Wheelchair Accessible Travel: Destination USA

USA1 Domestic travel in the United States has been steadily increasing in the last five years, but thanks to continuing airline price hikes, along with hotels and car rental companies adopting “à la carte” pricing practices, we have to be more diligent and clever when planning our accessible trips. We talked to four seasoned U.S. travelers who shared their tips for making weeklong vacations fun and memorable.

Honeymoon in Paradise
For their October 2012 wedding registry, Owen and Melissa Crisp, from Oakland, Calif., gave guests the option of putting money into their nine-day Hawaiian honeymoon fund.

“We really didn’t need more household stuff and thought it would be better to have memories,” explained Melissa. “The registry contributions from friends and families covered most of the excursions on Kauai plus a little cash for incidentals.”

USA2They were able to take some of the excursions that many dream about, including a scenic tour of the island’s lush outback atop an ATV; a sunset cruise on a catamaran; a train ride through a Kauai plantation and working farm; a helicopter trip; and a massage and celebratory dinner at Roy’s Poipu Bar and Grill on Melissa’s 38th Birthday.

“Taking the ATV tour allowed us to see parts of the island we otherwise would not be able to see because of our mobility issues,” said Melissa.

Both Crisps have cerebral palsy. Owen, a software engineer, uses a Segway at home for long distance, but otherwise can walk — albeit with balance issues. Freelance writer Melissa uses a power chair. On this trip, they brought Melissa’s Invacare portable power chair that breaks down and folds to fit into a trunk.

“It’s like a lawn chair with a battery,” quipped Owen. “We call it ‘Putt Putt’ because it’s driven by friction and not that powerful.”

Unfortunately, the battery for her chair cracked and began leaking four days into their vacation. There was only one DME provider on the island, but they did not carry the needed batteries in stock. Owen pushed Melissa in the portable chair with its batteries removed but with difficulty. They rented a beach access wheelchair, but that also proved to be difficult for Owen to push on the sandy beach and grades. So they opted to enjoy the view from a grassy area above the beach after Melissa crawled through the sand to get there.

Photo by Hooman Bahrani/Vesic Photography

Photo by Hooman Bahrani/Vesic Photography

Although the catamaran was inaccessible, they got help from the boat’s “strongest, hottest mate,” who whisked Melissa from her wheelchair to a comfy spot inside the catamaran’s galley. The crew lashed her wheelchair onto the railing. Another crew member helped Owen make his way across deck. Later someone carried Melissa to the upper deck so the newlyweds could have a photo taken during sunset.

“Not only was the crew awesome, but the vibe onboard was extra chill,” says Melissa. “For entertainment, a singer sang mellow oldies as the warm ocean breeze swirled around us and we sipped our Sneaky Tikis.”

Back at the beach, waves would crash and knock them both over, so they headed over to the kid’s wading beach, where calmer conditions helped them enjoy the warm water.

The Crisps normally call ahead to make arrangements at hotels, car rental agencies, etc. when planning vacations. This time, they used a travel agent whose idea of accessibility fell short of ADA standards. The bathroom layout in their hotel was less than ideal, but they adapted and got along OK.

“The warm beauty of Kauai and the incredible feeling of starting our married life in paradise more than made up for these minor inconveniences,” says Melissa.

Home Swapping: North Carolina to New Mexico
Swapping homes or renting privately-owned getaways are great ways to visit places that may be otherwise inaccessible to tourists or out of your budget.

USA4For rest and relaxation, North Carolinians Mark Steele and his wife, Caroline, have rented privately owned homes in areas of North Carolina where there are no vacation rentals. And for a recent vacation in New Mexico, the couple piggybacked with Caroline’s cousin and his wife when they swapped homes with perfect strangers who wanted to visit North Carolina.

The home in Albuquerque was not wheelchair accessible, but Steele, an Independent Living program consultant for the state of North Carolina,  took on the adventure, figuring he could make do.

“It was a brick ranch home with two steps to get in,” said the 49-year old, a C5-6 quad. “We found some boards in the home’s carport and they’d roll me up and down the steps in my manual chair.

“I couldn’t get into the bathroom, so I just did bed baths and brushed my teeth at the kitchen sink. I wear a leg bag and did my bowel program in the bedroom.”

Fond of history, Steele found the 1880s atmosphere of Albuquerque to be enjoyable. “They’ve preserved the Old West feel as much as possible. They have a Native American trading post, with blankets and beads … it reminded me of the vending section at a Grateful Dead concert where they sell food, beads and T-shirts.”

From Albuquerque, they drove 45 minutes up to Santa Fe. “It was easy to get around old Santa Fe,” he says. “They have plenty of curb cuts and most of the historical buildings are old adobes that are accessible.” The Steeles were “typical tourists” — reading historical markers, window shopping, visiting museums. “There weren’t any places that I had much of an accessibility issue with,” says Mark. “They make a living off of tourism so they cater to you.”

