This edition of the Reader Mailbag is an interesting one, as it focuses on the destinations appropriate for first-time disabled travelers. Every so often, I’ll dip into the mailbag to answer questions about accessible travel from readers just like you. If you have a question you’d like answered, send an e-mail to mailbag@wheelchairtravel.org.

The following was sent by Stephanie, a Wheelchair Travel reader from Texas. She wrote:

I’ve been a wheelchair user for almost two years and I’d like to take a trip with my friends…there are many stories about things going horribly wrong with hotels, taxis, and flights. I’m worried if it’s too difficult to travel that my friends won’t want to go with me. Can you recommend some destinations that will be easy to manage?

When answering Stephanie’s question, I thought of some of the cities that I first traveled to as a wheelchair user — places with accessible public transport, wheelchair taxis, lots of hotels to choose from, and plenty of fun things to do! Here are five accessible destinations for first-time disabled travelers in the United States (arranged alphabetically):

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston is my hometown — I’ve now lived here for nearly two years, and have a long history of visiting the city prior to my move. In my first year of traveling with a disability, I visited Boston more than 10 times! It appears on this list because it is one of my favorite cities in America and, next to Philadelphia, it is one of the two most consequential cities in American history.

Aerial view of greenway winding through downtown Boston cityscape.
Aerial view of the Greenway in Boston.

Not far from here, in Lexington and Concord, the first shots were fired to kick off the American Revolutionary War. This city was also the site of the Boston Tea Party and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. The Freedom Trail, a must-see survey of American history that leads visitors to each of these places and more is only a fraction of what Boston has to offer.

Popular wheelchair accessible attractions include the New England Aquarium, Museum of Fine Arts, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston Common and of course Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. Most of the top attractions are within walking and wheeling distance of one another — connected to or not far from the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a public park that runs 1.5 miles through the city center.

Selfie of John inside Fenway Park at night.
John pictured at Fenway Park during a Red Sox game.

Boston feels like a small city, connected by a largely accessible subway system, accessible buses with ramps and wheelchair taxis (including from Uber and Lyft!) — all of this adds up to an exciting destination that is easy to get around. To learn more, check out the Boston Wheelchair Travel Guide. If you travel through here, be sure to drop me a line!

Chicago, Illinois

The “Windy City” is one of America’s most popular cities. Located along Lake Michigan, Chicago offers a wide-range of opportunities with its waterfront beaches, canal boat tours and dinner cruises.

Wheelchair user looking at city skyline through accessible viewfinder.
John peering through binoculars at the Willis Tour in Chicago.

Other accessible tourist attractions include world-class museums, the sky-scraping Willis Tower, shopping on the iconic Michigan Avenue, sporting events including Chicago Cubs baseball at Wrigley Field, public art installations, Michelin-starred culinary experiences and deep-dish pizza. The Centennial Wheel is recognized as one of the Top 9 Wheelchair Accessible Ferris Wheels in the World. Be sure to get the Chicago CityPASS to save money on the city’s top attractions.

With the information contained in the free Chicago Wheelchair Travel Guide, you’ll be prepared to experience all the city has to offer from the seat of your wheelchair.

Las Vegas, Nevada

The “Entertainment Capital of the World” is a playground for adults and families alike, offering incredible experiences, performances, food and activities suitable for everyone. But seriously, the food — read my article on the 15 best places to eat on the Las Vegas Strip (it’s one of the most popular articles on this website).

Las Vegas is an accessible destination as well, attracting more wheelchair users than any other city in the United States. The city caters to every need, and can even push you out of your comfort zone ⁠— including on a wheelchair accessible zip line!

The Las Vegas Wheelchair Access Guide is free and will help you plan the perfect trip, with information on accessible hotels (I’ve reviewed the accessibility of 18 Las Vegas hotels), transportation, tourist attractions and more.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the United States, but the city’s wheelchair accessibility in tourist areas is quite good.

Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture in Downtown Philadelphia.
Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture in Downtown Philadelphia.

Visitors to Philadelphia can tour Independence Hall (where the U.S. Constitution was drafted), see the Liberty Bell, visit more than 10 incredible museums of history, art and science, attend a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game and eat a local cheesesteak.

If you’re looking for a family vacation destination that has plenty to do and is easy to get around, Philly is the place. To learn more, check out the Philadelphia Wheelchair Accessibility Guide.

Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital was the second destination I visited in my first year of traveling with a wheelchair, and it proved extremely easy to manage!

National Mall in Washington DC with reflecting pool and Washington Monument in the distance.
The National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s metro system is wheelchair accessible at all stations, and there are countless accessible things to do! Each of the national museums and monuments, including the Smithsonian institutions, are wheelchair-friendly and offer free admission to all. With some advance planning, visitors may be able to take an accessible tour of the White House and Capitol building.

The capital city is one that welcomes all, and it is one of the easiest trips to take as a wheelchair user — you’ll see many locals and tourists with disabilities active in the community, riding public transit, and enjoying the city’s tourist attractions. To learn more, head on over to the free Washington, D.C. Wheelchair Accessible Travel Guide.

No matter the destination, planning for accessibility is critical

No city is perfectly or “fully” accessible — barriers exist in even the most accessible destinations, and they often present themselves by surprise. By researching in advance of travel and planning for your individual needs, you’ll be able to eliminate many of those surprises in preparation for an enjoyable trip.

Stephanie’s email contained a line that caught my attention: “I’m worried if it’s too difficult to travel that my friends won’t want to go with me.”

John with his friends at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
John with his friends at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

That’s somewhat sad to hear, but I understand where she is coming from — it’s a fear that I have had in traveling with my own friends. When things go wrong, it’s exhausting for all involved and your friends won’t want to leave you behind to deal with it alone.

Depending on the type of wheelchair you use, transportation may be your biggest challenge — for me, as a power wheelchair user, I have to travel in an accessible vehicle, which means I often have to rely on public transit. When I travel with friends, I make sure to research public transit’s hours of operation to appropriately plan our itinerary… being stuck overnight without accessible transport is not fun!

Make a plan, have a back-up option, and try to eliminate the potential points of failure from your trip. That will help you and your friends to have a stress-free trip that is fun for everyone!

While I wouldn’t recommend starting off with an international trip, cruises are popular among disabled travelers and major European cities like Barcelona and London check those important boxes for accessible transit and accommodation.

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