How a Wheelchair-User Has Traveled to Over 100 Countries

Wheelchair-user traveling in Madagascar, visiting a local school
Renee Bruns at a local school in Madagascar

In 2023, I received a Guinness World Record for traveling to 66 countries in one year using a wheelchair. To my knowledge, no other wheelchair traveler in the world has done something like this. You might be wondering... how?

This is a complicated question. At the surface, the first thing that comes to mind is determination. I wanted to see the world and if I had to fight every system, person, and obstacle that got in my way, I was going to do it.

Wheelchair user traveling in Indonesia
Renee Bruns in Indonesia

How It All Began

My story started when I was a young girl. I was born with an undiagnosed skeletal disorder that causes me to use a wheelchair full-time. I spent much of my childhood traveling around the United States in search of treatment. I like to think that the silver lining in my disability was the introduction it gave me to traveling.

In elementary school, I set a goal to visit all 50 states before I died. I completed that goal in my early 20s, and thought, “now what?”

I started traveling internationally with my limited PTO time, and in May 2022, I left my corporate job to travel the world for one year. I have now visited 124 countries and all 7 continents.

Wheelchair user traveling in Antartica
Renee Bruns in Antartica

Challenges of Traveling with a Disability

Traveling looks different for me. I often crawl onto airplanes (I dislike the way airlines treat me when I use an aisle chair) and I’ve had to crawl into restrooms in hostels that don’t have doorways wide enough for me.

I always check to be sure hotels, hostels, or guesthouses are accessible before I book a reservation, but the definition of accessible varies around the world, and on more than one occasion, I’ve arrived at my hotel to find a flight of stairs to the lobby or my room.

I’ve had tour guides tell me that they won’t take me on their tour. Taxi drivers drive away when they see me. And others who won’t address me directly, only speaking to whoever might be with me. When I am traveling alone, people often come up and start pushing me with no explanation as to why or where we are going.

But for every person or situation that is challenging, there are more people and situations that are positive.

Wheelchair-user meeting the local elephants in Thailand
Renee Bruns meeting elephants in Thailand

Traveling in a Wheelchair: Practical Tips

While we all travel differently, and our needs are unique to each of us, these are the three things I abide by to give myself an enjoyable and memorable experience.

#1 Plan Ahead

As someone who travels differently, my needs are unique. I always call or email my hotel accommodation to be sure there is an accessible room. If I am traveling in a part of the world that I’ve never been, I ask specifically what ‘accessible’ means. I have found that different parts of the world define ‘accessible’ differently. Knowing I have a comfortable hotel to stay in when I arrive gives me some piece of mind.

I do the same with any tours that I book. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to experience something, so when in doubt, I always ask what is or isn’t accessible.

Wheel The World is a great resource for finding accommodations, tours, and experiences that are suited for your unique needs.

Fill out your accessibility profile (for free) for personalized travel experiences that suit your accessibility needs.
Wheelchair-user on a boat with a local in the Amazon
Renee Bruns meeting locals in the Amazon

I have plenty of experience with airlines at this point, but if you are a new traveler, I recommend calling your airline before departure to set the expectation. Arrive to the airport early so any anxiety around the process is alleviated. Often, airports are the hardest part of traveling, and giving yourself space to navigate this aspect is important.

Related article: Flying with a Manual Wheelchair: 16 Tips to Make it Easier

#2 Allow Yourself A Rest Day

Traveling with a disability can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. As a wheelchair user, I have found myself to get worn out physically from trying to navigate parts of the world that aren’t always designed for a wheelchair. For example, I might have to propel myself twice as far to get to a ramp, or exert extra energy getting up a curb or hill.

In addition, the mental load that is needed to be constantly preparing for an unforeseen circumstance, one that can completely alter the plan, can take a toll on me.

I have found giving myself a rest day once a week, or once every few days, when traveling allows me to better and more fully enjoy the rest of my trip. On my rest days, I try to find a very comfortable, accessible hotel with a beautiful view where I can still feel like I’m on vacation but also give myself some space to rest. Knowing my needs are different and accepting that I might tire quicker has been an important lesson for me.

Woman with disability on the beaches of the Malvides
Renee Bruns on the beaches of the Maldives

#3 Seek Out The Kindness In People

As a lifetime wheelchair user, I have become incredibly independent and prefer to do things on my own. Often, I’m insulted when someone thinks I need help. However, when traveling alone in other parts of the world, I have discovered how important it is for me to allow other people to help me.

I’ve had people help me cross the street (with my permission to help), tour guides offer to piggy back me so I can participate on their tours, and airline professionals who treat me with dignity and respect so that I can see the world just like anyone else. I’ve had hostel workers upgrade my room so it’s comfortable, and taxi drivers offer me water and snacks.

I have learned that, while I am not used to or accustomed to accepting other people’s kindness, when I do, I experience a side of travel that an able-bodied person might not experience. I have learned that different cultures have different ways of caring for people, and when I allow someone to help me up a curb, or push me up a ramp, I create a connection with them that is long-lasting.

Despite my stubbornness to be independent, I am also learning to ask for help. And when I do, I am almost always pleasantly surprised. I’ve learned that letting kindness in – people who are genuine and want to help – is one of the keys to traveling differently. 

Wheelchair user posing with people at the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia
Renee Bruns at the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia

Accessible Travel is Different for Everyone. And That's Okay.

There are so many ways to travel, and so many experiences to get out of traveling. There’s not a right or wrong way to see the world, or a right or wrong experience to have. I’ve learned that while I travel differently, different can be better. I’ve been fortunate to see the kindness in people around the world that others might not experience, because, well frankly, I’ve often had no other choice but to ask someone for their help.

So, HOW did I travel to over 100 countries with my wheelchair? I decided I was going to do it, and with every flight that gave me anxiety, every person that told me I couldn’t, and every obstacle I faced, I did it anyway.

And you can too. It’s scary, anxiety-inducing, frustrating, discouraging, and infuriating at times. But, it’s also rewarding, life-changing, and confident boosting. 

We are lucky to live in a time where more and more resources are becoming available, like Wheel The World, and that the world is becoming more inclusive.

I still, after 124 countries conquered, experience all of the overwhelming negative and positive emotions that come with traveling, but I decided I was going to do it…and I am! I hope you will too!

Follow Renee's Travels

Who Is Renee?

Renee Bruns is a former Fortune 500 insurance executive who left her role in May 2022 on a mission to see the world and reshape her views of humanity. She was born with an undiagnosed skeletal disorder that has caused her to use a wheelchair full time.

Through her travels to 124 countries, all 7 continents, and all 50 states, she became a Guinness World Record Holder and has been featured on numerous media sites and podcasts. She is currently working on a book to share her story of navigating the world with a physical disability and the series of events that led her find self-acceptance, and ultimately a diagnosis of her unique medical condition by a dedicated team of specialists.

Renee is also working on a doctoral degree where her research is focused on positive psychology and the impacts it has on the workforce. She is a life coach helping those who are looking to restructure their lives and helps guide and advocate for those navigating undiagnosed medical conditions.

Finally, Renee is an Ambassador for Free Wheelchair Mission where wheelchairs are provided for only $96 each to people in need around the world.