On this day 5 years ago, I took my first trip (and airplane flight!) as a wheelchair user. I was nervous, uneasy and unsure of what to expect. That first trip was difficult and frustrating, but also exciting, memorable and definitely worth the struggle.
Now, with more than 650 flights, 850,000 flown miles and 250 different hotels under my belt, I am loving travel more than ever before. I never grow tired of discovery!
In recognizing this personal milestone, I’ve challenged myself to come up with 50 reasons to be thankful for accessible travel. No doubt, the accessible future we dream of is still a ways away. But I’ll take this opportunity to share some of my most positive travel experiences over these past 5 years. I hope you’ll be inspired to create some of your own
1. There is no greater freedom than to travel.
For more than a year after my car accident, I was bedridden. During that time, I longed more for the ability to travel again than the ability to walk. That’s the honest truth. And perhaps that was a gift, to trust that I wouldn’t need to walk in order to travel.
After the surgery to amputate my legs, a huge weight was lifted off my frail body (literally). I slowly gained the confidence to get out of bed and, ultimately, to travel again.
And despite my physical limitations, these 5 years of traveling have proved to be amazing. It has been worthwhile and it makes me feel free in ways that are difficult to describe.
2. I benefit from the right to speak freely.
By virtue of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I am able to speak my mind whenever, wherever and however I want. For a blogger, freedom of speech is an important right to have.
I have used that freedom to be an advocate for greater accessibility, to promote the inclusion of disabled people and to demand opportunities for equal participation in society.
Americans are extremely fortunate, and my travels often remind me to cherish the gifts of freedom. When I visited Hong Kong in 2014, the Umbrella Movement was well underway. It was a plea to topple the political status quo in Hong Kong, where the Communist Party of China exercises control over the candidates and elections, and restricts the freedom of speech. There are few countries where I would be as free to speak and criticize as I am here, in the USA.
3. I get to share my love of travel with people all around the world.
People from more than 100 countries read and subscribe to this website. It’s humbling. And I am fortunate to meet so many of you when giving talks at events and conferences here in the USA and around the world.
There are few things I enjoy more than meeting my readers, their families, caregivers and friends! I hope to meet you at one of my upcoming events.
4. And I’m grateful for readers who share their stories too!
We need more perspectives on accessible travel, and I encourage you to share your story!
Over the years, many of you have submitted guest blog posts, and I am happy to have them. They are always popular. Two of my favorite guest blog posts from this past year were trip reports: Zibi went to Tokyo and Amin went to Chicago. Please keep sharing!
5. Our community is influential and that means something.
As Uncle Ben of Spider-Man fame would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” There is influence in having a large audience. So when something is posted on this website, people and business owners pay attention.
The most-read article of 2018 didn’t have anything to do with a particular trip or destination. It was the guide to ADA design requirements for hotels, and by a wide margin. Those readers include travelers with disabilities, but also hotel owners and managers who are trying to correct issues.
When I wrote about a business blocking the wheelchair ramp, City Hall, the Fire Marshall and code enforcement authorities became involved. The issue was quickly resolved. I’m grateful for the attention this website commands, and I promise to be a good steward of its power.
6. I have found Partners who want to promote travel for everyone.
I’m especially grateful to the tourism boards and non-profit organizations who have invited me to explore their cities.
These partners have given me the resources to report confidently on many cities. In 2018, I especially enjoyed working with two cities in Pennsylvania – the historic city of Philadelphia and the steel city of Pittsburgh. I hope this new year will bring many more opportunities to promote accessible destinations.
7. Travel connects us with our families and friends.
I have friends on every continent, and travel has allowed me to maintain strong relationships with the people who are important to me.
One of my first trips in 2014 was to see a number of my friends in and around Boston. Fast forward a few years, to the end of 2017, and I traveled again—that time to Cleveland—to be a groomsman in one of those friends’ weddings.
Every day, I am thankful for the ways in which travel is able to connect us with our family members, friends and loved ones. It’s truly remarkable.
8. And travel lets me make new friends all the time.
The MetroLink train ride from Lambert Airport to downtown St. Louis takes about 40 minutes.
On New Year’s Day, I made that journey and talked with a man named Dennis during the ride.
