A person with a disability may have a physical or mental impairment that impacts a major life activity – such as walking, hearing, or breathing. This may be on a permanent or temporary basis. For example, a person with a temporary disability may have a broken leg that is temporarily fused or immobilized. Airlines must accommodate the needs of air travelers with disabilities.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability. The Department of Transportation is responsible for enforcing the ACAA, which applies to all flights to, from, or within the United States.
Airlines are also required to provide passengers with disabilities many types of assistance, including wheelchair or other guided assistance to board, deplane, or connect to another flight; seating accommodation assistance that meets passengers’ disability-related needs; and assistance with the loading and stowing of assistive devices.
DOT has developed a series of disability-related training materials to assist passengers traveling with disabilities better understand their rights. To learn more about traveling on an aircraft with a disability please select one of the topics below:
If you feel that an airline has discriminated against you on the basis of your disability, which includes not providing you required accommodations, you may file a complaint with the DOT.
Other Helpful Travel Information:
- What to Do If You Encounter A Problem While Traveling
- Travel Tips for Persons with Disabilities
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (formerly known as the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings) and Office of Transportation Policy have developed informative modular programs that can be used to assist individuals with disabilities and to supplement the training and education of airline employees and contractors. The programs focus on the rights and responsibilities of individuals and airlines under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and its implementing regulation, 14 CFR Part 382 and were produced in cooperation with stakeholders from both the disability community and airline industry. Although many of the programs have an intended audience, we believe that all of the content is helpful for any passenger, airline employee, or contractor.
Individual program content is available by selecting the icon below:
Wheelchair and Guided Assistance
The ABCs of Accessible Travel. A tri-fold brochure and digital content that provide important information to individuals with disabilities who are traveling onboard an aircraft.
Wheelchair and Guided Assistance Tips. A wheelchair and guided assistance tip sheet and digital content that explain how to properly assist individuals who need wheelchair and guided assistance at airports.
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Book flights well in advance and call the airline directly to ensure that all disability-related needs will be met. Ask for the name and position of each person you speak with and record this information.
Make arrangements for travel to and from airports. Many U.S. companies like taxis and airport shuttles offer this service free of charge. Make these arrangements well in advance along with your flight arrangements to avoid frustration upon arrival and departure.
Arrive at the airport one hour earlier than normally advised. This will allow time for accommodations to be made and avoid delays through security.
Consider varying the lengths of your flights depending on disability-related needs. Long flights may be uncomfortable, especially for people who cannot use inaccessible airplane toilets. Shorter connecting flights may be a better alternative.
Allow at least 90 minutes between connecting flights (or longer if required to pass through immigration and customs during a layover) in order to ensure enough time to transfer between gates.
Try to investigate the layout and access features of all of the airports along your route even if you’re only expecting a short layover and consider possible contingency plans if access is unavailable. A bedpan or urinal in your carry-on luggage just might save the day if you are a wheelchair user.
Ask for assistance and be specific on how to be lifted if needed in enplaning and deplaning, including assistance beyond the screener checkpoints and between connecting gates but keep track of your luggage if going through customs.
Request that an unticketed individual assist you through security to your boarding gate, if needed, by going to the airline’s check-in desk and receiveing a “pass” allowing them to go through the screener checkpoint without a ticket.
Set up special dietary requirements or need for assistance at meals (airline personnel are not permitted to assist with eating, but should assist with opening packages and identifying food items on a meal tray).
Request a specific seat in advance such as the bulkhead seat (first row in a section) if needed for wheelchair transfer, a physical condition, or for your service animal. Be aware that not all seats have moveable armrests.
Research online information about border patrol and customs screening at the airport and if you have difficulty communicating explain what would be helpful for them to do related to your disability (e.g. writing on piece of paper their questions).
Learn other tips and about your rights when flying in the Table of Contents and Related Links.
There’s no reason for a family member with a permanent or temporary physical limitation to stay home during a trip. Accessible travel is more popular than ever and with proper planning.
Plan in Advance
Whether you’re traveling with someone with a permanent or temporary physical disability, the challenges remain the same. The U.S. Department of State is a good general resource, while The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) details what accommodations should be made. Even though U.S. hotels, transportation, and cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters are required to be ADA-compliant, don’t assume that the foreign equivalent will be. If transportation, a cruise, hotel, or other lodging (such as Airbnb) isn’t ADA-compliant, call ahead to discuss what accommodations can be made.
