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Traveling with a Bad Back

Regardless of overall health or age, many travelers endure back problems of varying severity. And it doesn’t take much of a problem to curtail what you can comfortably do while you’re traveling. If you have any degree of difficulty, you need to minimize your exposure to potential barriers.

Stairs are among the most common—and most troublesome—barriers to anyone with a bad back. Staircases are bad enough when you aren’t encumbered, and they can be a real problem when you’re schlepping baggage. A few weeks ago I wrote about the hassle a traveler with a bad back faced in getting a refund for a nonrefundable room in a multistory hotel that turned out to have no elevator. The lesson there—worth emphasizing—is that you have to read all the fine print before you pay for a nonrefundable room, and whatever is not promised may not be available. You have to be especially careful at a vacation rental, budget hotel, or bed and breakfast: Some of them can be pretty funky. I recently stayed at a budget hotel in Rome that promised an elevator, but the elevator went only as low as the first floor (second floor by U.S. terms), and you had to climb a long staircase to get from the lobby to the first floor.

If your accommodation isn’t nonrefundable you have more leverage. You can ask for whatever you need—a room on a lower floor, stall shower, or whatever. If you’re in serious trouble, book an “accessible” room when you reserve, or ask for one when you check into the hotel.

For some seniors, deep, step-in bathtubs can be a problem, especially those with curved bottoms. Overall, a stall shower is much easier.

Whatever your particular problem, the basic rule of accommodations is simple: You can’t count on anything that isn’t specifically mentioned in the fine print. If you aren’t sure about a hotel or rental that looks attractive, check with the accommodation directly to make sure before you buy—especially with a nonrefundable.

A few airports can present problems. These days, most airports provide adequate elevator or escalator facilities, but you occasionally encounter one big exception. In some small airports in the United States, and even some large ones in Europe and Asia, you may have to load from the tarmac. The airport may or may not provide an elevator from the departure jetway level to the tarmac, but you almost always have to climb an external stair to reach the cabin. I know of no sure defense against this problem: Typically, you don’t know what you’ll face until you get to the airport.

Public transit can also present challenges. Newer transit systems, such as Atlanta’s MARTA, the Los Angeles Red Line, San Francisco’s BART, and Washington’s Metro provide elevators or escalators at all stations. But older systems can pose problems. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco’s Muni Metro show “accessible” stations on maps; other cities post online lists. London posts a special map showing the various forms of no-stair access to the Underground.

Light rail systems are inconsistent: Some use high-level platforms that typically provide no-stair access to vehicles, and those that primarily board on curbside or low platforms are increasingly turning to low-level cars that you can board in one easy step. But others require you to climb aboard. Most big light rail and bus systems offer “accessible” vehicles, but those are often geared to wheelchair use, not to ambulatory travelers with less severe back problems.

All in all, if you’re saddled with more than minor backaches and pain, you have to plan your travels to minimize challenges:

  • Before you book, make sure any accommodation avoids any problems you might face and provides whatever facilities you need.
  • Wherever you’re going, check your destinations’ websites to find out just how senior friendly the airport and the access system really are. If you see a problem at an airport, ask for a wheelchair. And if the transit system looks too challenging, plan on using taxis.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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