Grandfather Mountain, N.C.
The Steeles try to get away from the Winston-Salem area and go on vacation at least once a year, often driving six hours for weeklong stays around North Carolina. These trips to North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the Atlantic ocean or the Emerald Isle in the Blue Ridge Mountains have become favorite “down time” vacations.

“My wife and I love to rent a home at the coast and truly relax — read, watch movies, cook, sit in the sun, nap and occasionally do some touristy stuff like sightsee or go out to eat,” says Steele. They also like to go to the other end of the state, to Grandfather Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “We stayed in Viewpoint Cabin, which is about one mile up from sea level. It’s like a tree house for adults!”

Steele admits it was a little scary because the cabin is literally built into the side of the mountain: He had just enough room to park their car, get out and get in the house. “Everywhere around the cabin was either up or down hill,” he says. “Getting on deck was a bit of an issue because of a sliding glass door threshold, but the view was spectacular.” The $90 per night cabin was mostly accessible, including the roll-in shower.

“The really neat thing is that it’s on a privately owned mountain,” says Steele. “The owner put all these vacation homes on it, so it’s like a gated community. We saw so much wildlife just sitting on the deck, it was beautiful.”

Outer Banks
For a sun and surf vacation, the Outer Banks is a narrow strip of barrier islands that are not attached to North Carolina. One highway runs down to the inter-coastal waterway that you have to take a 2-mile-long bridge to get to. Canals cut into the islands so the ocean water comes flowing in.

USA5Steele believes the privately owned homes are being built for accessibility. “They are rented out by realty companies and some of the wording leads me to believe they are catering to a broader range of clientele,” he says. One house is advertised: “You can bring the entire family, including grandma who may need a wheelchair.”

The house they found has an elevator and an entry ramp to the home, albeit with a 2-inch threshold at the door. Once inside, getting around and using the roll-in shower was no problem at all for Steele. “We go in September because it’s still in the 80s but cooler, which I prefer, plus the rates drop significantly after Labor Day. One week is only $1,000 and we invite friends to come down so we split the cost.”

The three-level Buxton home, Lazy Daze, features an elevator, four bedrooms, three-plus bathrooms and ample amenities, including a hot tub, grill, three decks and a private boardwalk out to the waterfront. Nearby is the not-to-miss Scotch Bonnet Fudge store and the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, touted as the tallest lighthouse on the East Coast.

“The lighthouse is the famous for its black and white stripes,” Steele says. You can’t get into the lighthouse but there are a lot of buildings and things on the grounds to see and do. The older I get the more I want to learn about history.”

Northwest: Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.
Born and raised in Seattle, Art Blaser, 59, now from Orange, Calif., visits his hometown often with his wife, Barbara James, and kids, Marcus, 12, and daughter, Christan, 15, to see his old stomping grounds. Recently, they drove up to Vancouver, British Columbia, to spend a few days, taking a side trip to Whistler.

Blaser’s family flew up to Seattle, met up with Blaser’s brother, also a wheeler who still lives in the area, and rented a car for the drive up to Vancouver. “Whistler is a really beautiful area,” says Blaser, a professor and chair of the political science department at Chapman University. “The road goes by the Pacific, so it’s water on one side and mountainous on the other.”

The 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics games were held in Whistler, and along with a lot of new construction with new, accessible hotels, the area is forested, which makes for a beautiful stay. “In Whistler we had lunch and toured Olympic Village,” says Blaser, who acquired an SCI after a stroke. “We didn’t go to where the events happened but did some shopping.”

With a backdrop of the Coast Mountains, Olympic Village looks like a Swiss village, complete with chalet-style shops and condos. And because the site also held the Paralympics, many of the town homes, condos, hotels and lodges are wheelchair accessible.

In Vancouver, Blaser and his family stayed at a Holiday Inn where the kids swam in the pool to their heart’s content. “We liked the hotel a lot, but e-mailed ahead and asked a lot of questions to determine accessibility,” Blaser says. “Barbara and I had a previous bad experience with a different Vancouver hotel years ago. This hotel was a ways from the city center but very nice.”

While in Vancouver they toured the city, the Science World museum, and ate at beach restaurants. “Vancouver also has a beautiful park, Stanley Park, which is probably bigger then Central Park in New York,” Blaser says. “We had lunch there and walked around and visited a fish house that I’d heard about.”

USA6Back in Seattle, the family stayed at a Residence Inn, close to downtown so they could easily visit the city. “One thing about Seattle and Vancouver,” Blaser warns. “There’s a lot of traffic, so it’s hard to get around. What I’d do over, is not bring a car into the cities, just use public transportation.”