Other planning resources include Mobility International USA, which has helpful articles on charging wheelchair batteries and taking a service animal abroad. Curb Free with Cory Lee blogs about traveling the world in a wheelchair, and is a comprehensive guide to everything from the most accessible destinations to the pros and cons of bringing a wheelchair.
Try to Replicate the Home Routine
Make Sure Travel Insurance Includes Medical
Use a Specialized Travel Agent or Company
Nowadays, everywhere from Bali and Turkey to Russia and India are accessible for independent and group travelers with physical limitations. A knowledgeable agent can craft an itinerary that works for everyone, advise on whether or not a hotel is fully accessible, and arrange private transportation in a less accessible destination. Holtz says he’s taken people to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and more, and made adjustments in places that aren’t ADA-compliant, such as modifying rooms by adding grab bars in the shower. Agents also have firsthand knowledge of accessible destinations. For example, Holtz says London and Barcelona are among his top picks for independent accessible travel. Both cities are sensitive to special needs since each hosted the Olympics and Paralympics. Further, all cabs are accessible in London. Holtz says Italy is popular for group travel, “but you really have to know what you’re doing.” He notes that even Venice is accessible if planned right, since it has accessible wheelchair boats—plus an accessible Gondola just opened this year.
In addition to Flying Wheels Travel, other companies that run trips for those in wheelchairs include Accessible Journeys. The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality is another resource for finding agents and companies.
Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
Arrange Accessible Accommodation
Arrange Assistance While Flying
Holtz says to allow at least two hours for domestic and connecting flights, and three hours for international flights. He also recommends arranging wheelchair assistance with the airline ahead of time, and double check 48 hours beforehand. At the airport, remind the check-in counter that you need wheelchair assistance. Holtz says family members should allow assistance, since agents can help with luggage and get everyone through security faster. At the very least, review TSA guidelines for special procedures. Remind the gate agent that you need assistance so that everyone in your group can preboard.
If someone is traveling with their own wheelchair, Holtz says to remove and take everything from the wheelchair that could fall off and get lost during storage, including the foot rest, head rest, and any cushions. On board, every U.S. airline that seats more than 60 and is equipped with an accessible bathroom is required to have an aisle wheelchair. Holtz suggests always requesting an aisle seat close to the bathroom. Finally, he notes that those in wheelchairs are last off the plane, so factor in that time and allow help through customs, if applicable.
Decide Whether to Bring or Borrow a Wheelchair
Take Advantage of Discounts
For example, Amtrak offers discounts (from 15%-50%) to wheelchair users and a travel companion. You must show proof of your disability, such as a doctor’s note or transit ID card; visit the site for a full list of approved documents. Reduced fares for those with physical limitations are also available on buses (such as Greyhound) and trains both here and abroad, including Japan, London, Singapore and more.
The National Park Service Access Pass is free for U.S. citizens with permanent disabilities and grants access to any of the national parks, monuments, historic sites, and more. Museums, zoos, and theme parks are some other attractions that typically offer discounts.
Don’t Forget the Needs of the Caregiver
If a wheelchair user is in a manual (as opposed to an electric) wheelchair, Holtz says the needs of the caregiver pushing that person are often forgotten. He advises against seeing too much in one day to account for the stamina of both people. Holtz also advises considering the amount of care someone needs, which affects how much energy the caregiver has to expend. For example, if the caregiver has to get up early to help the person in a wheelchair get ready, then both people might need a nap in the afternoon.
Flying Wheels Travel offers travel companions on both independent and group tours, which gives the caretaker or spouse a vacation as well.
5 Best Accessible Holiday Destinations for People with Disabilities
Having specific requirements for accessibility shouldn’t rule out adventurous overseas travel. As more and more operators focus on inclusivity, particularly smaller companies, there is a wealth of choice in disability-friendly tours and travel destinations.
Of course, having mobility or other needs can make it more complicated to choose a travel itinerary. Starting with where to go. Should you choose somewhere touristy that may be developed for the needs of disabled people? Or somewhere off the beaten track where you will encounter locals eager to help travellers with any issues they may have? How do you pick the ideal place for some much-needed rest and relaxation?
Here are some ideas for short- and long-hall breaks for people with disabilities, from Europe to the Americas and further afield.
Slovenia is an overlooked destination for overseas travel, especially when you consider accessibility requirements. But the country is blessed with striking and picturesque locations that are also particularly suited to people with limited mobility. The highlights include Ljubljana, Lake Bled, the Slovenian seaside and skiing in the Julian Alps. Feel NoLimits Tours are among the specialised travel operators that take small groups on guided trips into this fascinating country.
