Archive for the ‘City Guide’ Category

McCarran International Airport Las Vegas

Carousel, Slots, and Show Posters at McCarran International Airport Las Vegas, photo (c) kanamas on flickr

One of the busiest international airports in the Western United States, McCarran International Airport at Las Vegas (LAS) presents unique challenges and interesting diversions to travelers with pain. The big question is–how do you feel about slot machines? ‘Cause McCarran International has more than 1,300 of the jangling, flashing things inside its terminals.

I’ve flown in and out of McCarran a few times in the last few years. Here’s my take on the facilities and services of LAS.

The Basics

McCarran International is an immense sprawling tangle, composed of reasonably sized Terminal 2 and immense Terminal 1. Terminal 1 has four concourses and an esplanade. Trams take passengers from concourse to concourse in Terminal 1, as it’s too far to walk (and Concourse D is detached and heck’n’gone from the rest of the airport).

The whole thing is huge–big enough that it can get hellish to walk from gate to gate, ticketing to security to gate, gate to baggage claim, or baggage claim to parking and ground transport.

Driving In, Ride-In and Parking

McCarran is a good longish drive out from the Strip and central Las Vegas. The good news: because it’s out in BF Nowhere, there’s plenty of parking at and around the airport. The bad news: it can be a long, long walk to ticketing and security from both short-term and long-term parking.

Also, because McCarran is so busy, it can be a hassle to get dropped off by taxi at the departure area. At peak times, you may have to wait or to walk–not a great choice for travelers with pain. And it’s a big ol’ hassle to return a rental car and get to your terminal–the rental car return can be confusing to find if you’re unfamiliar with the airport. So allow extra time for hassles if your flight is at a peak travel time.*

Grade: C-

Wheelchair Service

I heartily recommend getting a wheelchair when flying into or out of McCarran, if you ever have enough pain or fatigue to require a wheelchair at an airport. Or if you’ve got a temporary acute pain condition, such as a broken leg, sprained ankle, or recent knee or hip surgery. It’s too big, too crowded, and too difficult to navigate to try to go it on foot.

My experience with wheelchair service at LAS has been pretty good. They’ve always gotten me a chair within 10-15 minutes of my requesting it, and chairs have been present when I disembark upon flying in.

Wheelchair service is provided free of charge by calling (702) 261-5475 or dialing 5475 on any white courtesy phone. C Gate passengers should call (702) 261-6376 from outside the airport or 6376 from any white courtesy phone.

Grade: B

Getting Through Security

I’ve found the security at McCarran to be pretty forgettable, which means that it’s actually quite good. It’s a big international airport, which means that lines can be nasty-long at peak periods. But even on air travel review sites, where any fault in an airline gets magnified, the LAS TSA gets surprisingly high marks.

Grade: A

McCarran International Airport Las Vegas

The Long Walk in McCarran International Airport Las Vegas, photo (c) stevendepolo on flickr

On the Concourses

It’s the concourses that comprise the nitty-gritty of an any airport. At McCarran, the defining characteristic of the concourses is the plethora of slot machines. For me, the endless parade of flashing, ringing, squalling machines has an up side and a down side. The up side–the cushy upholstered stools, often with backs to them, provide reasonably comfortable alternative seating when I’ve got a long wait, or when I need to stop and rest (if I’ve failed to follow my own advice about the wheelchair).

The down side: Slot machines are loud, the lights flash constantly, and they create mobility hazards in the form of crowds. Hardcore slots players tend not to be terribly courteous towards other human beings when they’re in the zone, which means they don’t move, even if a disabled person is trying to get past them. The slots create an anti-relaxing atmosphere throughout McCarran.

Getting Around

To get from concourse to concourse (or terminal to terminal), take the trams. Don’t think you can walk it–LAS is just too big. Also, Concourse D isn’t actually in Terminal 1–it’s way the heck out across the tarmac. Terminal 2 is out in yet another building (in the opposite direction).

Grade: C-

McCarran International Airport Las Vegas

Seats and Slots at McCarran International Airport Las Vegas, photo (c) inazakira on flickr


Seating around the gates is US-airport standard, as far as I’ve ever experienced. Lots of molded plastic, some minor-league upholstery. With the stools at the slot machines, there’s more seating available on the concourses than usual.

Grade: C


There’s plenty of food on the concourses in Terminal 1. The best dining is in the C concourse–lucky Southwest Airlines passengers catch a break! But you can grab a bite and a cup of coffee easily enough out at the gates of A, B, and D too. Terminal 2 is another story–if you’re not into Pizza Hut, Burger King, hot dogs, or ice cream you’re SOL.

