“I have to admit that I get knots in my stomach every time I go traveling,” says David Bexfield, founder of Active MSers and essentially the Indiana Jones of travelers with multiple sclerosis (MS). He was first diagnosed with MS in 2006 and has insisted, before and ever since, on living his life without limits. Bexfield has even explored far-flung destinations like Machu Pichu, climbing its ruins, stone by stone, on his butt. And while this indomitable adventurer has built a brawny brand of advocacy and encouragement around all forms of living strong with the disease, it’s important to note that even he confesses to occasional jitters.
That’s because traveling with MS, while achievable and immensely rewarding, is also challenging at every level. It’s a prize hard won, and yet a prize worth seeking. Domestic travel may be the perfect starting point to reignite every person’s travel dreams, even those with a chronic condition that can sometimes slow them down. From accessible cities rich in history and culture, to paddling adventures on American rivers and lakes, to snorkeling and encountering marine wildlife in crystalline waters, to yes, even a joyous romp in a wholly accessible waterpark—parents, are you listening?—these MS-friendly escapes beckon. “Don’t underestimate your ability to get out and see the world,” Bexfield says.
And about those jitters: One surefire way to conquer them is to do a little advance planning. So let's cover those before we dive into the fun stuff!
Tips for MS Travelers
“It’s not really about the type or form of MS that makes travel challenging” says Staci Nonoguchi, Recreation Therapist at the Marilyn Hilton MS Achievement Center (MSAC) at University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s about what symptoms the person has.” Indeed, the general symptoms that can accompany every from of multiple sclerosis—mobility and cognitive issues, heat and cold intolerance, fatigue, and bowel and bladder issues—can have a major impact on how challenging a trip of any style of length can be. Nonoguchi adds that budget constraints and caregiver needs may play a role as well.
When a person with MS ponders travel, therefore, it should be with addressing specific needs along each of those factors. If you’re still walking with forearms crutches, you may not need to advocate for wheelchair accessible bathrooms and hotel rooms. On the other hand, you should consider using wheelchairs for long hauls through airports, advises Bexfield, to “save your energy for the good stuff.” If your mobility needs do require a wheelchair, make phone calls to your planned destinations to get real descriptions of room configurations, bathroom configurations, and ramps. It may feel like a lot of work up front, Bexfield says, but it will pay off in spades when things roll out as they should.
If overheating is an issue, plan destinations that are mild and offer reprieve, whether with shady conditions, air conditioning, or an accessible swimming pool. Also, consider traveling with a lightweight cooling vest—worn over clothing and containing insulated pockets with ice packs to help keep your body temperature down—that can be an indispensable wardrobe addition for anyone with MS.
If you anticipate the possibility of cognitive fogs, bring a companion who can help advise and keep track of paperwork and logistics. And embrace all of it, Nonoguchi says, with an attitude that looks forward, not backward. “Say to yourself that you want to travel and are open to travelling a little differently than before developing MS,” she says.
Then, she adds, it’s all about looking for destinations, hotels, restaurants, modes of transportation, and tour operators that have clear, helpful service that accommodates your needs. With that in mind, these 10 great American spots are ready to be your next great vacation.
Go Camping (and Traverse Treetops) in the Adirondacks
New York’s romantic region of granite peaks and deeply forested valleys—located just five and a half hours north of New York City—is home to a barrier-free campground and a breathtaking new attraction that allows people with MS to move—literally—among the treetops. Set on Grampus Lake, International Paper John Dillon Park has 3 miles of barrier-free trails that are gently sloped with grades of less than 6%, plus nine fully accessible lean-to camping structures, as well as platforms for tent camping. Those who are up for roughing it can sleep on ground-level platforms (but do make sure you feel comfortable to get that crucial night’s rest). Need a proper bed? No worries. You can enjoy John Dillon Park during the day and rest up at a conventional and accessible hotel—see our resource guide for how to find the right one.
Take a day to explore nearby Wild Walk, a new trail of elevated paths and bridges—inspired by Manhattan’s High Line—among white pine treetops at the Wild Center. The main path through the trees, from the trail leading to Feeder Alley to a viewing pod on the final tower platform is accessible (although some side paths are suspension bridges and stairs). Manual wheelchairs and walkers are available for loan free of charge, and a power scooter is available by reservation.