Does it feel like everything is off limits when you think about travel with a disability? Then you probably never considered Antarctica as a destination. It’s not the first place that comes to mind. Yet this is a wonderful location to experience the wilderness in safety and comfort. Wheelchair-adapted cruise ships provide accessibility between floors, and access to the land excursions. Anyone can enjoy sailing over the frozen waters surrounding this beautiful continent.
Another European favourite, Croatia offers spectacular islands and a varied coastline, and plenty of opportunities to experience the landscape and culture whatever your abilities. There are tour operators offering activity breaks including river rafting and cycling. Or you can take it at a slower pace and explore from the luxury of a cruise.
This is another destination that appears to be out of the reach of anyone but the hardiest of travellers. However, Alaska presents no barriers to exploring, trekking, cruising, or camping – the wide open spaces lend themselves to accessibility. Whatever your needs, you can find a tour company that will cater to you.
Further afield, the varied and exciting terrain of Vietnam is ripe for exploration. Plenty of hotels and transport options have been adapted to people with varying mobility needs, and you can also find holidays with a focus on the outdoors or on quieter, more cultural activities.
If you’re inspired to try a new destination on your next trip, these suggestions will start the planning process. When searching for a suitable holiday location, consider the transport options in and to the destination, as well as how easy it is to access restaurants, shops, and cultural sites. Small-group and family-run tour operators provide the attention to detail you need when planning a trip with additional needs.
The CDC found that one in four American adults have a physical and/or mental disability. That’s 61 million Americans.
The chances of working with clients that have a disability are high, and the question is, are you prepared to handle their travel needs?
Unless you grew up with a disability yourself or had a close family member with a disability, it may feel like a difficult task to understand all of the challenges that travelers with disabilities face and what they need from you as a travel agent to make their vacation enjoyable.
We spoke with Craig Kennedy who works as a disability consultant and trainer with the Open Doors Organization, which has conducted studies on travelers with disabilities (most recently in 2015).
He boasts more than 20 years of experience in the disability travel and tourism sector, and as the co-founder of Access Anything, we couldn’t have found a better person to discuss how travel agents can better help travelers with disabilities.
TravelPulse: What are the biggest obstacles that travelers with disabilities (physical and/or mental) may face?
PHOTO: Woman with visual impairment receives assistance to disembark a plane. (photo via iStock / Getty Images Plus / SolStock)
Kennedy: The biggest obstacles that travelers with disabilities face are typically related to physical access, lack of accurate accessibility information and problems with air travel. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is almost 30 years old, travelers with disabilities often run into physical barriers in transportation, lodging and tourist attractions.
For instance, hotel shuttles from airports are rarely accessible and in many places, it is very difficult to find a service who can transport a power wheelchair. If you stick to the big hotel chains, lodging is usually a good experience, but finding a well-designed roll-in shower, even in the major hotel chains, can be a challenge.
And, while air travel is still the preferred method of travel for the general public, people with disabilities often prefer to take their own vehicle as many have had a bad experience while traveling by air. Most of these issues are centered around broken or damaged mobility equipment.
TravelPulse: What are some ways in which tourism boards, tour companies, airlines, hotels are working toward being inclusive of travelers with differing abilities?
Kennedy: Traveling with a disability has definitely improved over the past decade. More and more hotel chains are focusing on the needs of their guests with disabilities with amenities such as pool lifts, open frame beds and better-designed rooms that feature lowered closets and roll-in showers.
Airlines are slowly getting better at accommodating travelers with disabilities as well. Most major airlines now have some sort of disability advisory board made up of people with different types of disabilities who work directly with the airline to improve policies and procedures.
In addition, Open Doors Organization (ODO) has been doing disability training and consulting with domestic and foreign carriers for almost 20 years to make sure that goods and services are accessible.
PHOTO: Not all hotels offer accessible showers. (Photo via iStock / Getty Images Plus / MartinPrescott)
The next big step is to get more buy-in from the state tourism boards in order to start advertising to the disability market which represents almost one-fifth of our population and is the largest untapped tourism market in the world.
We’ve been working with I LOVE NY, New York State’s Division of Tourism, on an accessible tourism initiative, and we at ODO hope that this will be the impetus for other states to follow suit.
TravelPulse: Do you have any advice for travel agents on how they might best discuss a traveler’s abilities and how it may relate to their trip?
Kennedy: The best advice I can give to travel agents is to make sure they get as much information from potential customers about their specific needs as they can.
