Traveling with a spinal cord injury

January 9, 2012

Darren Brehm

By Darren Brehm, AbilityTrip co-founder 


A spinal cord injury impacts most every facet of one’s life to a certain degree. Some activities, particularly those physical in nature, may seem daunting for people with SCI and their companions. And travel, particularly international, could be easily lumped into this category and dismissed. However, this should not be the case, as travel is not only possible, but with the right planning and execution, it can be a thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding experience.


Planning is definitely the most challenging, frustrating, and critical phase of any trip. Improper planning can lead to disaster for individuals living with a spinal cord injury. Examples of things to look out for include extreme temperatures (particularly coupled with facilities potentially lacking climate control), lack of infrastructure (transportation, accessible accommodations), or questionable medical services (particularly if a traveler will need to see a doctor).

There are different modes of travel, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.

  • Flying: greatly increases the number of potential destinations and the most efficient mode of travel. If you are considering flying to a destination, you can learn more details about “how to fly with a disability” on our website
  • Cruising: probably the most convenient mode of travel offering a great balance of relaxation, culture, and adventure. Accessible cabins are spacious, and cruising is a great way to see multiple destinations without having to pack and unpack equipment.
  • Rail: a very cost-effective mode of travel. A nice way to get between cities like London and Paris, with the added benefit that individuals can remain in their wheelchair on the train.

Researching the accessible features of a destination has become much easier, thanks to the Internet. Also, more and more international destinations are increasing different aspects of accessibility, from logistics to accommodations to attractions. And aside from destinations self-promoting accessibility, numerous sites on the web aggregate information on the state of accessibility of destinations.


Once a journey has been properly planned, investing in preparation is the next important step. We suggest using a “packing checklist” to ensure critical items will not be forgotten. You can create your own, or you can download the AbilityTrip packing checklist if you would like a template.

Also, contacting the logistics providers you have selected a week or two before the trip can both reassure that plans are set and uncover loose ends (i.e., you might discover the lift is broken with the company you booked ground transportation, which gives you time to find an alternate). This is especially important if you are traveling to remote or exotic locations, where a company only has one accessible vehicle.


At last it is time for the journey! The first thing you need to keep in mind is that your health and safety always comes first. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of travel, but always remember that regardless of how much preparation you have done, you will be in an unfamiliar area, with untested facilities and logistics, most likely eating and drinking foreign food and most certainly living a different daily routine. Pay attention for signs of infection, skin breakdown, and dysreflexia.

Second, be ready for the unexpected. Again, no matter how much planning and preparation you have done, you should expect something to go wrong. Perhaps a tour operator didn’t understand your needs and you won’t be able to fit on his vehicle. Or maybe a site you really wanted to visit has too many steps. Whatever the case, if you accept that there will be uncertainties but that the majority should go smooth, you will be able to take the challenging moments in stride.

Finally, be tolerant. Remember, you may be traveling to a place where wheelchairs (especially motorized) are rarely encountered. People are naturally curious, but they typically mean well, even when they ask a question or make a comment that may seem silly or insulting to you. While it’s not our job to be “ambassadors” for our brethren, it doesn’t hurt to engender goodwill for the next chance encounter.


After returning from your travels, be sure to reflect on your journey from a variety of angles. Was it the right type of trip? Was it too structured or not structured enough? What could have gone really badly that you want to certainly avoid next time? What essential item did you forget?

Finally, be sure to share essential information from your journey on The site aggregates information on the current state of accessibility for destinations around the globe for travelers with disabilities and their companions.

Please share your traveling experiences below or on the FacingDisability Forums.


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