Grade: C


Are kinda dirty most of the time, and the distribution of bathrooms in some of the concourses is just weird. The worst concourse is A, which has only one set of bathrooms for all the gates. Best is C, which has bathrooms ranging all down its length.

McCarren has unisex restrooms for folks who need assistance, but they’re not numerous.

Grade: D

Other Amenities

There are “recharge stations” sprinkled conservatively throughout the concourses, but I didn’t see any seating with outlets easily available to plug in electronics.

McCarran has free wi-fi.

Grade: B

Baggage Claim

Baggage claim at McCarran involves many carousels, like any large international airport. It’s a long, long walk from most of the gates to baggage claim, so after one regrettably painful incident, I stick with wheelchair service from the gate after my flights.

Baggage claim at LAS seems organized enough, and I’ve not heard or read of any major complaints.

Grade: B-

Ground Transport

Ground transport after a flight into McCarran can be a total zoo. There’s no dedicated public transit system from McCarran into downtown Las Vegas or The Strip, which means visitors have a choice of shuttles, taxis, limos (this is Vegas, after all) or rental cars. Check before you go to see whether your casino, hotel, motel, or timeshare has a free (or pay) airport shuttle. Not all of them do. If you’re coming in on a Friday afternoon or evening, expect to spend at least 15 minutes in the taxi line.

Traffic on The Strip is insane. Expect to get caught in some sort of gawdawful traffic jam that extends your time from LAS to your hotel by at least 15 minutes, no matter what time of day you arrive, no matter what ground transport method you pick. It’s worst if you drive yourself, which I do not recommend for a traveler with pain.

Grade: D

The Bottom Line

I dislike flying into and out of LAS, and find its facilities to be mediocre at best. Here’s hoping that the new terminal they’re opening in 2013 has more bathrooms, better gate seating, better food, and shorter walks.

Grade: C


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On British Museum steps

My beloved fiance sitting on the steps of the British Museum

I spent last week in London to celebrate my dad’s birthday. My family are a bunch of unabashed and unashamed museum geeks, so we went hog wild. We visited the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria & Albert–three separate times.

I discovered, to my joy, that London museums make great refuges for a traveler with pain.

Getting In

Most of the major museums in London are free. FREE. Which means that anyone who’d like to come in out of the (near-endless) rain can just walk in and shelter in the British or the V&A. The big free museums in London that I know of are:

For a fairly complete* list of free museums and other cheap stuff to do in London, check out this Fodor’s article.

Benches V&A London

Nice soft squishy bench seats with backs on the 3rd floor in the V&A

Sitting Down

Bench placement varies by museum. The British has lots of benches scattered in its major galleries, so that I could lounge at my ease while appreciating great art. On the other hand, the Museum of London doesn’t have many benches in the good galleries.

It took me a while to realize that instead of benches, the London museums all have racks of ultra-light black camp stools. Again–FREE.

For me, lugging a seat around so that I can sit down wherever I want involves a trade-off–convenience vs. encumbrance. In this case, I found that the convenience of sitting in front of any bit of art I wanted to enjoy while resting won. Your mileage may vary.

Eating and Drinking

The Tate Gallery in London originated the upscale museum cafe concept. I didn’t eat in the Natural History, but visited the cafes in all the other museums. Good stuff. All provide healthy full-meal options and reasonable numbers of seats for diners. I stuck with the lower-priced cafeteria-style museum eateries (the British has a full-fledged white-tablecloth restaurant too).

Outside the British Museum

Sometimes you've just gotta lie down: A pack of youthful folks chilling out in front of the British Museum

Using the Bathroom

Being that the museums are free, the bathrooms tend to be a bit overused. Expect lines at the popular museums, and a fair bit of dirt. There are wheelchair accessible stalls and rooms in all the museums, but these can be tough to find depending on the museum. You get what you pay for. *shrug*

The Bottom Line

Museums in London are heaven-sent for travelers with pain. Free entry to climate control. Public restrooms. Free seating in galleries filled with great art. Easy access to water and real food.

Absolutely fabulous.

* This kind of information about attractions changes constantly. Please don't hold it against me (or Fodor's) if they're not 100% accurate.

