Wheelchair Accessible Travel In Spain - 2004

By Howard L. Chabner and Michele E. DeSha

 © Howard L. Chabner and Michele E. DeSha 2004




This article is the fruit of our May 2004 trip to Spain.  We stayed in Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba, Seville, Toledo and Madrid, in that order, and spent a day in Segovia.  We discuss the cities in the order we visited them.  This article is intended as an introduction, a starting point for your research and a way to convey realistic expectations.  We hope it will help you plan an access strategy based on your interests, budget and mobility capabilities and limitations.  This article assumes a basic familiarity with Spain. 


This article is dedicated to our friend Bob Gustke and to the memory of his late wife, our friend Patricia Gustke, who traveled the world together, Pat in her wheelchair, Bob on foot.  At a time when good access anywhere was only a dream, they traveled to places far less accessible than Europe, planning as much as possible and improvising as they encountered obstacles.  Pat wrote with wit, passion and humor for major newspapers about their travels.  Unfortunately, her articles aren’t available online. Whenever we hit barriers on our trip, we remembered their stories, smiled and our perspective was restored.  


Many thanks to George Clapper for typing this article and to Lucy Arevalo for writing the English-to-Spanish dictionary of access words (see below).


This was our first trip to Spain.  Though we’d heard good things about access, we were impressed with the serious and sincere efforts to provide access.  We saw travelers and Spaniards in manual and electric wheelchairs every day.  To be sure, many barriers exist, and there are some significant flaws in accessible design, but we found that people are receptive to suggestions for improvement and that access is steadily improving.  There is a desire to do the right thing, even though the execution may be flawed.    


In planning our trip we used the Internet and other information sources but not a travel agent.  We traveled on our own.  Michele speaks Spanish, which was helpful and added to our enjoyment.   


We have tried to be as accurate as possible, but of course accuracy is not guaranteed.  The reader should confirm all information, especially access details, directly with hotels, museums, transportation providers and other facilities.  As in all research, primary sources are much better than secondary ones.  Also, things change.  It is essential to re-confirm information shortly before acting on it. 


Because one’s physical capabilities, limitations and equipment affect the access achievable under a given set of environmental and design conditions, and one’s point of reference colors one’s perception of access, we’ll tell you about ourselves.  We are fortunate to live in San Francisco, where wheelchair access is generally excellent. Howard has muscular dystrophy and uses an electric wheelchair.  Michele is able-bodied.  On this trip Howard used a Quickie P110 folding electric wheelchair that is 25” (63.5 cm) wide, weighs 100 pounds (including the batteries, which are removable) and has gel cell batteries.  Howard is six feet (1.83 meters) tall and, when seated, 57 inches (1.45 meters) high.  He cannot walk and can transfer to an inaccessible car only with great difficulty.  We drove from city to city in a large but inaccessible car, and limited transfers to the bare minimum. 


In planning our trip we sent questionnaires to numerous hotels inquiring about access.  A form of hotel access questionnaire is Appendix A.  You are welcome to adapt it for your own use.  A metric conversion guide is Appendix B.  A dictionary of key access terms in Spanish is Appendix C.  This article (including the appendices) may not be reproduced or used for profit without our written permission, but readers are welcome to reproduce or use it for any other purpose. 


II.                GENERAL


Smoke Warning


The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but the smoke is almost everywhere.  Our strong impression is that far more Spaniards smoke cigarettes than the French, Italians or Israelis, let alone Americans, let alone Californians.  Almost every restaurant, bar and café has old-fashioned cigarette machines; even many nice hotel lobbies do.  Cigarettes are relatively inexpensive and many Spaniards smoke unfiltered ones.  Non-smoking sections in restaurants are virtually unheard-of.  Some hotel elevators even have ashtrays.  We mention this not to scare anyone away, but to prepare you. 


One way to mitigate the smoke somewhat is to eat when the restaurants first open – which is early for Spaniards but late for many Americans – and there are fewer locals.   The disadvantage of this, of course, is you will have less interaction with Spaniards and will eat in an almost empty restaurant.  It’s also imperative to request a non-smoking hotel room; even though there is no guarantee it will be truly smoke-free, the chances are that a smoking room will be very smoky.


Museum and Monument Access


Access at most major museums and monuments is quite good.  We encourage you to try to tour all major museums and monuments that interest you - they are likely to be at least partially accessible.


