Independent disability travel in France + more

By Philip Wagenaar

In June 2012, I slowly chauffeured our leased Peugeot on a one-lane road through the majestic scenery of the Provence in southern France. As I drove, I thought I should share with ITN readers how my wife, Flory (who passed away last year), and I journeyed 4,000 miles by car from the Netherlands to the Côte d’Azur and back, all at the age of 87. 

Despite our difficulty walking and Flory’s needing to use a rollator, a 4-wheeled walker, which usually has a platform on which you can sit, we managed a wonderful trip.  

Air travel

We routinely used nonstop flights, preventing unnecessary trips through airports. We flew business class for the additional room, when possible.

We traveled with only carry-on baggage. For the two of us, we took one wheeled, 21-inch suitcase and one convertible backpack that doubled as a suitcase and which weighed three pounds when empty. In addition, we carried one tiny daypack, which contained only our sweaters and items necessary during the flight.

Airport wheelchair

Flory routinely requested an airport wheelchair, which would be pushed by an attendant while I guided the rollator. The convertible backpack fit perfectly on the rollator’s platform. 

I would don the small backpack and have the wheelchair attendant roll the wheeled suitcase. When this was not possible, I would place the 21-inch suitcase on top of the backpack, which, in turn, would be wedged on top of the rollator seat.

At the gate check-in desk, Flory would obtain a receipt (called a “gate-check”) for her rollator. She then would proceed with her conveyance through the jetway to the entrance of the plane, where she relinquished it to attendants, who would store it close by. (Rarely were we able to store the device inside the aircraft.) 

Upon our arrival at our destination, the conveyance would immediately be available at the door of the plane. It did not go to the luggage carousel. 

Your own wheelchair

Another option is to bring your own wheelchair, which we did when embarking on cruises. Double-check that airport personnel will push your personal mobility device from the check-in area to the entrance of the aircraft and from the plane exit to the curb upon arrival. 

Verify online or call to make sure that the dimensions of the wheelchair conform to the airline’s stowing requirements. If, when you get to the gate, the airline agent informs you that the chair is too big to fit in the designated luggage compartment, ask if you can partially disassemble it to make it fit.

If you cannot get from the entrance of the plane to your seat without help, flight attendants will provide an onboard small vehicle on rollers, which just fits the aisle, on which they will wheel you to your seat.

US airlines usually don’t charge for transporting your own wheelchair and don’t count it as a piece of luggage. Inquire what the regulations are when you fly a foreign carrier.

When we went on a cruise, we made sure that the ship’s personnel would push Flory’s vehicle on embarking and disembarking and would help with debarking on shore excursions. We also ascertained that the door of the stateroom would be wide enough to accommodate the wheelchair and that the cabin was large enough to hold Flory’s mobility devices.

Arrival in Amsterdam

Upon arrival in Amsterdam, we picked up our leased Peugeot 508, a midsize car with enough room to carry the rollator and a shower bench. (This is a 4-legged bench, with rubber tips, on which one can sit in the shower. You have to assemble it, which takes all of two minutes. In the Netherlands, the device can be bought at Blokker, a chain that has stores in many towns. In France, it can be found at the superstore Carrefour or similar. It also can be found in the US.)

Please note that the GPS that came with our car was not reliable (as with those on the Peugeots we had leased in the past). I suggest that you bring your own portable GPS, which should have a memory card for the European roads.

Traveling through France

Because I speak and understand French, I had no difficulty making same-day hotel reservations using a cell phone. To rent a cell phone that works overseas, look online, call your provider or rent one overseas, where they are available at many large airports.

To determine where to go and to take advantage of any good weather, I scoured the newspaper Aujourd’hui en France, which predicts the weather pictorially, usually on its last page.

I had checked beforehand which months had neither school vacations nor public holidays, and, in 2012, June turned out to be the perfect month. As such, we had no difficulty securing impromptu reservations wherever we went. (As I indicated in a previous article, don’t tour France during July and August, as all of the country is on vacation.)

Unless we would be staying with relatives or acquaintances, we always reserved a hotel at least for the first night after our arrival and the last night before departure.

