By Rick Steves, John Sage, and Susan Sygall
The creaky, cobblestoned Old World has long had a reputation for poor accessibility. It’s the very charm of Europe — old, well-preserved, diverse, and different from home — that often adds to the barriers. But Europe has made some impressive advances toward opening its doors to everyone, including travelers with limited mobility.
I’m inspired by the fact that, wherever I go in Europe, I see locals with disabilities. The days of “hiding” disability are over: On the streets, in the museums, in the restaurants, and on the trains, you’ll see people using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, and canes to get around. If people with disabilities can live rich and full lives in Europe, then travelers with disabilities can certainly have an enjoyable and worthwhile vacation there, too.
Anyone with adventure in their soul can take advantage of all Europe has to offer. Levels of personal mobility vary tremendously from person to person. You need to consider your own situation very thoughtfully in choosing which attractions to visit, which hotels to sleep in, which restaurants to dine at…and which things you might want to avoid.
John Sage owns Sage Traveling, which plans and books accessible travel to Europe. John has taken his wheelchair to more than 90 European cities and has run into his share of challenges during his travels — but he also says that the obstacles can almost always be overcome. Here I’ve included excerpts, in John’s own words, from his top tips for traveling in Europe.
Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead. I hear all the time that “Venice is not wheelchair accessible” or “Paris has poor accessibility.” While there are certainly some accessibility challenges, the truth is that the more research you do, the more accessible your trip will be. Avoiding bridges in Venice and hills in Paris is entirely possible. Did you know that Herculaneum’s ruins are nearly identical to Pompeii’s, but are wheelchair-friendly? And that cruise passengers with disabilities don’t have to take the “donkey path” up the cliffs when visiting the Greek island of Santorini? Your vacation doesn’t need to be a struggle — do your homework and your trip can be filled with fully accessible hotel accommodations, accessible routes between accessible tourist attractions, and wonderful accessible travel experiences.
Book hotels far in advance. It is almost always cheaper to book your accessible hotel accommodation far in advance. Many hotels in European city centers have only one or two accessible rooms. The best ones get booked very early. For travel in the summer, make your reservations in December.
Carefully plan your route. If you know what you’re getting into before you arrive in Europe, you’ll have a much easier time on your trip. There’ll likely be numerous ways to get to the tourist attractions you’re so eager to see. Some routes will have wheelchair ramps, smooth pavement, and flat terrain; others may have steep hills, bothersome (and even dangerous) cobblestones, and flights of stairs. Research the accessibility of sidewalks, bus routes, subway stations, and the location of accessible building entrances before your trip. Check for accessibility information in the online visitors guides for your destinations — but be aware that not all guides will offer this type of information.
Stay in the most accessible parts of town. This is one of the hardest parts of planning your trip. You may have found a great accessible hotel, but what will you find when you walk/roll out the front door? Are there hills and stairs in all directions? Will you have to roll over cobblestones? Are there accessible restaurants nearby? It’s crucial to research the hotel’s neighborhood. You can use Google Maps’ Street View to get the lay of the land, then email the hotel with your questions.
Have a backup plan. Even on the most perfectly planned accessible vacation, something can go wrong. If it does, how will you deal with it? If you prepare for all the possible issues, travel with someone who can help you during your trip, and remain flexible, unexpected events won’t turn into potential trip-ruining problems. What will you do if a part on your wheelchair breaks? If a train strike occurs in Italy, how will you get from Florence to Rome? With backup plans (such as packing vital spare parts for your wheelchair), you won’t have to put your vacation on hold.
If you opt for a tour… A company that specializes in accessibility will lead you on the flattest, smoothest, shortest tour routes.
Before you take a tour or hire a guide, ask these questions:
Is the tour guide a licensed professional? How much training has the guide received and what tests have they passed?
What route will the guide use? Does it involve curbs, steps, steep hills, or cobblestones? Where are the accessible bathrooms located? Will the guide physically assist you if needed (i.e., push a manual wheelchair)?
