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What You Need to Know About Traveling With a Wheelchair Accessible Van

The perks, difficulties, and ins and outs of driving an accessible van.

I love traveling with my family of five, and that includes a son who is a wheelchair user. We’ve traveled with him by plane and subway, but I have found that driving our accessible van is the most efficient way to see the world with the least amount of fuss. With that being said, like any vehicle, there are pros and cons to taking a modified van on a road trip.

Packing Up

I’ve been driving a van with a ramp for over five years. We own a rear-entry van, meaning the ramp is in the back, where the trunk used to be. Securing my son inside the vehicle is fast because we’ve always had an EZ lock or QLK system. With the click of a button, we zip him out and then back in the van when we get to rest stops, restaurants, and hotels. I love that I don’t have to bend down and unsecure his wheelchair each time we need to stretch or grab a snack.

The downside to that convenience is that we forego storage. Our rear entry van doesn’t have a trunk. There is space behind his chair for grocery bags and luggage, but I don’t want my son to wait for us to unload the bags before we get him out of the car. It’s not safe.

We have several methods of managing the storage issue. If we are driving a long distance, like when we travel from New Jersey to Hilton Head, South Carolina (a 14-hour trip), we usually pack a few small, overnight bags so we can stop overnight along the way. We place them in a collapsible wagon behind the wheelchair. (We also use the wagon for grocery shopping and Costco runs). When we are driving straight through to our destination and need a lot of storage but don’t need to access our belongings until we arrive, we pack large suitcases with wheels and place them behind the wheelchair. A rooftop container is also a great alternative. Placing our clothes and other items on the roof frees up the back of the van. The drawback is that the container makes the car taller, so we have to pick and choose which parking garages we drive into because some have low ceilings.

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Over the years, when our van has been in the shop, I have driven loaner side-entry vans. Side-entry vans have a trunk, so storage is not an issue, but I had a harder time securing my son in the middle of the van. Both van styles have pros and cons, and picking the right vehicle for your family is key.

Things to Consider Before You Go

It’s not uncommon to get a tune-up before taking a car on a long road trip, but for us, it’s at the top of our list. Mobility dealers aren’t common, and, depending on the maintenance issue, we can’t go into just any van dealer and get our car repaired. Many dealers won’t touch the modification portion of the van. Renting a van that accommodates a wheelchair is not easy to find, so, for the same reason, we need to keep our van in great shape. Another thing to remember is that most modified vans are not all-wheel drive, so we buy snow tires and rotate them twice each year so we can still travel in the winter.

The Ins and Outs of Parking

Each state has its own rules and regulations regarding accessible placards, but generally, a doctor’s note and a visit to the DMV can point you in the right direction. Once you have the placard, take note of the accessible parking areas. They vary quite a bit, and some parking lots only have one or two spaces. The plus side of having a rear entry van is that I don’t have to wait for an accessible parking space to open up since the ramp deploys out the back. We can park in any regular spot when we are at a busy public place like an amusement park or concert. This isn’t the case for side entry vans which need to park in the spaces next to the blue lines.

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Even though I don’t need to park in the accessible area to deploy our ramp, accessible parking spots are important for several reasons. First, they are safer. Accessible spaces are usually next to a marked walking path (those blue diagonal lines from the parking area to the facility entrance). The accessible parking area is close to the entrance and is next to a curb cut-out, so we don’t have to wander a busy parking lot with a wheelchair that can’t move out of the way very quickly. Accessible parking spaces are usually wide, so my son can safely wait outside of the van while I gather my belongings. One thing to keep in mind—parallel parking is only an option if the parking space behind us is empty. (This isn’t an issue for side entry vans).

Some states have free accessible parking, which I love. In Vermont, metered parking is free for drivers with an accessible parking placard or license plate. California has similar laws. Every state varies, so be sure to do your research when you travel across state or country lines.

Driving an accessible van can make it easier to visit high-traffic places. When we visited Washington, D.C., we parked next to the Lincoln Monument and walked to the rest of the monuments. We also parked near the botanical gardens, which got us close to several popular museums.

Another downside to driving a modified van is that, because of the ramp, many modified vans sit lower to the ground than other cars. When we travel to New York City, I try to find parking garages that don’t go so far underground. Otherwise, the bottom of the van can scrape along the road (imagine nails on a chalkboard). The same applies to steep hills when we travel the backroads of Vermont.

Modified vans are a great way to see the world, but make sure you do your homework ahead of time. We got close to canceling a vacation because our van was out of commission, and we didn’t have an alternative lined up. Whichever way you go, find what works best for your family so everyone can be comfortably included and have fun.