Travelling With A Wheelchair: How I Enjoy Accessible Trips Abroad

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A beautiful sunset over rocky hills in Greece, next to the sea.

I was born with a very rare neuromuscular condition which means I am a full-time electric wheelchair user, but it has not stopped me from travelling abroad. Far from it! From a young child I was lucky enough to be taken on foreign holidays, which meant I caught the travelling bug at an early age.

Let’s face it, there are some challenges if you have a disability, but these have not stopped me travelling extensively including South Africa, New York and Europe. On the South Africa trip there was very limited accessible transport so for a fair bit of the trip my chair was towed around the country behind us on a flat trailer with ratchet straps!

On the New York trip I was abandoned by my PA/ carer at Heathrow airport as in she didn’t turn up. Instead of sensibly giving up and going home I decided, with the help of my travelling companions and my brother who was living in New York at the time, to try an American care agency and got away with it; just!

When I want a relatively easy trip and it’s logistically viable, I go by train and Eurostar. One major benefit is you don’t have to transfer from your wheelchair, as you do when flying. I’ve found their assisted travel department good and they will handle the booking and make sure you’re in the right area on the train, which for Eurostar is often business class. This is great and when I last travelled with them also still included was a free meal and a glass of wine which your companion also gets.

This is one of the very few perks for a wheelchair using traveller; you also get to use their lounge at St Pancras! Assistance is provided throughout your journey including any changes. One of the main advantages for me because my chair does not fold, is that Eurostar usually deposits me in the middle of a city which means there are buses which are normally accessible these days and even some accessible taxis.

The author and her mother looking out onto a beautiful landscape, showing how travellers can enjoy travelling with a wheelchair.

This is all good, but I have an unfortunate lifelong love affair with Greece, (I blame my parents for this) which in spite of the Athens Olympics would not be at the top of my easily accessible list. However, in recent times because of Covid and a sudden encounter with TTP (a life threatening auto immune blood disorder which led to a diagnosis of endometrial cancer, all in 2020), travel was put on hold.

But this did not mean I could not Google future possibilities and I spotted a lovely little wheelchair accessible resort on the gulf of Corinth in Greece. The image of a ramp leading down into the sea stayed with us. Then later on, continuing to dream, searches revealed a wheelchair accessible hire car in Athens which was the game changer, and which had never been an option before. The final clincher in January this year, 2023, was a grant from a wonderful charity which understands the extra costs involved, including taking care support on holiday.

It all became reality on June the 1st when we took off from Gatwick bound for Athens! I had to make sure I had robust (although slightly more expensive than before) travel insurance. There had been some discussion about my proneness to infections since my health issues kicked off, but we decided to go for it with the ok from the medics and the relevant information in Greek in case of emergency!

Let’s face it, flying with an electric wheelchair has some challenges but now that there are more of us flying with complex chairs, things have improved a lot. You now don’t expect that your chair will be actually left behind but after my last experience I would recommend that you are familiar with how to put your chair on and off freewheel as difficulties moving the chair can cause significant delays, and aggravation to the baggage handlers. Also have gaffer tape and Allen keys in case of on the go repairs!

Running repairs on a wheelchair in Athens using tape.
Running repairs; when a chunk of tyre fell off!

Sometimes things all align and go smoothly, other times you need the equivalent of a PHD in strong arm diplomacy. Calm and firm usually win the day as you know your body and your equipment, and they don’t. For example, they often want to take your chair at the departure gate and put you in a manual; for me this is not an option, I need to stay in my chair till the door of the airplane.

It’s advisable to allow extra time at the airport: at Gatwick last time they kept us waiting for ages at the check in desk for no obvious reason. Most airlines allow a medical bag as hold luggage free of charge. This can be really useful if like me you need to take a fair bit of medication, personal care equipment and medical supplies.

Being the practical type I feel I can’t finish without a reference to accessible WCs or the lack of them in other parts of the world. If, like me, it’s important to you to get even slightly off the beaten track I would suggest that you work out what personal arrangements in the absence of the above, will work best for you!

As a disabled traveller I know I will always face challenges when travelling but since my spat with seriously ill health I’m more determined than ever to take any opportunity to have foreign adventures as they have given me some of the greatest experiences of my life. So, if you’re wondering whether you dare give it a go, do your research and go for it. There are guides now to accessible accommodation, but I would always check directly with where you plan to stay before booking.

Oh yes, and my first trip since being grounded in 2020 was truly fabulous. True, I didn’t always feel great and was put straight onto antibiotics when I got back! (I am still learning; now I know to take rescue antibiotics with me!) But thanks to great support from my exceptional friend/PA and her husband, Mum and I both had a holiday that surpassed anything we had dared hope for.

HLB, Basingstoke UK

The author and her mother in Greece.

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