Planning on travelling to USA from Australia with a wheelchair. We have all the tips on access, bathrooms, security and more.
We’ve travelled as a family to the US many times now and we’ve learnt a thing or two which can make travel easier. So we’re sharing our tips in the hopes of making your travels smoother.
Travelling to USA from Australia – Wheelchair Access
Due to the high cost of medical intervention and care in the US, it can be the hardest destination to get cover if you have an existing medical condition. If I can give you one piece of advice, it’s to please get a quote to ensure you can get cover PRIOR to booking and paying for your trip. A quote costs you nothing, and it will give you the peace of mind that you can get insurance before paying money for your trip. Travelling to USA without insurance shouldn’t be an option.
ESTA – Visa Waiver
If you’re eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver program you must apply and pay for it in advance of your travel. Due to possible delays it’s advised you apply at the time of booking but the latest is 72 hours in advance.
Even if you’ve previously been approved for the ESTA, this is no guarantee of receiving it again. Apply early.
Fake sites offering the ESTA are listed on the internet. Ensure you use the US Government site
If your passport expires, remember a new passport means a new ESTA – renewing your passport voids your existing ESTA.
UNDERSTAND THE ADA
When you’re looking at hotel and attraction websites you may see a mention of it being “ADA compliant”.
ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act which became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
The ADA should only be used a guide. It’s imperative you ask questions in regard to access. An ADA room may not have a roll-in shower for example. I’ve seen an ADA room which has a bath with a bench over it for a person with a disability to transfer to for a shower. While this may be accessible for some it’s not accessible to all.
We find the ADA has paved the way for a general understanding in the US which we welcome when we travel.
TSA – Transportation Security Administration
If travelling to the US, ensure you lock your bag with a TSA recognised lock. The TSA screens all checked and carry-on baggage. Usually, the electronic screening allows the bags to be checked without being opened, but there are times when a piece of luggage needs further checking. The TSA has developed locks that can be opened by security officers using universal “master” keys, so the locks don’t need to be cut. The locks can be bought at most airports, luggage stores, Kathmandu and discount stores like Target and Big W.
With the unusual items we travel with, including a portable toilet, our luggage clearly looks suspicious as our bags have been opened several times. When a bag has been inspected a ”Notice of Baggage Inspection” note is left inside to let you know it’s been opened.
This doesn’t bother me in the least, I figure all these measures are in place to ensure traveller’s safety.
It’s good to know security is tight in the US, especially given events which have been happening right around the world. Tight measures do mean travellers need to allow additional time to visit major attractions and to clear airport security.
Whether you’re visiting Disneyland, the Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial or going through the airport, allow plenty of time to clear security. Many attractions have airport-style security meaning you need to remove your jacket, scarf and put your bags through an x-ray machine.
The Australian dollar is currently weak against the US dollar which means it’s good to hunt around for the best exchange rate. As soon as we know we are travelling to the US, I start watching the exchange rate. Even if you plan on using your credit card when you travel, you will need some cash. We have found some outlets in the US will only accept cash and others are cashless, so it’s best to have a bit of both. I also make sure we get some dollar bills for tipping.
As a general rule, avoid exchanging your money at the airport. I usually use Travelex online and have it delivered to our local post office. Otherwise I check the rate at our local shopping centre and use one of the money exchange outlets.
My mobile plan isn’t good for travel overseas so I usually keep my phone in aeroplane mode for my travels and purchase a local sim. On my last trip I checked the cost of a local sim at Los Angeles Airport and it was inflated. I planned to get one at a T-Mobile outlet at a mall, as I had in New York last year, but I was only travelling for a week and found with the hotel WIFI, convention WIFI and other hot spots I didn’t need it.
When I was in the US for 10 days and using Google maps and looking up attractions I found the $40 plan with T-Mobile to be excellent. Take a look online before you travel and locate your closest T-Mobile or AT&T store to your hotel and get it day one to make the most of the deal.
