Traveling with a handicap: Accessibility on vacation: The most important tips - and the best travel destinations

Beach vacation in Spain, a road trip through Scandinavia or would you rather go hiking in the Swiss Alps? When we are gripped by the longing for faraway places, numerous possibilities pop up in our heads as to where the next trip can go.

Traveling with a handicap: Accessibility on vacation: The most important tips - and the best travel destinations

Beach vacation in Spain, a road trip through Scandinavia or would you rather go hiking in the Swiss Alps? When we are gripped by the longing for faraway places, numerous possibilities pop up in our heads as to where the next trip can go. But sometimes there is a barrier between us and our dream travel destination – in the literal sense.

Accessibility is by no means a standard in Germany, especially not when it comes to mobility, holidays and leisure activities. In Germany alone there are around 7.8 million people with a severely disabled person's pass and a further three million people with a slight disability. Not to mention the many older people who are increasingly dependent on help.

It is obvious: the target group for barrier-free travel is large. Nevertheless, those affected still have to contend with limitations. This often leads to great uncertainty when it comes to travel.

How do I get to my travel destination? What options do I have on site? And which travel destinations are actually suitable for people in wheelchairs or with a visual impairment? We answer the most important questions about accessibility when travelling.

If you are affected by barriers in everyday life and want to relax on vacation, you should find out as much information as possible about your travel destination in advance. Even if the hotel description says "barrier-free" or "wheelchair-accessible," there is no guarantee that the entire building is truly accessible for people with disabilities. Here it is worth calling and asking the potential host.

Nowadays, you can actually find basic information about the local conditions in all brochures and online advertisements from travel agents. Since 2018, it must be stated whether the location is suitable for people in wheelchairs or with sensory impairments. If you want to be sure, you should also ask the tour operator about package tours.

If something goes wrong or there are more barriers than announced by the tour operator, it is always worthwhile to put the accessibility in writing in the travel contract. So it is basically possible to travel to any country in the world.

If you want to make it a little easier for yourself, you can also use the online portal "Travel for All". The federal government launched the project a few years ago together with the initiative of the German Seminar for Tourism Berlin e.V. to give people with disabilities better access to leisure activities, culture and travel.

Today there are numerous tips, tricks and more than 2,500 ideas for barrier-free travel planning in Germany on the website. For this purpose, tourism offers such as hotels, cultural institutions, sights, shops and restaurants are recorded and certified nationwide according to uniform criteria. As a result, people with disabilities can see immediately whether the travel destination is suitable for them or what barriers they have to reckon with.

By the way: Neither tour operators nor transport companies are allowed to refuse a booking because of disability or age. The only exception: the acceptance is accompanied by a security risk for the customer.

Speaking of transport companies: At the latest when the destination has been determined and the booking has been confirmed, things get down to business. One question plays a central role in travel planning: How do I actually get to my travel destination?

Especially in view of the climate crisis, more and more people are choosing to travel overland these days. In other words, you travel by train or car instead of boarding the plane. This is also a good alternative for people with disabilities - at least for short trips and with the direct train.

Because quick transfers at a full train station or a short stop at a rest area are things that are not so easy to do in a wheelchair or with a visual impairment. In Germany we have disabled toilets at many (not all) rest stops - but in other countries this is far from standard. If you still want to drive by car, it is best to find out beforehand which stops are barrier-free.

The train journey to holiday happiness is sometimes difficult, especially for wheelchair users. But at least this form of arrival is also associated with planning. At Deutsche Bahn, passengers with disabilities must book an appointment with the so-called mobility service center in good time so that they can then be supported when boarding and alighting. The rule here is: first come, first served. Because there are only a limited number of places for wheelchair users on the train - and they cannot be reserved.

A similar procedure awaits travelers at the airport. The same applies here: If you want to travel with a wheelchair, you should call the airport at least 48 hours before departure and let them know. Only then can it be guaranteed that there will be support on site. There are internationally valid classifications that you should be aware of so that the ground staff are also aware of the individual situation of the passenger:

WCHR (Wheelchair Ramp): A disabled passenger who needs assistance boarding and disembarking at the airport but is able to walk a few steps.

WCHS (Wheelchair Steps): Severely handicapped person who can hardly walk and needs assistance up to the aircraft door.

WCHC (Wheelchair Carry): Disabled passenger who also needs help inside the aircraft, for example to get to the toilet.

In principle, people with disabilities or reduced mobility have special rights throughout the European Union when traveling by plane, public transport or ship. On the one hand, this applies to support when boarding and alighting, and on the other hand to taking an accompanying person with you free of charge. In both cases, however, prior registration is required.

What many do not know: there are more than a billion people with disabilities worldwide. That is around 15 percent of the entire world population. This number also means that it is theoretically possible to travel in any country with a wheelchair or a visual impairment. In practice, of course, depending on the destination, more precise planning and preparation is required.

It is therefore important for people with a chronic illness or an unstable health situation in particular to find out about the local infrastructure in advance. It can be reassuring to always have a list of all doctors and contacts with you in case of an emergency. In this context, it always makes sense to take out international health insurance.

On site, it is important not to undertake too much. Just because you're on vacation and want to use the time, you shouldn't exhaust and overwhelm yourself. Therefore, assess your body realistically and plan activities that suit you. A trip up a steep mountain might not be the best idea for a wheelchair trip, despite the breathtaking views.

In general, the following applies to leisure activities on vacation: preparation is elementary. Pick out restaurants, sights and events in advance and find out about the possibilities and barriers on site in order to avoid nasty surprises.

Where is the next trip going? You can find inspiration for low-barrier holiday destinations on the online portal “Travel for All”. For example, there are entire travel programs including local activities for a number of destinations in Germany, such as Bremerhaven, Dortmund, Bad Bevensen or the Teutoburg Forest. But our neighbors to the south can also do handicap accessibility. Many holiday areas in Austria are now geared towards guests with disabilities, for example with extra ski areas or a transparent description of the accommodation.

Every year, the "Access City Award" honors the European cities that are the most attractive for people with disabilities. This year, the city of Luxembourg, capital of the country of the same name, is the winner. The Finnish city of Helsinki and the Spanish metropolis of Barcelona occupy second and third place in the ranking.

Above all, the high placement of Helsinki is hardly surprising. Scandinavia is generally regarded as a role model in Europe when it comes to accessibility. In Sweden, Norway and Finland it is now even legally anchored that as many areas of public life as possible should be accessible to everyone. There are certainly still exceptions, but the north of Europe is a good starting point for a low-barrier trip.

By the way: In the United States there has been a corresponding regulation for many years. The so-called "Americas with Disabilities Act" of 1990 states that all new buildings must be accessible to the general public. In addition, existing facilities should improve accessibility.

The reason: Due to the many wars in which America was involved, there are many veterans with disabilities in the country. As a result, people with disabilities in the USA enjoy a strong culture of welcome and many opportunities that do not yet exist in other countries. With this in mind: have a safe trip across the pond.

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