Planning your dream accessible vacation on a budget is not easy. It is always tempting to leave the details to a travel agency that knows what is and isn’t accessible and, hopefully, where to save money. There are some seasoned agencies with great reputations, but it always pays to be careful. After a bad experience on an agency-planned trip, I went back to planning most everything myself. Aside from enjoying being able to tailor everything to my taste, I became more aware of the huge savings possible if you’re willing to do all the wheelwork.
For example, excluding airfare, a prominent agency is charging $504 per day for a trip to Ireland, whereas I paid only $124 per day to go there last year. Or consider that it cost me $103 per day to visit Germany and Austria last September, when a comparable European trip through an agency started at $599 per person per day. My costs include hotel, all meals, tickets to attractions, transportation and more — that’s more inclusive than some agencies.
Here are some helpful strategies I used to save while planning that trip to Germany and Austria that you can use when you plan your next getaway.
Start Big and Narrow Down
I start planning at least eight months in advance and I look to travel off-season, like May or October, because there are cheaper airfares. Before I settle on a destination, I do an internet search of the place, say “accessible Germany.” Then I try “barrier-free” and “wheelchair accessible” and even “handicap” as key terms connected to that place. For my trip to Germany and Austria, I scoured the internet for “barrier-free Germany” (Germany’s preferred term). The results are detailed and immensely helpful — down to how many centimeters wide the narrowest opening is in a palace — and should give you a sense of what is feasible.
I read up on other wheelers’ blogs or their Facebook posts. What did they successfully see and do? Is the terrain reasonable? Did others have problems I can avoid? If my research shows the country to be a terrain I can manage in my manual chair with reasonable sidewalks/curb cuts, and a general culture and tourist climate that strike my fancy, I narrow my focus, in this case from country to city, homing in on specific sites to see.
Tourism bureaus and municipalities, in Europe especially, are putting out great wheelchair accessibility information. Berlin has an “Access Berlin” app and Munich, Frankfurt and Vienna all have detailed websites and downloadable PDF files about their accessible sights.
If I am still unsure about a town, like I was about Salzburg, Austria, I post somewhere like the Spinal Cord Peer Support USA/Worldwide Facebook group and ask the over 10,000 members for first-hand experiences. I had read that Salzburg was cobblestoned and hilly, so I was concerned until someone from the SCI group who had visited told me, “Bring your FreeWheel. You’ll be fine.” I did and I was.
Once I have my potential cities, I narrow down which ones to visit by their proximity to each other and the number of accessible tourist sights. Google Maps is a great help for routing. I plug in “distance between Frankfurt and Munich,” for example, and check out the map, travel time, distance, towns of interest along the way and transportation choices.
I chose to start and end in Frankfurt because it has a major airport and it is close to the Rhine River. I also considered driving from Frankfurt to Vienna and flying out of Vienna, but the car rental would more than triple what it would cost to return the vehicle to Frankfurt. Instead, I chose a route south and east of Frankfurt through Munich to Vienna, selecting different towns for overnights.
In planning my route, I base the number of overnights in each town on desirable accessible attractions, some of which offer discounts for disabled visitors. Also, there are many — such as the Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces in Vienna, the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremburg and Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Dachau, Germany — that do not charge entry for the companion traveler of a disabled visitor.
I factor driving times, lunch and bathroom breaks into my schedule. If there are a lot of sights in a town, I stay three nights or more before moving on. Hotels often discount multiple overnight stays. I also prefer less hopping around, as I find this more relaxing.
Once you’ve got your plan, it’s time to maximize your savings with diligent booking. Travelocity and Kayak work well for flight cost comparisons. Big airports have the best deals, possibly making it worthwhile to drive a few hours to save $500. Flying and purchasing tickets costs less if done mid-week, like on Tuesdays.
As far as ground transportation, it’s always good to have a backup means of getting around. I can transfer into the passenger seat of a regular rental car, and I have also found European trains to be a convenient, no-transfer option. If you need something different, early planning lets you seek out and lock down your options.
Once I lock in my route and schedule, I book accommodations. I’ve had good luck with Booking.com and Travelocity in finding hotels with wheelchair access since they have a filter for this. If no accessible rooms are available on a booking site for a specific affordable hotel, I call that hotel directly. Often, hotels have accessible rooms that are not advertised on booking sites.
I have successfully used both Airbnb and HomeAway/VRBO. Regardless of how I book, I always call or email specific questions to the owner/manager to ensure the accommodations suit my needs. Is the unit step-free? How wide are the entry, bedroom and bathroom door openings? Are there grab bars in the bathroom? Can they send me photos of the bathroom layout? I ask whatever is important for my decision. I know my needs best and email is easy, so I prefer booking rooms myself, since I suffer if it’s done poorly.
Roll with the Punches, Go with the Flow
Things don’t always go as planned. It’s a given. For medical needs, it helps to have insurance that covers worldwide emergencies [see resources]. My Medicare Advantage plan came in handy when I fell off a tram lift in Vienna and broke my nose. I received great help from the Park Inn Hotel in Frankfurt when my manual chair was damaged by the airlines. The hotel maintenance man fixed it for the weekend, and the front desk person connected me to a wheelchair repair shop on Monday. Beyond that, I don’t plan for emergencies, which most tour companies do.
For tour details, all the calls in the world cannot guarantee that I’ve received flawless, accurate information; flexibility is a must. I missed part of a scheduled cruise down the Rhine because I didn’t know there was more than one boarding port named Rudesheim. A travel agent would have known this and saved us some hassle, but it wasn’t a big deal.
To get back on track, I drove to Boppard, the next port, along a scenic highway with some of the most spectacular views of castles and terrace farming that I have ever seen. I eventually learned that despite my efforts, our original boat wasn’t wheelchair accessible. The ticket vendor said, “If I let you board this boat, you’ll say, ‘That man is crazy!’ Wait for the sunset boat,” he advised, “It’s beautiful and perfect for wheelchair users.”
I traded my ticket for a roundtrip sunset ride from Boppard to Koblenz. The scenery was magnificent, with more castles and charming villages along the banks. Most passengers disembarked in Koblenz. With only a handful of us still onboard, I was treated like royalty, and was served coffee and dessert on the upper, open-air deck.
Weather is another wild card. I was disappointed more than once by a downpour on my proverbial parade. Between Frankfurt and Munich, Rothenburg ob der Tauber was the next stop on our route — yes, there are other Rothenburgs so you need all the words for your GPS. This lovely medieval city, untouched by World War II, is still enclosed by an intact, ancient wall. The Bavarian-style homes and old stone buildings line hilly cobblestone streets and plazas. It rained the day I was there, and I had a very hard time navigating cobblestoned hills with slippery gloves.
It rained the next day, too. Outside of Munich, Neuschwanstein Castle, the most visited castle in Germany and the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, was top on my list of day trips. It poured on my reserved day, and the whole enormous edifice was cloaked in a dense, gray cloud.
My manual chair has a rigid frame, which caused a carriage driver to charge six times the rate because he said it took up too much room. Had I known about the buses at the top side of the grounds, I would have used them to and from the castle. They were much easier for my wheelchair and cost only one Euro each way instead of the 42 Euro total we paid for the one-way carriage ride. The steep uphill roll from the horse-and-carriage drop-off point was too hard for me to do myself, especially when everything was wet and slick. Out of nowhere, three Japanese ladies started helping me up the slippery slope. “Arigato,” I told them, meaning “thank you,” the only word I know in Japanese.
Connect, Save and Enjoy
Thanks to the internet, it is easier than ever to plan your own affordable, accessible trip. Between government sites, travel agency sites and travel blogs, the internet is filled with information you can use to help plan your trip, but the real asset for the cost-conscientious traveler is the opportunity to easily connect with other savvy travelers with disabilities. Think of it as having hundreds of “wheels on the ground” scouting out the missing details or answers you need to ensure the best trip and the best deals.
When planning for Ireland, I found Earle the Service Dog’s website. I messaged Chris, Earle’s person, for more details and learned Neptune Hostel in Killarney has a wheelchair accessible room. I stayed there for 30 Euros a night.
Through the Spinal Cord Peer Support USA/Worldwide Facebook group, I’ve met several wonderful travelers. I Skyped with a knowledgeable Slovenian traveler who connected me with a resort on the Adriatic Sea owned by Slovenia’s Paraplegic Association. I booked a room for three nights at 60 Euros a night. My room had a permanent Hoyer lift installed in the ceiling, and I had the pleasure of meeting her for dinner at the edge of the sea in Koper. It was fabulous!
Of course, there are disadvantages to eschewing a travel agent and planning everything yourself. A knowledgeable agent could have saved me the 240 Euros I had to pay for a fine I received for not buying an 8 Euro toll pass for the highways. And I’m sure there are other hiccups that I could have avoided, but all in all, everything went smoothly.
By starting with the big picture, narrowing down to details and being ever-vigilant about where you can save, planning a successful accessible trip becomes very manageable. Seeing the world is more affordable and more accessible than you may think.
Ya Gotta Eat
Food is an essential part of the culture of every country but dining out can eat up a lot of money. Unless you are there specifically for the food, try eating out only once per day. You can save a great deal by hitting the grocery store when you come into town.
Typically, I get fruit, nuts, sliced cheeses and meats and pre-made salads. Most hotels have ice buckets that double as little refrigerators. For 15 Euros, two of us ate for three days in Austria, supplemented by one nice meal at a café, restaurant or street vendor each day.
•“The Best and Worst Travel Insurance Companies,” www.forbes.com/sites/christopherelliott/2018/08/18/the-best-and-worst-travel-insurance-companies/#3ed459944fc2
• Spinal Cord Peer Support USA, www.facebook.com/groups/SCPSUSA/