We chatted about St. Louis and other cities we’ve lived in, our families, sports, what we do, etc. It was a typical conversation between strangers. After arriving downtown, we exchanged business cards and wished each other well.
A couple days later, I received an e-mail from Dennis, who encouraged me to let him know the next time I’m in town.
Every day, we have an opportunity to meet new people who could become our friends. And when we travel, the new people we meet will have stories and experiences to share that will expand our perspective.
The number one reason I travel is to meet new people, and it’s the number one reason why I think you should travel too.
9. Local tour guides provide a local perspective.
If you haven’t hired a local tour guide to show you around, you need to try it. Guide books are great, but they won’t give you the personal touch that a resident of the city can.
Reach out to the local tourism board of the place you’re visiting and ask for a tour guide recommendation. A private tour can be tailored to your interests and abilities, and I highly recommend it! I recently took a walking tour of Quebec City, Canada, and it was a fantastic experience.
10. In most cities, public transit is accessible.
I use public transport more than any other mode of transit, regardless of where I’m traveling. And while few transit systems are 100% accessible, most will get you where you need to go.
Writing about the accessibility of public transport is one of my favorite things to do, and every one of the accessible destination guides contains detailed transit information.
11. Accessible lavatories on wide-body airplanes.
Struggling to hold your bladder while you’re trapped inside a pressurized tube at an altitude of 40,000 feet is a nightmare, to be honest.
Fortunately, the vast majority of wide-body airplanes operating the world’s longest flights have a wheelchair accessible lavatory. The two pictured above, one from an Airbus A380 and the other from a Boeing 787, are surprisingly spacious!
12. Many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are wheelchair accessible.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) identifies and works to protect sites of cultural and natural heritage that are deemed to be of particular value to humanity. These sites are “as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America.”
The allure of visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites is the unique realization that they “belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.” Indeed, the rich heritage found in such sites appeal deeply to our shared human identity. When we look at the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt or the Coliseum in Rome, we marvel at a human creation that transcends the manufactured identities that so often segregate us.
13. You can skip the patdown with TSA PreCheck.
For many wheelchair users, the full-body patdown at airport security can be a significant hardship. But there is a way to avoid it.
If you have a clean criminal record and can pass a background check, you can be deemed a “trusted traveler” and receive the benefit of expedited security screening through the TSA PreCheck program. To learn more about the program, click here.
14. I am addicted to frequent flyer miles.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I fly a lot.
If you haven’t seen the movie Up in the Air, which stars George Clooney as a miles-obsessed frequent flyer, I encourage you to watch it. The movie is entertaining, and will give you a look into why I’m so fixated on my points and miles balances.
Truth be told, frequent flyer miles and hotel points have allowed me to experience much more than I might otherwise be able to afford. Some of the experiences, like staying at the Park Hyatt New York or flying Etihad Airways to South Africa, were definitely over-the-top luxuries.
But another benefit is freedom – like spending just 12,500 miles (rather than $500 cash) for a last-minute airline ticket after Christmas, or using 8,000 points to stay at a La Quinta hotel on a football game weekend.
With points and miles, I can go anywhere, anytime, for whatever reason… for free.
15. One-of-a-kind experiences through Marriott Moments.
Travel isn’t the only thing you can buy with rewards points.
Through the Marriott Moments program, I’ve redeemed points for a number of unique experiences—such as a face-to-face meeting with legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman and an invitation to the exclusive “Navigator’s Table” dinner in the Royal Suite at London’s Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel.
I’m always looking for readers to join me on these and other unique experiences, so pay attention to my Instagram stories!
16. Inverted and floorless roller coasters.
In 2018, I rode a roller coaster for the first time since my car accident!
Since I don’t have feet, I’m limited to riding inverted and floorless roller coasters. Thankfully, they exist, and I can’t wait to experience this again. Be sure to check out my tips for riding a roller coaster as a wheelchair user.
17. The Statue of Liberty is wheelchair accessible.
The ferry ride from Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty is accessible and wheelchair users can reach Lady Liberty’s pedestal. To read more about how you can experience this for yourself, click here.
