New Horizons: Tips for Traveling with a Wheelchair

man in wheelchair on the beach

Traveling in a wheelchair through our less-than-fully-accessible world can be frustrating. For example, the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, released by the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection, said that on average, U.S.-based airlines damaged 28 wheelchairs per day in 2021. Accessibility at hotels, restaurants, theme parks, and attractions can vary widely, to say the least.

And yet, devoted travelers say all their efforts are well worth the rewards.

The Truth About Travel

Cory Woodard is a Digital Marketing Specialist for Sunrise Medical, manufacturer of complex power and manual wheelchairs sold worldwide. But you might know him from his popular and award-winning “Curb Free with Cory Lee” blog and social media platforms, where he shares his travel adventures.

“I’ve traveled to all seven continents and 39 countries in the past eight years since launching my blog,” said Woodard, who has spinal muscular atrophy and took his first trip — to Walt Disney World — in his first power wheelchair at age 4. “And there are certainly some ‘travel truths’ that I’ve learned along the way.

Cory Lee Woodard in Costa Rica

COSTA RICA: PHOTO COURTESY CORY WOODARD

Cory Lee Woodard explores La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

“The number one thing, in my opinion anyway, is to keep a positive attitude… no matter what. I’ve had my wheelchair damaged during flights, arrived at hotels to be told that they actually didn’t have an accessible room, and I’ve even been hospitalized after fracturing my skull while on a trip in New Mexico. But through it all, I’ve tried to stay positive. It’s important to always remember that for every problem, there is a solution. You just have to be willing to keep a positive attitude and be your own advocate. Being upset or angry helps no one, but by remaining calm, looking for a solution, and staying optimistic, you can still have a fun and memorable trip 99 percent of the time.”

Woodard is honest about the challenges of wheelchair travel, but believes the benefits far outweigh any hassles.

“I want to be a lifelong learner and honestly, I feel like I’ve learned more from traveling than I ever did in school, including college,” he said. “Being on the road can teach you a lot, and it’s quite literally changed my life. I grew up in a rural town in the state of Georgia, and it wasn’t until I started traveling that I realized just how remarkable this planet is.

“Traveling has made me a more empathetic person, and I think that empathy is the greatest asset that anyone can have. If everyone on this planet had a passport and could travel internationally at least once, I really believe that we would be living in a different, and much kinder, world.”

Being a Prepared Traveler

Cory Woodard in Jerusalem

WESTERN WALL: PHOTO COURTESY CORY WOODARD

Cory Woodard visits the Western Wall, located in Jerusalem.

Woodard has an adventurous spirit when it comes to travel, but he also has learned how to improve his chances of having a smooth trip.

“Transportation is always the first thing that I research when I’m planning any trip,” he said. “If I didn’t research accessible transportation beforehand, flew to a destination, and then arrived only to discover that the destination had no accessible transportation options, I’d be stuck at the airport for the remainder of that trip with no way to leave or get to my hotel. So, I always make sure that there are ample ways for me to get around within the destination before I plan to actually travel.

“To find out about accessibility information in destinations, I rely on other accessible travel blogs and Web sites, including LiveQuickie.com, and Facebook groups. One of my favorite Facebook groups is Accessible Travel Club, because it has over 13,000 members and for almost any destination I want to visit, some other wheelchair user has already been there and is willing to share their input in that group.”

Sylvia Longmire has not only traveled the world while in a wheelchair — she frequently travels solo, and she’s worked as a travel agent, specializing in accessible travel. Her newest book, What Happened to You? A Solo Wheelchair Travel Memoir (available for purchase on Amazon.com), is both an official record of where she’s been, and a deeply personal account of the people she’s met and truths she’s learned from traveling.

While criss-crossing the globe — more than 50 countries visited, more than half of them while flying solo — Longmire, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, has had plenty of opportunities to hone her travel-planning skills.

Sylvia Longmire in Venice Italy

VENICE: PHOTO BY SYLVIA LONGMIRE;

Sylvia Longmire in St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy.

“The sad part is that it takes me probably three to four times as long to plan for a trip as it does for a non-disabled person,” she said. “I often work in reverse. Some people do the flights first, then they’ll do the hotel, then they’ll do the reservations for sights and attractions. I have to work backwards.”

That means starting by checking our her destination, Longmire noted: “Let’s say, Paris,” she said, as an example. “The first thing I’m going to do if I want to go to Paris is to research: Is there anything for me to do there? Is the Louvre accessible, is the Eiffel Tower accessible? Is there enough there that I can do to make it worth the hassle of getting there?

