I have a chronic knee condition which is getting progressively worse, especially so over the past few years. This means that I struggle to walk far at all and although some days are better than others on a bad day every step causes really bad pain. Despite this I have not let this stop me travelling which we love; just because I am limited on what I can do doesn’t mean it’s impossible! I have had people ask how I manage to travel so much despite my condition and therefore I decided to write this post in order to help others who may want to travel but feel their disability is a barrier. Below is my step by step guide about how I manage to plan our travels.
Getting to the Airport
The best option here is always to get lift from a friend or a taxi straight to the door of departures; however if this isn’t possible there are other options out there. For those who drive most airports offer a park and ride type of service; you drop your car off, hop on a bus and get dropped at the airport. Gatwick offer Purple Parking which is based 3 miles off site and reasonably priced; you park your car in a lane and it’s just a few steps from drop off to the registration desk and bus. The bus runs every 10 minutes and it drops you right outside either North or South Terminal. Whilst the busses can get busy there are disabled seats at the front of the bus and staff will if need be help you and your luggage on and off the bus if required. There are also short and long stay car parking options however these are more expensive and although a quicker bus journey to the terminal it could involve a long walk.
Luton Airport have a similar scheme to Purple Parking called Airparks which is based 4 miles from the airport; however the drop off point from the bus is a fair distance from the terminal and I do struggle with this. Stansted also offer the Purple Parking scheme and this is based outside of the airport with a 10-12 minute transfer. For Stansted a comparable parking scheme is the Long Stay Car Park which is usually similar in cost; if you are savvy and park next to the bus stop minimal walking is required and it drops you outside the terminal. Heathrow is quite near to us and therefore we have either just got a lift or got a taxi door to door.
Another option for parking is the Meet and Greet Service offered by all airports; this costs quite a bit more but you drive to the drop off point at the airports and your car is then taken from you and driven back for your arrival; we have not yet tried this service due to the cost and mixed reviews but that could always work. We always book our holiday parking through www.holidayextras.co.uk after a google search for the latest discount code! If you drive these options are definitely the most cost effective compared to National Express or train fares.
At the airport
I can’t stress this enough – Special Assistance is the way to go! when you book your tickets with the airline or agent they will ask if you require special assistance through the airport or to the plane; make sure you book it – its free!
Gatwick is the worst airport for distances you need to walk but special assistance is based right at the entrance to Departures above check in. Here if you haven’t already specified they will ask what assistance you need and will provide staff to push you and your case in a wheelchair through security into the departure area if required. There is also a fast track security section so you don’t have to queue to go through. Once you are through security there is a further special assistance counter in the middle of the ground floor where staff are on hand to wheel you to where you want to go. If you are able to walk short distances or have sometime to push you in a wheelchair they will give you a buzzer similar to those at restaurants when your table is ready. When that goes off you return to the counter and they organise a buggy to take you to your departure gate. Depending on the gate/airline you can be wheeled straight on the plane or a hydraulic lift can be offered also if the stairs are an issue. Gatwick really have it sussed and offer an amazing service – this would always be my airport of preference.
Luton’s Special Assistance is not so well organised but there are still staff and wheelchairs on hand if required. The airport is much smaller than Gatwick and therefore there is no buggy service available; however there are staff to wheel you to the gate if necessary. From personal experience there appear to issues with the availability of hydraulic lifts at the airport and I have often had to walk up and down aircraft stairs here (slowly I may add and with help with my case). The counter for Special assistance is just inside the entrance to departures.
Stansted Airport is similar to Luton and is a lot smaller than Gatwick. The same services are provided including a wheelchair and staff support if necessary. My experiences at Stansted have been positive and help has been available upon arrival however we don’t fly from this airport often due to the distance from our home.
Heathrow has a very good special assistance service and whilst we rarely fly from here I have had really positive experiences. The Special Assistance counter is found near check in and they will ensure you’re able to get through the airport and that you make it to your plane on time. Due to the fact most planes from here are long haul I have had no issues with stairs as we boarded straight onto the plane.
