After graduating from college, I knew I wanted to travel to a Spanish-speaking country to immerse myself in the language and culture. Finding a way to do that was going to be the tricky part, however. When I earned a scholarship to teach English in Spain for a year with the Minister of Education, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. The chance to live in Europe, travel and practice my language skills was a dream. The few moments of excitement, however, quickly led to planning and concerns about how I would make traveling and living in another country actually work. Traveling alone with my wheelchair was my biggest challenge. I wanted to share some tips to help those of you planning travel to hopefully help ease some anxiety and help you through the process!
For anybody traveling abroad with a disability I highly recommend calling the airport a few days ahead to let them know when you will be traveling. Don't be afraid to ask for help. The airport personnel were wonderful in arranging someone to push me from security to the gate and they even helped me to my seat, accompanied me through security, ensured my wheelchair arrived in one piece and helped carry baggage. Tell everyone you come into contact with when you arrive at the airport if you need a pusher or someone to help and arrive even earlier than you think you need. It can take some extra time to allow personnel to assist you. You want to ensure you are at your gate early because most airlines will pre-board people with disabilities so you are not rushed through the crowd with everyone else who is boarding.
Label your wheelchair or any medical equipment before getting to the airport. If you chair or equipment come apart into separate pieces, label each piece with your name and contact information just in case one part gets separated from the rest. Clearly communicate with anyone handling your chair or equipment specifically how to handle it.
Pack light! If possible, try to only carry on your luggage. Because I was packing for almost a full year abroad, I left with 1 checked bag and 1 carry on plus my purse. Packing light will save you hassle for trying to find people who can help you with your bags as well. A good rule of thumb is to only pack what someone else may be able to help you carry. Consider a large backpack that can fit over the back of your chair instead of a traditional suitcase in case you have to move your luggage yourself.
Wear clothing that's easy to slip on and off. Layers are great for the airport. Bring shoes you can remove quickly. Avoid belts or any metal hardware if possible for the airports as well. Pack for changing weather! Bring outfits you can mix and match with lots of different pieces.
Plan early. Ensure passports are up to date and all paper work is in order. Make a folder and include a photo copy of your driver's license, passport, documents, visa and any other important paperwork and leave it with a trusted family member. If you are prepared for the worse (you never know if you might lose your wallet) at least someone at home will have fast access to your information.
Contact disability organizations or check the embassy websites for the country you will be visiting. They usually have great travel tips and sometimes even tourist information for people traveling with disabilities.
Make a list of important contact information for the cities from which your plane will be leaving and arriving in addition to your destination city. Include phone numbers for taxis, a map of the city, police department phone numbers, your hotel address and phone number, embassy contact information, where to locate public transportation, hospitals, etc. You never know when you might need to make a quick call or in case of emergency you won't be panicking to find addresses or phone numbers.
Keep an international calling card on hand and contacts that you can rely on to help you both at home and at your destination. There is nothing more important than a support system when traveling abroad, especially if you're traveling alone. Knowing your loved ones are just a phone call away if you need help can be very comforting and allow you to focus on safe travels and having fun on your adventure!
Do as much research as possible before you go about your destination country or city. If possible, learn important phrases such as (Where is the bathroom? Can you help me?; Please; Thank You; Hello; Goodbye; and common words such as taxi, hotel, bus, airport, restaurant, etc.). You can even write these phrases down on index cards. In case you need help, you can show native speakers your cards to communicate what you need to communicate if your verbal language skills are limited.
Keep your passport and important documents close to your body at all times. A small cross body bag works wonders. You can strap it across your body and keep it close in front of you underneath your coat to ensure pick pockets stay away. It's also very easy to reach in and grab what you need quickly (like a bus or metro pass) while keeping your hands free. Always keep your passport, some form of ID and some money on you at all times if traveling internationally. Even if it means tucking it into your shoe!
Finally, bring your camera and be sure to have fun! Proper planning will ease travel anxiety and allow you to have an experience of a lifetime! How many stamps will you collect in your passport?
Where are some of your favorite places to travel? Share any tips you have for fellow travelers with disabilities in the comments.