The current situation with the exchange rate means that finding good value is important. When you are losing approximately 30 cents in every dollar, it adds up quickly. If you’re looking for clothing head to the outlets. They provide the best value shopping, particularly if you’re buying in the opposite season (ie when it’s the US summer and you are purchasing winter clothes you’ll do even better). Look for the sale rack at the back of every store if you can’t get to the outlets. That’s where you’ll find lots of bargains.
If you have a US phone number, let staff sign you up to their loyalty programs as they often offer discounts up to 20% for your first purchase. It all counts.
Most stores have one section of the counter at a lowered height for wheelchair users.
Tax is added to many things in the US, including your hotel bill and this is unavoidable. But it’s important to understand that some hotels will add a ‘resort fee’ or ‘facilities fee’ to the advertised room rate. These fees aren’t to be sneezed at when they are around USD$30 per night. At the current exchange rate that adds around $45 a night to your hotel cost.
On my recent trip to the US I learnt some areas don’t charge this fee. For example, if you stay in New Jersey rather than Manhattan there is no resort fee. A 6 minute ferry ride links you to Manhattan (and yes, it is accessible, I checked). The rooms are traditionally bigger in this area of New York and the room rate is cheaper per night.
If you’re on a tight budget, it’s worth considering travelling a little further for the savings. Travelling six minutes in a ferry which gives you fab views of the Manhattan skyline doesn’t seem a bad way to save money.
As in Australia, US hotels ask for a credit card on arrival for any additional charges or “incidentals”. At the time of taking your credit card details they place a holding amount against your card. This can be a couple of hundred dollars or sometimes more. While this is released on your check out if not used, be aware it can take days or the bank to return it as credit to your card. Ensure you have enough credit for your travels to take into account these hold amounts. I mistakenly gave my pre-loaded travel money card as the hold and it resulted in me being unable to use the cash I’d transferred to the card for many days.
PUBLIC TOILETS (RESTROOMS)
When looking for a stand alone accessible toilet, it’s good to know these are usually either known as Companion Restrooms or Family Restrooms. Stores like GAP and Nordstroms are often good places to head for a good stand alone accessible bathroom.
At the theme parks there are Companion Restrooms but if you need to change an older child or adult, head straight to First Aid where they can accommodate you with a change bed.
While tipping in Australia is something we do as a sign of appreciation of good service, it’s part of the culture in the US. I often hear Aussies complaining about tipping but I think it’s important to understand work conditions and wages are not the same as here. Staff in restaurants and other lower paid jobs really depend on tips to make a living.
In some US tourist areas it’s customary to add the gratuity to the bill automatically. It’s important to check your bill carefully so you don’t double tip. It’s also common place in popular tourist areas to put a suggested gratuity on the bill (as pictured above). I would say a 10-20% tip is expected by Taxi drivers and restaurant staff. The general rule I work with for luggage is $1 per bag but I have noticed staff are also fine with you managing your own bags if you wish to do so.
Though we share a language it’s important to remember our accent can throw Americans. I often find people take a minute to work out what I’ve said. I find it easier if I use American terminology when I ask for things ie a hot tea (in Australia I’d just ask for tea), restroom (I’d usually say toilet), cell phone (instead of mobile), store instead of shop and line instead of queue. Whether you love it or hate it the word handicapped is still regularly used ie handicapped room. I don’t use it but I thought I’d mention you may come across it being used in your travels.
The way you phrase a question may seem like a small thing, but using the local lingo can make for quicker communication and smoother travels. And an added bonus is no-one will look at you like you’re an alien when you ask for something.
IN AN EMERGENCY
If the worst should happen dial 911 for assistance.
CVS and Rite-Aid pharmacy have a wide range of medical supplies you’d find over the counter in Australia.
We find people extremely helpful and friendly and we always have a great time when we travel to the US. We hope our tips help you with your planning.
If you live in the US and have any tips please feel free to share them in comments. If you’re an Aussie or live somewhere other than the US and have a tip to share we’d also love to hear it.