ESTA Travel Blogs

06 Jan

ESTA Travelling to the USA with a Disability

Whether its a mobility or a sensory difficulty, we are taking a look at some of the issues facing disabled travelers - and sharing some tips for ensuring great trips for all. The first thing to get out of the way is your ESTA, which will allow you to travel to the USA without a visa.

To get your ESTA, you won’t need to make any phone calls or visit any embassies! Instead, you just need to fill in the ESTA application online. Every person traveling in your party needs to have an individual ESTA application, but it’s also perfectly possible to fill in this ESTA application on behalf of another person if need be.

The States has many wonderful, fully accessible destinations. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which specifically prohibits discrimination in transport and public accommodation, huge improvements have been made - not only to the transport networks and hotels, but to all the cities and tourist hotspots and National Monuments too.

For those in search of spectacular scenery, Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser, for instance, have fully paved level access, as do many of the most popular parks. For great scenic ideas, check out the government’s very helpful National Park Services website. In its centennial year, what better excuse to go and explore the wild and beautiful National Park offerings?

For city lovers, New York has wide, flat sidewalks and all it’s crossings have low kerbs. Every one of MTA’s fleet of 4300 buses has a lift, and all Amtrak train stations are accessible - no problem getting to Long Island, Washington DC or the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. 

For a lesser visited city, try San Diego; with its year-round warm sunshine, (18-27 degrees Celsius) you’ll want to make use of the endless miles of beachfront promenade. Mission Beach here even offers motorized beach wheelchairs. And away from the beach, the historic Gaslamp quarter is very wheelchair friendly and so is the huge Balboa Park, where you’ll find the zoo. Getting around San Diego is made easy by the fully accessible tram (trolley) network too.

Taking the pace a notch upwards, Las Vegas is known as one of the best cities to visit for ease of access. All its major destinations are equipped - and with a flat, compact layout and resort style living, no wonder it comes up time and time and again on chatrooms as a favorite destination of visitors with impairments.

Families travelling to Disney World or any of the Orlando theme parks will find themselves at the front of the queue for rides, and very well looked after if any off their party has a member with additional needs. Or how about a California based, wine-tasting themed holiday? Surrounded by mountains, with a flat valley floor, Sonoma is fast becoming a must-visit spot. Its historic plaza has renowned restaurants and one-of-a-kind quaint shops which are all easily accessible. Wineries, restaurants, shops, and country inns dot the landscape with the vast majority having been renovated or built new for accessibility. The Buena Vista Winery, California’s oldest winery founded in 1857, recently completed a massive ADA upgrade, incorporating ramps and elevators to make tours, tastings, and restrooms accessible to all. With Mediterranean temperatures rarely below freezing, Sonoma Valley is an idyllic, accessible, year round destination.

If you enjoy train travel, one of the best options is taking the famous Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies. The train is wheelchair-accessible throughout, and the views will have you mesmerized.



The first and most basic rule to your successful holiday is plan, plan, plan. Tell everyone in advance what you will need. This includes your ESTA, airline, car hire, hotel, holiday venue, restaurant - all of them. Help them understand what they can do in order for you to be able to use their service like any other customer - after all, it’s your right and it’s good business sense for them too.  Experience shows that the vast majority of people genuinely want everything to go well for you, and will do their best to make this happen. They need your help though, everyone’s needs are unique to them, no two disabled travelers will have exactly the same requirements. If you need a photo of the bathroom to see whether the grab rails will be of any use to you, don’t be shy, ask for one!

Let’s take a look at taking your wheelchair on a flight. Well, you probably know already that you won’t be sitting in THAT seat onboard! No, like everyone else, you will be squashed into a slightly-too-small fixed seat on the plane. For some disabled or older travelers, that’s fine, for other’s that’s a big problem. Perhaps your wheelchair is the one place you can be reasonably comfortable - or even able to stay in a sensible upright sitting position - what are you going to do when the flight attendant wants to whip it away and put it in with the suitcases? Maybe too, that cushion in your wheelchair is the one thing between you and a pressure sore -  perhaps it’s enough to make you think you'd be better off staying at home. Not so. The good news is that airlines do allow your special cushion on board, as well as a harness if that’s what you need to stay upright in your plane seat. And you will be given help to fit them, and to get yourself from your wheelchair to the plane seat, just book it first! Don’t be shy about giving clear instructions to the helpers - for the best way to help you onto the plane seat, how to place your cushion, or how to fold your wheelchair for the trip. If people are likely to find your speech difficult to understand, get it written down in advance!

As well as the main international airlines, all of the airlines in the States have and make available a clear policy for meeting the needs of passengers with disabilities, so you can expect the same high standards when taking internal flights too.

So now you’re comfortably seated for your flight. Let’s be direct here, if you’ve just overcome any or all of the above problems, you’d better not need to use that tiny bathroom! So do what you have to do - come prepared for this situation. See your doctor. You’ll be amazed at what can be done with pills and products these days …

For a more in-depth look at what you can expect in terms of security checkpoints once you've landed in the States, the US Transport Security Administration can answer questions about screening, security and what to expect on arrival. See TSA's rules, and the Aviation Consumer Protection Division has a comprehensive guide to the rights of air travelers with disabilities.

Flying to the States for onward cruise travelling is becoming very popular and is a great option for anyone with a physical or sensory impairment. Cruises used to have the reputation as the favorite choice of an older, richer clientele. This has certainly changed in recent years, but it does mean that cruise operators were early starters in the race to meet the needs of all their customers, and their investments and years of experience are paying off. Cruise holidays are fast gaining the new reputation of being one of the easiest ways of ensuring a fantastic, smooth trip for those with mobility or health issues. For example, if it’s a holiday incorporating a range of beautiful Caribbean Islands you are after, there couldn't be a more straightforward way to organize it.

The benefits of thorough planning cannot be stressed enough, and are the number one key to ensuring that your trip to the United States is a success. As well as everything we’ve mentioned here, another essential component of planning is getting your ESTA sorted out! As a tourist, you can travel with ESTA for periods of up to 90 days at a time, and it stays valid for two years (unless your passport expires in this time).


So there you have it. A brief overview and a few ideas for some great holiday options in the States if you are travelling with ‘extras’. The world has never been more open and accessible to all. So do your research, plan - and then go for it!