Is this a private tour, or will you be with other travelers? Are you expected to keep up with able-bodied tour members?
How many people with disabilities have they guided in the past year? (If it’s been a long time, the guide may not be aware of the latest regulations or updates regarding accessibility.)
Enjoy your trip! You’ve done as much planning as you can. You’ve relied on the experience of other travelers with disabilities, and you’re prepared for the unexpected. Now it’s time to enjoy your trip. Majestic cities, beautiful art and architecture, fascinating history, exquisite food, and wonderful experiences await you.
Breaking Down Barriers
Thanks to Susan Sygall and the staff from Mobility International USA for this section.
More and more people with disabilities are heading to Europe, and more of us are looking for the Back Door routes. We, like so many of our nondisabled peers, want to get off the tourist track and experience the real France, Italy, or Portugal. Yes, that includes those of us who use wheelchairs. I’ve been traveling the “Rick Steves way” since about 1973 — and here are some of my best tips.
I use a lightweight manual wheelchair with pop-off tires. I take a backpack that fits on the back of my chair and store my daypack underneath my chair in a net bag. Since I usually travel alone, if I can’t carry it myself, I don’t take it. I keep a bungee cord with me for the times I can’t get my chair into a car and need to strap it in the trunk or when I need to secure it on a train. I always insist on keeping my own wheelchair up to the airline gate, where I then check it at the gate. When I have a connecting flight, I again insist that I use my own chair.
Bathrooms are often a hassle, so I have learned to use creative ways to transfer into narrow spaces. To be blatantly honest, when there are no accessible bathrooms in sight, I have found ways to pee discreetly just about anywhere (outside the Eiffel Tower or on a glacier in a national park). You gotta do what you gotta do, and hopefully one day the access will improve, but in the meantime there is a world out there to be discovered. Bring along an extra pair of pants and a great sense of humor.
I always try to learn some of the language of the country I’m in, because it cuts through the barriers when people stare at you (and they will) and also comes in handy when you need assistance in going up a curb or a flight of steps. Don’t accept other people’s notions of what is possible — I have climbed Masada in Israel and made it to the top of the Acropolis in Greece.
If a museum lacks elevators for visitors, be sure to ask about freight elevators. Almost all have them somewhere, and that can be your ticket to seeing a world-class treasure.
I always get information about disability groups in the places I am going. See the resources listed in the sidebar for a number of helpful organizations. They have the best access information, and many times they’ll become your new traveling partners and friends. They can show you the best spots. Remember that you are part of a global family of people with disabilities.
It can be useful to contact tourism offices and local transit providers before you travel. Some even include information on their websites about accessibility for people with disabilities.
Each person with a disability has unique needs and interests. Many of my friends use power wheelchairs, are blind or deaf, or have other disabilities — they all have their own travel tips. People who have difficulty walking long distances might want to think about taking a lightweight wheelchair or borrowing one when needed — many places in Europe have mobility scooter rentals, and bike shops are excellent for tire repairs if you get a flat. Whether you travel alone, with friends, or with an assistant, you’re in for a great adventure.
Don’t confuse being flexible and having a positive attitude with settling for less than your rights. I expect equal access and constantly let people know about the possibility of providing access through ramps or other modifications. When I believe my rights have been violated, I do whatever is necessary to remedy the situation, so that the next traveler or disabled person in that country won’t have the same frustrations.
Keep in mind that accessibility can mean different things in different countries. In some countries, people rely more on human-support systems than on physical or technological solutions. People may tell you their building is accessible because they’re willing to lift you and your wheelchair over the steps at the entryway. Be open to trying new ways of doing things, but also ask questions to make sure you are comfortable with the access provided.
Hopefully more books will include accessibility information, which will allow everyone to see Europe “through the Back Door.” Let’s work toward making that door accessible so we can all be there together.