SCI Awareness,  Travel,  Wheelie True Stories

Best Laid Plans

For decades, travel has always been an activity that both my husband and I have prioritized and saved carefully for year-round. We have worked very hard to make this happen and as a consequence have been blessed with some amazing adventures along the way. We long ago decided that next to nothing will ever stop our passion for continued travel and bucket-list adventures – including the fact that Pierre now uses a wheelchair.

“Bucket list” photo at the French Open Tennis Tournament, Paris 2019

Adjusting and adapting to accessible travel has been very interesting, to say the least. In fact, some of our best successes (and fails) have proven to be almost as entertaining as the actual trips themselves! 

I have been asked to share a few key factors that have stood out for us on recent trips as we continue to learn and adapt to travelling with a wheelchair. These are my top three tips!!

  1. Plan, Plan, Plan ……… 

I have actually always been a “planner” and this has definitely proven to be even more imperative now to minimize disappointments along the way during travel. 

For us, planning includes booking the most direct routes possible to limit stopovers and excessively long distances between airports, hotels, train stations, etc. This also serves to maximize our actual time enjoying our trips. That said, sometimes a train ride can serve as both transportation and a relaxing way to enjoy beautiful viewing simultaneously.

It is recommended to call the train station in advance to ensure an operator is available to assist with boarding if you require a lift
In France, wheelchair users ride in first class with an economy ticket! And they serve wine!

There are a ton of great resources on the web related to travel and accessibility including blogs, vlogs and websites and I love exploring them all in advance to compare perspectives from real people in similar situations. I think it is common knowledge to those of us in this community that “accessibility” is a very broad term that can often be completely inaccurate when it comes to hotels, transportation and local attractions/activities. This is where I have learned to double-check any specific accessibility features that we require in advance, regardless of what is actually listed. 

Personally, for accommodations, we have recently had more success with airBnB and VRBOs where we can specifically communicate with the host to confirm our accessibility requirements. European hotel rooms and elevators tend to be much smaller and we are not as familiar with many of them as we are with North American chain hotels. 

The elevator in one of our recent stays at a (chain) hotel in France “barely” fit one manual wheelchair!

While I used to avoid the big well-known travel guides (Frommers, Foder’s, Lonely Planet, etc.) as their accessibility information has been so minimal and often out-of-date (in my experience), I now look at all options when planning travel, whether listed as accessible or not, as I have also learned that activities or sites listed as “not-accessible”, are sometimes actually do-able with proper planning, communication and adaptations. 

This was true for us last year as we were repeatedly told that many of the sites and tours that we wanted to experience in France were not wheelchair accessible. Having both always dreamed of visiting the Canadian battlefields and memorial sites in northern France, the “eighth” (yep, you read that correctly) company I contacted was open to discussion and ended up planning a (mostly) accessible tour for us that included walking and rolling through entire battlefields, military cemeteries and the breath-taking Canadian Vimy Ridge memorial site. While I joined a group to walk through the recreated trenches of our brave soldiers (that obviously were not wheel-chair accessible), Pierre spent that time exploring the fantastic Vimy Ridge museum next door. 

Walking and Rolling down the Beaumont Hamel battlefield, retracing the steps of our brave Newfoundland soldiers
Visiting the Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial

2. Pack carefully ………

Long gone are the days of over-packing which I was very guilty of!! The simple fact that I now personally carry the bulk of our luggage has taught me to lighten up substantially. After packing up the wheelchair attachments (smart drive, free wheel, battery chargers, etc.) and all the other various medical supplies, my list of cute “must-have” outfits and shoes suddenly has become far less important to me. 

side-note: this also makes for a great excuse for more shopping while travelling!

While travelling lighter, we also try to plan for accommodations with laundry facilities. Again, we have found airBnB and VRBO rentals more likely to provide for the same. 

3. Never EVER lose your sense of humour………

This might be the most important tip we have learned to date. Regardless of how well we have planned or packed, mishaps WILL happen!! 

……like when Pierre’s wheelchair somehow decided to take a different plane than we were on ……. 

or

……when we discovered that our hotel room in Brussels had the most amazing accessibility features we had ever seen in a hotel ……. except for that one BIG step to actually enter our room……. 

or

……….when the “accessible” restaurant we arrived at advised us that the toilets were all up a massive flights of stairs ……….

I hate to say, “expect mishaps” ……but seriously, “expect mishaps”…….. BUT enjoy the entire experience as we have found that sometimes a mishap actually turns out to be a great learning experience and/or an excellent opportunity to educate vendors or communities about accessibility in general. 

And truthfully speaking, many of our mishaps have actually become some our best memories ……well….more-so “after the fact”, of course… 😉

Pushing on…

Janene

8 Comments

  • Stevie

    My wife and I also love to travel. As a power wheelchair user myself I couldn’t agree more with the plan, plan and plan again for every trip. But even then stuff happens like when we landed my power wheelchair came out completely dismantled and the frame was twisted with both tires blown out.
    Without this chair I would be confined to a bed for my vacation. When I asked what happened no one could give me an answer, except to blaming the loading crew back in Canada. Luckily for me a fellow passages videotaped the crew putting the chair onto the conveyer belt to raise it into the belly of the plain. They didn’t place one of the wheels of the chair squarely on the belt and when the chair was almost to the top it fell off the belt landing on its head on the concrete tar Mack of the airport. You would think that someone would have been beside the chair to accompany it up the ramp. Anyhow to make a long nightmare short, the hotel maintenance crew was able to make it somewhat useable so that I could still use it as a manual chair. The airline after many conversations finally agreed to pay the 10k bill to repair the chair.

    • Samantha

      WHAT?! That’s crazy! We’ve heard horror stories of airlines doing major damage to wheelchairs, but we have yet to experience it, thankfully! Glad you were able to still enjoy your vacation and get the airline to pay for the damage!

  • Ingrid Stevens

    We as a family have done some travelling and I have to say, we have developed/become a well oiled machine (think nascar pit crew). Lol. We went on a family trip to Disneyland in 2018 and our girls (17 & 7 at the time) just got in and did what needed to be done (-moving his chair away and back to him) to get Dad on the rides! He’s an incomplete para so that made things a bit easier. God bless the crew members who tried to help but most of the time we had things well in motion before they knew how to help us. Luckily no major mishaps and nothing got lost going or coming so I’m calling that trip a win and a whole lot of memories were made.
    Laughing is a definite must for those moments when things don’t quite go as planned. Keep enjoying your trips.

    • Tracy

      I’m a physiotherapist and my mom has had MS for over 30 years. Last year I finally found an amazing accessible travel agent…Tarita…founder of Travel For All out of Nanaimo. She was a travel agent before she was diagnosed with MS, and continued on in the business with a specialty in accessibility. Her service is outstanding, as well as her planning and knowledge of how to travel successfully with physical limitations. https://travel-for-all.com/

      • Samantha

        Oh wow! Thanks so much for the tip!! We will definitely give her a shout once we are able to travel again!

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