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Accessible travel

Travellers with a long-term health problem or disability are often well catered for — it just requires a little research

Accessible travel
Tandem skydive with Wheelchair Travelling. Image: Wheelchair Travelling

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My wife has a fairly consistent mantra when it comes to travel. “It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you can do.”

Katrina has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was two years old, had both knees replaced while she was at university and in recent years has found her mobility increasingly limited due to a hip problem.

She also has an aggressively visceral hatred of letting limited mobility get in the way of doing things she wants to do. Planning a holiday becomes not so much about what’s ruled out, but about what steps need to be taken to make things happen.

This is usually is a matter of approach. If wanting to get to a photo-worthy lookout, it’s a case of researching whether there’s a car park nearby or a cable-car to take us there, rather than a three-hour hike.

On other occasions, it’s about being prepared to give something a go. Some things haven’t worked — we won’t be going kayaking together any time soon — but others have come out surprisingly OK. The worst part about a snorkelling trip turned out to be getting on the boat in the first place, while a hot air balloon trip we thought wouldn’t happen turned out to be fine, after a bit of experimental lifting into the basket.

“If you really want to do something, sometimes you have to swallow your pride and let people help you in a way that might not be the most dignified,” says Katrina. “What I’ve learned is that people are incredibly willing to help you if you’re willing to throw yourself in.”

Katrina is by no means alone. According to government census statistics, 18% of the British population has some sort of long-term health problem or disability. Some have been dealing with these for decades, and have long had management strategies in place. But for many, limitations either creep up over time or are sudden impositions as the result of an accident.

There are few areas where this is felt more keenly than travel. There are a multitude of things that once were taken for granted — be it getting around an airport, entering swimming pools, using public transport or getting on and off a sun lounger — that suddenly have extra layers of unexpected complication.

But how can able-bodied travellers adjust to new limitations while still doing and seeing as much as possible of what they would’ve done before?

For us, management plays a big part. “I can walk,” says Katrina. “But I can’t do as much as most people. So if I know I’ll be doing a lot one day, I’ll try to build in a lot of rest the next day. I’m aware that I’ll take longer to recover than the average person will.”

According to Emma Bowler, a contributor and reviewer for The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain, in-depth research is key. “As well as checking the obvious (for example, can I get into the hotel easily?), make sure you look into aspects of a trip that are important to you,” says Emma, who is of short stature and uses a mobility scooter. “For example, I love swimming so I always double check there’s a handrail and steps into the pool, rather than a ladder, which I find very difficult.

“I also tend to rule out places that are set on steep hills, particularly ones with cobbles, as they just aren’t much fun on a scooter.”

Man with guide dog outside Ellwood Cottages. Image: British Tourist Authority

Man with guide dog outside Ellwood Cottages. Image: British Tourist Authority

Your needs

Researching such things is much easier than it once was, and while much of the information (and particularly the pictures allowing people to assess disability-friendly features) could be improved, at least there’s a wealth of it out there.

The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain covers over 200 ideas for worry-free days out across the UK, noting accessibility features and handy hints, such as where best to park.

But it’s one resource among many. Most of the time, it’s easy enough to Google a condition plus the word ‘travel’ and there will be numerous sites offering advice. But the sites of tourism operators are improving too.

Emma says: “There’s a lot of information on the internet now, and hotels, tourist attractions and activity providers are definitely far more tuned into the idea of access. Most of the time it’s just a question of asking what they can do to meet your needs.”

There’s a key term in there: ‘your needs’. Everybody’s are different, and the often-used phrase ‘accessible’ shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. What one person is fine with may be completely unusable for another.

Chris Watkins, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, recommends that travellers with limited mobility make enquiries by phone. “You must ask questions specific to your needs — and look at them from a third person’s perspective,” she says.

It pays to press staff members on specifics — are there any steps into the restaurant? Are all necessary doors wide enough to fit a wheelchair through? Is the shower step-free and is there a seat in it?

Chris says: “Disabled people don’t concentrate on what they can’t do, and they don’t realise how much they’ve adapted their life to their condition.” Phrasing questions in a way that makes staff — and yourself — look at the detail helps to avoid some of the pitfalls.

“It can be a particular problem in this country,” says Chris. “Although I was pleasantly surprised in a notoriously hilly city such as Edinburgh that I was limited by no more than the batteries in my chair.”

Chris cites cost as being one major frustration — it almost always costs more to book guaranteed accessible rooms by phone, and get transport suited to her needs.