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Fisherman's Wharf sign San Francisco

The legendary Fisherman's Wharf sign

Fisherman’s Wharf–that waterfront area of San Francisco that’s the bane of locals and the beloved of tourist buses. The Wharf isn’t really a wharf. Well, part of it is, sort of. But mostly the Wharf is a zone of San Francisco’s north side centered on Bay Street between Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square. Several dozen seafood restaurants and about one zillion souvenir shops ply their wares to the throngs that walk the Wharf day and night.

On weekends, it seems like every human soul in the world finds his or her way down into San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. If you’ve got anxiety disorder pertaining to crowds, I do not recommend the Wharf on Saturday afternoons. For travelers with other kinds of pain, my thoughts break down like this:

Ghirardelli Square

I don’t really get the appeal of Ghirardelli Square. Built on the side of a steep hill, the Square is filled with steep stairs, sloping walkways, and chain retail stores. Of course the Ghirardelli chocolate factory and shop still anchors the Square. The product tastes yummy, and the tour can be moderately fun. But the product is sold all over the City–it’s not necessary to hike up to the main shop to get my chocolate fix.

Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco

Looking toward the main chocolate shop from Ghirardelli Square

The other retail stores aren’t remarkable. A cupcake shop sweetens the Square further, and some clothing and high-end tchochke shops. *shrug* Elevator access is minimal, so I was stuck with the stairs for most of my exploration. Seats scattered around the flat areas are supposed to be reserved for shop and cafe patrons, but most of the time a tired traveler can borrow a seat for a few minutes without buying anything.

Restrooms don’t appear too thick  in the Square. The Ghirardelli ice cream parlor’s got a customers-only bathroom.

Ripley’s Odditorium and the Wax Museum

Both of these ridiculous, hilarious sideshow-style attractions offer a way for travelers to come inside out of the chill fog–for a price, of course. Both of these…er…museums provide gaggles of eye-popping exhibits. Should your medical condition require you to view a stuffed two-headed weasel, Ripley’s can hook you up. On the other hand, I’d recommend that anyone with a seizure disorder, anxiety disorder, or balance troubles skip the “mirror maze” that’s part of the Ripley’s ticket.

Two-Headed Calf at Ripley's in San Francisco

I just don't get the two-headed taxidermy thing, but there it is...right there, in fact

Ripley’s galleries offer very few places to sit down. On the one hand, I hate that in a museum–the pause-and-shuffle of museum visiting aggravates my pain condition. On the other hand, I’m not sure how long I really needed to spend contemplating the way Ripley’s displays body modifications and plaster negatives of Angelina Jolie’s face. Lack of seating encouraged me to move through the museum quickly.

Both Ripley’s and the Wax Museum have restrooms available for customers. They’re acceptable.

Pier 39

Unlike the Square, Pier 39 is very friendly to disabled visitors of all kinds. For one thing, it’s fairly flat. Where there are stairs, ramps run beside them. A new bank of elevators appears about every hundred yards, and most of them even work. The Pier has lots of benches available for public seating–they do fill up quickly on sunny days, but they’ve honestly planned well and created enough seats (with backs!!) to go around.

On the other hand, the restroom situation isn’t always pleasant on the Pier, especially for us ladies. Expect lines for stalls, and moderate to dirty conditions. I recommend taking an elevator to the second level and seeking out one of the lesser-used restrooms. Less muss, less fuss.

Pier 39 San Francisco

A typically busy day out on the Pier, with some atypical sunshine adding to the crowds

Entertainment on the Pier includes a carousel, a small stage with continuous live entertainment (think third-rate stand-up comedy, and magicians for the kids), the Aquarium of the Bay, and of course the sea lions. The buildings all along both sides of the pier house lots and lots of retail, plus a few seafood restaurants and cafes for flavor. The best thing about the shops is that they carry things like socks, hats, and sweatshirts–useful things for visitors with pain who’ve dressed too lightly for Wharf conditions. (Yeah, that’s me, and I know better dammit!)

The Bottom Line

Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco can be a fun, silly, entertaining destination for properly prepared travelers with pain. But that prep is key! Dress for cold, damp fog. Know that the hills rise viciously steep up above the waterfront. Beware of hordes of fellow tourists who jostle up and down the Wharf on weekend.

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Bari in the door of the Hotel Triton

Known as one of the eco-friendliest in green lovin’ San Francisco, the Hotel Triton does its level best to live up to its rep. With ridiculous lobby decor, helpful staff, and working elevators, the smallish boutique hotel has a definitive San Francisco vibe. It’s also got a definitive San Francisco price tag—expect to pay at least $250 per night for a standard room, and at least $300 for an eco-room. This doesn’t make the Triton expensive by the City’s standards, particularly given its sweet location.