            Store and Restaurant Access


Stores and restaurants typically are up one step, and the proprietors are very willing to lift your wheelchair up it.  Some have recently installed permanent ramps that, while typically too steep even for a person in an electric wheelchair to access independently, make access easier than the step alone would have been.  Many cafes and restaurants have outdoor tables.  Most branches of the major department store, El Corte Ingles, have level access. 


ATM Access


Michele used ATM’s at a variety of banks in various locations.  Most were too high or in a bank up one or more stairs.  We saw a few accessible ATM’s. 


Electricity and Charging Your Wheelchair


Spain uses 220-volt AC power.  The standard plug has two prongs and a hole for the ground pin (the ground pin protrudes from the wall outlet).  This is the same plug as in France, and different from those in Italy.  Plug adapters are available at any good travel store in the U.S.


If you use an electric wheelchair, we recommend obtaining a wheelchair battery charger with settings for 110 and 220 volts.  It eliminates the need for a separate converter.  A surprisingly small, lightweight and inexpensive charger with dual settings is available from MK Battery.  Also try Lester Electrical.


We highly recommend gel cell batteries, which are non-spillable, safer and more acceptable to airlines than wet batteries.


We experienced no problems charging Howard’s wheelchair in hotel rooms.




            Spanish public bathrooms, whether accessible or not, generally are quite clean even though few are staffed by attendants.  It was easier to find accessible bathrooms than we’d expected, although there are some important widespread design flaws.  Most accessible bathrooms are large enough for comfortable maneuvering and are equivalent in size to those in California (and larger than in many U.S. states).  The main design problems are poor placement of grab bars (which sometimes block the transfer space), inaccessible toilet flush buttons or buttons that require too much pressure, and inaccessibly high hand dryers.  Also, many of the door lock handles are small and, for people with limited grip strength, difficult to twist.


Almost every museum that is accessible has an accessible bathroom.  Most branches of the major department store, El Corte Ingles, have an accessible bathroom.  Even some restaurants – though certainly not the majority - have accessible bathrooms.  Fortunately, employees at stores and restaurants are very willing to direct you to the bathroom even if you aren’t a customer.  There is a gracious understanding of urgent needs.






Most cities we visited have many accessible bus lines.  The majority of buses have the wheelchair symbol.  We used buses only in Barcelona and Granada.  The accessible buses in the other large cities appear similar in design to those in Barcelona but, except those in the old section of Granada (which are of a different design), we didn’t try them.  See the sections of this article on transportation in each city for more detail.


 We took a couple round trips on different lines in Barcelona.  The accessible buses in Barcelona are low (lower than the typical American bus) and have a retractable ramp on the side.  They are similar to the accessible buses in Paris, though not quite as well designed, and better than those in Rome.  The ramps are wide – almost as wide as the double door, which reduces the chances of falling and, because they are deployed with the bottom edge on the sidewalk, are not too steep.  Also, the bus kneels a bit, which also makes the ramp angle gradual.  Unfortunately, however, the ramp has a large bevel or lip at the upper edge (where the ramp connects with the bus), which is difficult to climb over and would be dangerous without assistance (whether in a manual or electric wheelchair).  The ramps worked and the drivers were proficient and courteous, always deploying the ramp safely at our desired stop.  Unfortunately, not only are there no tiedowns, but the wheelchair seating area is narrow and has a pole in the middle, so one must protrude into the main aisle; it’s impossible to maneuver your wheelchair parallel to the length of the bus.  But the buses are low, the drivers drove well and the routes were mostly flat, so the ride was smooth and the absence of tiedowns wasn’t as dangerous as it might seem. 




Accessible “Eurotaxis” are available in Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and other major cities.  The Eurotaxi is a minivan with a ramp at the rear.  It’s similar in length to a Dodge Caravan, with plenty of space for luggage.  The height in the wheelchair area is a bit lower than the typical lowered floor minivan in the U.S. but the vehicle is otherwise comfortable.  We took taxis in Barcelona and Madrid; Howard was able to fit, but he had to lean forward a bit and his head touched the ceiling.  (Howard is six feet (1.83 meters) tall and, when seated, 57 inches (1.45 meters) high.)  The drivers were skilled and courteous and the taxis relatively new and well maintained.


