Road Trip 101: Accessible Travel Tips from Two Experts
Barbara and Jim Twardowski are travel writers who specialize in writing about accessible travel. Barbara is a wheelchair user, and Jim is a full-time nurse. They have been published in AAA Home & Away, Global Traveler, Forbes.com, AARP.com and more.
When traveling, we resemble the family from the old Beverly Hillbillies sitcom. While we do not have a rocking chair precariously strapped to the roof of our accessible van, we do pack an assortment of bulky oh-so-necessary items.
Besides the mandatory suitcase, ice chest and pillows, our vehicle is loaded down with a manual wheelchair, transfer board, bathtub bench, and portable ramp. Try getting all that gear on a plane! Because I use an electric wheelchair, our family prefers driving to flying.
Our van and my wheelchair have been modified, allowing me to be the front seat passenger or the driver. Hand controls, wheelchair locks, and an automatic opening side passenger door with a ramp provide independence and comfort. With the touch of a button, the van lowers itself and a ramp extends out the doors. I can remain in my wheelchair - there's none of the awkward transferring required when boarding an airplane.
For nearly a decade, we have been writing about wheelchair accessible travel. Our road trips have taken us to Washington, D.C. at Christmas, Orlando in the summer, New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Minneapolis in May and many other popular destinations. After logging all those miles, we've picked up more than a few tips for making travel as stress-free as possible.
When and Where to Go
Take short excursions close to home before embarking on a lengthy cross-country trek.
Travel during the low or "shoulder" season (in between the high and low season). Most places are less crowded and the prices more affordable.
Consider the ages, interests and physical stamina of every family member. When our son was young, we frequently vacationed in a condo on the beach a short three-hour drive away. As he grew, we added natural science museums, historical sites, and theaters to our list of outings. Now, most of our vacations are to major cities. We also plan our trips according to the weather - avoiding snow whenever possible.
Organize trips around favorite activities. Our family's itinerary almost always includes seeing theatrical productions and art museums. Whatever your passion - from jazz to Civil War reenactments - there is bound to be an event that is worth the drive.
Predetermine the accessibility level of the places you want to see. Check out convention and visitors bureau websites, guidebooks and travel magazines for inspiration.
Allow time to rest, relax and rejuvenate. Take advantage of interesting sights and stop to explore. Keep the hours on the road to a manageable number - especially if only one person is driving. We've driven ten or more hours in a day, but it is exhausting. When going someplace new, leave early and arrive before nightfall. Nothing is more frustrating than hunting for a hotel in the dark.
Before Leaving Home
Plan your route. Even if you're not a member (although we highly recommend it) go to AAA.The AAA Trip Tik Planner allows users to plot trips with multiple destinations. Invest in a GPS, but be aware that it is not always accurate. Stop at state visitor information centers for a map or buy one before leaving home. Review routes online using Google Maps (click on Directions" and download the app for up-to-the-minute traffic information on your cell phone.
Stock the car with a first aid kit, hand wipes, flashlight, water, blanket, and an umbrella or rain poncho.
Make a list of what to pack and check off items as they are stowed in the suitcase or car (Keep the list stored with your suitcase and use it for each trip). It's so easy to forget the phone or wheelchair charger in the rush to hit the road.
Bring a manual wheelchair in addition to a power chair. A manual can fit easier in tight quarters and for navigating streets that lack curb cuts. A portable ramp can come in handy, as can a transfer board.
Inspect your vehicle and wheelchair for any routine maintenance checks.
Bathrooms and Breaks
Find a family or unisex bathroom in an unfamiliar town by stopping at hotels (look for newer buildings), malls, Starbucks and hospitals. Having a GPS can be extremely helpful when looking for the nearest bathroom. Two free apps, Toilet Finder and Sit or Squat, can be useful too.
Stop and stretch your legs. If you can stand or elevate your legs.
Drink plenty of fluids and carry a small ice chest in the car. Pack bottled water and healthy snacks.
Be attuned to the driver's needs. Stop early if he or she is tired. Take breaks to eat, but keep the meals high in protein and low in carbs to avoid feeling sleepy.
Where to Stay
Lodging close to attractions usually cost more, but the convenience of an accessible bathroom or the option of taking an afternoon nap may be worth the added expense.
Make reservations early as the number of accessible accommodations at any property is limited. Be specific about your needs. For example, state that you need a roll-in shower
When selecting hotels, compare amenities. A new, super-fast website, Room77, instantly searches rates and compares amenities at hundreds of hotels.
Traveling is fun. Seeing new places and getting away from the daily routine is exhilarating. What's your favorite road trip? Please add a comment below. We are always on the lookout for accessible destinations to explore.
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