I remember traveling from a young age, and thankfully it feels like a natural part of my life. Family trips and going back and forth to my college campus have led to traveling for both work and recreation as an adult. Some people marvel at the fact that I’ve been able to travel as much as I have because I move through the world on the three wheels of my trusty pink scooter – the Pink Power Ranger as I call it. I was born with a form of muscular dystrophy and use an electric scooter for mobility. Traveling with a physical disability has its challenges – sometimes questionable accessibility, navigating through unfamiliar places, and managing activities of daily living while trying to enjoy the amenities of new destinations. But my philosophy has always been to keep exploring and manage the inevitable challenges along with some tips I’ve picked up along the way. Have scooter, will travel. Here I share some of my experiences and six travel tips I’ve learned along the way.
1. Crowdsource information about your destination.
The internet is a powerful tool. In addition to websites for your destination, I often use Yelp to get a customer’s point of view. Anyone can post reviews with pictures and a description of their experience. I pay attention to “Outside” pictures of a destination to learn about entrances/exits and look for a yes to the “wheelchair accessible” category. Another tip is to talk to friends who have travelled or lived in your destination. If your friends have travelled with you before, they likely know about your accessibility needs and can give you accurate information. I recently traveled to Washington, DC, for a conference. My brother and sister-in-law live there and could tell me the exact train routes to take as well as to anticipate a long elevator ride at the station closest to my hotel. A little research and a little friendly advice can make some of the unfamiliar parts of traveling feel more familiar!
2. Plan ahead with necessary paperwork.
I prefer planning things well in advance instead of acting spontaneously. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Travel is no exception, as many aspects of my trips have taken weeks or months of careful planning. Securing an accessible ticket to a show, getting an aisle seat on an airplane, and acquiring documentation are just a few examples. In November 2016 I traveled to Paris, France, and planned to visit Disneyland Paris. At the time, the park offered a free companion ticket for a person with a disability with proper documentation. I was required to show a letter from my doctor certifying that I have a permanent disability and the letter had to be signed or stamped within the past year. I see a specialist only once a year, so the timing had to be just right. Thankfully I had the appointment a few weeks prior to the trip and my companion got to save some money.
3. Reduce stressors wherever you can.
Most people I know do not enjoy the process of traveling but getting to the destination makes it worth it. Flying on airplanes brings added stress that I usually don’t experience most days. Ground transportation, navigating airports, and accessing an airplane are just a few things that come to mind. Travel is stressful enough as is, so I do my best to reduce the possible stressors. I joined TSA Precheck a few years ago and don’t regret it one bit! The ability to keep my shoes and light jacket on and navigate a shorter line at security are small examples of ways that it helps me. I almost always check a bag at curbside check-in so I can get rid of literal extra weight and have my hands free for other things – before I even go inside the terminal. Once at my gate I check in with the gate agent. I have a typical speech prepared where I tell them that I’m traveling with my own mobility device, that I need a few extra minutes to board, and that I need help carrying some of my items onto the plane. I tell them what I need as early as possible since the closer it gets to boarding time, the more people there are going up to the counter. I park in direct view of the counter so they can’t lose sight of me. All of these tips usually lead to less stress and a more enjoyable travel experience.
4. Use public transportation in major cities.
I love traveling to major cities, domestic and international, because they tend to have better public transportation systems. No system is perfect but I’ve found that city bus and train systems in their cities accommodate a larger population, including persons with disabilities. The BART in Northern California, the Washington DC Metro, buses in New York City, and the buses and trains in Paris, France, are just a few examples where I’ve had primarily positive experiences with wheelchair accessibility. Using these systems is not only more affordable, but it also provides a more authentic experience that many locals have every day. I recommend using them after the morning rush, and either before or after the evening rush as people get home from work. I attended a conference in Oakland, California in 2019 and took the BART from the airport to the hotel and to see some of the local sights. It was easy, fast, and accessible! Underground train systems carry the risk of elevator outages but most of these systems also feature notifications on their websites to track both surprise and planned outages. Prior to arriving at your destination, check out the accessibility page on the websites for more information about these systems. I’ve heard that cities who’ve been host sites for the Olympics have seen huge improvements in accessibility for their transportation systems and I can’t wait to test this on future trips!
5. Prepare for a variety of weather conditions.
After coming to California for school I stayed out here because the warmer weather fits my lifestyle and makes it possible for me to get out and about year-round. I used to travel to warm weather destinations and now I’m lucky to live in one! Whenever I travel to destinations with colder weather or more precipitation, I plan appropriately. I start checking the weather app on my phone about a week ahead of my departure date and bring whatever I need to feel safe and comfortable. In my scooter basket I always have my charger (never leave home without it!), a plastic bag to cover my basket, a water-resistant poncho to cover myself, and an umbrella. If it starts raining suddenly, I’ll open up the umbrella until I can get inside somewhere and then cover myself with protective gear. This has happened more than a few times, especially during unpredictable summer storms on the East coast. If I’m traveling to a place with cold weather, I bring a scarf or blanket for my lap and at least 2 pairs of gloves. Because I use my hands to operate my scooter in all types of weather, they have to stay warm and comfortable, not to mention functional. Losing a glove is not an option – driving with exposed hands in cold weather is no fun!
6. Provide feedback when things don’t go well.
Whenever something goes wrong, I look for the ways that I can help someone avoid this difficulty in the future. The most common thing I experience is an error in booking an accessible hotel room. Every year for the past 8 years I’ve attended a professional conference for my field and have tried to stretch my budget by sharing a room with friends. Unfortunately, I feel it’s still all too common that hotels have limited stock of accessible rooms, especially in hotels that often host conferences. I’ve heard too many times that a hotel doesn’t have a room with two beds and a roll-in shower because there’s not a high need for it. Rooms with one king bed and a roll-in shower are more common but that’s not enough room for me and 2 or 3 roommates. My circumstances may not be common but I (and countless others!) deserve to have options to meet my accessibility needs. Over the years I’ve consistently provided feedback to the association that plans the annual conference and every year I experience fewer challenges. I also make sure to speak with a hotel manager or employee if something goes wrong. For example, when I find out that the room I booked is no longer available, I’m often told that they will “comp my breakfast” to try to improve the situation. Free food is nice but using a bathroom that meets my needs is even nicer! Talking to another person feels more meaningful for me, especially when you can connect with them about basic human needs. I’ve also filled out online forms to share feedback and offer suggestions. You never know when your experience provides the needed data to make future changes.
If you’re reading this article, I’m sure you’ve experienced your fair share of travel challenges related to accessibility. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) it’s important to acknowledge all of the benefits that this law provides while still pointing out progress to be made. We owe a lot to the passage of this law, but the experiences of others in our community – and their willingness to share those experiences – is what makes accessible travel possible for so many. Accessible travel blogs and social media accounts have truly changed my travels for the better by providing a firsthand account and travel tips from people who understand my accessibility challenges. I hope that these tips have proven helpful and that you can pay it forward to someone else one day.
Laura Merchant is a 32-year-old higher education professional. She has been working on college campuses since 2011. Originally from Southeastern Michigan, she has been living in Southern California since starting college in 2006. She travels to and from Michigan twice a year, New York City once a year, and a few other destinations when she can. Her favorite international trip so far was a trip to London and Paris in 2016. Someday she’d love to go to Italy (for the food!) and Austria to see some of the locations where The Sound of Music was filmed. She also enjoys exploring California and attending musical theater performances as often as she can. Laura can be found on Instagram.