Generally, it’s necessary to call a taxi in advance.  In most places the fare includes meter charges to your location from wherever the taxi is when you call.  Airport pickup is a flat rate.  Fares are reasonable, at least compared to San Francisco.  We contacted our hotel in Barcelona a few days before departure and asked them to order an accessible taxi for our arrival at the airport; upon our arrival one was waiting.  In Madrid we ordered an accessible taxi one very rainy late morning and waited only 20 minutes.  Phone numbers for the taxis are listed below, in the discussion of each city.


Car Rental


Despite extensive research we were unable to find an accessible minivan or van to rent.  Any reader who finds one is encouraged to share the information with the website where this article is published.  We drove from city to city in a large but inaccessible Peugeot 607, and limited transfers to the bare minimum.  Once in a city, we parked the car and didn’t use it until we departed for the next destination.  The 607 has four doors and extremely comfortable leather seats, including a passenger seat with electric height and angle adjustments.  The adjustable leather passenger seat made transfers somewhat less difficult.  The well-designed trunk is wide and long but not low, making it relatively easy for Michele to stow the wheelchair because she didn’t have to bend down.  The Peugeot’s handling, acceleration and ride were superb, and Michele enjoyed driving it.


Peugeot Open Europe.   This program is available to U.S. residents.  You can “purchase” a brand new Peugeot, drive it in Europe for a period of 17 days up to six months, and “sell” it back to Peugot at the end of the period.  You must pay in dollars.  The “purchaser” avoids paying value added tax that would apply to a rental.  Complete insurance and roadside assistance are included.  The car can be delivered to, and picked up at, major European airports.  In some cities it may be possible, for an additional fee, to have the car delivered to, or picked up at, your hotel if you explain your special circumstances.  1-800-572-9655. 




            Although bus access is good, we still believe that for hotels, as for real estate, the three most important factors are location, location and location (assuming the hotel has good wheelchair access).  Strolling through a beautiful, interesting neighborhood is one of the most enjoyable things about traveling, and it’s best not to depend entirely on transportation to get to museums, monuments, stores and restaurants.  Staying at a central location also makes it easier to stay out late, and Spain is a night owl’s paradise.


            Hotel access is a mixed bag.  In our research we encountered good general awareness of the need for accessible rooms, but it was difficult to find them in some cities.  The state of the art doesn’t include roll-in showers; we were able to find only one hotel with a true roll-in shower.  As with public bathrooms, there are widespread design flaws in hotel bathrooms such as poor placement of grab bars (which sometimes block the transfer space) and inaccessible toilet flush buttons or buttons that require too much pressure.  Also, even hotels with fairly good bathroom access had several barriers that would be obstacles for a solo traveler, such as heavy room doors and inaccessible electrical controls, light switches and closets.  But the good news is that the obstacles are manageable, especially for someone traveling with an able-bodied companion.  Most hotel personnel we encountered were eager to help and receptive to suggestions for improving access.


Much of our trip involved intercity driving, so we required parking in most cities.  Don’t assume that a hotel offers parking.  Parking is scarce in the center, so it’s important to inquire about parking at your hotel and, if the hotel has parking, reserve it when you reserve your room.  Parking is typically not included in the room rate.  Many hotels that don’t have on site parking have an arrangement with a nearby parking lot.


Many hotels offer a buffet breakfast that is generally not included in the room rate.


            In planning our trip we sent access questionnaires in English to numerous hotels, mostly three- and four-star.  The questionnaire, with minor improvements and turned into a form, is Appendix A.  You are welcome to adapt it for your own use. 


In Spain, as in France, “accessible” in describing a hotel room means merely that there are no barriers such as stairs and there is sufficient doorway width and other space for a wheelchair to travel to, enter and move around the room - that there is, in effect, what Americans would call an “accessible path of travel” to and within the hotel room.  Hence, an “accessible” room may have a completely unusable bathroom and inaccessible elements such as light switches.  Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be a uniform, generally accepted standard for “accessible” - many hotels consider a room accessible if it is literally, but just barely, physically accessible.  “Adapted” means that the room has been modified to allow a wheelchair user to use the bathroom and other features are usable by people in wheelchairs.  Unfortunately, however, almost all adapted rooms reported lack roll-in showers.  In many hotel and third-party websites, the presence of the wheelchair symbol means only that the hotel is “accessible,” not necessarily that there are any “adapted” rooms.  This is especially true of the tourism sites for the cities.  Therefore, unless you are able to use what Americans would consider an inaccessible bathroom, when inquiring about access, ask whether the hotel has an adapted room. 