18. Wheelchair accessible Greyhound buses are a thing.
I’ve been recognized by many as an accessible air travel expert, by virtue of my extensive flying experience. But I’m also very experienced with intercity bus services like Greyhound and Megabus, and was even featured in a New York Times story on the wheelchair accessibility of Greyhound bus service last year.
100% of Greyhound’s buses have a wheelchair lift and all buses can accommodate two riders seated in their own wheelchairs. If you haven’t thought of incorporating Greyhound into your next accessible vacation, you should!
19. PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Baseball is my favorite sport and I love going to the ballpark.
When I visited PNC Park in Pittsburgh, home of the Pirates, I was amazed at the high level of accessibility provided to fans with disabilities. Wheelchair accessible seating was plentiful and equivalent, bathrooms were accessible, and ramps/elevators were easy to locate.
I learned that the ballpark was designed with the input of people with disabilities, and that thoughtful approach to accessible design has made for a fantastic game-day experience for all fans, regardless of their physical abilities.
20. Andrew Bird concerts.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to Andrew Bird’s music, I encourage you to start with a few of my favorite tracks: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here (I saved the best for last).
He is my favorite musician. In 2005, a friend shared a few of his MP3s with me (I was still in high school), and I was immediately hooked. Bird’s compositions are complex, and the feelings they describe are all too familiar to me. Over the nearly 15 years that I’ve been a fan, his music has met me everywhere, at all points high and especially low.
All that to say, I am grateful that I am able to see musical performances live, and his concerts have stood out as some of my most enjoyable experiences over these past 5 years. Anyone want to join me on his June 2019 European tour?
21. I was able to ride in a helicopter.
I’m an aviation geek. But until last year, I had never flown in a helicopter.
That all changed in September, when I flew with GoHelico on a wheelchair accessible helicopter tour of Quebec City. It was amazing and an experience I will never forget. I’m so glad that it was possible.
22. Hotel housekeepers.
Staying in hotels as often as I do, I realize how important housekeepers are to the experience. A nicely made bed, clean linens and fresh towels always put a smile on my face.
But some housekeepers truly go above and beyond inn servicing my room. Roll-in showers can be messy, and my power wheelchair often leaves tire tracks all across the room. In cleaning up my mess, the housekeepers are doing a great deal more for me than for the average guest. I’m incredibly thankful for their efforts.
Before your next trip, check out this guide to tipping etiquette and consider leaving a small token of your appreciation for the housekeeper.
23. The life of Anthony Bourdain.
Travel addicts lost a hero and a role model with the death of Anthony Bourdain last year.
After news of his death broke, I reflected and posted a tribute to his memory. His life was a true gift to us all, and he inspired so many people to travel. For that, I am especially grateful.
24. The Americans with Disabilities Act is 28, going on 29.
On July 26, 2018, I wrote about the 28th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
On December 1st, I wrote again, sadly to deliver the news of 41’s passing. As a person with a disability with a selfish interest in accessibility, I can think of few greater things for a president to leave behind than the ADA. I am grateful for H.W., his signature and the law that guarantees my civil rights.
25. The defeat of H.R. 620.
Back in February 2018, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 620, a bill that would have effectively gutted the ADA by making it harder for individuals to seek legal recourse in the event of disability discrimination. I called the bill a “knee-jerk reaction to ‘drive-by’ ADA lawsuits” and asked my Senators to reject the measure.
The U.S. Senate never took up the bill, and it died this week when the 116th Congress was seated. With democrats now in control of the House, we can take a sigh of relief, as such a bill is not likely to be heard again for at least 2 years.
26. Airline contractors who help me board the airplane.
Without the help of others, I wouldn’t be able to get from the jet bridge to my seat on the airplane.
The folks who help us on and off the airplane are under-appreciated, underpaid and often have to bear the brunt of our frustration. So let’s all aim to be a little nicer to the people who are there to give us a hand.
27. My photographers.
When you’re a solo traveller like me, you’ll either have to ask strangers to take your photo, settle for a selfie or travel with a tripod.
Total strangers have taken many of my favorite photos from all around the world and for that, I am thankful. Photos are the best souvenirs.
28. Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
I love American history, and one of the country’s most important historical sites can be found in downtown Philadelphia.
