In spring of this year, I went on a whirlwind tour of Europe with Jason and our two friends, John and Audrey. Over the course of three weeks, we wound our way through Rome, Florence, Monterosso, Nice, Barcelona, and Lisbon. What I hadn’t planned for was dislocating my kneecap a few weeks before we left for our trip. You’ll remember that Audrey broke her leg shortly before we went on our trip to Iceland, so between the two of us we have very poor luck when it comes to pre-travel injuries.
We didn’t have travel insurance – we’d never needed it before – so my only choice was to either brave Europe on crutches, or cancel our portion of the trip and lose our money. The latter option seemed out of the question for a variety of reasons, not to mention that John and Audrey would suddenly find themselves paying full price on accommodations that they’d expected to split.
So, I had to go. It was the trip of a lifetime; I couldn’t let being on crutches hold me back, right?
Nonetheless, I wanted to be prepared for what to expect. However, when I searched for resources on getting around Italy, Spain, and Portugal on crutches, I wanted more. There are lots of resources for folks on wheelchairs, but experiences on crutches are fewer and farther between. A few posts here and there even advised totally against it, especially in Rome and Florence where the cobblestone streets are uneven, pitted, and where the curbs can have high and precipitous drops onto the street.
Thankfully, by the time we made it to Rome I was able to hobble instead of keeping my weight fully off my right leg. It was in a knee brace most of the time. However, I still had to crutch around a lot, especially when my right knee got too swollen or sore to bear my weight. In retrospect, I was probably too worried about my ability to get around, but I like to be better safe than sorry. And with lots of mixed accounts being told on the internet, it’s always helpful to get another opinion.
I didn’t see many other people on crutches while we were on vacation, though, so I hope my account will at least help some people figure out whether they’ll be able to handle it. Here are some of my tips for getting around on crutches while abroad:
- Make your crutches as comfortable as possible.
Don’t be like this guy, who had to tape his bruised and battered hands after just a day on crutches in Rome!After the first couple days on crutches, my hands were sore and swollen, and my ribs were chafed from the rubbing of the crutch pads. If you’ve never been on crutches before, it can be a very challenging and uncomfortable experience – and that was just from getting around the office and at home!
Thankfully, I was able to find these crutch pads on Amazon, which made it easier on both my hands and my body (plus, I opted for the bright pink color, which cheered me up about the whole ordeal.) They were honestly the best $30 I could have spent during my time on crutches (which ended up stretching out to over 8 weeks.)
I also wore my gel-padded bike gloves, which provide extra cushion key spots in your hands and improve your grip. I love these for biking, and they were incredibly helpful for crutching around as well. They really helped prevent the deep, painful bruising in your hands that can be really common when you’re on crutches.
- Check which of your accommodations have stairs, and which have elevators. If possible, practice stairs with your physical therapist or doctor.
A lot of the AirBnBs we stayed in had multiple flights of stairs and no elevator – many of the buildings were very old. In my case, I was able to do stairs – slowly, as long as I had access to a railing on one side and someone could carry my other crutch. I practiced both going up and down on stairs with my physical therapist, which I would highly recommend if this is an option for you.
Depending on what kind of brace or cast you’re in (I had a knee brace and could set my foot down for short periods of time, and longer periods as the trip went on), it may be wise to contact your host or hotel and see what they have to say about the stairs at your accommodation, and/or whether they can move you to a room that’s more accessible. Worst case scenario, you might have to go up and down on your butt, but it can be doable.
- Or, alternatively, see if your host/hotel/other accommodations have a unit on a lower floor.
In our case, some of our AirBnB hosts owned multiple units in a given building and were even willing to move people around to accommodate us a bit more easily. We didn’t end up taking them up on it because I didn’t want to inconvenience them (and was also pretty confident on stairs at that point, after lots of practice at home and work), but it never hurts to ask. If they don’t, see if they’ll give you a partial or full refund and a referral to a more accessible accommodation.
- And definitely let them know that you may need some extra help.
I usually like to suck it up and do things myself. In fact, I’m notorious for it. Being on crutches is a humbling experience because it makes you reliant on others. Thankfully, everyone I met was willing to go the extra mile to help, whether it was carrying my bags up stairs, carry my extra crutch, or making sure I made it across the street okay.
