Wheels Up! Travelling with Mobility Issues


Note: the following is entirely based on personal experience and the experiences of others with whom I have discussed these issues. Please consider your own circumstances and needs carefully, and seek medical advice. This was originally published in 2012 on my travel blog The Great Affair, but I’m posting here and will update as insights land like anvils in my psyche.

So, you’re planning to set off on a trip. Perhaps you’re facing a progressive illness and coming to terms with your declining mobility. Perhaps you’re on the way back to health after a surgery or long-term illness. Perhaps you need a change of scene and you know your deserve a holiday. There’s often a woeful lack of guidance for any travellers with disabilities, and I’ve found especially for those whose limitations fall in that awkward, broad category of “mobility issues”: conditions that don’t involve permanent confinement to a wheelchair but do involve some trial and error where fatigue and and pain come in.

Here are some suggestions if you’re facing travel and not sure what to expect.

1. Set conservative limits on distance

I know; it’s not a promising start. But step one involves some serious confrontation of your own abilities, limitations and comfort. Unless the trip is for business or a special occasion you probably have some control over your destination.
When picking a destination, ask:
How long is the journey time and is this realistic?
Does this destination require an overnight flight and can I cope with that?
Is any overnight flight at the beginning or end of the trip?
How stressed am I likely to be leading up to departure and how long will I have to recover afterwards?
If none of these is a dealbreaker, great! However, there’s no harm in having a short trip close to home to try out your endurance with low risk.

2. Find yourself a good home base

Even if you don’t plan to spend much time in a hotel room, think about this: even if you only sleep there, you are likely to spend a third of your time in the hotel, and if you suffer from physical pain this might be the most important third of your day for ensuring your stamina and comfort.
Make yourself a wishlist of requirements, decide what you can and can’t live without, and stick to it:
  • Do you need level access? Check for external or internal steps and lifts.
  • Do you need or want ensuite facilities? Consider how far away you could bear to be from a bathroom and take into account whether you need to have some control over your hygiene, especially if you are taking any immunosuppressants.
  • Do you sometimes need a wheelchair? If so, make sure you request a room with enough space  to move around and store any equipment (and ask about doorway widths!)
  • How far can you expect to go for basic requirements, inside and out? Think about the size of the hotel and find out where suitable rooms are. If you don’t need all the facilities of a dedicated accessible room (which may be in a far corner of the hotel to maximise space) you might find that requesting a room close to a lift is more suitable. Also consider the minimum distance from each potential hotel to sources of food and transport.
  • Do you have any medication that needs refrigeration? Don’t take the presence of refrigerators for granted.
  • Similarly, do you need extra, reliable power outlets for equipment?
You can always ask the hotel for clarification, and this can be a great way of gauging the management’s awareness and willingness to help with your needs. Do check out online reviews, with the usual healthy scepticism, if you’re concerned about anything, such as bed height or mattress quality. Find out whether the hotel occupies the whole building – if it’s only one or two floors (common in large and crowded cities) then remember that your hotel may not be in control of external disruptions to service and access.
Remember that even if you have great stamina at home, we can’t underestimate the effects of culture shock and jetlag along with the exhaustion of sightseeing and a new climate. Prepare for extra rest time, and allow occasional rest days on a longer trip. If there are perks that you quite fancy it can be worth treating yourself – perhaps, if you know you’re going to be spending a lot of time in or around a hotel, having a lively view and a balcony would make you feel part of the action.

3. Be realistic about your destination

You don’t have to go looking for trouble, but always endeavour to get a clear picture of what to expect with regards to accessibility and challenges. Do think about how you’ll feel after walking on uneven pavement all day if that’s a local hazard, and consider your transport options. One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with has been the apparently minor issue of reaching the end of my energy reserves and having to stand waiting for a delayed bus!
And you don’t have to be a slave to the guidebook’s “travellers with disabilities” section, either. You know your requirements and remember that some books only cover wheelchair access. Don’t write off anywhere before looking into it yourself – in some countries, for example, travel can be a real headache on wheels but if you have the ability to negotiate steep pavements and uneven surfaces you can treat yourself to taxis and hotels with every luxury for a relative pittance.

Do check for yourself what restrictions may be in place with regard to bringing medication in. Sometimes the guidebook won’t have the latest rules.

4. Be prepared for unfairness

I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge unfair policies, but do be prepared for some measure of frustration through the whole process. Some airlines restrict the number of passengers with disabilities and in most circumstances the prized exit row seats are off-limits. While most allow extra time, a minority make passengers with disabilities board late. Make sure you know the airline or airport policies and can deal with their restrictions without seething, and as always use the contact info online if you want to know more.
People can be a less predictable hassle. Yes, we’re more at the whims of the airline employees whom we encounter than we might wish, and sometimes other passengers (even those with disabilities) will be ignorant of the reasons for having what they see as “special treatment” and might question the need for assistance. The vast majority of people will say nothing and have no problem, however, and remember that it’s usually a result of their own frustrations and they won’t remember the irritation later, even though it might feel like they are sending waves of disapproval your way. Ignore it and remember that, while occasional obnixious people get everywhere, most people are nice!

