News

Travelling with MS

13th December 2019

Written by Robyn Thompson, person living with MS

If you love the excitement of travelling to new places or re-visiting old favourites, living with MS can put a serious dampener on the idea. It’s too difficult, maybe even dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be. In the last two years I’ve travelled on my own to eight European cities including Istanbul, Paris and Florence. Just me and my trusty portable electric wheelchair.

After being fobbed off by one too many travel companies – most don’t cater for people with limited mobility, especially if you’re travelling solo - I decided to plan my own trip and go it alone. And I’ve had the best time!

Planning and research

For me, the key to a successful holiday is planning and research. And then more planning and research! I enjoy this and see it as building my overall excitement for the trip. I spend many hours reading about different cities online. I also look at a plethora of travel websites and blogs. Some of the information is quite old, especially blog posts, but it all adds to your knowledge so you can make informed decisions about where to go, and when. If you’re like me you may find yourself going down many rabbit holes online, but that can also be educational!

When planning a trip, I tell myself I have to be realistic. I have secondary progressive MS and fatigue is a major issue for me. I try to factor fatigue into my travels by allowing four or five days in each city. That way I don’t feel cheated if I have to rest for a whole day in the hotel. I also know my limits. For example, I’ve long wanted to visit Lisbon, but as one of Europe’s most hilly cities I realise it’s not a good destination for me in a wheelchair. Sometimes even a single step into a church can be enough to stop you seeing the magnificent stained-glass windows and exquisite painted ceiling. At these times I try to appreciate what I can enjoy rather than dwell on what I can’t.

Getting there and getting around

Many airlines and airports offer assistance for passengers with disability – as they should! Sometimes I have to seek out help. To date, I’ve only had good experiences when I’ve asked for it. I use a travel agent to book my flights. Airlines require detailed information about electric wheelchairs including size and battery type. I feel more at ease if I’ve given the travel agent all these details and they forward them to the airline. I also carry copies of this information with me, in case airline staff have questions about the wheelchair at check in. Alternatively, it may well be possible to hire wheelchairs or mobility aids when you reach your destination, but I personally prefer to travel with my own equipment because I know and trust it.

All airports I’ve travelled with have had an assistance service for people with limited mobility. It’s important to request this service at the time of booking or before you arrive at the airport – another reason why I engage a travel agent to book my flights. Travel insurance is essential for my peace of mind and I organise it as soon as the flights are booked.

Much of my pre-departure research involves accessibility once on the ground. Many cities have very good information online detailing accessible tourist sites to visit and public transport, such as the tube in London and local buses in Moscow. Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid taking a taxi but the cost and hassle of making sure the driver will take your wheelchair may be avoided with a little research. Last month for example, I paid $15 for a train ticket from Florence to Pisa, compared to $500 for a private car. Many Italian train stations offer a free service to assist passengers on and off trains.

A good night’s sleep

For me, the right hotel is integral to a successful holiday. Again, the internet has the answers! I spend several hours browsing online hotel sites. Unfortunately, I’ve found few have any specific information on accessibility; however, they are useful for reviewing the location, guests’ feedback and cost of rooms. It takes time and patience, but I find the end result is definitely worth it. It’s a bit late to start discussing access when you arrive on the street looking at eight steps to get into the hotel reception.

After I’ve found a potential hotel online, I go to their website and see if there’s a lift and any mention of ‘access’ or ‘disabled rooms’. Hotel photos are also useful to see the layout of rooms and reception. If it looks promising, I call or email the hotel directly with details of my dates and needs e.g. roll-in shower, hand rails etc. and review their reply. If I’m not confident staff understand what I require, I will call their reservations team to discuss further. It’s time consuming but worth it.

Last word

Needless to say, personal security is paramount. I never travel alone at night and I’m always very aware of my surroundings. A new environment can be challenging, even daunting. As I found out when I tackled the ancient cobbled streets and narrow footpaths of Florence, but I lived to tell the story and encourage you to persevere if you’ve got the travel bug!

Useful resources

E-Book - Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel Online Resources, 2017 edition

Blog - telegraph.co.uk/travel

Website - wheelchairtraveling.com

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Travelling with MS