Mobility-Friendly Travel Guide
- Accessible travel is vital for social inclusion, medical needs, and overall well-being, especially for older adults.
- More than 6.8 million Americans living outside of institutions use assistive devices to help them with movement. Around 1.7 million of those use a wheelchair or scooter, and the remaining 5.1 million use canes, crutches, and walkers.
- The Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations mandate accommodations in air and cruise travel.
- For road trips, safely stow mobility devices in the car and consider renting an accessible vehicle.
- Major train and bus lines offer accessible seating and facilities, but booking in advance is advised.
- Proper planning, including emergency preparedness and consulting with service providers, helps ensure a smooth travel experience for those with mobility devices.
Travel isn’t just a luxury; it’s a vital aspect of well-being, especially for older adults. Travel provides cognitive, social, and physical health benefits to older adults—a group that is more prone to developing difficulties in these areas. But for anyone who relies on mobility aids like wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, the idea of travel can seem daunting.
The good news is that accessible travel is not only possible but also increasingly more common and doable. Numerous blogs and services are dedicated to making travel accessible for everyone. Whether you’re traveling for leisure, family visits, or medical appointments, this guide aims to empower you with actionable information for a smooth and enriching journey that meets your mobility needs.
Planning tips for mobility-friendly travel
Proper planning is the cornerstone of any successful trip, and it’s even more crucial when you’re traveling with mobility aids. About 30% of Americans over the age of 65 living outside of institutions use assistive devices for mobility purposes, both inside and outside the home. Many use a wheelchair or scooter, while the greatest number use canes, crutches, and walkers. Traveling with mobility aids is possible, and can be done successfully by following a few planning tips:
- Research your destination: Before you book anything, research the accessibility features of your chosen destination. Look for hotels and rental properties with ADA-compliant rooms, and check if tourist attractions offer wheelchair ramps or other accommodations. Websites like WheelchairTravel.org provide valuable insight into the accessibility of locations.
- Consult your health care provider: Before embarking on your trip, consult your health care provider for a pre-travel check-up. Discuss your travel plans, and make sure you have enough medication and supplies for the duration of your trip.
- Communicate with transportation providers: When booking flights, notify the airline about your mobility device in advance. Most airlines offer assistance for boarding and deplaning, and narrow aisle wheelchairs are provided by the airlines to get you to your seat. If you’re traveling by train or bus, check their policies on mobility aids since they differ.
- Communicate with your accommodation provider: Call hotels or rental properties directly to confirm the availability of accessible rooms. Inquire about ramps, elevator access, door widths, roll-in showers, and other features that can make your stay more comfortable. Plan accessible ground transportation ahead of time from your accommodation to your planned activities. A hotel will often be able to book this for you.
- Get insurance: Invest in a comprehensive travel insurance policy that covers medical emergencies and the potential loss or damage to your mobility device.
- Mobility device maintenance: Check the condition of your mobility device and consider a tune-up before the trip.
- Set aside some break/rest days: You don’t want to tire or stress yourself out by overscheduling every minute of your trip, so be sure to schedule moments to recharge.
Packing these items will help ensure a smooth trip:
- Mobility aid: Choose a device that is compact, foldable, and will travel easily. The scooter or wheelchair you use at home may be too bulky. Consider renting a more portable chair or scooter. If you are bringing a new device, be sure to practice with it until you are comfortable. Don’t wait until the trip to learn how to use it.
- Chargers and batteries: Bring extra batteries or chargers for electric wheelchairs and scooters.
- Medical supplies: Ensure you have enough medication and other medical supplies.
- Documentation: Keep copies of prescriptions and any other medical documentation.
- Emergency contacts: Draft a list of local health care providers and emergency services at your travel destination.
- Accessibility apps and guides: Download apps and guides that can help you find accessible routes and services. Apps like iAccess Life will help you navigate accessible routes and locations. Google Maps also has an “Accessible Places” feature, which labels accessible entrances, seating, restrooms, and parking. Additionally, Mobility International USA offers PDF guidebooks for accessible destinations around the world.