5. Find the most comfortable travel arrangement

Don’t be shy about asking what help is available if there’s a chance that you can save yourself a lot of hassle and pain. Some airlines will happily offer a free reservation of a bulkhead seat and (unless you will be more comfortable not moving during the flight) an aisle seat is usually easy to request and can make a huge difference to comfort. While no one really wants to be too close to the bathrooms on a long flight, situating yourself in the general area can be a good idea if you’re stiff but likely to get up and down to go to the toilet. Ask at check-in if the flight is full, as if not a helpful airline employee might be happy to put you in a quiet spot.
Do ask for more time to board – which is not only great for getting settled and getting your hand luggage away, but means you’re not as vulnerable to bumping or standing around for too long. Some airlines board people with mobility restrictions at the same time as young families, and you just have to imagine the combination of bouncing kids and a bunch of people with sticks and walkers to know that’s a bad idea. In this case it is definitely worth asking to not board with this group, even if it means hanging back until the families have had a good head start.
On board, make the flight attendants aware if you have any particular needs. Most armrests can be moved if you know how and they can make sure that you don’t have to manoeuvre any more than need be. If the seatbelt is uncomfortable extensions are available and you can ask the flight attendants for one when you board or as they pass. Scheduled airlines typically offer extensions that match the regular belts, whereas some budget airlines will provide you with one in a very indiscreet shade! They can be purchased, and are accepted by most airlines, though some (such as Lufthansa) use a different buckling mechanism on some planes so you may still have to ask. Get a headstart on your comfort by selecting a seat online, if possible, and check out SeatGuru to find the best spot for you on your aircraft. This will also give you important information on seat pitch and width.
If flying causes too much pain and stress, consider the alternatives. Train travel can be a much easier prospect, especially for a trial run, since there is much more freedom to move around and fewer hurdles to jump before boarding the train. In fact, some train journeys are holidays in themselves and you can see spectacular scenery while meeting locals and not having to exert yourself too much!

6. Embrace the chair!

Not literally, unless you feel so moved. The airport wheelchair assistance service is your friend. If you’re fine going the distance on foot, discount it, but if any part of the walking, queueing and standing around is going to leave you sore and tired before you even get on the plane, get the help. If you’ve always been independent I understand that it can be difficult to acknowledge your limitations with such a visible symbol, but remember that most of us would want someone we care about to accept help rather than struggling on.
In most cases, the wheelchair route through the airport is somewhat swifter than the FootRoute, which is a blessing if you need time to decompress before the business of boarding. Don’t underestimate the difference it can make when connecting, when you may need to collect luggage and pass through security again.
Sometimes you will be scooped up from check-in, while sometimes you will need to go to an appointed location for wheelchair pickup. Do request assistance when booking a ticket, but if for any reason this has not been processed (it does happen) just stay calm, request assistance and there is usually no problem. In this case, ask the desk agent to check that a request is applied to all further flights on the ticket.

7. Appreciate your helpers

If you travel regularly from one airport, chances are you will become a familiar face to the assistants. All the more reason to be the kind of traveller they are happy to welcome back! When travelling alone, it’s nice to have the chance to chat, anyway.
Arriving in a new place, your assistants are likely to be the first local people you meet. This makes them a valuable and often enthusiastic ambassador for their home city and a source of great pointers. This can be your chance to ask any burning questions and to ask for local recommendations.
In one sense, it’s not fair that we should pay more than anyone else for a service we don’t want to need, but see point 4 again for a refresher. When someone has pushed you through an airport, collected your luggage, found an express route through passport control, been pleasant and given you sightseeing tips and driving directions, then it’s more than worth tipping generously according to your ability. Whether or not it’s expected, unless it’s taboo in your destination it’s likely to be appreciated and will show that you value the service.
Obviously, we all need to consider our own requirements, but if you’re nervous about the prospect of travel with new restrictions, I hope that this will be of some encouragement that it is possible. It’s not true that we can all do anything we fancy, but with some realistic expectations, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to enjoy the abilities we have!

Lost. Not in France.


I am currently completely turned around. I have no idea where I am. I know I am in the Netherlands, next to a canal. Beyond that, I am stumped. I feel so alone.

Okay, I’m actually on Google Streetview, in the comfort of my own home, but that doesn’t mean I will feel satisfied just closing the window and getting on with my life. My plan is to follow the canal for a while and see what happens.