Seattle has instituted a tax on parking, which Blaser says he found out after having to pay about $15 a day to park. “It’s their way of saying, ‘We don’t want you to bring your cars.’ I didn’t take the bus this time but we did take the monorail.”

Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the monorail travels from downtown to Seattle Center, where the Space Needle is located. “I had been in it before,” he says. “I thought the kids would want to do it, but they didn’t, so we just walked around outside and enjoyed the grounds.”

They avoided the steep, hilly streets of Seattle, opting for flatter areas. “We didn’t go to Pike’s Market, it’s too crowded there,” Blaser says. “But we did go to Grid Lake, which is 2.9 miles around and in the middle of the city. I used my manual while the kids rode bikes. It’s a good way to get exercise in while vacationing.”

From National Parks to the Big Apple
Traveling is almost second nature for Cindy Hall Ranii and her partner Shelly James, both retired educators. For one thing, their kids and grandkids are scattered throughout California and Utah; for another, the couple has always loved traveling.

Ranii sustained a T3 complete SCI from transverse myelitis in 2005. “Shelly and I have been together 24 years,” Ranii says. “We are always driving to see family a few times a year, then twice a year we like to fly to further distances. We’ve even gone on a couple of cruises.”

They have 10 grandchildren, three in Utah, two in Sacramento, three in the Bay area and two in Southern California. Each year they try to do something special with their grandchildren. When their grandsons were 9 and 10, the couple drove with them to Mount Rushmore. The following summer they took three 7-year-old granddaughters to Yosemite. Another year they took two kids to Disneyland.

“To them, traveling with someone in a wheelchair is the norm,”  Ranii says of the grandchildren.

“To them, traveling with someone in a wheelchair is the norm,” Ranii says of the grandchildren.

“To them, traveling with someone in a wheelchair is the norm,” she says. “They get in the van, they know the ramp is going to come down and they watch for the ‘blue parking places’ as they call them. Then at restaurants they find a table where we can fit a wheelchair. I like that it’s becoming part of their childhood. They think nothing of it.” Ranii and James take a lot of pictures and make a picture book of memories for each child.

Last year, the couple took a vacation to New York City and stayed in a friend’s empty, mostly accessible apartment while she was out of town. Ranii could fit into the bathroom but the toilet was at an angle that she could not maneuver, due to strength and agility issues.

“We knew this ahead of time and made accommodations,” says Ranii. “I took a portable potty chair that breaks down into its own suitcase, set it up in kitchen and used the kitchen sink for a bird bath.”

When she travels, Ranii takes Comfort Personal Cleansing Bath washcloths. They are microwavable and she says they make for a nice bed bath. To wash her hair, she leans over the edge of the bed and James uses a pitcher of water, wastebasket and trash bag to catch the water.

While in New York the couple took in several Broadway shows, an opera at The Metropolitan Opera and toured Metropolitan Museum of Art and all points of the city. “We assumed we’d be taking taxis all week,” Ranii said. “You have to plan ahead and call for service to get a taxi with a ramp.”

New York Times SquareBut one day, like their grandkids spotting blue parking signs, the couple saw a blue wheelchair sign on the front of a bus as it passed them on their corner in the Upper West Side. “The next time a bus came by, we checked, and low and behold, it had a lift!” she says. “We got a weeklong pass for $20 and we went up and down Manhattan, even taking a bus onto a ferry to Staten Island.”

They said that not only were the bus drivers friendly and patient but the passengers were, too. “We were extremely surprised and delighted that New Yorkers, both in terms of the residents and of municipal bus drivers, could not have been more accommodating to us,” says Ranii.

Wheeling around the city, Ranii said curb cuts, though not perfect, never caused problems like getting stuck; she never had to back track in her manual chair. “We didn’t take any tours and just went off on our own,” she says. “We went to a lot of restaurants that I called ahead to check on accessibility.” Often the restaurant was in an older building but they always told her, “We will get you in.”

The couple experienced only one major drawback and that was getting to and from the airport and the city. “The options for getting from and to the airport to Manhattan with a wheelchair were limited,” Ranii says. “You could take a regular taxi if you have a manual chair, but it was very expensive and most shuttle services don’t have a wheelchair ramp or lift.”

Transportation problems aside, says Ranii, “we found everyone to be friendly in New York. But we’re smiling, friendly people and we handle adversity with good humor. We weren’t grumpy or impatient and we had all the time in the world. I think that came back to us.”


USA_Sidebar1Owen and Melissa Crisp

Destination: Kauai, Hawaii

Airline: Alaska Airlines

Lodging: Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation, www.outrigger.com. “We liked staying there, but I couldn’t recommend it to a fellow wheelchair user,” says Melissa. “It wasn’t accessible by typical ADA standards. I had difficulty maneuvering inside the bathroom. I ended up using a patio chair as a portable grab bar.”