When to go: Spring, Summer, or Fall. Plan for: 2-3 days. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Hotels prices vary; see our accessibility resource guide. Access and overnights at John Dillion Park are free. Wild Center admission: youth (5-17), $15; adults (18-64), $22; seniors (65+), $20.
Explore the Florida Keys
This unique ecosystem of coral and limestone islets that dangle enticingly from the toe of Florida are a fantastic mild-weather escape during bone-chilling winter weathers up north. For a real Keys experience, head offshore from Key Largo with Tranquil Adventures, captain Mick Nealey’s remarkable small charter service that is fully accessible for wheelchairs of every size and kind (and is credited with a truly wheelchair-accommodating bathroom on board, a rarity among charter boats). Further, Nealey adapts classic Keys activities like fishing, snorkeling, and sightseeing around the islands of Everglades National Park (including lolling about in those lovely waters) for clients of every ability—perfect for the traveler with MS, especially with the cooling effects of being on or in the water.
Plan a second day for visiting Island Dolphin Care (also in Key Largo), a center for therapy programs involving these remarkable sea mammals. Take a tour of the fully wheelchair-accessible center to see the animals up close, learn about how dolphins can be partners in therapies for many populations, and check out the invertebrate touch tank and aquariums.
When to go: Winter, Spring, or Fall. Plan for: 2-3 days. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Hotels prices vary; see our accessibility resource guide. Tranquil Adventures base rates are $350/half day and $500/full day; special rates for veterans and people with disabilities are available. Tours of Island Dolphin Care are $18 per person.
Hit the Beach in Sarasota
How cool—literally—to discover that one of the most beautiful beaches in the country is also one of the most accessible. With its bone-white sands, Siesta Beach is a beach-lovers heaven on the glittering Gulf of Mexico. The centerpiece here is a 400-foot-long, five-foot-wide Mobi mat—a portable roll-out pathway that’s carefully cleaned and kept very even, which makes walking or rolling to water’s edge a much less demanding task. Beach wheelchairs are available that can take on a little splashing (but shouldn’t go in the water) from beach concessions from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., if you’re up for some salt and surf. (And here’s a dinner conversation-starter: Siesta Key was named one of the most accessible beaches in the world by accessibleGO, an excellent travel platform that partners with the NMSS and other organizations.)
For a day (or two!) of culture and air conditioning, The Ringling complex is home to both an art and a circus museum, a rose garden, and a gorgeous historic mansion built by the circus impresario himself. It offers accessible trams (albeit with somewhat steep wheelchair ramps) that link the facilities. Finally, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a lush retreat—with paved paths and ramps at all buildings—filled with cool shade, which is a lovely way to keep from overheating, even on a warm Florida day.
When to go: Winter, Spring, or Fall. Plan for: 2-5 days—there is so much to see and do in Sarasota, so take several days and take your time! Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Hotels prices vary; see our accessibility resource guide. Museum admission at the Ringling includes entry to the Museum of Art and Circus Museum: child (6-17), $5; adult (18-64), $25; senior (65+), $23. Admission to Ca’ d’Zan historic mansion’s 1st floor is an additional $10. Note: The mansion provides a limited number of smaller-scale wheelchairs for better access. Personal care assistants are admitted free. Admission to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: youth (4-17), $15; adults, $25.
Revel in History and Sail in Rhode Island
It may be the smallest state in the U.S., but Rhode Island overflows with historic, cultural, and recreational options for travelers who are craving a dose of classic New England. Thank goodness for MS DreamCenter, the state’s local MS support organization, which built a fantastic local travel website with reviews of more than 1,500 restaurants, museums, cinemas, and wellness and cultural sites for locals and visitors with MS and other disabilities.
Start with Newport, that famed historic city by the sea. Accessible RI executive director Don Perna recommends visiting the opulent Breakers mansion for a tour or the International Tennis Hall of Fame to explore its historic grounds and museum and enjoy a cool lunch in its café, combined with a leisurely drive along Ocean Drive to gape at Newport’s many private mansions. All of these sites are wholly accessible to the needs of MS travelers, he says. For another only-in-Newport experience, check out Sail to Prevail’s renowned adaptive sailing programs, which can be personalized to any form of physical and cognitive ability (and sailing experience). All facilities are 100% accessible, including extra-wide docks with ramps, hydraulic lifts, and transfer benches to the boats. The boats themselves are custom-built to accommodate sailors (and family!) of all abilities. The summer program books quickly, and online registration opens March 1st.