Accommodations in France

To locate hotels, we used the Michelin Red guide, the Logis de France booklet (free on your first stay at a Logis de France property) and, on one occasion, the POI (Point of Interest) function of the car’s built-in GPS. 

We preferred to stay in small towns, the smaller the better, where all you need to do to reserve a room is give your name and time of arrival. Nowhere were we asked for a credit card guarantee. We made sure that the restaurant would be open for dinner in the evening.

Parking should be close by and easily accessible, with entry to the accommodation by ramp. Avoid street parking, if possible.

Hotel personnel were quite willing to help with the luggage, both on arrival and departure. A tip is never  expected for this service in France.

To get a cheaper rate when you stay more than one day, always ask for half board (demi-pension), which includes the room, breakfast and one other meal.

Most hotels required a 3-day minimum stay for demi-pension to be applicable. Occasionally, a lodging offered us a demi-pension rate for a one-day stay.

Hotel rooms in France

Rooms in France are commonly listed at the reception desk as follows:

Grand lit (double bed), deux lits (two beds) followed by either douche, WC (shower and toilet) or bain, WC (bath and toilet). In cheaper lodgings, it might be a good idea to ascertain that you will have a private toilet by asking for toilette privée.

Our requirements for the room were deux lits with douche et toilette privée (shower and private toilet). Be sure to ask either for a disability room (chambre handicapé) or a room with a shower (douche), not a bath (pas avec baignoire).

As many lodgings don’t have handlebars in the bathing area, Flory always sat on our shower bench, which I placed inside the shower cubicle. The bench did not fit inside any bathtub we encountered. 

To make sure she would not slip when standing up, I always put towels on the shower floor. From the reception desk, I would request additional towels, which, in France, always were immediately and graciously supplied.

To make sure that your room will be satisfactory, ask if you can see the room (“Je voudrais voir la chambre, s’il vous plait”) before you commit yourself. This is an accepted request.

It was easiest when we could access the dining and breakfast rooms by elevator, although this was not always possible.


In France, a carafe d’eau (carafe with water) is always free with your meal. If you don’t ask for it, you will get mineral or tap water in a fancy bottle, for which you have to pay. Most of the time, the tax and service charge are included in the bill. 

Breakfast usually costs extra in France and can be expensive. Alternatively, you can have breakfast at a bar or, even cheaper, go to a boulangerie (bakery) to buy croissants and/or baguettes, which you then take to a bar, where you order coffee, jam, butter, etc., to complete your first meal of the day. We saw many people doing this during our extensive travels through France. 

For lunch, we always had a picnic with a baguette in addition to cold cuts, fish, olives, etc. Buy your bread before the bakery closes for its afternoon recess.

Dinner in this lovely country always includes bread, commonly served in the form of a sliced baguette. If you don’t think the bread is fresh, tell the waitperson, who will deny your allegation. However, when you insist, the server reluctantly will bring you a new supply, which then definitely will be fresh.

Daily trips

Since, in 2012, we no longer could hike or bike, we, instead, drove the gorgeous secondary and tertiary roads of the French countryside, enjoying fantastic mountain scenery, charming villages and green meadows, which frequently were teeming with scotch broom.

The French Michelin maps are available as singles or in booklet form at the cafés at the rest stops on the autoroutes (expressways). You also can purchase them in towns at either travel bookstores or at one of the stores in the chain La Maison de la Presse (House of the Press). Scenic roads are marked on the Michelin DETAIL (not the overview) maps with green lines.

As your tastes may differ from Flory’s and mine, I will not list our itinerary or mention the accommodations in which we stayed. However, I am making an exception for one of my favorites, L’Hôtel-Restaurant Saint-Aygulf (214 rte 559 - 83370 Saint-Avgulf, France; phone +33 [0] 4 94 52 74 84 or fax 94 81 13 91), a member of the Dutch chain Hotels Van Der Valk.

This seafront lodging is ideally situated halfway between Cannes and Saint-Tropez at the Riviera. Ask for their arrangement (pronounced arranjement, with each “a” pronounced as the “a” in “father”), a typically Dutch discount offer in which meals and lodging are included when you stay for a longer period. 

I hope this article will induce you to continue touring even at a ripe old age.