Ground transportation: Hertz. “Since we were traveling with my portable power chair, we rented a small four-door sedan from Hertz,” says Melissa. “They have an accessible shuttle that goes from the airport to the car rental site.”

Sites and activities: Sunset cruise on a catamaran, train ride through the Kauai plantation, and dinner at Roy’s Poipu Bar and Grill.

Best Access: Although the catamaran was inaccessible, Melissa says the “strongest, hottest mate” carried her onto the boat while the rest of the crew helped them both whenever they needed it.

Worst Access: The battery in Melissa’s chair died, severely limiting her access. “But the excellent folks at Gammie Homecare (www.gammie.com) on Kauai went above and beyond to help us get replacements from the mainland,” says Owen. “An unexpected way to feel the spirit of aloha.”

Total cost: Around $4,600.

 


USA_Sidebar2Mark and Caroline Steele

Destination: Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M.
Airline: USAir. “I have flown with them before and have had good results each time,” says Mark Steele.

Lodging: A “home swap” arranged via www.HomeExchange.com. “My wife’s cousin invited us along after finding out the home was a brick ranch design and we assumed we could make it work for me. On the HomeExchange website, there is a “disability friendly” option, but I have never used this and am not sure if I would in the future,” says Steele.

Ground transportation: A rented Dodge Caliber, which Steele transferred into. His wife drove.

Sites and activities: Wandering around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, drinking in the Old West vibe.

Best access: “It was easy to get around Santa Fe,” says Steele, a C5-6 quad. “They have plenty of curb cuts and most of the historical buildings are old adobes that are accessible.”

Worst access: “The home we stayed in was not very accessible, but we made it work. In addition, it did not cost us anything to stay there.”

Total cost: Air fare, car rental and other expenses. Lodging was free.

Destination: Grandfather Mountain, N.C.
Lodging: Viewpoint Cabin, www.uniquemountaincabins.com/viewpoint.html. “It’s like a tree house for adults,” says Mark Steele.

Ground transportation: Private car

Sites and activities: Lounging around, relaxing, watching wildlife from the deck.

Access: Viewpoint Cabin worked well, except for the bed being 3 inches too low and the sliding glass door having about a 1-inch rise from the deck.

Total cost: Lodging was $90 a night.

Destination: Outer Banks, N.C.
Lodging: Lazy Daze, Outer Beaches Realty, 800/627-1850; www.outerbeaches.com

Ground transportation: Private car

Sites and activities: The Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which is the tallest on the East Coast.

Best access: The three-level beach house, Lazy Daze, despite a 2-inch threshold at the door.

Worst access: “You can’t get into the lighthouse, but there are a lot of buildings and things on the grounds to do and see,” says Mark.

Total cost: Lodging was $1,000 for the week.


USA_Sidebar3Art Blaser and Barbara James

Destination: Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia
Airline: Alaska Airlines

Lodging: Holiday Inn. “We e-mailed ahead and asked a lot of questions to determine accessibility,” says Art Blaser.

Ground transportation: A rental car

Sites and activities: 2010 Olympic Village, Science World, Stanley Park.

Best access: 2010 Olympic Village, because the Paralympics were also held there, so most of the buildings and venues are accessible.
Destination: Seattle, Wash.
Airline: Alaska Airlines

Lodging: Residence Inn

Ground transportation: A rental car

Sites and activities: Grid Lake, Space Needle

Best access: Grid Lake is about 3 miles around and located in the middle of the city. “I used my manual while the kids rode bikes,” says Blaser, who has an SCI from a stroke. “It’s a good way to get exercise in while vacationing.”

Worst access: “The only negative was that the city discourages use of private vehicles by making it very inconvenient and expensive,” says Blaser. “I understand that the accessibility of public transportation is pretty good so I will know better next time.“


USA_Sidebar4Cindy Hall Ranii and Shelley James

Destination: New York City
Airline: Southwest airline. “We have found them to be extremely accommodating and the staff to be well-trained,” says Ranii. “I would recommend them.”

Lodging: Friend’s apartment

Ground transportation: Town Car International, www.towncarinternational.com.

Sites and activities: Broadway show, opera and the Museum of Modern Art

Best access: Public bus

Worst access: Accessible taxis are few and far between. Getting from the airport to the hotel is also a problem. Wheelchair users should call ahead to schedule an Access-A-Ride service for a designated pick up time. If you miss the time, you can call Access-A-Ride to reschedule. While in the city, many of the subways are accessible but some have no elevators. Travelers are urged to pick up a Subway Map with Bus Connections.

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