When to go: Spring, Summer, or Fall. Plan for: 2-4 days. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Hotels prices vary; see our accessibility resource guide. Admission to The Breakers: youth $8; adult $26. International Tennis Hall of Fame: youth (12 and under), free; adult, $16; senior (62+), $13. Sail to Prevail programs cost $70 per boat (including an instructor on board) per two hours.
See the Best of Seattle
Leave it to Sylvia Longmire, a U.S. Air Force veteran who was diagnosed with MS in 2005, to show you how to get the most out of a destination. Longmire, who runs Spin the Globe, loves this Pacific Northwest city for its mild summer temperatures, and she loves that it serves as a central embarkation for Alaska cruises (which she points out are very wheelchair-accessible). In fact, the whole city has open arms, making it one of her 10 Wheelchair Accessible Cities in the World to Visit in 2020.
On her Seattle hit list: the Space Needle (with an amazing stair lift, she says); Chihuly Garden and Glass, an outdoor sculpture park featuring the famed glass artist’s creations, where works of art are far enough from the edges of the displays that you won’t worry about hitting or breaking anything with your wheelchair; and the fully accessible ferry to nearby Bainbridge Island. The tour of Puget Sound offers a great way to save energy while enjoying some gorgeous scenery with cool wind on your cheeks.
When to go: Spring, Summer, or Fall. Plan for: 2-5 days. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Hotels prices vary; see our accessibility resource guide. Admission to Space Needle: youth (5-12), $28.50; regular, $37.50; senior (65+), $32.50. Chihuly Garden & Glass: youth, $19; regular, $13; senior, $27. Space Needle + Chihuly Garden and Glass bundle: youth, $39; regular, $59; senior, $49. Bainbridge Ferry: disabled riders $4.30 (half of the adult fare.
Get Adventurous on Maui
If there’s ever been a place to challenge yourself and get a little adventure on side, it’s the paradisiacal island of Maui. Wheel the World, an accessible travel outfitter, curates an itinerary (you drive yourself in an accessible van) that includes an adapted surf and beach day, a Haleakala volcano and luau day, and a kayaking day. All programs are tailored for clients’ needs with special adaptive equipment and guides, so you can be confident that your physical, cognitive, and bathroom needs are covered (call them to fine-tune your entire itinerary). Accommodations selected by Wheel the World are also fully accessible.
When to go: Hawaii is mild and gorgeous year-round, but April through May and September through November are a bit quieter, making for easier travel overall. Plan for: 4-7 days (The itinerary adventure is 4 days, but don’t you want a little downtime in paradise on either side?) Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Rates start at $1,745 per person, not including airfare, travel insurance, lunch and dinner, and tips.
Do the National Park Thing at Yellowstone
One of the best places to visit with MS, says David Bexfield of ActiveMSers.org, is a national or state park, which are generally easily navigable and drivable. Bexfield thinks Yellowstone National Park—the nation’s very first, created in 1872—is one of the most accommodating he’s ever visited. “The park has a detailed accessibility guide, which was a lifesaver for me,” he says. “For all the major sites, it shows the walking paths, complete with potential issues: stairs, uneven ground, even steepness and whether assistance might be required. For most viewpoints, there are accessible descriptions, so I never wasted energy getting out of the car and being disappointed. And best of all for my mercurial MS bladder, the guide shows where all the wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are (and more critically, where they aren’t).” However, do be realistic and strategic about what you plan to see. For people with MS, he says, “Fatigue is a crusher. If you’re fresh in the morning, plan to go and do a lot of your fun stuff then, and plan to take breaks in the afternoon. Don’t worry about travel checklist X, Y, Z. Focus on X. If you get Y in, that’s a bonus. Z can wait until tomorrow.”