- Bring everything you need to make yourself comfortable.
In my case, this meant:
- Two gel ice packs (in my checked luggage)
- Plenty of anti-inflammatories
- Tape my physical therapist provided to stabilize my knee
- Children’s scissors to cut the tape (the short ones with the rounded ends, to comply with TSA)
- An extra knee brace, just in case
At the end of a long day, coming back to where we were staying and icing my knee or popping a couple ibuprofen was invaluable. Italian pharmacies sell NSAIDs, but why not bring your own if you can?
Also, we stayed in mostly AirBnBs, so we had access to a refrigerator or freezer for the ice packs almost everywhere we went. if you don’t have a freezer but do have access to cold water or mini-fridge, the gel pack will still retain some cold and provide comfort. In lieu of an ice pack, bring some ziploc bags with you and they can be filled with ice (provided, I suppose, that you can find a market which sells ice.)
We also brought a suitcase that had some outer straps on it, so my crutches could be collapsed down and strapped to the outside, such as when we were on trains or otherwise going to be sitting for a while.
- Rethink your bag situation.
When you’re on crutches, a messenger bag or other asymmetrical, heavy gear can throw you off balance and tire you out more quickly. While I usually travel with a bulky messenger bag, I opted this time for a smaller bag with anti-theft features and pockets for both a water bottle and an umbrella (both key when you’re out traveling all day.) This was especially helpful when I was out alone but needed to safely carry things like my passport, credit cards, and cash. (If you’re not a purse-carrying type, they have some more gender-neutral options as well.)
- Figure out which sights are accessible.
I used websites like Slow Travel to figure out what amenities are available for people on crutches or in wheelchairs. Depending on your specific situation, some of the advice may not be relevant to you (such as whether or not you need an elevator), but they’re still helpful for understanding how difficult certain areas may be to navigate. In my case, the most challenging points were definitely the Roman Forum and all of the hilly terrain in Monterosso al Mare.
- Set aside a taxi budget and put reputable taxi numbers in your phone before you go.
Taxis are ubiquitous, and they were invaluable for getting around. There are definitely scam taxis in Rome, Spain, and Portugal, so make sure you’re well apprised on which are reputable and which aren’t before you go. Especially if it’s towards the end of the day and you’re getting tired, being able to take a taxi back to your hotel may seem like a luxury under normal circumstances, but it’s priceless when you’re in pain.
- And if you don’t have a travel phone, strongly consider getting one.
I recommend this for travel anyway, but if you’re on crutches and might need assistance or to call for a ride, it’s especially invaluable. In our case, we have some old GSM phones that we hung onto until our cell carrier would give us the unlock codes.
Once that was done, all we needed to do was buy a travel SIM card – you can do it at the airport when you arrive in a particular country, but we’ve actually switched to a prepaid card called World Travel SIM that you can use across many countries and reload whenever you need more money. It’s a little spendier per minute, but it’s less of a hassle, you have a dedicated phone number, and it’s guaranteed to work even when you cross over into a new country. Also, you get text messaging, which is very handy!
- Consider an accessible tour, and find other ways to sightsee that don’t require being on your feet
If you can’t or don’t want to take taxis from point to point, accessible tours do exist. Depending on your level of mobility, these might be exactly what you need to see the sights without tiring yourself out.
In Barcelona we also found a fun little sightseeing activity called the GoCar; it’s available in Madrid and Lisbon as well. It’s basically a small go cart-type vehicle with an audio tour. You can take it all around the city while cruising in the open air. We’d done it once before in San Francisco, and, while it may seem a bit touristy, it’s extremely fun and a great activity for two people and lets you sightsee on your own terms. It’s a little more flexible than a tour bus in that regard.
Note: I had to stow my crutches at the GoCar facility, as there wasn’t room to take them with me – even collapsed – in the GoCar. I was able to hobble around with my knee brace by that point, but if you can’t go without your crutches you’d either need to stay in the GoCar or possibly find some crutches that collapse down smaller (assuming you want to get out and walk around a bit.)