The Room

I booked myself and my serious allergy plagued travel buddy into one of the Eco-King rooms. We could tell right off which room was ours—it was the one with the random shards of bamboo screwed to the door. This decoration repeated inside the room, creating a silly “lookit how GREEN we are we use BAMBOO EVERYWHERE” theme. A handmade paper book described in loving detail every eco-friendly aspect of the room, from the paint to the towels to the specially constructed bed.

My Eco-King room at the Hotel Triton

Our room was small—a common circumstance in the boutique hotels clustering around Union Square. The bamboo flooring looked nice, but I slipped and nearly cracked my head trying to walk on it in socks. An air purifier hummed night and day, which honestly helped my companion’s breathing inside the room.

The Triton has air conditioning—not the most common amenity in the City because it so rarely gets over 80 degrees F. The fan on the A/C unit helps with the stuffiness that greeted us upon arrival. Opening the bathroom window wide helped too.

Room service is available from the attached restaurant Café de la Presse. A mini-bar serves up organic snacks (including Blueberry-Acai gummy pandas) and overpriced beverages.

The Bed

We had to share—the eco-rooms all have Cal king beds, no double-doubles. The organic cotton sheets and comforter felt super-soft and had no detergent or perfumey smell. And in fact, my buddy was able to sleep with her skin in contact with the sheets (not usual for her) without enduring any allergic reaction whatsoever.

The mattress, a wool-stuffed specialized thing, laid over a frame made primarily of dowels. It made for a fairly comfortable sleep, though I did get a bit of a backache.

I’d asked for a foam pillow in advance, and it sat on our bed when we arrived. Standard pillows at the Triton are feather-filled and numerous. Ask if you need alternatives.

Adjoining bath to the Hotel Triton's Eco-King Room

The Bath

Our bathroom’s size matched our room’s—tiny, with a door that opened inward and made the whole thing awkward. But the shower-tub combo was deep enough for good long soaks, which we both took to ease various aches and pains. The shower head had a filtration unit attached. Towels were fluffy soft organic cotton, and without detergent-y smell. The Triton provides Aveda toiletries, and the labels don’t joke—the mint oil can make delicate eyes water.

But Can You Sleep In It?

Our room had a less than stellar view, with the tradeoff of zero street noise. For a hotel on busy Grant Ave, this is a good trade. On the other hand, our room remained well-lit even at midnight. The eco-conscious bamboo shades did almost nothing to block light, and there were no other means to darken the room. The air purifier never slept, but its hum stayed at a manageably low level. I recommend earplugs maybe and a sleep mask definitely.

Chinatown Gate Lion (L) and Bari (R)

Location Location Location

The Triton sits half a block from the Chinatown Gate on Grant Ave, about 3 blocks from Union Square, and 4 blocks from the nearest Cable Car stop. MUNI buses run through the area regularly, and it’s easy to catch a cab out in front of the hotel. The hotel offers free car service from 7am-9am on weekdays for business travelers who need to get to the Financial District.

A French restaurant, Café de la Presse, is attached to the Triton. Next door there’s a coffee bar competing with the Starbucks across the street. The clothing and furniture stores of Union Square spill into the Triton’s block too.

I love the location because it’s easy to walk to points of interest without exhausting myself.

The Bottom Line

The Hotel Triton is a good place to stay for travelers with pain, travelers with allergies, and travelers with mild to moderate Environmental Illness (EI). I’d definitely stay there again.

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The youthful city of San Francisco is known for its wacky politics, creative spirit, and out-there artistry—the Burning Man festival started on a beach right here in the City. Here are a few museums that capture and display modern art that reflects San Francisco:

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Friends and locals call this downtown art museum – with an uptown reputation and collection – the SFMOMA (you’ll see the acronym on signs all over downtown SF). Its galleries full of funky furniture, colorful photos, splashy paintings, and bizarre yet beautiful multimedia installations have been known to delight and occasionally disgust visitors. Whether you love modern art or hate it, the SFMOMA’s collections and exhibitions are always entertaining. SFMOMA lies right in the midst of the Yerba Buena Garden art district, easily accessible from the W San Francisco hotel. 151 Third Street (btwn Mission & Howard)

Read more at Oyster Locals…

Traveling with Pain? Modern art museums often make great spots, if of course you can tolerate the art.

