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Being A Tourist In America With A Wheelchair: Bumper Edition

 

For the month of September, I spent my daytime roadtripping around America with two of my very good friends, Alan and Violet. It’s something we had been planning for a long time and when the departure date finally arrived, it was pretty damn hard to believe that we actually committed to the plan. Over the four weeks, we’d often ask “does it feel real yet?” and it never really did.

When we were booking what we could, accessibility was obviously a big issue. We were driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles and then onto Las Vegas, across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and then on to New Orleans. We flew up to Boston and got a Greyhound bus to New York. Our main thing was to be as flexible as possible just in case we preferred one place more than the other (turns out LA, Austin and New Orleans were our big loves). Luckily, everything fell into place perfectly – sometimes at the last minute – and we had a brilliant time.

Overall, America is a mixed bag access-wise. Some cities, like San Francisco, LA and New Orleans, are amazing for access and you don’t have to think twice about where you go to eat. Access wasn’t a massive issue until we got to New York – our final destination – which is just a pain in the arse for wheelchair users.

If you’re in a wheelchair or you’re travelling with a buddy in a wheelchair, or simply want some good US of A tips, here’s what I learnt about crossing the States.

Cities/Towns
San Francisco
Despite all of the hills – SO. MANY. HILLS – the majority of the places we visited in San Fran were accessible. All of the bars and restaurants had wheelchair bathrooms and any tourist attractions we visited were up to scratch. Their buses are 100% accessible so it’s easy to get around the city. However, their trams aren’t but one out of two ain’t bad.

Los Angeles
LA is the PC capital of the world. Practically everywhere was 100% accessible excluding the big, glaring issue that LA is not for pedestrians. For the love of god, hire a car if you’re here. One day, we decided to walk three blocks. On our path was the rotting corpse of a kitten, I kid you not. Please, drive. Their buses are accessible here too but for the sake of sanity and humidity, try hire a car with air con.

Las Vegas
All of the hotels here will have the best access facilities but the layout of the strip is a bit strange. To cross the road, at many junctions you will need to use an escalator or a lift to go over the road. Unfortunately, the weekend we were there, none of the lifts worked so it would take us about 15 minutes to walk from one proper pedestrian crossing to another simply to cross the road. It’s a weird place.

Fort Davis, Texas
We booked Fort Davis simply because it was en route between the Grand Canyon and Austin. It’s a very small town with a population of approximately 1,000 people. The access wasn’t great here but it was so lovely, I can’t say anything bad about it. We made do.

Austin
Austin was probably my favourite place we visited. The food! The music! The ridiculous amounts of times the locals said y’all! The majority of bars and restaurants we visited here were accessible. The centre of Austin is relatively pedestrian friendly but, again, if you have a car, it makes life easier. That being said, the buses are all wheelchair friendly.

Houston
We only stayed overnight in Houston but the one restaurant that we ate in was 100% accessible. One thing to be said about Houston, the surfaces of their paths and roads are so rough and jagged. If I were to try and wheel from one place to another, I’d encounter a lot of obstacles.

New Orleans
Ah, New Orleans! One of the most magical places on earth. Because of Hurricane Katrina, so much of the city was rebuilt which means that a lot of the buildings are now wheelchair accessible. Their buses are wheelchair accessible but they’re not totally reliable. They have streetcars which are incredible but not all of the lines are accessible. However, if you have a muscly man available, you can get a lift up no problem. Like Houston, the streets and pavements are very uneven in the suburbs but once you hit the city centre, it’s easy to get around.

Boston
Boston is a very pedestrian friendly city. It’s smaller than a lot of the cities we visited so the novelty of being able to walk around was pretty exciting. It has a few hills – nothing compared to San Fran – and the buses, ferries and trains are wheelchair accessible.

Salem
Salem is definitely worth a visit if you go to Boston. One quick ferry or train ride away and you can spend the day doing witch walks and ghost tours. It’s very touristy and the majority of places we visited were properly wheelchair accessible.

