Rheumatoid Arthritis: Road, Rail, and Water Travel Tips
Whether you travel by car, train, boat, or bus, RA requires special considerations.
By Carol Eustice
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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Going somewhere? If you are traveling anytime soon and you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), there's a lot to consider. Besides thinking of everything you’ll need away from home, such as assistive devices, you will have to make provisions for your needs in transit. If you plan to take a cruise, train, bus, or even drive your own car, there are steps you can take to make the trip manageable.
When Considering a Cruise
Numerous cruise lines vie for your business. You will want to find out if they are accessible for disabled travelers. Newer ships are likely to have more wheelchair-accessible staterooms, as well as wider door frames and hallways to accommodate wheelchairs, accessible showers, lower sinks, and other amenities that enhance a safe and comfortable experience.
Older or smaller cruise ships may not have all the accessibility features you need, so do your homework. You will likely be on the cruise ship for several days, so it's important to get everything just right.
Accessibility Requirements for Ships Using U.S. Ports
In 2005, as a result of a Supreme Court case, the Americans With Disabilities Act (originally passed in 1990) was extended to require cruise lines whose ships travel to and from ports in the United States to provide accessibility features such as grab bars, handrails, and water fountains at wheelchair height.
But the court stopped short of requiring cruise lines to make major structural changes. You can’t assume everything is up to par. Check online for deck plans before you book a cruise. You should also check accessibility at ports of call. Beware of itineraries that include tenders — smaller boats to get passengers from the anchor point to shore at ports of call.
Consult the website of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to for help getting ready for your cruise.
Points to remember when planning a cruise:
- After booking a cruise, you will be asked to complete a form detailing the equipment and assistance you need.
- Review the policies of the cruise line. Some cruise . Certain services for people with disabilities must be arranged 30 to 60 days in advance of the trip.
- Interested in using a scooter for the ship’s long corridors? Check out Special Needs at Sea, a provider of equipment that can be rented (and delivered) for use on the cruise.
When Considering a Train Trip
Your home location will influence how many options you have. Depending on where you will be traveling, you may have one or more rail systems to choose from. You will need to determine whether they offer boarding assistance, accessible room accommodations, and accessible space for wheeled mobility devices. Some railways may only offer cars retrofitted with wheelchair tie-downs.
Documentation and Certification Requirements
Up until 14 days prior to departure, Amtrak allows only passengers who require a wheeled mobility device to reserve an accessible bedroom; after 14 days, all rooms are first come, first served. You must prove when making your reservation that you need one or more of the accessible features of the room, and you must also show your documentation of disability at the ticket counter and when boarding.
Approved documentation may include a letter from your doctor, a Medicare card, Veteran’s Administration ID, a Disabled Parking placard from the DMV, or a transit system ID card for disabled persons. Make sure you have the documents required by whichever company you're traveling with.
When Considering a Bus Trip or Tour
Space may be the biggest inconvenience associated with bus travel. You will need to determine if the bus has accessible seats available, as well as space to store your mobility aid. Your ability to board the bus must be considered. There are low-floor buses with boarding ramps that can be used when requested. Older high-floor buses should have a power lift for people who cannot board using the stairs. Ask questions to be sure your comfort and safety can be ensured.
If You Drive
There several benefits to driving yourself to your destination or being a passenger in a car. You can easily take everything you will need with you. You control the schedule and itinerary and can be flexible. You can stop where and when you need to. Just be sure that the place where you will be staying, whether it is with family and friends or in a hotel, will meet your needs.
The Benefits of Hiring a Travel Agent
It really can be overwhelming to plan a trip. Turning over the un-fun part to a travel agent might be smart.
Heather Cross, a travel consultant and the owner of Vacations by Heather, explains why someone with RA should consider using a travel agent: “As a travel agent, I listen to my client’s needs and concerns and try to anticipate things that they may not even think about, which is particularly helpful for clients with special requirements and mobility concerns,” Cross says.
She offers new clients a vacation planning session to discuss travel style, special needs, and budget.
“In many cases I’ve been to the properties I recommend to clients, so I will know if there are lots of stairs to get to the beach, whether there is shuttle service around the property, or how sprawling the property is, if that’s an issue for the client. I have a client with RA who is affected by the heat, so I always make sure to recommend properties that have plenty of shady areas.”
Travel agents have a breadth of knowledge that may save you time and worry — and may even save you money.
“In most cases, it doesn’t cost clients any extra," Cross says. "I get paid a commission by the property or supplier that we use to book the trip. I think the personalized service that I offer my clients and support throughout the trip make my clients come back to me again and again.”
Consulting an industry professional may give you some leverage in gaining accommodations.
“I reach out to the resort ahead of my clients’ arrival to make sure that all their special requests are conveyed to the property, and I find that my ongoing relationships with the hotels and resorts makes them take excellent care of my clients,” Cross explains.
“As I get to know my clients, I understand their needs, as well as what they like and dislike when they travel, so I’m able to make tailored recommendations for them.”
Perhaps the most valuable perk: backup. If a client runs into problems during travel, Cross is available to support them and help make adjustments.
RA Travel Musts for Happy Trails
Whether you use a travel agent or do the trip planning yourself, don’t forget this must-do list:
- Take along essential assistive equipment or arrange to rent it, but don’t try to do without.
- Pack medications in a bag that stays with you, including enough to get you through an emergency situation.
- Pack light and use lightweight luggage. Consider purchasing the newer style “spinner” luggage on four or five wheels that you push rather than pull.
- Keep water and snacks with you.
- Carry your health insurance cards.
- Put together an emergency phone number list of people you can contact when you reach your destination and people back home who may need to be notified.
- Carry contact information for Uber, Lyft, and local taxicab services.
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