By Kristin Secor
Road Trips can be a fairly affordable and fun way to travel. They allow you to not only visit a specific destination, but see the beautiful country along the way. It can also be a great way to have an accessible vacation. In this post, I’ll give you my tips for planning and preparing for your next accessible road trip.
Typically, I start planning my next vacation at least one year in advance. This ensures that I can snag accessible accommodations and get an idea of what the budget for the trip will be. Unfortunately, being spontaneous and needing accessible travel doesn’t always go together and can lead to disappointment if accessible hotels and activities aren’t available.
This can be harder than it sounds. There are so many great destinations across the United States, that deciding where to go can be a challenge. Even if you have an area in mind, until you know just how accessible it truly is, you can't determine whether it will be a suitable vacation spot.
I recommend if you like the outdoors and nature, that you consider visiting national parks. Almost all national parks have some level of accessibility, with incredible views and the opportunity to spot wildlife to boot. Whether you enjoy camping (I have a whole blog post on accessible camping) or staying in hotels or lodges, accessible accommodations are also usually available around the national parks.
You can also get an access pass, which allows for free lifetime entry into any national park, monument or place that falls under the national park umbrella. Those riding in your same vehicle will also get free admission. In addition, the pass can also provide discounts on camping within the park and on some tours.
Do not fear, if you are not a nature lover, there are also plenty of accessible cities that you can do a road trip to. Savannah, Georgia is one of my favorites. They have accessible (and free) public transportation in the historic downtown area, as well as plenty of accessible (and delicious) places to eat and things to do.
Choosing where you want to go and what you’d like to see or do is really up to you. There really is no wrong choice, just keep in mind what your accessibility needs are.
Sometimes when you can travel will help dictate where you travel. For example, unless you really want to experience a winter wonderland, you probably won’t be going to the northeastern part of the country during the winter months. If you are limited to traveling during certain times of the year, that may also help you decide where to go and narrow down your options.
If you don’t have any constraints from work of when you can take your vacation, it’s best to decide where you want to go first, and then research when the best time to travel to that destination is. Everyone’s definition of “best time to travel” will depend on what you’re hoping to see or do while your there, whether you want to avoid crowds, and if you’re looking at saving some money by traveling in the shoulder season.
Being able to be flexible in when you travel may also help you when it comes to searching for accessible places to stay. If you find the perfect place, but it is sold out for your desired dates, look to see when it is available and consider planning your trip around those dates instead.
Once you have your destination set, and when you want to go, you can start looking for accommodations and accessible things to do in that area for the time you will be traveling. A great resource for this information is by looking at accessible travel blogs, using google (which is my best friend when planning travel) and sometimes contacting a company or tourism organization directly.
Deciding what you want to do and estimating how much time it may take to do that activity will also help you get an idea of how much time you’d like to spend at your destination. Just remember to allow for time to rest (if you have poor endurance and stamina like me) and don’t over schedule so you have time to relax and enjoy what you are doing/seeing.
To help myself stay organized, I create a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. I list all of the activities I’d like to do, and then make notes about their location, accessibility and approximately how long it may take to see/do. You can also do this for accommodations.
Another idea is to research to see if there are any wheelchair repair shops or bicycle shops in the area where you’ll be just in case something happens to your mobility device.
Make sure to factor in how much time it will take you to get to where you want to go. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to drive as far and as fast as possible to reach your ultimate destination. Make sure to plan for what you are comfortable with and allow for stops along the way (for lunch, bathrooms etc.). When I road trip, I tend to do a big driving day (8-9 hours) and then leave the next day to rest and sight-see and repeat the process until I arrive to where I want to be.
When doing a road trip, the tendency is to get there as fast as possible to enjoy the destination. This makes sense if you have very limited time and have to drive a great distance to get there. However, I hope you consider, taking some time to see the sights along the way. Not only does this help break up the trip, but sometimes you can find some amazing hidden gems you wouldn’t have originally thought to visit.