Someone just told me how to find out where I am. Unfortunately I only have an address, which does not quite complete the picture for me. Apparently I’m on Raamvest. Which sounds like a metal group. Or a sheep wearing underwear.
How did I get myself into this ridiculous situation? My parents announced that we are all going to Haarlem for the weekend in a couple of months, so I decided to do some exploring. I have seen many adorable houses and found some market stalls, but in the process I lost track of myself. Oh well. Back to the trial-and-error manner of navigation. I think this canal business is a good idea.
Anyone else ever feel they get themselves into problems that normal people would not have?
Goodness, I hope I’m still in Haarlem.

In Defence of Sightseeing



The air was heavy. A red mist began to rise around my head. I had a vision of myself vaulting over the child below. What kind of stupid man would block the bus exit with his buggy and refuse to budge? If one cannot respond to a kind request, I fumed, what hope is there for humanity?

Then it happened. I tutted. Loudly.

My mind flashed back to a similar bus situation, upon moving to Paris four weeks earlier, as the blue-rinsed commuters telegraphed their disapproval of one woman’s pram-wrestling boarding of the number 81. It struck me: I had become a little old Parisian lady.

This kind of self-discovery, to my mind, puts Marco Polo to shame and is the holy grail for the introspective travel writer. Especially as it’s about me. Except for one thing: all of the above took place in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur.

Thousands of independent travellers share a horror of the overfamiliar; we want to emphasise our thorough appreciation of a place and its culture, gain an insight into the people – and we would not be caught dead up the Eiffel Tower. It seems self-evident that the worst parts of any destination, the most money-grabbing, tourist heaving aspects, will be found in impressive proportion within viewing distance of any major monument. Much of it gives the impression (not entirely inaccurately) that tourist are a bottomless pit of money. At Notre Dame one may enjoy waving bits of paper before the nose if one stands still for more than thirty seconds, the aforementioned Tour Eiffel boasts unrivalled queuing, while at the Louvre a prospective admirer of the Mona Lisa will no doubt appreciate the tranquility afforded by four hundred jostling elbows. Worse still, we find ourselves surrounded by pale imitations of ourselves in the form of novelty T-shirt wearing, socks-with-sandals sporting, tacky fridge magnet purchasing tourists. I choke on the word. Choke!

The disappointments and inconveniences of major tourist sights are well documented, and the reasons for avoiding such tourist-crammed areas are considered and well-meant (as well as a little snobbish). When one wants to gain a deeper understanding of the local people and their lifestyles, there really isn’t a lot you can do about it when yelling your crepe order over the heads of an idling tour group.

In a city like Paris, however, non-touristy sights are thin on the ground. Nowhere in the world have I encountered such a density of – gulp – attractions, but the annual turnover of tourists within its twenty arrondissements more than compensates. More to the point, had I gone to Paris as a student and not visited any of the tourist destinations, what would I have missed?

I may have missed out on the beautiful Pantheon with its confused ecclesiastical heritage, or the view from the Pompidou Centre. When you’ve got postcards to send anyway, why not buy them at St-Michel with everyone else, where genuine Parisian students hang out and you can witness a political demonstration or two?

There’s a reason that the Musee D’Orsay is a popular destination – its collection – and while Versailles can be downright unpleasant with its surfeit of tourists, once you get past the gritting of teeth and grumbles of, “Someone should really do something,” the apartments really do provide an insight into the ambitions of Louis XIV. While travellers may be justly disinterested in the doings of the tourist masses, there’s little point in getting snobby towards those who have a genuine interest in and knowledge of local history.

People travel for all sorts of reasons. I find it quite wrong to suggest that going to “see things” is in any way an invalid proposition. There are good reasons for travellers to be interested in people and character, but many of us have tangible interests, particularly those with a passion for architecture. In the style and decor of a church many travellers can read insight not only into the current population, but into the priorities and preoccupations of long-dead designers and craftsmen. In this spirit I chased down the Lavirotte-designed public toilets at Madeleine – perhaps off the tourist trail themselves; certainly under it – and the Opera Garnier, my spiritual home and favourite building in Paris. And I don’t care if it is crawling with tourists. It’s magnificent.

Much is dependent on outlook. One can find oneself immersed in a city, speaking the language, surrounded by locals, and still gain no insight into the society. Equally, one can queue for the Louvre with a thousand tourists and be motivated by a love for their extensive collection of pre-19th century art, ancient Babylonian decor, or Levantine religious sculpture. Is this wrong? Is it shallow to be concerned with anything beyond the local community, or to be primarily interested in other things?

I confess that I do own quite the tacky fridge magnet collection – but I still haven’t been up the Eiffel Tower.