Independence Hall is the place where the Second Continental Congress met, where the U.S. Constitution was debated and signed and where the first peaceful transition of presidential power occurred (from Washington to Adams). Independence Hall is wheelchair accessible, and visitors are invited to tour this national landmark free of charge.
29. Wheelchair taxis.
We need more wheelchair taxis, but there are a number of cities where adapted taxi vehicles are plentiful. Easy access to accessible transport makes traveling so much easier!
If you’re looking for a vacation destination with good accessible taxi coverage, consider places like Chicago, London, New York City, Philadelphia or Seattle, where you won’t have much trouble finding a ride.
30. I’ve become accepting of new foods.
I used to be a picky eater. Really picky. My diet consisted of about five different meals. But travel has encouraged me to overcome my strange food phobias and, as a result, my diet is much more worldly.
Five years ago, if you asked me to pick my favorite meal, I’d have said something mundane and boring like steak or pizza. Now, my favorite meal is Peking duck, which I enjoy at least once a year in China (preferably Beijing!).
Through my travels, I’ve had so many memorable meals and, while I’m definitely no foodie, I am always looking forward to the next great experience with food.
31. The accessible outdoors.
Nature is a gift, and I’m always looking to explore its beauty in national parks, botanical gardens, etc.
Three of my all-time favorite outdoor experiences are pictured above and took place in South Africa, Cambodia and Romania. See the beauty in nature wherever you are, and breathe in the fresh air whenever you can.
32. Delta’s Boeing 747s are in the desert.
For nearly 30 years, Delta took advantage of a “grandfather clause” in the ACAA in order to operate its Boeing 747 jumbo jets without an accessible lavatory.
In 2017, the last of Delta’s 747s was sent to the desert, stripped for parts and forever retired. Good riddance, I say.
33. Roll-in showers like these.
Don’t get me wrong, ADA compliant roll-in showers (however rare they may be) are great, but I like this design more:
You’ll mostly find them in hotels across Europe (particularly in the UK), and I find the seats to be much more comfortable than those mandated by U.S. law. I do recognize that these seats may not be accessible to everyone, so I’m not advocating for changes to the ADA—just enforcement of the regulations that already exist!
34. An entire row to myself on a flight to Europe.
I don’t usually fly Norwegian, but when I do, I have an entire row of seats to myself.
Now, if we could just talk about the lack of an accessible lavatory on flights across the Atlantic Ocean operated on the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. It’s torture, even if you do have a row to yourself.
35. Street art.
I can’t get enough of it.
And fortunately, street art is everywhere. It adorns the sides of buildings in major cities like Brussels, Belgium, in the anarchist enclave of Freetown Christiania, and along the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The artistic styles and messages are unique and it is a joy to see such creativity up close.
36. KFC restaurants in Asia.
I’m not a fan of Kentucky Fried Chicken, except when traveling to Asia.
I can’t put my finger on what’s different, but the chicken just tastes better in Asia. I’ve eaten it in every Asian country I’ve visited and it is delicious. Seriously. Try it.
And definitely enjoy it with an ice-cold and refreshing Pepsi, the world’s tastiest soda pop.
37. Lie-flat seats in business/first class.
The longest flight I’ve ever taken was from Dubai to Atlanta, and clocked-in at 16 hours, 50 minutes from take-off to touchdown. Depending on the nature of your disability, first/business class could be a necessity if traveling on a flight of that length.
While it’s true that first and business class fares are expensive, you can snag deals during fare sales, book with frequent flyer miles or even save through discount programs like the one offered to AARP members by British Airways.
38. The FAA Reauthorization Act.
In 2018, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act and President Trump signed it into law. I don’t think it goes far enough, but small victories add up.
Two big things are coming out of it: first, airlines must report statistics on wheelchair damage; and second, studies must be conducted to test the viability of securing personal wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin. Yay! And yay!
39. Selma, Alabama.
I write wheelchair travel guides for many of the largest cities around the world, from New York to Hong Kong to London. But the true outlier among my travel guides is Selma, Alabama, population 18,370.
I have lost track of the number of cities I’ve visited in the USA. I have enjoyed each trip, but there is none that I have loved more than the trip to Selma.
