On the Road with Mobility-Challenged Travelers

It was my first journey with Road Scholar. I walked in to register at my hotel near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota and I saw an older woman with a walker signing the ledger in front of me. I wondered if she would be able to keep up with the group.

Imagine my surprise when she had most of the folks on our trip eating her dust as she zipped along the sidewalks, maneuvered stairs, and was first in line at every bison-spotting stop along the way. She was certainly an inspiration for the rest of us. But not everyone — or even most folks — can burn rubber like she did.

As travelers, you may be facing or may eventually face the question: what happens when you still have that urge to go but your bum knee or hip or other mobility slowdown prevents you from traveling in the way that you always have?


I know whereof I speak because, while I have long refused to admit the extent of my knee problems, I felt anxious on my last Road Scholar trip to Portugal. I considered the possibility that my difficulties would prevent me — and perhaps my fellow travelers — from enjoying the journey.

What I learned from my trip was to leave that guilt behind. There are usually others in the group who have similar concerns. And most folks will cheer you on.

After all, there is no shame in ratcheting down what you might have been able to do 40 years ago. Many of us face mobility challenges as we age. In fact, according to a United Nations Ageing and Disability report, more than 46 percent of those aged 60 and over have some kind of disability.

Perhaps what is most important is being honest about one’s abilities. That said, people seem to react to their disabilities in a variety of ways. I know some folks who seem as if they’re almost bionic; they have body parts replaced regularly and seem almost casual about it. And some stoics just grin and bear it (as one traveler told me, “After the trip, I was exhausted, but now I have wonderful memories”). And, of course, there are those who decide to avoid potential difficulties and not travel at all.


Check Out the Activity Levels

For those who have been hesitant to travel because of mobility issues, Road Scholar makes it possible to choose specific trips geared towards varying levels of activity challenges. Trips have descriptive categories for each listing, from Easy Going, with more than 70 choices (including Costa Rica at a Slower Pace) to On Your Feet, with programs like Winter in Spain, which includes walking from one to two miles per day. Keep the Pace has such listings as Ancestral Homelands: Hopi, Navaho, and Chaco Canyon, with a description of the activity level as “exploration of ruins requiring agility. Elevations up to 7,000-plus feet.”

Some programs, like the Odyssey ship journeys, have a Choose Your Pace level, with two activities available each day — one that has less walking and fewer stairs and another with a more active pace.

There are also several levels of outdoor travel, from Outdoor: No Sweat (Horses and Canoes: Summer Camp in the Ozarks with Your Grandchild) to Outdoor: Spirited (Rafting Grand Canyon’s Granite Gorge), and finally Outdoor: Challenging (Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and the description helpfully includes “Hiking up to six hours a day over varied terrain. Elevations up to 13,779 ft).

One example of Choose Your Pace for an outdoor trip one entitled Off the Map: Choose Your Pace Hiking and Camping Along the Rogue River, which enables travelers to choose from hiking and rafting options each day. The activity details state, “Depending on the day, hikes range from 2.2-6.3 miles on maintained trails with varied terrain.”

When in Doubt, Make a Personal Connection

If travelers have specific issues or questions, Lucy McClelland, Associate Vice President Participant Experience at Road Scholar, suggests that they get in touch directly with the company.

“Any time a participant has questions about whether they can manage the activities on a program,” she says, “they should call us. If they explain their situation and concerns, the Support Team will work with the Programs Team on how suitable the program is for that participant. We will work to identify any activities that may be challenging and if reasonable accommodations can be made on that program.”

Travelers Weigh In

Because I was interested in how Road Scholar participants with mobility challenges prepare for their travels, I took to social media. It turns out that many travelers have concerns about how they will do on travels that require walking, hiking, or biking.

One Road Scholar alumnus on my Facebook group, Bobbie Henry of Encinitas, California, discussed how she is preparing herself for her next trip:

“I’m signed up for Great American Get-Together in Santa Fe in April, which is Keep the Pace. I’m very energetic, but no longer very fast, since a hip replacement in Aug 2018.”

“But now I’m “in training” by forcing myself to speed up every time I’m in walking mode, whether strolling past the shops or walking around Target. Definitely improving! With physical therapy planned, I have high hopes for reversing my balance and strength issues.”

Anne Ziegler of Grand Junction, Colorado, said that she does not plan “to climb to Alps” because she has had bilateral knee replacements and knows what she can — and can’t — do. She likes Road Scholar because of the different levels of activities, and she describes her trips with them as “wonderful experiences.”

Jane Carroll of Silver Spring, Maryland was “scared to death to hold up everyone else,” so she went on a Road Scholar trip to the Alps at a slower pace prior to her knee replacements. She is planning a program in Spain at a slower pace as well as a journey to the Scottish Highlands this year.


Making the Journey Easier

What I gleaned from reading and talking to travelers was that, besides increasing activity in preparation for a journey, there are other methods to make a journey easier.

• Use a cross-body bag so that you have your hands free to carry lightweight luggage. And, of course, travel as light as you can so that you have constant control of what you have.

• Bring a cane, walker (or walker with wheels), walking sticks, or other equipment to help keep your balance. I sometimes use a portable folding seat/walking stick (available on Road Scholar). It certainly makes life easier knowing that you can rest when you like!

• Tell people when you need help! Lots of folks have issues that are not obvious at first glance, so communicating your needs is the best way to get support.

Taking the Leap and Doing What You Can

A mantra that some find useful is “I cannot do all I would like to do, but I will do what I can.” You always have a choice.

A lot of intrepid older travelers are independent, feisty, and courageous, and their ability to hunker down and get on with it is pretty amazing and inspirational to me. We travelers want to head out into the field, figuring out how to still see and experience what we’ve dreamed about all our lives. Where we go and how we maneuver may have changed, but limited mobility doesn’t mean limiting dreams or creative ways to solve problems.

By the way, I bit the bullet and am scheduled for knee replacement next month. I am scheduled to take a Road Scholar trip to Crete in early 2023. It will be the first Road Scholar trip I’m taking with my husband who has never been on a group trip, and I fully intend to write about his new experiences and new discoveries — and about old dogs learning new tricks. This trip is my goal for getting in fighting shape, and I can’t wait to begin the journey.


About the Author

Barbara Winard has earned degrees in English literature, journalism, and, later in life, gerontology. Although for the past 25 years she was a senior editor and writer of online encyclopedia articles for children. She began her solo travels in college, and after returning from a long trip to Asia, wandered off the street and was hired by the Asia Society in New York City to produce films and print materials for adults and children about Asian culture. She was also a producer and writer for New York City’s public television station, WNET/13. She lives in Historic New Castle, Delaware.