Air travel with a mobility device
Navigating the skies with a mobility device requires a bit more preparation, but it’s entirely achievable with the right knowledge and planning.
The Air Carrier Access Act
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a U.S. federal law, first enacted in 1986, which prohibits discrimination against passengers with disabilities in air travel. Under the ACAA, airlines must accommodate travelers with disabilities, including those who use mobility devices. This means airlines are required to provide assistance for boarding, deplaning, and making connections, as well as stowing your mobility device. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the ACAA to understand your rights and what accommodations you can expect.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a program called TSA Cares, which is a helpline that provides additional assistance during the security screening process for travelers with disabilities, medical conditions, and other circumstances. TSA Cares is staffed to provide travelers information on what to expect during the screening process Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m.–11 p.m. ET and weekends and holidays, from 9 a.m.–8 p.m. ET.
A traveler may request the services of a TSA Passenger Support Specialist (PSS), who can provide assistance through security screening. A PSS is a TSA officer who has received specialized training, including how to effectively assist and communicate with people with disabilities or medical conditions, and travelers who need additional screening assistance. You may call the number above or fill out an online form to request a PSS.
Planning air travel with a walker or cane
Air travel with a walker or cane is generally straightforward. Here’s what you need to know:
- Stowing the device: Walkers and canes are typically folded and stowed in the overhead compartment or a designated area in the cabin.
- Mobility assistance: Airlines offer escort services to help you move through the airport and onto the plane. You may also request an aisle wheelchair for easier boarding.
- Call ahead: While not mandatory, it’s advisable to notify the airline in advance that you’ll be traveling with a mobility aid. This ensures the crew is prepared to assist you.
- Label your device: Be sure to put your name on your device so there is no confusion if it gets gate checked.
Planning air travel with a wheelchair
Wheelchair travel involves a bit more planning but is still manageable. Here’s what you should know:
- Advanced notice: Always give the airline advance notice that you’re traveling with a wheelchair. This allows them to make the necessary preparations for your journey.
- Types of assistance: Airports offer various types of wheelchair assistance such as escorting you through security and helping you board the plane.
- Your own device: You can generally use your own wheelchair or scooter up to the boarding gate. From there, it will be stowed in the cargo hold, and you’ll be transferred to an aisle wheelchair for boarding.
- Airport-issued wheelchair: Some travelers opt for an airport-issued wheelchair. If you choose this option, your personal wheelchair will be stowed immediately upon check-in.
Shannon MacDonald, an occupational therapist in Denver, Colorado, has guidance for navigating airports with mobility devices. Her number one recommendation is to plan ahead and not leave anything until the last minute. She tells her clients to take advantage of TSA PreCheck® and Global Entry in order to reduce delays. She told us you can now complete the TSA PreCheck application at any Staples store in the country.
Laurel McFarland of Parker, Colorado, is 75 years old and uses a cane after her double knee replacement surgery. She recently traveled through Denver International Airport (DIA), an airport that is notorious for long wait times. She wishes she had known about the Staples option mentioned above by MacDonald. She underestimated how long it would take to get through DIA’s security. She began the TSA PreCheck application online and planned to complete it at the airport, but found herself at the wrong end of the concourse without enough time to get to the other side. She was unable to complete or use TSA PreCheck and had to stand in a long, standard security line. She also wishes she had accepted the wheelchair offer at check-in. She told us, “Next time, I’m taking the wheelchair. Who cares what it looks like.”
MacDonald also recommends doing anything that helps conserve energy because airports can be exhausting for anyone—not just those with limited mobility. “Be sure to use any and all services available to you,” she said. “Call ahead to inquire what services the airport has. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help.” Some of her other recommendations are:
- Use crossbody bags or fanny packs to free up your hands
- Put your medications in carry-on bags
- Use Apple AirTags or Tile tags in checked luggage for easy trackability and peace of mind
- Take advantage of preboarding
- Start with shorter trips if longer ones seem daunting
MacDonald’s final words of advice were, “Don’t be afraid to travel—it’s so worth it!”