If clients are hesitant to share certain information, make sure to assure them that the more information they have the better they can assist them. Just don’t ever assume that you know what is best for them. Always ask lots of questions because the person with the disability is the expert on what they need!
TravelPulse: Any tips for travel agents to consider when booking a traveler who has disabilities trip?
Kennedy: The best thing to do is to call ahead and ask specific questions related to access. The main things to pay attention to are 1. Accessible parking and path of travel to get to and through the main entrance. 2. Accessible restroom availability. 3. General access to goods and services.
PHOTO: Wheelchair-user sleeping in a hotel room. (photo via iStock / Getty Images Plus / vadimguzhva )
And if the person you are talking to on the phone is “not sure” about access, I always ask them to go and measure the width of doorways and other basic things. And second, they need to look into what each attraction offers in the way of discounts. Many places offer discounts! Also look into what state or local government offers as far as free access to state and national parks, camping, fishing, transportation (paratransit), etc.
Public transportation is also better in some places than others so make sure to look into access to public transportation as many people with disabilities use this in their hometowns.
TravelPulse: What’s the most important thing a travel agent should consider when working with a client who has disabilities?
Kennedy: Two things come to mind. The first is that it is vitally important to provide accurate information to the client. If you don’t know that answer to something, don’t guess! Get the right information in place. And if you are not 100 percent sure of access somewhere, don’t say it is accessible.
The easiest way to ruin someone’s vacation is to give them inaccurate information. And if you feel like you are in over your head, then I would recommend sending the client to a disability-specific travel agent. There are lots of them out there!
Everything You Need to Know Before Arriving
When you think of our national parks, you might envision hiking through the woods, laughing around a campfire, swimming in a lake, or other iconic outdoor activities. But for people with disabilities, there’s much more to think about.
However, having a disability doesn’t have to hold you back from enjoying the country’s beautiful national parks. Many U.S. national parks offer programs designed for people with disabilities along with wheel-accessible activities and amenities. So before you set out on your great outdoor adventure, plan your trip by checking out these helpful tips on accessibility in the national parks.
Getting Into the National Parks
If you are disabled, you may be qualified to receive a free national parks entry pass. The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass is a lifetime pass offered to U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are permanently disabled, including children. Disabilities can include physical, mental, or sensory impairment. If you are partially disabled, however, you may not qualify. To receive a free access pass, the disability must be permanent and limit one or more major life activities.
The access pass offers the same benefits as a regular annual pass. It also may provide a discount on some amenity fees (e.g., camping, swimming, boat launching, and specialized interpretive services). The pass admits the pass owner plus any passengers traveling in the same vehicle. It can be used at more than 2,000 federal recreation sites including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests.
When applying for the pass, you will be asked to provide proof of residency or citizenship with photo identification, plus proof of permanent disability from one of the following:
- A statement by a licensed physician
- A document issued by a federal agency, such as the Veterans Affairs administration, Social Security Disability Income, or Supplemental Security Income; or a document issued by a state agency, such as a vocational rehabilitation agency
An access pass can be obtained in person from a participating federal recreation site or office. Examples include the following:
A pass can also be obtained by mail; however, there is a $10 application processing fee.
Before You Go
Before any trip, make sure you’ve done your research. Here are a few helpful tips to remember before traveling:
- Contact the park you wish to visit directly and speak with a ranger. He or she will be able to answer your questions and give you a better idea of what services and accommodations are available for those with disabilities.
- Check the calendar of events on the national park’s website to see if any special programs are scheduled for those with disabilities.
- Have a backup plan. It’s not always possible to secure a reservation for some campsites, so be sure to bring information for nearby hotels that are handicap accessible.
- Don’t try to do too much. Visitors can have a tendency to try to squeeze too many activities into a short amount of time. Be honest with how much time you have, how much extra time you may need, and how much energy you have.
A Vietnamese security guard shook his head as I approached the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on my blue mobility scooter. I knew what was coming next.
“You can’t take a motorized vehicle in,” our guide translated.
After negotiating for a few minutes, we ditched the scooter, and my dad scooped me onto his shoulders.
I have Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare, progressive neuromuscular disorder that causes the weakening of muscle cells, which makes it difficult to walk and nearly impossible to do most physical activity. As a result, I’ve had plenty of limitations traveling.
Traveling with a disability is not easy, but it should be enjoyed by everyone. This includes Americans who have trouble walking or are unable to walk, who make up 13.7 percent of the population, according to a 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I’ve managed to see 13 countries, 23 states and Puerto Rico, largely thanks to my dad. He has literally carried me through situations any able-bodied person would have difficulty with, whether it was down a waterfall in Argentina or up to the Great Wall of China. We started when I was 6 in Russia and haven’t stopped. I just turned 23.