When to go: Consider the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall for mild temperatures and fewer crowds. Plan for: 2-5 days—there’s so much to see, and you’ll want to take your time and pace yourself. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Lodging at Yellowstone varies greatly, and many are accessible, from backcountry camping to luxury lodges (Bexfield’s favorite is Lake Hotel). Read more via the Park’s excellent Accessibility Guide.
Paddle the Peaceful Boundary Waters
In the deeply forested, river-and-lake-riven Minnesota northlands that border Canada, the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area is America’s crown jewel for paddlers. It’s home to moose, lynx, wolves, bald eagles, and Wilderness Inquiry, an inclusive outdoor adventure outfitter that’s been leading journeys here with travelers of all abilities since the 1970s. Wilderness Inquiry creates trips and experiences that support paddlers with MS at every level, says registration manager Anne Strootman, including special adaptive gear for their canoes and kayaks and accessible lodging options. “We pride ourselves at meeting people where they’re at and putting the support in for them,” including pairing a traveler with MS with a volunteer support person, if desired (which makes this a great option for solo travelers). Call to explore whether you’re suited for a multi-day, camping-based excursion (Boundary Water Canoe Area Paddling Adventures) or lakeside lodge-based stay (hot showers and comfy beds!) with day paddles (Boundary Waters Lodge-Based Adventure). No matter what the itinerary, it’s a watery walk on the wild side.
When to go: Boundary Water Canoe Area Paddling Adventure trips run June through September; Boundary Waters Lodge-Based Adventure trips run in September only. Plan for: 5-day Boundary Water Canoe Area Paddling Adventure or the 4-day Boundary Waters Lodge-Based Adventure. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Boundary Water Canoe Area Paddling Adventures is $695 per person. Boundary Waters Lodge-Based Adventure is $845 per person.
Play Like a Kid in San Antonio
Got kids? Welcome to their new favorite vacation. Don’t have kids? Welcome to your new favorite vacation. It all goes down in splashy, outrageously inclusive fun, at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a waterpark designed with mobility in mind (along with, it should be noted, an equally inclusive amusement park—Morgan's Wonderland—right next door). Pick up a waterproof wheelchair (told you), available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and have your run of the five themed splash pads, the River Boat adventure ride, and, frankly, full-out watery fun.
When to go: Spring or Fall. Plan for: 2 days—one for the waterpark and one for the amusement park! Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Guests with MS enjoy free admission to both sites. Morgan’s works with five local hotels that are accessible to provide easy overnights—but do call ahead to determine exactly how accessible the facility is based on your specific needs.
Take a Cruise—Anywhere!
It’s a top choice for many disabled travel experts, as the right cruise ship can provide a consistent setting that suits the needs of an MS traveler, while offering new vistas and discoveries every day. And while recent headlines about docked ships and quarantines raise serious concerns—especially for older adults and those with underlying health conditions—don't write off this type of vacation forever. Wait until the current crisis fades (like land does over the horizon line, once you eventually set out to sea) and consider a cruise as a go-to escape down the line.
Tarita Davenock, founder of Travel for All travel agency, has lived with MS for 24 years and loves putting her clients with all forms of MS on the right ships, which are finally catching up with designing cabins with true accessibility and proper lift access to the kinds of sunny decks that all passengers want to enjoy on a cruise. She’s bullish on Celebrity Edge, the new—and first—cruise ship where you can stay in your wheelchair and transfer to and from the ship with no added support, she says. While Celebrity Edge will spend summer in European waters, she’s closer to home in the winter and spring. Look for her sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, FL, to Key West, Mexico, and Grand Cayman Island; as well as from Fort Lauderdale to San Juan, the British Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten.
When to go: Winter and Spring. Plan for: 7 glorious nights. Great for: Single, group, and family travelers. Cost: Rates start at $1,919 average per person.
National MS Society Resources for Travelers
“Living with multiple sclerosis can present challenges, but that doesn’t mean it has to keep someone from traveling and living to their fullest,” says Lisa Custy, vice president, services resources at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “The Society has resources for people affected by MS, so they know their options on how to travel safely and in a way that best suits their individual needs.”
From resources on everything from vacation rentals and hotels to train and air travel, start with the NMSS’s platform.
For specific help on hotels, go to accessibleGO Services, a full-service travel site that will advise on accommodations and even call them for you to check the accessibility details.