Airline policies for mobility devices
The ACAA requires airlines to have policies to accommodate travelers with limited mobility. Specific policy information by airline follows:
|Link to policy
|Provides assistance throughout the airport and allows personal mobility devices up to the boarding gate
|Alaska accessibility policy
|Offers pre-boarding, stowing, and assistance for all mobility devices
|American accessibility policy
|Provides various types of wheelchair assistance and allows personal wheelchairs up to the boarding gate
|Delta accessibility policy
|Allows wheelchairs, scooters, and other mobility devices on board at no charge, offers designated cabin space for two wheelchairs, and provides airport and aisle wheelchair assistance upon request
|Accommodates all types of mobility devices and offers preboarding
|Southwest accessibility policy
|Offers assistance for boarding and deplaning, as well as stowing your mobility device
|United accessibility policy
Car travel with a mobility device
Hitting the open road with a mobility device requires a combination of preparation and flexibility. Whether you’re traveling with a wheelchair, walker, or cane, a well-thought-out plan can make your road trip hassle-free. Here’s how to prepare for an extended car journey with a mobility device.
Safely stowing a wheelchair
- Manual wheelchairs: The trunk is usually the best storage option for manual wheelchairs. Make sure to fold the wheelchair and secure it with straps to prevent it from jostling around during travel.
- Electric wheelchairs: These are heavier and may require a car with a spacious trunk or a separate trailer. Some people opt for car-top carriers specifically designed for wheelchairs.
- Wheelchair lifts and ramps: If you’re using your own vehicle, consider installing a wheelchair lift or ramp for easier loading and unloading if you or someone you’re with is unable to easily lift the chair.
Storing walkers and canes
- Walkers: These can usually be folded and stored in the trunk or back seat. Like wheelchairs, they should be secured with straps.
- Canes: Canes are the easiest to store. They can fit in the trunk or even in the back-seat pockets. Just ensure they are within easy reach for when you need them.
Renting a wheelchair-accessible car
- Specialized rental companies: Companies like MobilityWorks and Wheelers Accessible Van Rentals specialize in wheelchair-accessible car rentals.
- Mainstream car rentals: Some mainstream car rental companies offer vehicles with hand controls and swivel seats but may not have fully wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Always call ahead to confirm availability.
- Insurance: Make sure your rental includes proper insurance coverage, especially for any specialized equipment.
- Test drive: If possible, test drive the vehicle to ensure it meets your needs.
Additional tips for a smooth road journey
- Rest stops: Plan your route to include accessible rest stops for bathroom breaks and stretching. Apps like iExit can help you find accessible facilities along your route.
- Emergency kit: Always carry an emergency kit that includes extra medication, basic tools for minor repairs to your mobility device, and essential supplies like water and snacks.
- Accommodations: If your road trip involves overnight stays, book accessible hotels in advance. Websites like AccessibleGO offer a directory of accessible accommodations, and Airbnb has an accessible housing feature.
- Backup plans: Always have a backup plan in case of unexpected issues like car trouble or inaccessible locations. This could be as simple as knowing the location of nearby hospitals or having a list of local taxi services that offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
- Local laws: Familiarize yourself with the local laws and regulations concerning disabled parking and other accessibility issues in the destinations you’ll be visiting.
Train and bus travel with a mobility device
Traveling by train or bus can be a convenient and cost-effective way to explore new destinations. Bu, when you’re traveling with a mobility device, there are some things to keep in mind. Here’s how to make your train or bus journey as smooth as possible.
Planning train travel
- Advanced booking: Many train services offer the option to book a designated wheelchair space. Make sure to do this well in advance.
- Boarding assistance: Train stations often provide boarding ramps or lifts for wheelchair users. Always check ahead of time and arrive early to make use of these services.