Knowing about where you will be (depending on how long you want to drive each day) will also help you to plan ahead and book accessible accommodations during your trip. I use MapQuest to help me decide what route I want to take and where I’ll need to spend the night on my way to and from during the trip. I also always have a traditional atlas on hand as GPS doesn’t always work in some areas.
As soon as you know where you will be and what days you will be there, book accommodations. Accessible accommodations are often limited and can sell out fast, especially during peak travel seasons.
If you are visiting a popular national park like Yellowstone, accommodations of any kind (accessible and non-accessible) can sell out as much as a year in advance. Lately, with COVID restrictions, national parks have seen an increase in visitors so it’s best to plan ahead. Some national parks even require you to make a reservation in advance in a new timed entry system that hopes to limit overcrowding of the parks. For information on which parks are implementing this system, visit the page of the national parks you want to visit at www.nps.gov.
Similarly, there are certain accessible activities that may need to be booked ahead of time. In your spread sheet, it’s always a good idea to list whether reservations are needed and when they can be booked.
Make an itinerary.
This itinerary doesn’t have to be set in stone per se... it can be flexible based on how you feel on a particular day or even the weather. It’s just a good idea however, to have a general plan of what you want to do and when.
I make a separate document (can be done in word or excel) to plan out my itinerary. Here I’ll list where I’m staying, and what activities I plan to do each day. If there is an activity that won’t fill up the whole day, I try to combine it with another that is nearby.
I may also make a list of accessible restaurants in the area and where they are located. That way I already have an idea of what’s available and where they are in relation to what I’ll be doing. If you see something along the way that looks good, you can always stop there, but you won’t be wasting time trying to find an accessible place to eat.
It’s also a good idea to calculate when you may need gas along the way. Depending on where you are traveling, gas stations may be few and far between (and at ridiculous prices). If you plan ahead of when you’ll need to fill up and use an app like Gas Buddy, it can save you money and the fear of getting stranded along the road.
Along with the itinerary, I’ll print any tours I pre-booked or other reservation confirmations I may need and organize them in the order I will need them. This way all of your important documentation is all together.
Get your vehicle inspected.
I’m not talking about your state inspection (although if it’s due, you’ll want to do this as well). What I mean is, check the oil level, check the tread on your tires, see if there is anything that is due for maintenance and things like that. You want to make sure that before you leave on your road trip, everything is in tip-top shape so there is less likely to be any issues during your vacation.
It may be a good idea to write down any roadside service numbers you have just in case (like AAA or sometimes this benefit comes with certain credit cards or club cards). It never hurts to check and be prepared just in case.
Make your packing list.
It’s very easy to forget something in the last-minute hustle of getting ready. I always make a packing list individual to each trip I take. In this list, I include any mobility equipment I’ll need (wheelchair, Hoyer lift, shower chair etc.), clothes (listed by specific items I want to bring), medical equipment, medications, medical records (which I carry on a thumb drive), insurance cards, etc. This list helps ensures that I’m less likely to forget things.
If you decide to rent mobility equipment, call to confirm your order and delivery information. Mobility equipment rentals can often be found by googling “mobility equipment rentals in _____” and choosing the destination you will be going to. Some companies like Special Needs at Sea also offer rentals for major cities and cruise port areas (even if you aren’t going on a cruise).
Similarly, I also make a “To Do” list of things that need to get done before I leave. This may include things like calling credit card companies to let them know I’m traveling (in addition to my bank), forwarding the mail, finding a pet sitter, getting a national parks access pass (or at least getting the needed documentation together) etc.
Have fun on your trip!
Planning and preparing for any accessible vacation takes a lot of work, time and energy but the payoff is hopefully having a wonderful and relaxing vacation. And if the planning and prep seems overwhelming, consider hiring a travel agent that specializes in accessible travel. They can help take some of the stress out of the work required to have a successful accessible road trip.
The beauty of travel is that it is unique and there are many ways to do it and places to visit depending on your needs and interests. So go out and travel! See and do amazing things and know that it is possible even if you are differently abled. It just takes a bit of planning and preparation.