As you may know if you’ve been following along, I’ve been traveling through Europe recently. It has been an amazing trip but it has also been a challenge. My knee and hip issues have made for some difficult situations and I’ve learned a few things along that way that will certainly guide me in future travel.
Here are my tips for traveling when mobility is limited:
1. Plan ahead as much as you can. Research tourist sites, hotels, transportation well before you embark on your trip. There are many guide books and websites that will help to outline some of the potential issues you could encounter along the way but you may also want to send out some emails with your specific questions to each hotel, transportation line, and site possible to have your questions answered in advance of your arrival at your destination. We got to our hotel in Krakow only to find that it was located on the third floor of the building and there was no elevator. (It was a lovely 700 year old building and full of character. Great accommodations and great customer service. But, those stairs were a challenge.)
Some sites have already done all the research for you. The Tower of London has a whole booklet which outlines how accessible different parts of the building are and what challenges you might face in each area. You can get it from their ticket office when you arrive or on their website in advance of your visit. Also look into what devices might be available in each place: many have wheelchairs but some, like the Tower of London, also had things like seating stools on hand that would allow you to rest even when there’s no place to sit down.
2. When planning your itinerary, keep your own personal abilities and stamina in mind. Leave some buffers in place for those days when you need to rest or to allow for you to call it quits one day and carry over the plans into the next. There were days when, in all honesty, I was getting exhausted and quite frankly cranky because we had just planned in too much activity.
3. Be sure to include your fellow travelers in these plans and be completely honest with them. My daughter and I had a fantastic time but I think she was a bit frustrated with me at times because I was trying hard to keep up even when it was just too much for me. Her frustration didn’t stem from inconsideration of my limits but rather, from me not giving her all the details about my limitations because I was trying not to “appear weak”.
4. Think about any of the small assistive techniques you use at home on a regular basis and how you will accommodate those while traveling. At home, I use a long handled bath brush and a washcloth in order to bathe myself without exacerbating my back/hip issues. It’s not practical to carry that bath brush with me so I was planning on just using the washcloth. Here’s the thing – apparently they aren’t really common in Europe and none of the hotels we stayed in provided them. I purchased one at a pound shop and carried that with me on the rest of the trip.
Grab bars were not available in the hotel bathrooms we encountered either and they all had a shower only (no bathtub) surrounded by glass walls and doors. I was a little concerned about falling and crashing right through those glass doors! So I ended up taking sponge baths and washing my hair in the sink because it just seemed safer. I do have a portable grab bar that wouldn’t take up much room in my suitcase and plan to add it to my packing list for next time. It might not hurt to have some shower shoes that have non-slips soles or a few of those non-slip suction cup backed shapes that you put in the tub along with you for any locations where the tubs are slippery and you are nervous about a fall.
5. Know that in some historic sites, there are only just so many accommodations they can make for those with mobility issues. Old castles and churches often have sections that are not wheelchair accessible or have crazy amounts of steep stairs and there’s nothing that can be done about it. We worked it out so that my daughter could go see portions that she wanted to see but were simply too many stairs for me and this allowed me time to get in a much needed rest on a bench.
Most sites did have wheelchairs available but the only time I used one was at Westminster Abbey. I was able to see most of the Abbey from the chair, although there were a few of the smaller side rooms that had to be walked through or skipped. Also, pushing me in that chair across the very uneven stone floors was a challenge for my daughter. Auschwitz is technically listed as being wheelchair accessible and they do have wheelchairs available but I saw a man trying to navigate it in a wheelchair and it was nearly impossible. His companion had to lift him and the chair into each and every building and most were filled with stairs. In between the buildings the ground was uneven and rocky. My biggest issue in most places besides the stairs was the cobblestone. I don’t walk well on uneven surfaces.
6. Ask for help when you need it. Look for accommodations and don’t be too proud to accept them. In most locations, we asked if there were any special concessions for those with mobility issues. At Westminster Abbey, Versailles, and Notre Dame allowed us to skip the queue and go right inside because I could never have stood that long in line. Some locations even provided me with a discount and many would have been free for me and a companion if I had the proper documentation from my home country declaring me to be “disabled”. At airports, I’ve learned to ask for wheelchair assistance – you just never know how far away that gate is going to be! Plus, this gives you the right to get priority boarding which can give you just that extra bit of time to get settled in your seat without crowds of people impatiently waiting behind you.
7. Planes, trains, and automobiles – ask before you travel. We took a regional plane from Krakow to Warsaw. It was just small enough that it meant the only way to get on board was via a small set of steps. I had my cane and so it wasn’t a challenge for me, but this definitely could be for some.
Sitting in one position for too long can be extremely painful for me. Some airlines will allow you to book two seats on the plane and then will give you a refund for the cost of one of them upon proof of medical need (this could be due to being a person of size or in my case, because I need to be able to spread out and shift around a lot in order to keep the pain at a minimum. You may find that booking a flight with a layover is better for you as it will give you time to move around more freely and rest before getting back on the next plane.
Because of my Crohns disease, I always like to be in close proximity to the bathroom. I ask when booking my ticket and often they will allow me a free upgrade to choose my seat ahead of time. When in a flare-up, I also fill the flight attendants in on my medical issues in case I need to ask for special permission to use the bathroom even when the seatbelt sign is on.
Be prepared for the extra expense of using taxis when needed. London and Paris have amazing transportation systems – fast, clean, and efficient. But often, the walk from a tube station to the historical site was a very long one. You may need to take a cab here and there in order to make the distance tolerable.
8. Be prepared for possible glitches along the way. Be sure you have your medication with you in case your flight is delayed and you need them while traveling. Carry along a couple of snacks if you have blood sugar issues or need to take your medications with food just in case you have no other access to any. Bring along a collapsible water bottle so you can stay hydrated. I despise carrying my cane so I bought a retractable one that could be folded up and put into a large tote bag when not in use. Even when I felt like I was having a “good day”, I still carried it with me because I never knew when I might need it.
9. Advocate for yourself. I had to speak up for myself when a woman began pushing and shoving me so hard in order to get me out of the way so she could see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre that she nearly knocked me to the ground. I also had to ask people to allow me on an elevator that was clearly marked for those needing special accommodations because I simply couldn’t manage the stairs or wait any longer for the elevator to come back (we had already waited 20 minutes because able-bodied people were using them so much). Even when on a guided tour at Auschwitz, I told the tour guide that I was sitting out one of the buildings because I just needed to rest on a bench for a while. I’m happy to say that on the subways and buses,I never had to ask because the locals were wonderful about offering their seats to me, offering an arm to help me on or off, and directing me to the lifts.
10. Savour the enjoyable moments. I know, believe me I know, that traveling with mobility issues can be tough. I, the usually optimistic happy person, turned into someone who was whiny and complaining a lot at times during my trip. I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed by the challenges I was facing, by the magnitude of the challenges (which I was completely unprepared for), and mostly by the realization that I actually have bigger mobility issues than I had previously admitted to. It was humbling.
But I tried really hard not to begrudge the fact that no, I couldn’t go up in the Eiffel Tower because it was too much climbing and to simply savour the laughter between me and my daughter as we tried to take selfies at the base of it. Instead of being bitter at “missing out” when I simply couldn’t walk any further and had to sit on a bench at Versailles and , I savoured the moment by striking up conversations with my fellow tourists on the bench, or by merely sitting there and really taking in what was around me. Sure, I had to miss out on a few experiences but I’m quite certain I also had some amazing ones that I wouldn’t give up for the world.