It’s a historic city, and the place where the voting rights movement found its beginning. But it’s also a city with amazing people, stories of triumph and survival, great food and community.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to read what I learned in Selma, and also about a truly inspiring artist I met — Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas. If a road trip is in the cards, visit Selma. You won’t regret it.
40. Wing tip views.
I take more pictures of the view outside the airplane window than anywhere else. And I make sure to include the wing tip in the shot.
The photo above is my favorite wingtip shot from 2018, taken from seat 1A on an ERJ175 aircraft. I was flying from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida that day and snapped the picture a few minutes after takeoff. Florida is pretty!
41. Flight attendants who give me an individual safety briefing.
Nearly three years ago I posed the question, What happens to wheelchair users in an emergency airplane evacuation?
Well, the answer was a bit unnerving, because there is no plan to evacuate disabled passengers from a burning airplane. That is why I am grateful when a flight attendant asks me how he/she can be of assistance in the event of a real emergency. In my more than 650 flights as a wheelchair user, it has happened less than 10 times.
Be vigilant, be safe and force your flight attendants to have this conversation. Your life may depend on it.
42. The Personal Care Assistants who make travel with a disability possible.
When I took my very first trips, I needed help with everything. I was fortunate to have family around me who were able and willing to provide that support.
In thinking about accessible travel on a macro-level, I an grateful not only for the people who have helped me, but for all those who have helped you and given our community access to the incredible freedoms of movement and exploration.
If you’re someone who is having a hard time finding a companion to travel with you, check out these tips for traveling with a personal care assistant.
43. Smartphone Apps that make travel easier.
Earlier this year, I highlighted 15 Smartphone Apps for Accessible Travel. I use them in my travels everyday, and they really streamline my experience.
44. An iPhone full of music.
Smartphones are great for a lot of reasons (obviously), but I love that my entire music library is available right on my iPhone.
About three years ago, I shared my wheelchair travel playlist and a few of my favorite songs. Although I am no musician, music has been at the heart of my everyday life for as long as I can remember. Music is a comfort, provides me with something familiar to hold onto. And that’s important, as I live a life that sees me in a different city every week.
45. The Universal Church.
This isn’t a sermon. But if you care to know, I am a Roman Catholic and my faith is incredibly important to me.
I have been fortunate to visit Catholic Churches all around the world and no matter whether I am attending Mass in the United States or the Czech Republic, I am home. Even when the Mass is offered in a language other than my own, I know it. Because the Catholic Church, its liturgy and customs are universal. That’s a solid foundation for which I am especially thankful.
46. Woodford Reserve Bourbon
I’m allowed a vice, right?
I love bourbon. My favorite is Woodford Reserve. This isn’t an advertisement, but I should ask you to please drink responsibly, if you do partake. 🙂
47. Basic Economy isn’t as horrible as I imagined.
Or maybe this should read, gate agents actually look out for disabled flyers when assigning seats.
I have flown on Basic Economy airline tickets numerous times, including on a trip to Europe, and the only thing that has been different is my baggage allowance and ability to select seats without calling the airline’s special service desk. More and more people are purchasing Basic Economy, and the savings might prove to be worth it on your next trip. Your ACAA rights still apply, regardless of how much (or how little) you pay to fly.
48. My airplane seat has always been window or aisle.
Obviously, I prefer the window. But occasionally, I’m forced to settle for an aisle seat. Thankfully, I have never been relegated to the middle.
Which seat is your favorite?
49. Truly unexpected conversations.
The majority of my conversations are with people I will never see or talk to again. Humans have limited bandwidth, and if you encounter as many people as I do, you can’t possibly create friendships with them all.
But you can enjoy the moment, and the unexpected conversations you have with strangers. Most you will not remember. But some will truly stick out in your mind as having been worthwhile. I hope to continue having those chance meetings with strangers.
50. My Bucket List is growing and the adventure continues!
My bucket list is available for you to view here.
Over these past 5 years, I have been able to cross off so many items from the list. But the list continues to grow, because there are more amazing people and places on this Earth than I will ever have the time to see.
But a bucket list is about more than seeing. It should be filled with experiences, conversations, tastes, sounds and feelings. I don’t travel for the purposes of achieving something, I travel so that my life can be filled with experiences that belong to me, and which can never be taken away.
(And here’s to 5 more years of accessible adventures!)