While a lot of this talks about some of the downsides of being on crutches and the allowances you might have to make, there were some upsides as well:
- It made me stay within my limits
Normally I’m pretty go-go-go on trips. This forced me to be practical when it came to energy expenditure, and it even got me to relax into a slower European-paced lifestyle a bit. There’s nothing quite like sitting outside a café near some amazing, historic sight in Italy while sipping delicious coffee and people-watching!
- It was easier to cross the street on crutches than without
The great thing about having bright pink crutches is that you’re very visible and drivers aren’t going to try any shenanigans. Crossing the street in Rome, Florence, and many of the other cities we went to can be intimidating, but even the most aggressive drivers I saw were willing to stop for me – and longer than they normally would.
So, there wasn’t a ton of pressure to cross the street as quickly as possible, which was nice. Later on in the trip when I was down to a knee brace, crossing the street was definitely a higher-pressure situation, which made me appreciate the visibility of crutches and the extra time they bought me.
- It made me more careful on the uneven sidewalks
As someone with tricky knees under any circumstances, uneven ground can often lead to injury. Being on crutches slowed me down, but it also made me more careful on the cobblestones and high curbs found throughout Rome and Florence. It’s entirely possible I could have injured myself on the trip, so in some ways, being on crutches may not have been such a bad thing.
- It gets you to the front of the line and into places faster
This isn’t true at every sight, but in several cases I was let to the front of the line (along with Jason and our friends), due to my being on crutches. It is also much faster to get through the security line at the airport. From a practical perspective, this was also extremely helpful because it can be extremely tiring to stand with most of your weight on one leg while waiting to be let into a given attraction.
All in all, I’d say I managed to make the most of the trip in spite of my injury. If I could go back and get a do-over, I absolutely would, but I also don’t feel like I missed out. I’m certainly glad that I went!
For more information on accessibility in Rome and how to get around, I found the following resources invaluable:
- A very helpful thread with the lovely people on Rick Steves’ site: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/italy/italy-on-crutches-colosseum-underground-duomo-and-campanile-alternative-ways-to-sightsee(To the people who left such great responses – thank you! My email never alerted me that I’d received follow-ups, or I would have taken the time to thank you in the thread itself before it was closed.)
- Slow Travel – Accessible Rome: http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/accessible/rome/index.htm
- Accessible Italy tours: http://www.accessibleitaly.com/accessibility-in-italy.html
- Italy on crutches – one person’s experience on Fodors: http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/italy-on-crutches.cfm
- Rome wheelchair accessible trips (while not specifically about crutches, I still found it helpful): http://www.sagetraveling.com/Rome-Wheelchair-Accessible-Travel-Tips
Obviously, I am not an accessibility expert, but based on my experience, here are my thoughts on some of the most popular sights and how I fared:
Coliseum – Decent accessibility for crutches. There’s some uneven ground when you go outside the Coliseum to go underground, but it was doable on crutches. For the upper levels, there’s a special elevator just for use by people with accessibility needs. In order to get to the very top level of the Coliseum, there are some somewhat steep stairs up and down, however they have a sturdy railing. If you have been practicing going up and down stairs with railings, it should be doable. Worst case scenario – you can go up or down on your butt.
Vatican – Very good accessibility for crutches. There are escalators and elevators almost everywhere – it’s a very modernized facility. It’s less convenient to use elevators to get between some levels in the museum. There are wide staircases that connect the different levels, and they have solid handrails.
Sistine Chapel – There are stairs to get here, and I didn’t see an elevator down to this level. According to the Slow Travel accessibility guide, there is a small lift that’s available to wheelchair users. It’s worth emailing or calling and checking on the accessibility here, especially if you cannot navigate stairs, and to make sure you’re able to make use of the lift.
St. Peter’s Basilica – Very good accessibility. Depending on your direction of approach, there may be some stairs to get from the Vatican to the Basilica, but there’s at least one ramp you can use to get inside. Once inside, everything is on a single level.
Roman Forum – Poor accessibility. This was the hardest part of Rome for me due to many stairs
That’s all for now – I hope this can be a helpful resource for anyone who’s dealing with an injury and an upcoming trip. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments!
*Disclaimer: my advice should not replace the advice of your doctor. Please check with them to make sure it’s okay to ice your injury, take NSAIDs or other medication, go up and down stairs, etc. In my case, all of these things got the stamp of approval from my doctor. :)