Traveling abroad with a disability was a challenge before COVID-19. But during the pandemic, things got even harder.
Jo Meleca-Voigt, a retired school teacher from Rochester, New York, remembers her recent flight to Aruba for her cousin’s wedding.
“It was painfully apparent that the airport was understaffed,” she remembers. “Airport employees had either forgotten their training regarding travelers with disabilities, or were new and untrained.”
Meleca-Voigt says she felt “invisible” as the overworked airline employees failed to offload her wheelchair for her connecting flight and then repeatedly dismissed her concerns.
More than 25 million Americans have a disability that limits their travel, according to the Department of Transportation. That’s just over 8% of the population. Most disabled travelers can get around with a cane or a wheelchair, but 3.6 million Americans say they don’t travel at all because of their condition.
The challenges can be even greater when you’re traveling overseas. Not only is it a longer trip, but there are also language and culture barriers to overcome – plus, the time difference that can drain your energy. If you understand the rules of traveling with a disability – especially the mask requirements – and can plan your trip sooner, you can avoid most trouble, experts say.
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Know the rules before you travel overseas
Meleca-Voigt took matters into her hands when she couldn’t access her wheelchair at the airport. She sent a series of tweets to her airline, documenting its missteps and warning that it violated Department of Transportation rules.
“Read up on Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration rules and regulations regarding disability and wheelchair travel,” she says. “Bring a copy with you if necessary.”
You can find the rules on the DOT site.
Meleca-Voigt’s story has a bittersweet end. She made it to Aruba, but her wheelchair in the cargo hold was broken. It took four months and repeated emails to the DOT and her airline to get it fixed.
Don’t wait to plan your international trip
Experts anticipate high demand for everything from disabled-accessible hotel rooms to vans equipped with wheelchair lifts. The sooner you book, the better your chances of getting one.
“Last minute bookings will be difficult to fulfill,” says John Sage of Sage Traveling,