12 Secrets of Savvy Travelers

by MaryKate Zee, M.D. © 1998

Reprinted with permission from:

Global Access – Disabled Travel Network

Drawing on her own experience, MaryKate Zee, a physician with M.S., has culled her tips for disabled travelers from her journeys to 45 countries, 20 of them in a wheelchair. This special feature appears courtesy of ACCESS to Travel.

Whether you want to count the spots on a wild leopard in Tanzania or would rather savor Parisian coffee on top of the Eiffel tower, knowing the twelve secrets of savvy disabled travelers will soon have you bragging about your wonderful trip.

  1. Plan ahead.
    Dashing onto a jet bound for an exotic destination with only a change of underwear and a toothbrush is a happy fantasy, but in real life more satisfaction comes from pre-trip attention to detail, detail, detail.

  2. Go where you can do what suits your personality.
    Is your idea of a good time having a cold drink on the Lido Deck of the Sun Princess or does it tend more to paddling a canoe down the Amazon? Do you find excitement in dodging among the crowds at Harrod’s famous London store or does your soul long to wander alone through the empty sector of the Sahara? When your destination offers activities that give you personal pleasure at home, you can plan on returning with pleasant memories.

  3. Know your own travel style.
    Is the jam-packed “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” kind of trip the one that’s just right for you or would you rather spend a quiet afternoon over a leisurely cup of cappuccino in a quiet Venetian square. Do you flourish in a group, or would you be happier as a solo act? Picking the right style of travel is as important as deciding on where you want to go.

  4. Use the right travel agent.
    “I’m sure it will be accessible,” rings very hollow when you’re hundreds of miles away from home and can’t take a shower or use the toilet. Using one of the several experienced travel agencies which specialize in disability travel can help you avoid unpleasant surprises. Their specially skilled agents can also, within reason, arrange for special help abroad, such as arranging for porters to hoist you up China’s Great Wall, and make even difficult places accessible.

  5. Be up front with your travel agent about your disability.
    If you’re going to have trouble using an aircraft bathroom, let your agent know so (s)he can make sure you’re not booked on a flight lasting far longer than your bladder’s explosion point. An agent who knows you will have problems with fatigue might be able to schedule you a nap in Nice or a lie-down in London if you so desire. Rather than resenting your agent’s questions as an invasion of your privacy, being honest about your disability is an essential ingredient in making sure you will have a comfortable, happy trip.

  6. Take adequate health precautions.
    Avoiding raw fruit and drinking and brushing teeth with bottled water can ward off Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi belly, or the Tasmanian two-step once you’re overseas. But other precautions can be taken before you leave home to make sure you return in as good health as when you left. Start off by getting necessary immunizations from your doctor for the countries you will visit. There’s no need to borrow trouble. Since ordinary sniffles and upset tummies don’t need passports to join you, be kind to yourself and pack a small stock of common over-the counter remedies for colds, nausea, diarrhea, and allergies. If you regularly take prescription medications, write down a list of the generic names of all the ones you use, then stash it in the same safe place as you keep duplicate records of your travelers checks (and for the same reason). American trade names are not always known overseas if you need replacements. Always pack all medications in your carry-on luggage. You don’t want to get caught short if your suitcases are on their way to Beijing while you’ve just landed in Berlin. If possible, take along duplicates of all your important medications and keep them packed in a separate location. There’s nothing worse than discovering you lost your one bottle of hormone pills in the Himalayas and have about as much chance of finding a fresh supply as you have in coming across a Yeti.

  7. Take good care of adaptive aids.
    Check with your airline in advance as to how they want to handle you and your equipment, and let them know of any special requirements on board, like a carry chair or oxygen. Communication is the heart of having your needs met smoothly. Make sure each and every piece of your adaptive aids are labeled with your name and address and that you have the minimum tools needed to keep them in good working order. That extra wheelchair wrench shoved in a side pocket or spare battery for your hearing aid may be the only thing that stands between you and being stranded in Siberia or left in the lurch in Laos.

  8. Pack light.
    Take half the clothes and twice the money you think you need. Having less suitcases means you won’t have to scour the earth for that nearly extinct species–the skycap. It also means you have less items to keep track of. Remember, the emptier the suitcase you start out with, the more room you’ll have for souvenirs.

  9. Put together a “comfort pack” for your flight.
    On the long flights, unless you have the luxury of traveling business class, a small make-up/shaving kit-size bag filled with goodies makes the journey more pleasant. Consider: sleep mask, inflatable neck pillow, gum, candy, snack packs of crackers and cheese, scented towelettes for your hands and face, “waterless” toothbrushes, and a light aftershave or toilet water to freshen up on final approach.

  10. Take along your sense of adventure.
    Remember, if things abroad were the same as at home, there’d be no point in traveling there. As your new friends in a small Indian village struggle to keep your wheelchair from becoming mired in a muddy side-street, or as a platoon of Russian soldiers carries you past Lenin’s bier in carefully cadenced step, remember that you would miss out on some great adventures if the whole world came supplied with ramps.

  11. Remember your manners.
    Manners may vary widely from what you are accustomed to at home. You may not like being stared at by unblinking observers on the Great Wall of China or having alms pressed in your palm outside a Moscow church. But the people whose country you are visiting may be equally insulted by the way you hold your fork, or mortified by the way you use your left hand. Researching local customs may save a lot of misunderstandings No matter what the intricacies of local customs, however, the manners your mother taught you are as useful in smoothing social interactions abroad as they are at home: don’t be loud, don’t point, don’t act out in anger, and be as pleasant as you can. Remember, when you go abroad you are a representative of your country.

  12. Pack your sense of humor.
    There’s no sense in ruining your trip by getting upset if you’re placed discretely amidst the potted palms while waiting for your hotel room to be ready or if a monkey runs off with your favorite hairbrush while you’re hurrying to leave with your group. After you let out a hearty laugh, remember that such events may become the most priceless memories of your trip.

These twelve secrets of savvy disabled travelers will empower you whether you’re on your way to experience the darkest depths of the African jungle or the fantastical lights of a Parisian night. But the one thing that is no longer anyone’s secret is that the disabled are successfully traveling the world and having a wonderful time doing it.

by MaryKate Zee, M.D. © 1998
Reprinted with permission from:
Global Access – Disabled Travel Network