New York
My patience with New York grew thin quite quickly. Not many of the subway stations are wheelchair accessible so if you want to get to one area, most of the time we had to get the subway about three stops away and walk. It took us a lot of time to get anywhere and so many of the buildings are not accessible, including high street shops. Anything built after 1992 is totally accessible but if you want to get into buildings, you either have to take back alley entrances or get lifted up a couple of steps. New York is great but it’s exhausting to “do” in a wheelchair.

Getting There
We flew directly from Dublin Airport to San Francisco International Airport with Aer Lingus and flew home from John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. If you are flying with a wheelchair, you have to say what type of assistance you need. The options are: assistance from check-in to the gate or assistance from check-in to your seat.
Because I cannot walk at all, I chose the second option. When you get to the plane, you get out of your own wheelchair and are strapped into a smaller chair that fits in the plane’s aisles. What I have come to gather is that no airplane seat is totally suitable for someone that cannot walk. Either you’re on the aisle and people have to climb over you or you’re in the middle or by the window and have to get by others if you need to get to the bathroom. If you need to use the toilet when you’re up in the air, long distance flights have an onboard wheelchair. You will need assistance from the staff and it’s a bit of a rigmarole but the facilities are there.

Accommodation
We stayed in a huge range of places during our trip. We stayed in hostels, houses, Air BnBs, hotels and motels just to keep us on our toes. When you’re booking accommodation in America, if they have an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) room available, then that’s what you should book. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are perfect. Here’s a run through of the accommodation we stayed in.

Hostels:

San Francisco Downtown Hostel
4 person dorm
$43 per person per night
The rooms were very spacious and the location was excellent but for an ADA room, the bathroom facilities weren’t great. I had to climb into a bath and use a very wonky stool and try not to die as I maintained a basic level of hygiene. This was fine for the three nights we stayed there but it wouldn’t be suitable for a lot of people in wheelchairs. The lift also took about three years to get to any floor.

Hostelling International Austin
8 person dorm
$24 per person per night
Now, on their website, they said that the hostel was wheelchair accessible. It was all one one floor and the dorm rooms were big but the bathrooms did not fit wheelchairs. When I pointed that out to them, the staff said that they were wondering how I would get on with that. They let me use a bigger bathroom for one of the private rooms which was a regular bathroom and when I showered, I still had to climb into a bath. Not the best scenario and they need to be clearer on their website about their facilities.

40 Berkeley, Boston
Twin Private
$50 per person per night
This place was grim and it was the only accommodation available for the two nights we were in Boston. They had no ADA rooms available so we booked a regular twin private which just about had enough room for two people. I was given a key to a locked accessible bathroom. It was large but the extent of access facilities were a few bars here and there. Below is a picture of the bath/shower. It looks like a torture chamber.

Bathroom/torture chamber in the Boston hostel

Hotels:

Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas
Double Queen room for 3 people
Approx. $150 per night
Of all the accommodation we paid for, Las Vegas was the best. The rooms were large and the bathroom had all of the proper access features. Pity Vegas itself is a total hellhole. Only go if you can get very, very, very drunk.

Comfort Inn Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Double Queen room for 3 people
$79 per night
We merely stayed in Truth or Consequences for the name, which has an interesting backstory. This was just an overnight pitstop so we booked a regular room as all of the ADA rooms were booked up. The room was large and it was on the ground level. The bathroom required a bit of stealthy parallel parking because it was so narrow but for the 9 hours we stayed there, it was grand. Plus, it had a free breakfast.

Motels:

Kayenta Monument Valley Inn, Arizona
Double Queen room for 3 people
Approx. $140 per night
We stayed here between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley which is an amazing double whammy if you’re into rocks. We booked this at the very last minute and a regular double room. The room was large and so was the bathroom. As a last minute booking, this turned out to be fine even if it was above our budget.

Fort Davis Inn and RV Park, Texas
Double Queen room for 3 people
$96 per night
This was another one of our pitstops along the way but we were very surprised to find that we fell head over heels in love with our first Texan location. Cowboy hats and southern charm overtake this town and it’s just delightful. Our room was an ADA room which meant that it was relatively spacious and the bathroom was just about big enough for a wheelchair. We also got a free breakfast here which we took complete advantage of.

