Holiday & Travel Reviews

Travel Agents: How Helpful Are They For Disabled Customers?

In this day and age, I really don’t know why I am still surprised to encounter such situations like this one. I wonder if it’s because I believe with all the technology and free information that is around, I expect companies etc. to have NO excuse whatsoever NOT to be disability informed and compliant!!!

My latest experience with travel agents Tui, I can’t help but feel the industry is trying to make booking a holiday/trip as difficult and stressful as possible, in the hope we won’t book a holiday abroad?? Why on earth can this country NOT be disabled-friendly?? Other countries manage it with seemingly no problem at all.

I’m off to Vegas later this year to go to a concert, so obviously, I needed to book a hotel and flight.  So, we (hubby & I) went to Tui to get some info and prices.  I really wished I hadn’t bothered and wasted my time!!  We were seen by this young man who obviously didn’t have a clue as to what he was doing and presumably had never helped a disabled person book a holiday!

I explained I was a full-time wheelchair user, and all the necessary info about dates, where we would like to stay etc.  I also told him that I had some questions I would like/need answers before making a booking.  Not a problem he said looking very worried!

He brought up some deals for us to look at.  There was one we liked the look of, so asked before we booked, could we now have some of our questions answered.  There were 11 in total and consisted of the following:

  1. Airport Parking – I wanted to know how close is the disabled parking to the terminal, as hubby can’t walk too far.
  2. Airport assistance – What does this include
  3. Can I keep my wheelchair up to the plane door? – I don’t like the idea of being another wheelchair not suitable for several hours.
  4. How to arrange for my chair to be brought to me once we arrive at Vegas
  5. How much hand luggage can I take – Eg: Lose parts of the chair, footrest etc
  6. Wheelchair insurance – Would holiday insurance include cover for my wheelchair
  7. Wheelchair hire in Vegas – So if I decided not to take my chair, can I hire one in Vegas and what type is on offer.
  8. Will the plane have a chair to go to the toilet
  9. Can I find measurements of the toilet or see one before flying
  10. Are Visas required, if so how/where to apply?
  11. Can I take wheelchair tools as hand luggage?
Travel Agents:  How Helpful Are They For Disabled Customers? - Tui logo

One or two of them I knew probably wouldn’t get answered by a travel agent but most of them should be……Yeah right!!  When I showed him my list, the blood seemed to just drain from his face.  He explained that he needed to contact their accessibility department to get the information I requested.  No problem I said.  He was on the phone no more than a few minutes when he told us that they couldn’t help and he needed to contact somewhere else.  Ok, I said.  Once again he failed in getting the information, again explaining the department couldn’t help.  He then went on about how the flight was being operated by a third party and how we would have to get in touch with them ourselves.  He was going on about how two airlines are offering seats on the same flight, so he or the other departments were unable to get the information we wanted.

At this point, we had been in the travel gents for approx 40 minutes.  I’d had enough, I knew we weren’t going to get the info we needed, so we went for a coffee.  After chatting it over, we decided to go back and see if there was anybody else we could speak to.  As soon as we entered through the door, the same young man jumped up and beckoned us over.  Oh boy, back to square one.

I told him we weren’t happy.  I explained I couldn’t believe that it was this difficult to source the info we needed.  I wasn’t prepared to book anything until I was confident in how I board the plane, how my wheelchair would be looked after etc.  Why is this sort of info not readily available to everyone/anyone needing it?  He couldn’t or wouldn’t answer.

We asked if anyone else could help us, he then went to his manager, he went over and talked with her.  Hubby got up and went over to join the conversation, as no attempt was made to involve me, I also went over.  Again she explained about third party airlines etc oh and now because it was the weekend, nowhere was open?  (But didn’t the guy speak to two different departments today?)  But everywhere is closed!!  Starting to sound like a fob off to me!!

Anyway, she asked if we could leave things with her and she will try to get the info and get back to us around Wednesday of the next week.  No problem I said and left sharply.  I had no intentions of dealing any further with Tui over this booking or non-booking!!

