About 10 years ago, while traveling with my mother in Europe, the issue of accessibility became real for me for the first time. My mother, although elderly, was fit: She played golf a few times a week and had no mobility or other age-related issues that prevented her from traveling freely, which is probably why I hadn't experienced firsthand the challenges some members of the traveling public routinely face.
On that trip, however, she tripped and fell while alighting from a bus on our way to the Barcelona cruise terminal.
"I'm fine," she said, hopping right back up, but, in fact, she wasn't. Nothing was broken, but her knee swelled up and became so painful that stairs and cobblestones became problematic.
The ship's doctor examined her, wrapped up her knee and sent us on our way.
Every day after that we were faced with obstacles on each shore excursion we joined. These difficulties came to a head during a Vatican tour, where a guide nonchalantly and periodically left us behind to hunt for elevators, joined by a young couple who were attempting the tour with their baby in a stroller.
Of course, there is only so much you can do in Europe to make travel easier for physically challenged travelers; cobblestone streets, winding roads and ancient architecture don't lend themselves easily to the sort of retrofitting that we have become accustomed to in the U.S.
That said, Europe has come a long way in the last decade. Cruise ships, hotels and even historical sites like the Vatican offer ramps and dedicated tours to make visiting easier for everyone.
At Accessible Travel Solutions, for example, which offers tours in 45 countries, travelers can navigate Vatican City -- a bucket list destination for countless international visitors -- on the company's four-hour guided tour, which includes skip-the-line access as well as ramps and elevators to the top sites, including the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum.
The company also offers an eight-hour Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast excursion that offers a step-free route through the Pompeii ruins and a visit to Sorrento; a tour of the Acropolis via a dedicated elevator; a six-hour Versailles Palace and Gardens tour, using special elevators and wheelchair ramps: and a day trip to Barcelona -- the city that first gave my mother her traveling headaches -- via an accessible van and step-free paths.
Of course, these tours don't claim to be one-size-fits-all, nor is Accessible Travel Solutions the only company focusing on this market. Sage Traveling, for instance, offers customized accessible tours to 50 European destinations, from the most touristed, like Paris, London and Venice, to less obvious choices, like Valletta in Malta, Palma de Mallorca and Lucca, Italy. Itineraries are available for people with a range of mobility issues, including wheelchair and scooter users and travelers who use canes and walkers.
The company also recommends accessible hotels and offers advice on its website about what to expect in Europe and what common pitfalls to avoid.
Accessible Journeys is a tour company that specializes in land and cruise itineraries for wheelchair users, although its tours also welcome "slow walkers" and, of course, family and friends. Travelers can opt for packaged tours to destinations around the globe, including Europe, or customized, private itineraries.
Bespoke France, on the other hand, is one of several companies that focus on accessible accommodations in a specific country. Travelers can rent wheelchair-accessible cottages and villas as well as take advantage of helpful local services for adults and children with a range of mobility issues as well as those with autism.
Train lovers can get advice from Eurail on accessible rail travel, and the nonprofit Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality offers a wealth of information on other tour companies, travelers' rights and resources.