities. A sense of community can be a vital travel planning tool, a place where you can ask questions, engage with other travelers, and learn more about accessible destinations as you plan your travels.
  • The Accessible Travel Forum offers forums, guides, and community discussions about the accessibility of destinations on all seven continents around the globe.
  • Be My Eyes: an app which connects a blind or low vision person with a skilled volunteer on a video call to provide virtual assistance, whether you’re navigating or buying groceries. Available on iOS and Android.
  • Navability: for those traveling with a wheelchair, the in-development Navability will help geo-locate you and provide the best route for a wheelchair user.
  • ATM Finder: if you’re traveling to the UK, you can access this helpful list of ATM locations throughout the area.