In our discussion of each city, we describe where we stayed.  We also list other hotels that told us they have adapted rooms and those that told us they don’t have any.  We include the latter to provide a more complete picture of the current state of hotel access and to emphasize a caveat:  if you inquire about those hotels and are told they have an adapted room, be sure to double check and get specific information; perhaps they’ve renovated the rooms since our inquiries.  Note that, although we use “adapted” in categorizing hotels, the hotels we list as not having adapted rooms aren’t necessarily even “accessible.”  Also, we omit the many hotels that failed to respond to our inquiries. 


We visited a few hotels but most entries are based solely on the written responses we received; therefore, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information.  Accuracy depends entirely on the respondent, typically a reservationist; we did not specifically ask the hotels’ general managers to respond.  We asked follow-up questions when a response was ambiguous but did not send a second round of surveys to ascertain whether the answers would be the same both times. 


 We’ve heard that four- and five-star hotels are legally required to have adapted rooms, but many four-star hotels don’t.  We inquired about only a few five-star hotels, so can’t generalize about them.


            Almost needless to say, it’s imperative to contact the hotel directly to verify access, as one would in the United States.  Don’t rely on the central reservation systems of hotel chains or, even worse, third party reservation websites.  The information provided by the hotel sometimes contradicted those websites, some of which display the wheelchair symbol irresponsibly and misleadingly.




This section is quite limited.  We report those aspects we observed; we know that we’ve missed many important items.


Barcelona.  There is no bevel at the sides of the curb ramps and curb cuts – there is a straight vertical edge, which poses a potential danger for a blind person approaching the intersection from the side or standing too close to the edge.  Around the dirt perimeter of the trees and plants along the sidewalks there are wide, deep (perhaps 10 inches) empty holes with no grates covering them.  This poses a danger to blind people, who could easily step in them.


            Seville.  Many major crosswalks have audible traffic signals.


Madrid.  Many intersections have gradual curb ramps with textured surfaces for blind pedestrians.  Many major crosswalks have audible traffic signals.


























Access-Able Travel Source, has useful general information about traveling in a wheelchair, and articles and links about travel to a variety of destinations. 


Global Access Disabled Travel Network, has useful general information about traveling in a wheelchair, and articles and links about travel to a variety of destinations. 


Mobility International USA (MIUSA), focuses primarily on exchange, work/study and community service programs for disabled students but can provide useful accessible travel information for its members.  They were helpful to us.  Phone 541-343-1284; fax 541-343-6812.;


The European Union has produced country-specific disability travel guides in English, including one about Spain.  Finding it may require some searching, and it is not updated frequently, but it is a useful starting point for research.


Federació ECOM, a Spanish organization based in Barcelona, has a website with information about access in Barcelona and will answer specific questions. They were helpful to us.  Phone 011-34-934-515-550; fax 011-34-934-516-904.;


For information about access in Granada, Seville and Cordoba: Confederacion Andaluza de Minusvalidos Fisicos (CAMF).  Phone 011-34-954-330-311; fax 011-34-954-330-210.


For information about access in Toledo:  COCEMFE Toledo.  Phone 011-34-925-285-275; fax 011-34-925-285-276.


For information about access in Madrid:  Federacion Minusvalidos Fisicos de la Comunidad de Madrid  (FAMMA).  They were helpful to us.  The information is in Spanish only.  Phone 011-34-915-933-550;  fax 011-34-915-939-243.;;


La ONCE is the main Spanish organization serving blind and visually impaired people.  Throughout Spain you will encounter ONCE workers and volunteers selling lottery tickets.  Fundación ONCE, a related organization, can provide information and assistance re other disabilities.  La ONCE.  José Ortega y Gasset 22-24, 4th Floor, 28006 Madrid.;


Agencia Espanola de Turismo para Personas con Discapacidad has a website (in Spanish only) with tourist information and technical information about access.  We don’t know whether it is a non-profit or for-profit organization.  Calle Alcornoque, 1; 41009-Sevilla.;;


            For information about accessible apartment rental in various places in Spain, see  This for-profit website has information about renting and buying property in general, and includes a section on properties the company considers accessible.


            APPENDIX A

Hotel Wheelchair Access Questionnaire



Dear Sir/Madam:


I am sorry this letter is not in Spanish, but I don’t understand Spanish.  My wife and I will arrive in [         ] on [            ] and depart on [           ]. We will stay for [       ] nights.