Traveling is “a basic human right for inclusion and diversity,” said Brett Heising, founder of Brettapproved, a website that uses user-generated content to rate locations based on accessibility.
Still, traveling with a physical disability is a challenge. I’ve ridden a small, irritable donkey with no saddle up the cliffs of the Greek island of Santorini, persuaded Argentina’s government not to disassemble my mobility device, and navigated rough cobblestone in Italy and slippery rock stairs at Iguazu Falls, in Argentina. An elevator and low-grade ramp would have helped immensely. Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you need while traveling.
“For someone who is perfectly capable and normal, if travel [can be] enough of a pain point and heartache for them — imagine if you have different concerns?” says Aradhana Khowala, a steering-committee member for the World Tourism Forum Lucerne, which addresses the industry’s trends, future challenges and sustainability.
Getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing different places through travel has shaped my worldview and the way I interact with others. I hope to show those in similar situations that we are capable of seeing the globe. In interviews with travel experts and disabled globe-trotters, I’ve landed on a few tips that might make your next trip less stressful.
“Give as much info and do as much research ahead of time so you don’t put yourself in a bad situation,” says Eric Lipp, executive director for the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit that helps businesses serve the disabled community.
Short-term trips can already be challenging enough for people living with disabilities—what more if the trip spans two weeks or even longer?
A disability should not be a hindrance to traveling, regardless of how long the trip is. However, there are several things that people with disabilities (and their caregivers, if there are any) should be mindful of when taking a long trip. This includes special accommodation, potential airport issues, accessibility problems at tourist destinations, and more.
That said, here are some of the best ways people with disabilities can better prepare for a long-term trip:
Research local respite care services
Whether you are traveling with a caregiver or not, you may need respite care services at some point in your trip. Traveling, especially during an extended amount of time, can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. Thus, having someone to provide care, at least for a little while, can make it easier to keep going.
Before your departure, research local respite care services located at your destination. If you are traveling alone, having the contact information of a local service can make it easier to get immediate care. On the other hand, if you are traveling with a companion, respite care can give them a chance to rest from their responsibilities and go out on their own.
Contact all airports in advance
If you have to go through multiple airports during your trip, it is always a good idea to contact the airport in advance every time. This way, they can prepare any special accommodations that you need, such as a rental wheelchair or guided assistance if necessary.
You will also be likely carrying a lot of baggage since you are going for a long-haul trip. Many airports offer baggage assistance services to people with disabilities, so be sure to let the airport know that you will need these services when you get there.
Look up the accessibility of tourist destinations
When planning your itinerary, don’t forget to look up the accessibility of each stop that you plan to visit. The last thing you want is to arrive at a destination only to find out that they don’t have wheelchair ramps. More than that, find out if the hotels, restaurants, spas, and other establishments in your itinerary can communicate with you (if you are hard of hearing) to make your trip as hassle-free as possible.
Choose your hotel carefully
It is already a given that you should choose a hotel that can accommodate your accessibility needs. However, keep in mind that not all hotels that advertise themselves as “accessible” are true to their word. Most do have accommodations due to legal obligations, but they may not be good enough to serve your needs adequately. And if you are looking for a long-term stay, you wouldn’t want to book with a hotel that does not meet your needs sufficiently.
One of the best ways to find a good, disability-friendly hotel is to look up reviews online from people with similar disabilities as yours. They are the best sources of information to determine if a particular hotel is truly accessible or not. Other than that, you can contact the hotel directly and ask about their disability accommodations, but be wary that not all hotels provide accurate information.
Take it easy
Long-term travel can already be exhausting in and of itself, but even more so if you have a disability. With that in mind, avoid planning too many activities in your itinerary, and, more importantly, make enough time for rest. You are traveling for a long while, after all, so you have plenty of time to accomplish everything on your itinerary without overbooking yourself.
If you are traveling with companions, it is also important to let them know about your limitations. They should know that you may have to sit out some activities, and you must ensure that they don’t feel guilty about doing so.
Visit your doctor
Before leaving for your trip, pay a visit to your primary care provider. Let them know about your travel plans so that they can provide you with advice on how to take care of your health during the trip. If you need medication, this is also the right time to ask for extended prescriptions or bigger refills.
Long-term travel can be challenging if you live with a disability, but it is certainly not impossible. With these preparation tips, you can not only make traveling easier—but you can also make the most out of your trip despite your limitations.