Travel Agents:  How Helpful Are They For Disabled Customers? - British Airways Logo

The following day (Sunday) I looked online and found a hotel and flight deal directly with British Airways and it was almost £200 cheaper than what Tui was asking…….Result.  So I contacted BA directly and guess what?  In the amount of time I had spent with Tui, I had my booking to Vegas, my questions answered AND confirmation of my accessible room in the hotel.  Airport assistance for both me and hubby also booked and confirmed!  Why had I not thought of booking directly beforehand??  So at least now I’m confident in what I have, assistance wise and happy I can take my own wheelchair.  There is, however, one last bit of info I am still to have answered.  Will I be able to use the toilet while on the plane?  Kinda buggered if I can’t haha, it’s an 11-hour flight.

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Las Vegas: My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User

Well, where do I start on this amazing city?  My husband and I went to Las Vegas for one main purpose, to see Billy Idol in concert.  I couldn’t see him here in the UK last year as hubby broke his leg and as he is my carer/driver, I was unable to go.  So when I heard he was doing a residency in LV, I just had to go.

Las Vegas:  My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User - The famous Las Vegas welcome sign

We booked our trip for October 2019 directly with British Airways and dealt with a very nice man who answered all my question and sorted everything out for us from the hotel, flights/seats and disability assistance.  I was extra nervous as I hadn’t flown in over 20 years and this was my first time flying as a full-time wheelchair user, so had many worries due to all the horror stories I had been reading about disabled people being left on the plane, wheelchairs broke or going missing.  I really wasn’t doing myself any favours.

Anyhow, we booked fairly early on in the year so we had roughly 10 months to wait.  Everything seemed to run very smoothly and we were updated regularly from BA via email regarding our booking.  We were flying from Gatwick to McCarran airport.

On the morning of our long weekend in Vegas, we arrived at Gatwick, we parked in the long stay car park we had booked at a reasonable price, then got the bus to the South Terminal, which was wheelchair accessible.  We did try to check-in on the BA app the night before but this wasn’t working too well, (either that or I was doing it wrong).  So we went to check-in.  This went smoothly and we told the lady we had assistance booked and she directed us where to go.  We decided to go grab a bite to eat before going to assistance as we had turned up extremely early thinking traffic might be bad.  We had to be there 3 hours before departure time (long haul flight)…..We turned up 4 hours before lol.

At the assistance desk we were given a beeper and was told when it goes off, come back to the desk and we would be taken to board the plane.  So the only sensible thing left to do now was go shopping   We had approx 2 hours or so to go before departure.  When our beeper went off, we headed back to assistance where we were taken to the plane.  Jeff (hubby) required assistance also as he is unable to walk very far, so he jumped in one of their electric buggies where I followed behind, well I say behind, I was left for dust really.  Thank god I knew what gate I was aiming for, which I might add was miles away!!  At the plane door, I transferred into an aisle chair, (by god this is a tiny piece of equipment, my backside only just fitted on the seat!!)  I was extremely embarrassed to see that most of the passengers had already boarded the plane, meaning I had to pass them all as I was pulled along with my hips hopping of each seat as I passed.  Our seats were at the very back of the plane as this was the only place that had 2 seats instead of 3 and I felt a row of 2 seats would be better for transferring in/out of the aisle chair if/when I needed the loo and the fact the toilets were pretty much behind these seats.  No passengers to pass mid-flight!

We eventually take off after a delay of over an hour (A flight from Scotland was delayed that had passengers that were booked on our flight).  Well, the flight was probably the coldest I have been in a very long time.  The aircon must have been on full blast!  I wrapped up in a blanket and still couldn’t get warm.

TIP 1 – Take something warm to wear on the flight or you WILL freeze!!

The entertainment system on this plane was pretty naff to say the least.  The screen was very small (compared to the one coming home), the section where you can track your flight journey was not working and when trying to watch a film, you could see the grid lines embedded in the screen.  Even the Wi-fi was broken, so I tried to get some sleep as I knew when we landed, we would have been up nearly 24 hours due to time difference but this was impossible due to being so damn cold.