Insurance is another problematic area. “It’s difficult to get affordable travel insurance. Cost is prohibitive and each company has its own foibles,” she says. “You need to seriously shop around.”

It can often be in the smaller details where the problems occur, however. The hotel may be perfect, but how are you going to get there from the airport? If by car, how are you going to get to the rental centre if it’s off-site?

What can be merely frustrating for many travellers can be extremely painful for others. It may be tempting to not bother requesting special assistance at an airport, as no help is needed to board the plane. But what about the potentially huge walk from security to the departure gate? Or having to stand in an immigration queue for two hours on joints that rebel against standing for that long?

These seemingly trivial details are all things that my wife and I have learned to look into, some of them the hard way.

Hot air balloon ride over the Namib Desert, Namibia. Image: Getty

Hot air balloon ride over the Namib Desert, Namibia. Image: Getty

Accessible destinations

One way of eliminating such unexpected issues is to book holidays through specialist travel agencies and tour operators. One such operator, Accessible Travel, was founded by two wheelchair users and prides itself on doing extensive research.

Spokesperson Ali Parker says: “If we haven’t seen it, we don’t sell it. Hoteliers often don’t see things such as the step up to the restaurant, but we look out for them. We do a full access audit — looking at things such as the height of the bed, toilet and grab rails and the terrain, such as high pavements and cobbles.”

Specialists take particular care over the issues that are often problematic, such as guaranteeing the accessible rooms, arranging wheelchair-friendly transfers between airport and hotel and organising the necessary assistance with airlines.

“Charter airlines tend to be better, although Virgin is amazing long-haul,” says Ali. “And, as a rule, smaller airports tend to be more efficient.”

Some destinations are much better than others too, and they’re not necessarily the ones you might expect. “Ironically, Venice is really accessible,” says Ali. “Water taxis and buses have been made accessible, and wheelchair users travel free while carers pay only a euro.”

Meanwhile, Germany has spent a lot of money upgrading facilities and accommodation to be ‘barrier-free’ and Spanish resort areas have embraced the sizable accessible travel market. “Spain is exceptional,” says Ali, pointing to beaches made deliberately accessible, long, flat promenades and hotel pools fitted with hoists.

Cruises are also generally very popular with her clients. “They’re well-suited,” she says. “There are often 30 to 35 accessible cabins on board a ship.”

But Emma Bowler from The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain has a surprise top destination for accessible travel. “I’ve explored the great outdoors in America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa with the help of my small mobility scooter,” she says.  If I had to vote for my number one accessible destination it would have to be California — with its accessible campsites and walks, good parking, and great access to attractions.”

This tallies with what we’ve found too. Logic might dictate that cities are better geared for accessibility, but relatively rugged, remote areas often have a lower hassle factor. On a road trip through Utah and Wyoming last year, multi-day hikes and whitewater rafting trips were off the cards, but we still managed to cover an extraordinary amount. For a lot of the canyon views and wildlife-spotting areas, it was simply a case of pulling the car over in a bay next to the lookout. In bigger spots, car parks were usually within a short walk (or wheelchair roll) of the waterfall, geysers or weird rock formations.

Jeremy Buzzell, branch chief of the US National Park Service’s Accessibility Management Program, believes this is no accident.

“Generally, the National Parks Service tries to provide a wide range of access for a wide range of people. And, particularly in the highly visited parks, a lot of effort has gone into making them as accessible as possible.”

Measures include installing tactile maps for the blind, making step-free, flat walkways wherever possible and providing information on accessibility both in print leaflets and on the individual park website. Again, it’s a good idea to invest time in researching a destination or activity before dismissing it out of hand. Physical limitations are not necessarily prohibitive — and increasingly, the information required to make informed assessments and decisions about what’s accessible in each individual case is out there.

But even if it isn’t, making the right enquiries prior to travelling can open up possibilities. No single solution fits all — but there may be a simple one that makes all the difference, given a willingness to help others understand what’s needed.


The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain. accessibleguide.co.uk
US National Parks Service.

Disability travel specialists
Accessible Travel.
Enable Holidays.

More info
Check the sites of airlines and transport operators for their accessible travel policies and procedures. If there’s not a dedicated page or section devoted to accessible travel and organising special assistance, it’s probably best to book elsewhere.

For hotels, photographs can be found on booking sites such as Booking.com or Hotels.com that might not be displayed on the hotel’s own site. TripAdvisor also displays unofficial photographs taken by hotel guests.

Further web resources

Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)