Air BnB
Air BnB can be quite tricky to navigate as you want the best location and best price and these two things don’t always go together. However, we really lucked out with our two bookings. We used Air BnB in New Orleans and New York. In New Orleans, our apartment was really affordable (something like $40 a night) and in a great location. It was advertised as wheelchair accessible so, with that, there was a lift up to the apartment and it was flat inside. Unfortunately, my wheelchair didn’t fit through the doorframe of the bathroom which is, unusually, a common feature for bathrooms in foreign countries.  So, to overcome this, we moved a chair into the bathroom and I would hop from my chair to that chair, fold up my wheelchair and pull it in and then unfold it. Ta-dah! Obstacle overcome.
In New York, the prices for Air BnB are extortionate, especially if you need wheelchair access. Because so many of the accessible buildings were new or in expensive areas, it meant that it was very expensive to get anywhere suitable. I contacted the lovely people at Air BnB explaining our problem about NY and they gave us a voucher so we could find somewhere that properly suited. So thanks guys!
The NY Air BnB was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the building had a lift and it was all on one level inside.  Its bathroom was also big enough. Hurrah! For one room for three nights, the total damage was $390. Thanks to our voucher, we didn’t have to spend that much but in normal circumstances, that would have been way too much. So, yeah. Book NY carefully if you’re in a chair.

Hiring A Car
If you are going to “do” America, please hire a car. We booked two cars from two separate companies requesting hand controls so that I could share in the driving. We initially booked through Alamo and they placed the hand controls in the wrong place which meant that I could not use the car. However, when we booked through Hertz, they walked through exactly what I needed and where I needed them placed. Most car rental companies offer hand controls so if you’re booking an adapted car, make sure you specifically say what you need.

Greyhound Buses
Greyhound Buses are cheap, regular, have WiFi and GO EVERYWHERE. When you are booking, you have to phone up Greyhound to request a space for a wheelchair user. You have to be clear about what you actually need. Most of the buses have a lift so you and your chair can get on the bus. If you don’t want your chair on the bus, it can be stored underneath the bus but you must be clear that you need to use the lift if you cannot walk at all.

Swamp Tour in New Orleans

Accessible and Worthwhile Tourist Attractions
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – It’s free to visit and they have an access path going up to it. Beware of the fog. It will get you.

Disneyland Resort, California – Obviously, Disney is at the top of its game and almost all of the rides are accessible. Make sure you visit Disney’s City Hall at the start of your day to pick up the access guide.

Grand Canyon – To get into the Grand Canyon Park, you need to pay $25 if you are in a car and this will give you access for a week. If you are in a wheelchair, there is a car park very close to the canyon and they also have a map that points out accessible paths in and around the park.

Monument Valley – You get to drive through all of Monument Valley (for free!) It’s really worth doing. Just red rock and deep blue sky for miles and miles.

Barton Springs Pool, Austin, Texas – This outdoor natural spring pool is such a perfect way to spend a sunny day in Austin. For non-US residents, it’s $8 in and you can swim in fresh water. They have a wheelchair changing rooms, bathrooms and ramps. They also have an electrical chair that you can use to get into the water.

Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, New Orleans – This was such a great thing to do in New Orleans. In a boat, you go through the swamps and see alligators, wild pigs, racoons and swamp houses that can be accessed only by boat. It takes about an hour and it’s a really interesting tour.

The Salem Witch Walk – This was surprisingly a lot of fun. It started off with a magic ritual and then we walked Salem as our guide Sam told us the history of the village. It’s all on foot and it only gets a little bit uneven when you go into a graveyard.

Staten Island Ferry – It’s free and you get to see the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and, if you want, you can get out and see Staten Island. We didn’t do that. We just went along for the free ride.

 

About the author

Louise Bruton

Reviewing Dublin, step by step, in terms of wheelchair accessibility. Freelance journalist and pop culture enthusiast.

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