Disabled travellers take on everything from safaris to skydiving. It's all in the preparation, writes Jane E. Fraser.
W hile many of us take for granted the ability to take a spontaneous trip or "wing it" when travelling, for those with a disability it is not that simple. Travelling with a disability, or accompanying a disabled traveller, takes a good deal of planning, research, patience and humour, but where there is a will, there is nearly always a way.
Thankfully, it is getting easier, with more services available for disabled travellers (though some would say it is not changing fast enough).
Equally important is the increased information available, with many websites now providing valuable resources, advice and supplier listings.
Even those who may not consider themselves disabled but have difficulty with activities such as climbing stairs or walking long distances can benefit from this growing bank of information.
Disabled-accessible travel options now include everything from coach tours and cruises to adventure travel.
For example, Queensland operator Wheel Adventures (wheeladventures.com.au) offers motorcycle sidecar tours around the Sunshine Coast hinterland, while African operator Endeavour Safaris (www.endeavour-safaris.com) specialises in wheelchair-accessible safaris in southern Africa.
Even challenging adventure activities such as bungy jumping and skydiving are on offer to disabled travellers in many locations.
The internet is often the best source of information, whether you need to rent equipment, are looking for an organised tour or want to check the access to a hotel or museum.
Australia is well ahead of many countries in the provision of services for the disabled, but other countries are also making big efforts (particularly the US).
For hotels, internationally branded chains are often the best bet, as they tend to have lifts, wide corridors and rooms for the disabled.
Some, particularly historic hotels, still do not have permanent ramps at the entrance, but a portable one is usually available.
When booking a hotel, make sure they can guarantee a suitable room; do not simply request one.
Don't be afraid to ask for any specific requirements – that's what hotel staff are there for. And it doesn't hurt to send a reminder a couple of days before you arrive.
European cities remain one of the greatest challenges for disabled travellers, thanks to cobblestone paths, narrow footpaths and boutique hotels. It pays to do some research before you go to make sure you are choosing a suitable destination.
While there will always be bad experiences, big airlines and airports are practised at dealing with people with all types of disabilities and generally have few barriers to travel.
I recently spoke to a woman who had taken a severely disabled child to Disneyland and she couldn't fault the way Qantas staff had treated both the passenger and their equipment.
Again, the key is to book well ahead, ask questions and reconfirm a day or two before you go.
There are travel agents who specialise in disabled travel (see websites at right for links) but any professional travel agent should be able to make your bookings if you are clear about your needs and limitations.
Written information is always better than verbal and you might want to tell the agent about any bad experiences you have had in the past, to avoid a repeat.
Hotel concierges are a good source of information and can help you hire equipment, find nursing agencies and suitable restaurants, along with giving you local tips, such as attractions that offer free entry for visitors in wheelchairs.
If you are going somewhere with a language barrier or are uncomfortable with asking for special treatment, you might want to consider hiring a local guide through an agency such as ourexplorer.com, for a day here or there. The cost is not huge but the benefits could be.
Mass-market day tours are best avoided unless they specifically cater for disabled travellers or you are willing to stay on the bus most of the day, as the pace is usually not suitable for special needs.
Some coach companies offer hydraulic lifts, but may not have them on every coach, so you need to check and double-check.
Cruises can be a good option for disabled travellers (except those who are unsteady on their feet or prone to motion sickness) and a specialist cruise agent such as Cruiseabout (cruiseabout.com.au) will be able to find the right ship and cabin. However, be aware that you may not be able to take part in many shore excursions.
Many car-hire companies provide adapted vehicles and some, such as Disability Hire Vehicles (disabilityhire.com.au), are specialists.
Toilet stops are often a consideration and the National Public Toilet Map can now be downloaded on to an Apple iPhone or accessed through any mobile with internet browsing.
Finally, check all the details and limitations of your travel insurance policy, to be sure you are covered for both the known and unknown.