Things to be aware of when booking Special Assistance
- You don’t have to provide any evidence of a disability in order to use this service. This is due to the guidelines set out by the Equality Act 2010 which gives passengers rights to assistance when you fly to, from and within Europe. This is usually fine for long haul flights in and out of Europe however other flights outside of Europe do not have the same laws so it worth checking what’s available.
- Special Assistance must be prebooked with your airline 48 hours in advance. If you haven’t prebooked then the airport cannot guarantee they can provide you with the support you need (though they will try their best!)
- Always read your boarding pass to ensure you know where to check in for special assistance. In Geneva I couldn’t find the counter and presumed like some other airports that it was through security…it wasn’t. Despite my best efforts including tweeting Easyjet asking for their help I was unable to get any support and had to take a very slow, painful walk to the departure gate 🙁
- If you have booked a return flight this will automatically be applied to your return journey. I was worried because I missed the desk in Geneva that there would be no help for me at Gatwick but this was not the case.
- You have to be at the airport 2 hours before the flight for Special Assistance and will have less time in the departure lounge due to being boarded onto the plane early. You may have to rush your food if you sit down for a meal as I have had to on a few occasions!
- Generally when I have booked Special Assistance I have been allocated a seat on the plane immediately for myself and my companion. This will be at either the front or the back of the plane for ease of access.
What to expect when you arrive at your destination
When you arrive, although this is not always specified, you are required to remain on the plane until all other passengers have disembarked. This allows the time for Special Assistance teams to make it to the aircraft and offer you the support you need to get off the plane and through the airport without the pressure of other passengers. This has varied from location to location however it is often a minibus or a car which will take you and your companion through to the arrivals area, through passport control and to baggage claim if required. Arriving back at Gatwick, Special Assistance is a godsend due to the huge queues at Passport Control. Staff are able to help you collect your baggage if required and depending on the airport will wheel you out of the terminal to your bus/taxi collection point.
The quality of this service does vary from airport to airport especially in European destinations. I remember being nearly carried down aircraft stairs in Krakow by two burly men which is not the normally the case. There can also be some delays when waiting for Special Assistance support depending on the availability of staff but this is a small price to pay for the invaluable support offered.
Accommodation and Transfers
The first thing I look at when booking accommodation is the facilities. This may sound obvious but I have been caught out by the assumption that the lovely accommodation booked has a lift and you can never presume this. It is worth getting in touch with the property first to check there is a lift (and if it is working), or if not whether they have an available ground floor room; you may get an amazing view from the top floor but if it is near enough impossible getting up and down the stairs then not having the view is a small sacrifice to make. It may also be that the property has a lift but you have to hike up a hill to get to the entrance; again always worth reading reviews to hear honest accounts of the surrounding areas. If your accommodation is in the middle of nowhere consider how you will get out and about; for example can you afford taxis? is there a bus route directly outside? will you have a car?
The other thing to consider is how you are going to get to the property; if you have booked a package deal then transfers are normally included but check the distance from the airport and the transfer time to determine whether the time sat cramped on a coach is feasible for you. Before booking I always check to see if the property offers a transfer service; this is usually the best way to go with a driver meeting you when you exit arrivals who is either parked directly outside or will drive up to the entrance when you have arrived. Sometimes you can pay more for this service but in my opinion that peace of mind of not struggling with luggage or sitting on a cramped coach for 2 hours is worth it.
You may want to hire a car on arrival and that’s great but always be aware that some car hire companies are based off the airport site and you often have to walk quite some distance for the check in desk and then to locate the car. It is worth researching where the desk is (we have had one in the departures of a separate terminal rather than arrivals) and asking the question how far away you have to go to get the car. I remember having to hop on crutches to a multistory car park in Copenhagen which was not ideal. If you make the car hire company aware of your difficulties prior to your arrival they may bring the car to you rather than you walking around trying to locate it. This is however dependent on the company and their staffing capacity.
If you are planning to take a train or a bus to your destination make sure you research fully exactly how far from the station/stop you need to go; half a mile may not seem a great distance to some people but it can be agony if you are struggling to walk. When we went to Switzerland, through a lot of planning we managed to get accommodation at 2 locations directly outside the train station meaning minimal walking. The other hotels were easily reachable by bus which was door to door.