The SFMOMA has wide aisles and good wheelchair accessibility features. In all honesty, I can’t remember whether it’s got good seating in the galleries or not. It’s been a few years since I last made it to an exhibition there.

The de Young has great art and good space to move around in. But the seating is cruddy–there are few viewing benches or seats in the galleries with the art. Last time I needed to sit down at the de Young, I had to go hunting for a spot to plant myself and ended up on a hard bench in an empty hallway near the bathroom. No fun. The food at the cafeteria is awesome (grass-fed hamburgers, local vegetarian salads, daily-changing entrees), but the line gets equally awesome around lunchtime.

Because it screens films and puts up live shows, the seating prospects at the Yerba Buena Center look better than the average museum.  One of these days I’ll have to check it out.

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Visitors to Angel Island, one of the land masses poking out of the San Francisco Bay tend to split between hiking geeks and history geeks. The good news for travelers with disabilities is that hiking is not required to enjoy the history and the beauty of Angel Island State Park.

Getting There: Ferries to and from Angel Island leave daily from Pier 41 on Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. The Blue & Gold Fleet ferries are sort of, mostly wheelchair accessible, but it’s best to call ahead to make arrangements for assistance. The Angel Island ferries do have both indoor and outdoor deck seating and restrooms. Only service animals are permitted on board and on Angel Island. (This regulation helps protect indigenous species on the island.)

Read the full Accessible Angel Island story at Oyster Locals…

Though the post was written for Oyster, it covers most of what I’d have to say in a TWP post. I was honestly and pleasantly surprised by the number of options I had when I checked out Angel Island. The Segway tour is ridiculously expensive, but the tram is totally rideable. Just be sure to wear a jacket!

Last weekend the SF Chronicle printed an article by John Flinn about camping on Angel Island. For a perfectly healthy, bluff dude like Mr. Flinn, camping Angel Island in the freezing damp of a San Francisco December might be a fabulous thing to do. For me, not so much.

My system can’t regulate my core temperature properly, which means I can’t stay warm after the sun goes down. Cold triggers my pain. I can’t sleep on the ground or on a 1-inch foam pad, period. I will be too cold and in too much pain. And yes, Mr. Flinn, I’ve got a wool hat, nylon balclava, wool socks, thermal underwear, arctic mummy bag, wool blankets, hot water bottles–all of that, and I’d still be curled in a miserable fetal ball, freezing and awake. Been there, done that, no more thank you very much. I can’t pee into a plastic water bottle without leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag, either.

For those of us with chronic pain and illness who need a warm bed and indoor plumbing, I recommend checking out the hotels in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Also accessible to Angel Island are the chi-chi boutique hotels of Tiburon. You can pretty much fall out of your room in the Waters Edge Hotel and onto an Angel Island ferry.

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Powell & Market Cable Car Turnabout (c) Liz Hamill Scott

As I stare up Powell Street from Fisherman’s Wharf…and up…and up…it becomes clear that the 19th century San Franciscans were desperate. If I had to climb that cliff they call a hill every day I would have keeled over. Or possibly invented some sort of human-powered heavy-duty rope-tow trolley system.

Nowadays, the cable cars aren’t the comfiest public transit option in San Francisco. Plus they’re part of the MUNI system, and all you locals know what that means. But they still beat the crap out of walking up Nob Hill or Powell Street or freakin’ Lombard. (Lombard’s the crooked street–build that way so that cars don’t shoot straight down it and wind up in a big steel pile at the bottom.) Here are 5 Places to Catch a Cable Car, plus basic fare information and a few links.

The seats on the cable cars are the original butt-bruising wooden wonders. BYO stadium cushion for comfortable seating. The “outside” seats come complete with the chills of fog and wind, but they’re the ones with the amazing views. “Inside” seats are protected from the wind. Sort of, mostly. I keep my coat on. On weekends, the cars get crowded and people often have to remain standing and clutch the poles to keep upright.

Famously, a couple of riders can cling to handrails on the sides of the car, essentially riding completely outside of the cable car “on the boards.” I’ll pass on that, thanks. It looks like it might be fun for healthy teenage boys, but I prefer to sit.

It’s really, really loud on the cable cars. Sound-sensitive riders might do better with earplugs.

Cable cars aren’t officially accessible–the 19th century cars don’t have lifts. But rumor has it that operators will help disabled passengers board. Ask for assistance with the steps up and down from the cars, and you’ll probably receive it. Choose one of the route terminus points for the best chance of help.

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