- Onboard facilities: Modern trains usually have accessible restrooms and designated spaces for wheelchairs. Confirm these amenities when booking your ticket.
Planning bus travel
- Accessible buses: Many bus companies now operate low-floor buses or those equipped with lifts to accommodate wheelchairs.
- Seating: Buses often have designated disability seating. Make sure to ask about this when booking your ticket.
- Stowing mobility devices: Walkers and canes can usually be folded and stored in the luggage compartment. Always confirm this with the bus company in advance.
Tips for both modes of travel
- Tickets: Check if there are discounted fares for passengers with disabilities and their companions.
- Stop announcements: Modern trains and buses often have visual and audio stop announcements. If not, you can request the driver or conductor to inform you of your stop.
- Travel during off-peak times: If possible, travel during off-peak hours when trains and buses are less crowded, making it easier to board and disembark.
Major train and bus line mobility device policies
|Link to policy
|Offers accessible seating, restrooms, bedrooms, and boarding assistance
|Amtrak accessibility policy
|Provides wheelchair lifts on most buses and priority seating for passengers with disabilities
|Greyhound accessibility policy
|Equipped with wheelchair lifts and designated seating. Must book 48 hours in advance for accessibility services
|Megabus accessibility policy
|VIA Rail (Canada)
|Offers accessible cabins, priority boarding, and other services for passengers with reduced mobility.
|VIA Rail accessibility policy
|National Express (UK)
|Provides wheelchair lifts, assistance for boarding and alighting, and designated spaces for wheelchairs.
|National Express accessibility policy
|Provides assistance on boarding and deboarding trains; varies by country
|Eurail mobility services
Cruise travel with a mobility device
Modern cruise ships are increasingly accommodating, providing a range of amenities to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience for all. Here’s how to plan your cruise travel if you use a wheelchair, walker, or cane.
Finding wheelchair-accessible amenities
- Consult the accessibility department: Before booking, consult the cruise line’s accessibility department to discuss the offered amenities to ensure they meet your needs.
- Check the ship’s design: Newer, larger ships tend to be more accessible. They are often designed with accessibility in mind, as opposed to older ships that may have been retrofitted.
- Review onboard facilities: Look for features like ramps at bathroom entries, roll-in showers with fold-down benches, and designated wheelchair seating at theaters.
Booking a wheelchair-friendly room
- Early booking: Accessible staterooms are limited. Book at least a year in advance to secure the type of room you want, such as one with a balcony that is easily accessible.
- Check door widths: Ensure your scooter or wheelchair can fit through the stateroom door.
- Inquire about additional features: Some staterooms offer additional features like handheld showerheads and raised toilets.
- Emergency drills: Participate in the mandatory emergency drills and pay close attention to the procedures for those with mobility devices.
- Location of life jackets: Know the location of life jackets that are accessible to you. Emergency contacts: Keep a list of emergency contacts and any other necessary medical information readily available.
- Onboard medical services: Inquire about the ship’s onboard medical team and the services they provide.
Choosing itineraries and excursions
- Tender ports: Some ports require the use of small boats, known as tenders, to reach the shore. These tenders may not accommodate motorized wheelchairs or scooters.
- Accessible excursions: The selection of wheelchair-accessible excursions may be limited. Some cruise lines may not post all accessible shore excursions until after you depart.
- Weather and tidal conditions: These can affect the ability to transfer from one moving vessel to another. Always check with the cruise line first.
- Travel agent: Consider hiring a travel agent who specializes in accessible travel. They can guide you through various cruise options tailored to your needs.
- Medical equipment: If you would like to rent medical equipment, make arrangements in advance.
- Transportation and excursions: Some cruise lines offer extra assistance with transportation and excursions for people that use wheelchairs.