I use an electric wheelchair that is [[  ] centimeters ([  ] inches)] wide.  I am unable to walk at all.   My wife is not disabled.  We would like a non-smoking room with one large bed.  We have the following questions about your hotel:


1.      Do you have any specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms?  If not, please disregard the other questions.  Thank you and we would appreciate a recommendation of hotel in the area that does have specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms.


If you do have specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms, we have the following questions.  Please answer even if you are fully booked for the requested time, because we are interested in your hotel for the future.


1.      Is it necessary to go up or down any stairs in order to get from the street entrance to the guest room?  Does the building have an elevator?  If so, how wide is the elevator door and what are the interior dimensions of the elevator? 

2.      In the bathroom, is there space for a [   ] cm wide wheelchair on one side of the toilet? What is the width of the doorway into the bathroom?  What is the height of the toilet?  What is the size of the shower?  Can a wheelchair roll into the shower?  Are there grab bars near the toilet and shower?

3.      Are all the doorways in the room at least 75 cm wide?

4.      What is the size of the room?  Does this include the bathroom?

5.      Was the building renovated recently?



            If you do have specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms, is the room available on the nights mentioned above?  If yes, please quote a price. 


Thank you very much.  We can be reached at [                    ].   We really appreciate any help you can provide.


Very Truly Yours


 Metric Conversion Guide


One inch = 2.54 centimeters. 

One centimeter = 0.3937 inches

One meter = 39.4 inches

One square meter = 10.76 square feet

One kilometer = 0.62 miles

One mile = 1.61 kilometers

One kilogram = 2.2 pounds

One pound = 0.454 kilograms  (454 grams)

One liter = 0.264 gallons

One gallon = 3.785 liters






English-To-Spanish Dictionary Of Disability Access

Words And Phrases


by Lucy Arevalo



disabled -  minusvalido

I am disabled – Yo soy minusvalido

I am unable to walk – Yo no puedo caminar

wheelchair -  silla de ruedas

I use a wheelchair – Yo uso silla de ruedas

I use an electric wheelchair – Yo uso una silla de ruedas eléctrica

electricity -  electricidad

wheel – rueda

battery – bateria

tire – neumático or llanta

my wheelchair needs to be repaired –  mi silla de ruedas necesita ser reparada

transfer board -  tabla para transferir

ramp – rampa

Is there a ramp? - Tiene una rampa? 

stairs – gradas or escaleras

Are there stairs? -  Tienen gradas?
How many stairs are there? -  Cuántas gradas tienen?
elevator – elevador

Is there an elevator? – Tienen elevador?

Is it necessary to climb any steps to get to the elevator? – 

            Hay necesidad de subir gradas para llegar al elevador?

What is the size of the elevator?- De qué tamaño es el elevador?

What is the width of the doorway? –  Cuánto mide de ancho la puerta?

What is the height of the bed? -  Cuánto mide de alto la cama?
up -  arriba or suba
down - abajo or baje
roll-in shower -
regadera [or ducha] adaptado para silla de ruedas

wheelchair accessible bathroom -  baño adaptado para silla de ruedas

grab bars – barras para sujetarse

Is the bathroom wheelchair accessible? –  Está el baño adaptado para silla de ruedas?

Does the bathroom have a roll-in shower? –  Está el regadera [or ducha] adaptado para    silla de ruedas?

Are there grab bars in the bathroom? –  Tiene el baño barras para sujetarse?

Is the bus wheelchair accessible? –  Está el autobus adaptado para silla de ruedas?

Is the train wheelchair accessible? –  Está el tren adaptado para silla de ruedas?

Is the van/minivan wheelchair accessible? –  Está la van/microbus adaptado para silla de ruedas?

Does the van/minivan have a ramp? –  Tiene la van/microbus una rampa?

Does the van/minivan have a lift? – 

            Tiene la van/microbus un levantador o rampa levadiza?


The elevator/ramp/lift is broken –

            El elevador esta quebrado

            La rampa esta quebrada

            El levantador or rampa levadiza esta quebrada


How far is it from [    ] to [    ]? -  Qué distancia hay entre (   ) y (   )?


Blind –  ciego

I am blind – Yo soy ciego

Braille –  Braile

guide dog – perro guia


deaf – sordo

I am deaf – Yo soy sordo

hearing impaired – persona con impedimento auditivo/ persona con impedimento para oir

I am hearing impaired – Yo tengo impedimento para oir

sign language –  lenguaje en señas

sign language interpreter – intérprete de lenguaje en señas


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