During the initial period after rehabilitation, you may tend to stay relatively close to home, only going to familiar places. You will only set your sights further afield with time. Perhaps you have already left the centre during rehabilitation to attend group events or to go out with friends or family and have had your first experiences with public transport and facilities.
Making trips with a wheelchair takes a bit more planning and organisational thought, as well as a degree of flexibility and creativity when you are in transit in order to make the trip a success.
Choice of destination
The things to consider beforehand are essentially the same as those which any other person who has been gripped by the urge to travel. First of all, you have to decide which country or region to visit and then think about which type of holiday to choose: beach holiday, mountain tour, city break, extended sightseeing or a cruise? Hotel, holiday apartment or even a campsite holiday? Which mode of transport: road, rail or air?
Ultimately, your choice will come down to your budget, as well as to the wheelchair and the other aids you need. If you make a booking, whether it be for a flight or a rail journey, or for a hotel or restaurant, let the people know that you are a wheelchair user and spell out your specific needs. That will enable the people to make the necessary preparations.
If you are making the arrangements for your trip yourself and wish to book accommodation, you can find wheelchair-friendly accommodation on the internet, among other places. However, they are not always that easy to find.
When you are on the hotel operator’s website, search first for a destination and travel dates; then go to “Further details” or “Further search options” and narrow the search with “Hotel features” or “Room features”. Click on “Wheelchair-friendly” or “Disability-friendly” and refresh your search. But remember that “wheelchair-friendly” or “disability-friendly” does not mean that they contain a fully electric nursing bed and a bathroom with a shower seat or even a shower wheelchair that are suitable for a person with a spinal cord injury.
Just to be certain, it is advisable not only to check the surrounding area at your destination, by also to contact your chosen accommodation before making a binding booking and asking how wheelchair-friendly the room actually is (steps in the entrance area, door width, width of the corridor in the room (turning the wheelchair), bed height, shower seat, possibly equipped with a garden chair for the shower, etc.). It may be helpful to go on wheelmap.org to check whether the destination is also marked there as wheelchair-friendly.
Even though this may all sound dreadfully complicated at first, it is easier than ever to holiday with a wheelchair thanks to the information available on the internet. You have many options for planning and booking the holiday, including searching operators that specialise in holidays for wheelchair users, or you can look on search engines for trips tailored to your individual wishes.
Public transport – Train / bus / ship
Many forms of public transport are wheelchair- friendly nowadays. However, we would advise you to do your research beforehand. How accessible is the train, bus or ship with a wheelchair? Do you have to let them know beforehand? How accessible is the platform, etc.? You cannot roll into every train at ground level; sometimes the level of the platforms is so unfavourable that it takes great effort to get on and off the train. Small railway stations rarely have low platforms, and they do not always have a lift. If you are embarking on a relatively long journey, it is also advisable is ask whether there is a wheelchair-accessible toilet.
It is often necessary to call the operator 24 hours in advance. It is helpful to know in advance what questions to ask in order to avoid unnecessary surprises.
People with physical disabilities are entitled to reduced fares on many public transport services. In many cases, the disabled person and / or the person accompanying them are eligible to receive a reduced fare upon presentation of an appropriate document. Information is available from all the usual operators or from the Swiss Paraplegics Association.
Nowadays, most airports have standardised services for people with disabilities. There is typically an organisation responsible for the entire airport, accompanying people with disabilities from check-in until they board the plane. The individual airlines do not see to that.
Organisations such as “Careport” assist people with boarding and disembarking, as well as getting to their connecting flights (although you are responsible for ensuring that you have allowed for enough time between two flights), and they arrange for the provision of mobility aids. However, they do not offer nursing care. It is important to state what form your disability takes when you make the booking. Otherwise, there may be an expectation that you can walk a few steps.
It is important to transfer to an aisle chair before boarding the plane. This is a narrow wheelchair in which you are manoeuvred to your seat along the narrow aisle of the plane. If you require assistance, the accompanying personnel will help you during transfers. You may have to explain to the accompanying personnel in detail how they can help you most effectively.
During the flight, bear in mind that the flight attendants do not offer any care, either in your seat or in the toilet. They will help you to board and disembark, as well as to stow your baggage, but they do not perform any other services. Someone must accompany you if you are dependent on assistance during the flight.
If you are planning on travelling with an electric wheelchair or a Swiss Trac, it is up to you to ensure that the battery is correctly uncoupled and secured. Make enquiries beforehand about what precisely you need to do for the flight. It may be that someone will do that for you at the airport; that said, you will not come across staff at every destination who will know what to do to restore the wheelchair to full working order.
Travelling to distant countries and to other climate zones
Travelling to other climate zones can be stressful for anyone. There are a few things to take into account if you have spinal paralysis.
When travelling to distant countries and other cultures, it is advisable to be careful with food and drink. Water is not suitable to drink everywhere. Consequently, raw food, fruit and ice cubes can frequently lead to unpleasant stomach upsets. Bear in mind that you cannot simply get to a toilet quickly. Therefore, you need to be even more vigilant. It is advisable to bring along electrolyte solutions in powdered form for emergencies.
What is the best way to prepare?
Draw up a list of your personal requirements. Along with the things that people normally require, add the materials that you specifically need, such as a catheter, incontinence materials, medication, transfer aids, etc. You will not be able to buy the materials that you are used to in every country you visit. It is therefore important that you take along more than your usual amount to last for the planned duration of your holiday. Some companies exist worldwide, while others are only represented in Europe. If you are planning a lengthy trip and do not wish to take all the materials with you on your journey, it is often possible to send the materials on beforehand or to order them directly from a local stockist. However, you need to explore the options for this beforehand!
Do not forget to take along doctor’s notes, prescriptions, medical certificates, etc. with you in order to prevent unpleasant surprises when you travel to another country. Some medication is banned in certain countries and may only be imported if it is specially prescribed. The best thing is to seek guidance beforehand from your GP or from the outpatient unit of the SCI centre where you receive care.
It may sometimes be difficult to find a a toilet which is accessible by wheelchair. Digital media can now be useful here. Many travel destinations are included on special WC apps for smartphones or on WC locator websites.
The Euro Key is commonly used in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. This service not only gives you access to disabled toilets, but can also be used for stairlifts, etc. For information, go to www.eurokey.ch. There is also a smartphone app on which the locations can be found.
Travel preparations for medical issues and aids
- Take along your health insurance card (health insurance act, KVG)
- Medical file
- description of your paralysis and special requirements with corresponding information.
- if requested by the airline: Certificate of fitness to fly
- possibly have the documents translated into English, but ideally in the local language of the destination.
- possibly enquire about / research medical contacts at the destination
- Adequate quantity of the medication required (in addition to a first-aid kit)
- consult your GP about the need for measures to prevent DVT
- medical certificate in order to take narcotics into another country
- During flights: An FAA declaration of conformity for medical equipment operated on board
- Check aids and, where necessary, take along spare parts such as a tyre repair kit.
- In the case of electrical aids, check voltage compatibility, and if necessary, take along an adapter.
- Check which suppliers can respond to technical breakdowns at the destination, if necessary.
- Research local options for hiring aids
- contact them beforehand to find out if the required aids are available.