Ultimate Guide to Wheelchair-Friendly, Accessible Travel
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Ultimate Guide to Wheelchair-Friendly, Accessible Travel

06 December 2016

A view of famous sites from your wheelchair

The travel industry is a mind-bogglingly, monolithic business, demonstrated by the fact that UK residents spent a staggering £6.1 billion abroad in August 2016. The Office For National Statistics has estimated that from August 2015 to August 2016, residents of the UK visited overseas 68.4million times.

And yet, with all this money floating around within the industry, some demographics must continue to strive for a consistently efficient service. One of these is people with disabilities. The Papworth Trust states that “disabled people travel 33% less often than the general public”, and a lot of this is due to anxieties over the access and frequency of public transport.

According to the latest disability figures for the UK, there are roughly 11.9 million disabled people in the country, with 1.2 million of them being wheelchair users. The aim of this guide, therefore, is to provide a fair reflection of what it means to travel when you are reliant upon a wheelchair. Be that in the UK or overseas, including what approaches you can take to make life easier.

Obviously, it is very easy for the non-disabled to take everyday activities and processes for granted. Preparing to travel and the organisation involved can be taxing enough if you do not have a disability, but for wheelchair users there are plenty of extra considerations to take into account when planning for your trip away.

Considerations Before You Travel

  • How flat is the area you plan to visit?
  • If you have any medicinal requirements, be sure to have a note from your Doctor and to keep this with your travel documents. It’s also best to keep medicine within their original packaging.
  • Don’t leave home without travel insurance, check around for the best and most comprehensive available.
  • Are there disabled rooms available at your prospective accommodation? If so, get confirmation of door widths to be sure that your wheelchair will be able to navigate them. (It’s advisable to get this confirmed in an email to avoid any issues).
  • Try and secure a room on the lowest floor in case of any emergencies, as lifts will often be shut off in the event of a fire.
  • Make enquiries as to the availability of a roll-in shower and provisions for a compatible wheelchair.
  • Be aware of your storage needs whilst travelling, perhaps your wheelchair can be adapted to provide extra room for everything you need as you explore.

Professional Support

It’s clear from researching the travel industry for wheelchair users, that there are several reputable operators available these days. This means that a lot of the stress of organising a trip abroad should be negated by the expertise and experience of the following specialist travel companies:

Accessible Travel

Enable Holidays

Disabled Access Holidays

Disabled Holidays

GoAfrica Safaris

The UK and Europe

In the UK, disability rights are based upon the Equality Act 2010 and you can find out more about this by following the link. Europe is generally improving accessibility for travellers with limited mobility and this is reflected in the European Accessibility Act, which was proposed by the European Commission in 2015.

Wheelchair on a plane

Wheelchair Travel by Plane

-To improve the comfort and convenience of your flight, do what you can to book a seat with extra leg room and next to the window.

-It’s best to be cautious to avoid any last-minute stresses. So, at least 48 hours in advance, be sure to inform the airline that you’re travelling with about the nature of your disability and what support you may need.

-When it comes to European airports, there are procedures in place to help ensure that you receive help with arrival points, checking-in, registration and navigating through the airport itself.

-Unfortunately it isn’t possible to take your own wheelchair into a plane passenger cabin, instead it will reside in the hold. You’ll need to speak with your airline operator to establish how they will assist with your boarding, and be sure to ask about their ‘lifting policy’ if you think this will be required.

-As an aside to your usual baggage allowance, you can take 2 items of mobility equipment with you, for no extra charge. When checking in you should ask them to ‘gate-check’ your wheelchair, so that it is reunited with you as soon as you disembark.

-If your wheelchair is battery-powered, then it’s recommended to inform all the relevant parties as soon as possible.

-If you require help with feeding, breathing, using medication or the toilet, then a travelling companion is a stipulation. As long as your airline are aware of this with (at least) 48 hours warning, then every effort will be made to sit you together.

Wheelchair on a ship

Wheelchair Travel by Ship

-As with planes, if you are travelling from or to a port in the EU, or on a local service within the EU, help should be provided. Still, you are recommended to research where you plan to stop off and to ask about tender ports.