In summary the accommodation you choose and your transfer options can make or break a holiday and it could be that you may not get the best quality or first choice of accommodation but if it ticks all the boxes otherwise and will make your holiday more enjoyable then it is worth the sacrifice of not having that spa or the swimming pool!
Getting out and about whilst on holiday
Many people want to go out and see more than the hotel they are staying in and there are a variety of ways you can do this. If you have done your research well there could be local transport that will suit just fine; however quite often this is not feasible as transport links can be unreliable and uncomfortable. It is worth exploring the following options:
Tours and Guided Activities
Depending where you go there usually a wide variety of tours or activities available to book. If we do book these we generally book these in advance so we have a clear picture of expectation for the day. There have been times however when we have booked a tour and part of it involves walking or climbing. An example of this was the Herzegovina tour we took when visiting Sarajevo. Most of the tour was great however we didn’t read the small print and there was an hour walking tour of Mostar which was not doable for me. Whilst we had a lovely sit down and took in the ambience it was a shame to miss a key part of the tour. It is also inconvenient for the tour guide who had not foreseen this kind of issue and had the assumption that everyone is fit and able. Research the available tour prior to arrival and discuss your requirements to see if this is the best trip for you. If it isn’t then alternative tours can be recommended or extra support can be offered on that day to help you. Don’t ever presume the expectations of the day, ask questions and read reviews in advance.
Having a car is the most convenient way of getting round to see local sites; however I am aware that some people may be nervous about driving in a different country especially when it comes to knowing the local laws, road signs and parking arrangements. When we decided on our spontaneous road trip around Europe the one thing I did research was Blue Badge parking in Europe. The Blue Badges issued in the UK are also valid in several EU countries however conditions do vary from country to country and it is worth knowing in advance exactly how you can use your blue badge in the country you are visiting.
The AA have published a guide to Blue Badge parking in the EU including local translations for you to print out and display with your badge which you can find here: blue_badge_abroad. This was extremely helpful for us and we printed it out in advance to ensure we had all the information we needed to avoid fines or other traffic misdemeanors. The document was valid as of February 2018 and was downloaded from the following website:
It should be noted however that the future position for Blue Badge parking in Europe remains unclear due to Brexit and therefore the website should be checked again in the future to determine the current arrangements for when your travel.
Depending on your budget and the country you visit, taxis may be a good option for you; as an example taxis in Bosnia were £2 for a comparable journey which cost £27 in Switzerland. It is always worth going by the recommendations at your accommodation or in the local area to ensure the taxi you are getting is locally licensed and from a reputable company. We got conned in Prague by a taxi driver who took full advantage of our lack of local knowledge and charged us £15 for journey which we realised the next day was only about 200 metres! Whilst we can see the funny side and we can’t believe we didn’t realise we were going round the block this could have been very frightening for someone travelling on their own.
Other Essential Information:
I am aware that many people take the risk of not travelling with a comprehensive health insurance policy however I cannot stress enough the importance of having this with your condition declared and covered. We have worldwide travel insurance through our bank which also covers our medical conditions so treatment can be received for any presenting concern. There have been times that I have had to use my insurance abroad and you never know when it will be needed so don’t take the risk.
Also care needs to be taken when travelling with any medication; some countries have a banned list of prescription drugs so it is worth checking in advance, especially if you are taking strong painkillers. The NHS advise that all medication should be packed in your hand luggage in original packaging with a copy of your prescription. A spare set of medication should also be packed in your hold luggage in case of a loss of your hand luggage. If appropriate you can also request a letter from your GP stating your condition and the generic names for the drugs you take; although many of the generic names will be on the packaging.
In conclusion whilst the thought of foreign travel may seem daunting and unachievable, with plenty of planning and research it most definitely is possible. Much of the information above is advised from personal experiences through a lot of trial and error; however through these experiences I feel we have got it off to a tee! There are places and activities which are not achievable for me and I know I am lucky with the fact I have Nigel to support with carrying my bags and doing the running when I literally can’t however I also know my limitations and the consequences for pushing them. Having a disability should never be a barrier to seeing the world with the appropriate planning and precautions and I hope our blog proves that. Happy Travels 🙂