Managing Vacations for Seniors With Limited Mobility

In this article...
  • Can seniors with age-related disabilities still travel like they used to? Learn how to plan and enjoy great vacations for seniors with limited mobility.
Retired couple leaning on a fence at the beach

The freedom to travel is one of the pleasures older adults enjoy. Traditionally, people aged 50 and over have been the most likely segment of society to travel, thanks to their higher than average earnings and free time. Many seniors spend the last years of their working lives looking forward to traveling throughout their retirement. These plans can be interrupted by the physical and mental disabilities that sometimes come with age. Fortunately, you don't have to let restricted mobility limit your ability to visit the places you've dreamed of seeing all your life. Managing vacations for seniors with limited mobility is easier today than ever before. 

Help Planning the Trip

Trip planning is the first challenge for people managing vacations for seniors with limited mobility. Aging citizens whose physical limits make it difficult to get to appointments may wish to skip the travel agent's office and book their travel online. The internet has made this easier than ever before, but many seniors are more comfortable with offline planning and phone conversations. Most travel agents in the United States offer phone service, and some tour companies are even in the habit of sending representatives to private homes and assisted living communities to help seniors book trips.

However you make the arrangements, there is no downside to extensive planning before the departure date. As a rule, the earlier you plan your trip, the more likely you are to find reasonably priced accommodations that work with your disability. While most U.S.-based cruise companies build accessibility into their ship designs — and it's common for American vacation destinations to offer extensive access and support accommodations — many European and other overseas destinations have only one or two accessible rooms per hotel. The earlier you book your accommodations, the more likely you are to find something that's available in your price range.

Special Travel Arrangements for Limited Mobility

Special arrangements often have to be made for travelers with limited mobility. Sometimes these arrangements require calling ahead to make sure an amenity is available where you want to go, while other arrangements are things you can handle for yourself.

Pack carefully for your trip. Many seasoned travelers with limited mobility recommend switching to a lightweight, foldable wheelchair if you have one. This may be slightly less comfortable than your regular chair, but it is vastly easier to pack onto a plane, train or the roof of a car at your destination. Likewise, if you carry a cane, look into using a lightweight collapsible aluminum model that can be stored in carry-on luggage.

If you plan to participate in a tour, call ahead and ask whether the tour is accessible for seniors with limited mobility. Reputable tour companies generally have reliable information about how demanding their tours can be, as well as staff available who can assist mobility-limited visitors during the difficult parts.

If, for example, your tour package in Costa Rica includes a visit to the Bijagual Waterfall, you can ask whether the 2- to 3-hour hike through the rainforest is on a wide enough path for wheelchairs or mobility scooters. Even if the answer is no, the tour company might still be able to make alternative arrangements for you, such as assigning an attendant to help you over the rough parts of the trail.

Accommodations for Guests with Disabilities

Public accommodations in the United States are generally subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates full accessibility for people with all types of mobility limitations. This makes booking a hotel relatively easy for seniors with limited mobility. Overseas, the picture changes and you can't always be guaranteed reasonable accommodations. While many first world countries make an effort at accessibility that rivals the United States, poorer countries rarely have reliable ramp and elevator access, which can make visiting them difficult for many seniors.

As always, call ahead to ask about accessibility and accommodations. If you are booking a package trip, your agent should have all the information you need to know, though in many cases it's worthwhile to call the specific hotels and even transportation carriers before you leave home. While most tour companies and hospitality workers do their best to improvise solutions for their guests, it's always better to know in advance so you can plan ahead.

Special Meals, Sleeping Arrangements and Other Must-Haves

Managing vacations for seniors with limited mobility isn't just about wheelchair ramps and spacious seating on tour buses. Many disabling conditions require special meals, sleeping arrangements and other accommodations. Seniors with sleep apnea, for example, often require a stable electricity supply overnight for breathing aids. Seniors with diabetes also commonly need access to blood testing supplies and safe disposal for sharps and biohazardous materials. Remember to ask your travel agent or tour company about any special needs you have.

Serving Medical Needs Abroad

Apart from access and comfort needs, many seniors with conditions that limit their mobility have unique medical needs that can be difficult to meet while traveling. Most American seniors participate in the federal Medicare program, which can generally ensure access to urgent and emergency care across the United States.

Outside of the United States, medical access can be uncertain. Except in very limited circumstances, Medicare is not able to pay for care provided outside of the country. Seniors who develop sudden medical needs while traveling through Canada, for example, or who are aboard a cruise ship within hours of a U.S. port, or who must travel across the border to get to the nearest hospital in an emergency may be covered by their Medicare plans. Otherwise, beneficiaries are likely to be responsible for their medical costs.

Seniors who are enrolled in a Medigap supplemental plan may get some help with medical care overseas. Medigap plans C, D, F, G, M and N are all available for eligible Medicare participants, and all offer at least some foreign travel emergency coverage. Medigap plans E, H, I and J have been discontinued and are no longer available to new enrollees, though seniors who still have these plans can also generally get up to 80% of their overseas medical costs covered. Note that any care these plans pay for must be covered by Original Medicare, and that repayment usually follows the reimbursement model.

Managing Vacations for Seniors with Limited Mobility Due to Mental or Cognitive Issues

Some mobility limitations are related to Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and other conditions related to age. Seniors with age-related cognitive issues can still enjoy vacations with caregivers and responsible family members, though it may be necessary to budget for a second person. Some airlines, bus companies and hotels do offer discount or free accommodations for caregivers traveling with a dependent senior, though this policy is not universal and may not be available at all in a destination country.