Major cruise line mobility device policies
|Link to policy
|Provides accessible cabins and public areas; also offers equipment rentals
|Carnival accessibility policy
|Offers accessible staterooms and assistance with transportation and excursions
|Celebrity accessibility policy
|Provides accessible staterooms and amenities; also offers sign language interpreters
|Holland America accessibility policy
|Accessible staterooms are available; also offers visual and auditory aids
|Norwegian accessibility policy
|ADA-compliant; offers accessible staterooms and public areas
|Princess accessibility policy
|Complies with ADA; offers accessible staterooms and amenities like ramps and roll-in showers
|Royal Caribbean accessibility policy
Ranking cruise lines accessibility
You might be wondering which of the cruise lines on our list are the most accommodating to passengers with limited mobility and which might not have as many amenities. Ranking cruise lines based on their accessibility features can be subjective, as it often depends on individual needs and preferences. But based on general industry reputations and the range of accessible amenities offered, here’s a tentative ranking:
- Royal Caribbean: A cruise line known for its extensive range of accessible amenities, including spacious staterooms, roll-in showers, and a variety of accessible excursions. Their ships are often cited as some of the most accessible in the industry.
- Celebrity Cruises: A subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises also offers a wide range of accessible features, including assistance with transportation and excursions. Their newer ships are designed with accessibility in mind.
- Princess Cruises: Offering a good range of ADA-compliant staterooms and public areas, they also provide detailed information on the accessibility of their ships and ports, making it easier to plan your trip in advance.
- Norwegian Cruise Line: Providing accessible staterooms and visual and auditory aids, their range of accessible excursions may be limited compared to others on this list.
- Holland America: Known for their older demographic, they offer accessible staterooms and amenities, but their older ships may not be as accommodating as their newer ones.
- Carnival Cruise Line: While they do offer accessible cabins and public areas, their older ships may not be as accommodating as their newer vessels. Equipment rentals are included.
Other helpful resources
In addition to the websites already mentioned in this article, the following resources offer helpful information for those traveling with mobility devices:
- Scootaround: For renting mobility equipment
- Special Needs Group/Special Needs at Sea: Wheelchair, powerchair, and scooter rentals, especially for cruises
- Mobility International USA: Provides resources and tips for international travel with limited mobility
- Wheelchair Travel: Offers comprehensive guides and tips for wheelchair users who love to travel
- Disabled World: Provides a variety of travel resources, including airline and cruise information for travelers with disabilities
- Rick Hansen Foundation: Offers a variety of resources, including a section on accessible travel
- Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH): Provides resources for planning accessible vacations, including travel agents specializing in accessible travel
- Paralyzed Veterans of America: Offers a variety of resources, including a section on accessible travel
- Travel For All: Global accessible travel specialists
- Easy Access Travel: Specializes in cruise vacations and packaged land tours to accessible destinations
- Wheel the World: Comprehensive travel guide geared towards older adults traveling with wheelchairs
Embarking on a journey with a mobility device may seem challenging, but with the right planning and preparation, you can experience a trip of a lifetime. From air travel and road trips to train journeys and cruises, many options are available to make your travels simple. The key is to research and consult with service providers well in advance to ensure all of your specific needs are met. Whether it’s securing an accessible room on a cruise ship or understanding your rights under the ACAA, knowledge is your greatest asset. So, don’t let mobility challenges hold you back. With today’s advancements in accessibility and a little proactive planning, you can set sail, hit the open road, or soar through the skies with confidence.
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- Global Coalition on Aging. Destination Healthy Aging: The Physical, Cognitive, and Social Benefits of Travel. Found on the internet at https://globalcoalitiononaging.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/destination-healthy-aging-white-paper_final-web.pdf
- Sehgal, Mandi, et al. Mobility Assistive Device Use in Older Adults. American Family Physician. June 15, 2021. Found on the internet at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34128609/
- Adaptive Living Guide. 10 Tips for Travelers with Limited Mobility. Found on the internet at https://www.mobility-advisor.com/travelers-with-limited-mobility.html
- U.S Department of Transportation. About the Air Carrier Access Act. Oct. 2, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities