Advice and Resources for the Traveler with Special Needs
By Sarah Cavicchi
For travelers with special needs, planning any sort of vacation can be quite a production. With mobility equipment, oxygen tanks, medications, and service animals there is an endless possibility of potential packing and mobility problems.
Never mind that certain ports and countries around the world aren’t up to date on proper accessibility codes.
But traveling with special needs isn’t a pipe dream; it is possible. “Travelers with special needs assume that they have to stay home alone. Getting the word out allows people to start dreaming again and get out there” says Andrew Garnett, CEO of Special Needs Group.
Special Needs Group Inc. is a Fort Lauderdale, a Florida-based company that specializes in delivering equipment like beach wheelchairs and oxygen tanks to travelers wherever they may roam.
Garnett draws on nearly a decade’s worth of experience in the special needs industry to make traveling a breeze for his customers and he had some great tips to share for the traveler with special needs.
Consider a Cruise
Cruises are built-in vacations and can be great options for the traveler with special needs. Whether you need to pack lots of medical supplies or a power chair, when you’re on a cruse ship you have fantastic permanent storage. Mr. Garnett, recommends cruises for this very reason.
“When someone has a special need, it’s difficult for them to move from hotel to hotel. When they go on a cruise ship, they know it’s accessible and the hotel is moving for them, it serves as a home base for them.”
Cruises are particularly a good fit for those that need to travel with equipment. Companies like Garnett’s Special Needs at Sea will not only rent or sell equipment but deliver it to the ship for you as well.
“If somebody needs a scooter from us, delivery to the ship makes it much easier,” he says.
Most cruise lines offer some sort of accessibility options, too, with amenities varying from cruise line to cruise line. Holland America Cruises is one of Special Needs Group Inc.’s preferred mobility and oxygen supply partnerships, and for very good reasons.
Holland America was the first major cruise line to install a safe and comfortable transfer system for passengers in wheelchairs.
This system is now installed in 13 of their 14 vessels and they have shown an increasing commitment to accessibility by designing each ship refurbishment with their special needs travelers in mind.
Holland America is also prepared for travelers with hearing impairments with TTY/TDD equipment, visual alert alarms, and amplified telephone systems available for staterooms. There’s also the innovative software system called Window Eyes available in the Explorations Cafe that will read text out loud to those travelers with a visual impairment.
If cruises aren’t your thing, then you should investigate pre-planned tours that are specifically designed for travelers with special needs.
The Guided Tour, Inc., for example, provides a multitude of destinations for ages 17 and up. With a 1-3 ratio of staff per traveler, Registered Nurses on 95% of their trips, and 38 years of service, Guided Tour, Inc. are pros at accommodating the traveler with developmental challenges.
“Our travelers come from all over the U.S. We make all the arrangements. We arrange for someone to meet them the moment they get off the connecting plane.” Ari Segal, Assistant Director explains. “We treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
In business since 1972 and based out of Philadelphia, The Guided Tour, Inc. offers almost 50 packages with multiple dates available, and certain tours like Memphis on Wheels are specially designed for slow walkers and individuals with mobility equipment.
Wheelchair Escapes, based out of Newton, New Hampshire, is another company that not only does guided tours for individuals in wheelchairs but offers advice about shipping your power chair and other mobility travel concerns.
Another great thing about preplanned tours is that they have more than likely been verified, if not experienced first hand, by the companies that offer them before the dates are made available to the public.
Everything from group transportation to destinations to the venues has to be confirmed before the tour sets out. So it’s another nice and easy option for the traveler who wants to go on a vacation without all that stress.
Finding Your Agent
For those that want to be able to customize their travel experience but don’t really know where to start, the travel agent is key. A good travel agent is a fantastic resource for planning a trip, but with travelers with special needs finding a good agent is all the more important.
Finding your agent, one who will take your needs and concerns into consideration, is an important first step in planning your trip. Look for agencies that specialize in your need. This way, the agent is one step ahead of the game. With some fantastic resources already in stock, they can get straight to finding a good fit for you.
A great way to find agencies that specialize in your need is to look for agents that have some sort of relationship with your local special needs organization. “One should also ask how they came by their disabled travel experience,” she said.
Any agency that has a relationship with SATH, the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality is also a great choice. Conveniently, SATH has listings of agencies that specialize in helping out special needs travelers as well.
Above all else, the agent that you choose should be comfortable with your questions and be able to answer them candidly.
Some locations, especially in Europe tend to not be as up to date in terms of accessibility, so you want to find an agent who will be honest and help you organize a trip that’s suitable for your ability.
Do Your Homework
Diligence is key to planning a vacation with your special needs in mind, so do your homework. “A lot of people don’t even realize that there are so many services and options,“ says Garnett.
Contact your local special needs society or foundation and ask if there are any resources or referrals they can recommend. DisabilityResources.org is another great starting point for both general information and travel guides for the United States and abroad.
As you’re making reservations, be sure to verify the details that are important to you. This helps to make sure there are no frustrating barriers or hiccups along the way and allows you to enjoy your vacation.
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Sarah Cavicchi is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and a former editorial assistant for GoNOMAD. Today she works as an editor for Skyword, a content marketing agency in Boston, MA.
Sarah Cavicchi is an experienced travel writer and editor and has managed content creation for clients in the health and wellness, dental care, pet care, education and eco-friendly content spheres. Her work has appeared on GoNomad.com and US News & World Report: Travel, among other publications.