“Some people say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Nope! For me, the journey sucks; it’s all about the destination! If there’s a lot to do, awesome.”

Step two: “Is there a way for me to get to those places? So, transportation is next. I can have accessible things to do, I can have a great hotel room, and I can have an easy flight. But if I don’t have a way to get from the airport to the hotel, or the hotel to these sights, then it doesn’t do me any good to go there. So transportation is #2, and that can be accessible taxis or public transportation. It could be an accessible tour company that has a van. I have to find one of those things.

“Then the next thing is the hotels. Is the hotel within rolling distance of many of those places, or is it near a metro station or a bus stop? Is it convenient in that regard? And then, especially if it’s in a foreign country, is the accessibility good enough that I know I can stay there without it being regulated by something like the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]?”

Consulting with the Professionals

Finally, Longmire tackles the flights. “The last thing I do is look at the airlines with a heavy bias toward direct flights, which from Orlando [Fla.] can sometimes happen, but not always. If I can’t get a direct flight, where is it convenient to me to have a layover with regards to the time of the layover, and the weather?”

Because of the possibility of bad weather — and potentially being stranded in an airport — Longmire said she rarely travels during winter. She prefers the time savings and convenience of direct or non-stop flights, and also looks for accommodations that are roomier. “I fly premium economy or better because it’s going to be more comfortable for me,” she said. “As somebody with spasticity issues, I need to have more space. I cannot do 12 hours in coach.”

Cover of Sylvia Longmire book - What Happened To You

BOOK IMAGE COURTESY SYLVIA LONGMIRE

Given how much pre-trip planning is typically involved, does Longmire use a travel agency to help out?

“If it’s a place that I can travel [to] independently, then I’ll do it myself,” she said of making reservations. “But if it’s a place where I don’t know the lay of the land, if it’s a foreign country — I will usually pay an accessible tour company to arrange all my stuff. If they can arrange my hotel, arrange my transportation, arrange my tickets and itinerary — I would be like, ‘Take my money and do all the work,’ because it’s a pain. Especially if it’s in a country where I’m not familiar, I’m not going to do it.”

Accessibility, as well as potential language challenges, ultimately determines when Longmire will consult with travel professionals. “The more challenging the accessibility, the more I will rely on a local company to do the legwork for me. But I can go to London, I can go to Spain, Canada, Australia — there are some places I can do myself.

“China was difficult. I was able to get a local tour company to help me with some of the tours, but when I got there, the people in the hospitality sector speak English, but other than that, like in Shanghai, nobody speaks English because nobody has to. Maybe in the financial sector they might, or if they have a lot of international visitors, but — everybody who goes to Disneyland in Shanghai [is] from China. I was very often the only American, the only Westerner, in all of Shanghai. So that was a big challenge. But in Europe, anybody and everybody in tourism speaks English. I know a few words here and there, so I can get by. My French is okay, my Italian not so okay, but good enough. And I speak fluent Spanish.”

Many Challenges, Many Rewards

Despite significant challenges to traveling in a wheelchair, Longmire said the sights she’s seen — and more importantly, the people she’s met — are why she keeps venturing out.

“Obviously, I love seeing the sights, seeing the tulips outside of Amsterdam, or the Parthenon or Iceland and the glaciers,” she said. “I published my solo wheelchair travel memoir last spring, and the common thread was my interactions with the people. That’s the great thing about solo travel: If you’re traveling with somebody else, you’re generally talking to the people you’re traveling with, and when you interact with the locals, it’s often on a tour.

“But when you’re traveling by yourself, you have no one else to talk to. I’m a social person and I like to meet the locals, and as a solo wheelchair user, people are curious about me. People want to know why I look perfectly healthy, and yet I’m in this space-age chair — and what am I doing by myself? I get to interact and ask questions and learn so much about some very colorful and interesting characters in different countries. That’s what makes the experience unique.”

Woodard echoed the opinion that traveling is a particularly wonderful form of education. “Is traveling as a wheelchair user exhausting at times?” he asked. “Absolutely! But I know what’s waiting for me on the other end of every flight, and I constantly look forward to learning more and sharing with others, so that’s why I continue to travel.”

He suggested that novice travelers start with more modest itineraries. “I would encourage them to start traveling locally and then work their way up to bigger — maybe international — trips. By doing a staycation or weekend getaway just a couple hours away, you can learn how to book accessible hotels, how to plan which attractions to visit, etc.

“After doing these smaller, more local trips a few times, you should start to feel more comfortable with the idea of traveling further. I’ll be the first to admit that traveling as a wheelchair user comes with its challenges and can be nerve-wracking, so having the confidence to travel is key.”

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