-Forewarn the cruise liner or ferry service by at least 48 hours if you require assistance with getting on and off their transport, need any specific arrangements, or will be travelling with a carer.

-Bear in mind that cabins are often smaller than your standard hotel room, so you will need to enquire about wheelchair-accessible rooms and other guidelines for storage etc.

Wheelcair on a train

Wheelchair Travel by Train (in the UK)

-As with planes, it is advised to give the train service that you plan to use advanced warning of your travel plans if you require staff assistance.

-On mainline trains there is space set aside for your wheelchair, but this may require some forward-planning on busy routes.

-The Disabled People’s Protection Policy (DPPP) is a requirement of all UK train and station operators. It’s available for you to see how they will help disabled passengers and protect your right to travel.

-Get savings on rail tickets with the disabled person’s railcard, which can get you up to 1/3 off the price.

Wheelchair in a taxi

Wheelchair Travel by Car, Bus, Coach or Taxi (in the UK)

-If you can drive, then you’ll know about the availability of a Blue Badge. And if your condition changes in a ‘notifiable’ way, you must let the DVLA know so that they can re-assess your driving licence.

-On the other hand, if you use a mobility scooter or powered wheelchair, then there is no need for a licence. However, you must check on whether this form of transport needs to be registered, and if it is allowed on the road.

-As a disabled person, you are entitled to a free bus pass and can find out more about these and how to get one by contacting your local council.

-When travelling on a coach or bus, the law stipulates that drivers must give reasonable assistance to disabled people. This applies to providing ramps etc, rather than physically helping a passenger and/or their equipment.

-Typically, larger cities require licensed taxis to provide wheelchair access. But this does vary and to be sure you should get in touch with the ‘taxi licensing office’ at your local council.

A global wheelchair

Wheelchair Travel Around the World

You’ll notice that the advice for travelling by train and road, is based only upon what to expect as a wheelchair user in the UK. The difficulty when it comes to travelling overseas, is in establishing what support there is available, and the best advice is to contact companies/operators directly and to not make any assumptions.

Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need, and to be specific. After all, it is imperative to know if they really do have the facilities available to accommodate your needs, rather than just a vague promise of being accessible.

-In the US, the Americans With Disabilities Act has been in place since 1990 and amended twice since. They are also one of the 160 countries that are signatories of the UN Disabilities Treaty (although ratification of this varies).

-When it comes to experiencing the wonders of South East Asia and India, there are far fewer provisions in place for people with disabilities, and this will make travelling for wheelchair users more taxing. Thus, you’re likely to find access somewhat limited at times, e.g. hotels and pavements can be difficult to navigate, whilst disabled toilets are not too common.

-Africa is the second largest continent in the World, and most information initially available for travellers with disabilities is focused on South Africa or safari trips in East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya etc). However, with a bit more searching it soon becomes apparent that there are also providers for countries in North Africa, such as Tunisia and Morocco.

-Similarly, South America is generally not set up well for disability access. However, the more modernised countries and well-developed sites should be more accommodating. This particularly applies to the major cities of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, are making strides to improve disability rights in general.

In simple terms, the more off the beaten track that you go, be that in less-developed parts of the world or different cultures, the fewer facilities you can expect. Then again travellers have noted how helpful locals often are, and so if you’re willing or able to accept some uncertainty, it’s possible to enjoy your time away in remote places.

Final Thoughts

It’s clear that, within reason, travelling around the EU, Australia and North America, should be relatively easy. There are many safeguards and expectations in place for the disabled traveller in these areas.

Once you start exploring Africa and South America things can become a lot patchier. The same applies to Asia, where there will be striking differences between Russia, South East Asia and the Middle East. However, this certainly shouldn’t discourage you; it may at times be a challenge, but it’s perfectly achievable to gain access to the incredible sights these continents offer.

Your number one priority should be to research everything thoroughly, and to plan ahead. As mentioned before don’t ever be afraid to ask, if you’re going to have the holiday of a lifetime then you need to be confident and assured about what you are doing.

Other Useful Links:

Gov Guidance for Disable People & Foreign Travel


Disability Rights UK

Wheelchair Travel Blog

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