Las Vegas:  My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User - Airplane Toilet
Las Vegas:  My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User -  Plane toilet with side entrance

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I had spent the day watching my liquid intake as I didn’t know how I was going to cope with the toilet onboard.  Jeff had to go long before I did and he came back saying he didn’t think I was going to cope….Great, just what I wanted to hear!!  He explained the door to the toilet faced the toilet itself, Left Image – this meant I would not be able to transfer onto the toilet from the aisle chair.  I sat pondering my options and trying to work out how I was going to get onto the toilet in such a small space.  Jeff then disappeared and came back and told me there was another toilet on the other side of the plane (Jeff used the one directly behind us) and this looked more promising as the door was at the side of the toilet, Right image.  Indeed this was the answer I needed, it even had a handrail for me to hold onto whilst I transferred.  Please note:  These are not the toilets aboard our plane, just a representation to show you the difference.

Tip 2 – Do check to see if there are other toilets laid out differently as this might make the difference in whether or not you can actually go.

I packed my cushion with my wheelchair in the hold luggage.  What a mistake this was.  I was in excruciating pain the whole way as the plane seats are quite hard and my coccyx got very sore.  I didn’t make the same mistake coming home!

Tip 3 – Make sure if you have a cushion on your chair, you take it on board with you to use.

View from airplane of mountains covered with snow

If you can, (I know airlines normally prefer us disabled to have an aisle seat) get a window seat, the views over Iceland/Greenland are out of this world!!

Arriving at McCarran airport, I had the dreaded aisle chair fiasco again, thankfully I was last off so no passengers gawping at me.  My wheelchair was at the plane door waiting for me, yippee, what a relief!  Once transferred, we were taken to customs, once through there we were on our own.  We went outside to look for a taxi to take us to our hotel the Excalibur.  I was so cold from the plane, I was delighted to see the sun shining brightly I just had to sit in it for 5 minutes to warm my bones up.  The weather at this time of year is wonderful and hot!  (Well Caz, you are in the middle of the Nevada desert).

We were advised to go to one of the taxi booth’s outside. We waited in line at one of them for what felt like half an hour, so we decided to move along to another booth. The prices advertised (correct at Oct 2019)  ranged from $9.50 to $11 and on one of the booths, there was a $50 price in brackets advertised as airport tax? I have no idea as to what this meant, was this another $50 on top of the price of the trip itself? Feeling a little nervous, we went around the corner only to find we could get a bus (the SDX bus) that went from the airport to quite a few of the hotels along the strip. So we decided to jump on one of these to take us to our hotel.  This only cost us $2 each way.

I have to explain, we spent the whole weekend jumping on and off buses up and down the strip as all buses and I mean all, were wheelchair accessible. I can’t speak for all of America but in Vegas at least, all bus drivers will get out of their cab and put the ramp down for you, you then board the bus and if there are any passengers sitting in the fold-up priority seats and this space is needed by a wheelchair user, the passengers are told to move, the seats are then folded up, you then park your chair in that space where the driver then clamps your chair to the bus. In all honesty, I was amazed at how efficient the bus service actually was.  I’m terrified of using public transport (buses) here in London.  In Vegas, I would use them all by myself anytime!!

Las Vegas:  My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User -Gold & blue double decker bus that runs up & down the Vegas strip

When you’re travelling up and down the strip, there is another bus route called the Deuce, this is a gold & blue double-decker bus that runs very frequently up and down the strip daily. The SDX bus I previously mentioned goes up and down the strip but does deviate at certain points along the strip, therefore you may have to get off the SDX bus and jump on the deuce bus or vice versa, depending on where you start your journey and where you wish to go.

Full info can be found here:  https://www.visitlasvegas.com/experience/post/getting-around-vegas/  

This tells you what you need to know about the buses that go up & down the strip.  It is also much cheaper than getting taxi’s everywhere as they use meter’s to charge for your journey, so if you’re stuck in traffic, which is pretty much every journey, then your fare is going to be expensive.

Tip 4 – If you can, use the Deuce or SDX buses when travelling up and down the strip.  Daily bus passes are fairly cheap.

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Las Vegas:  My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User -Excalibur hotel from a distance showing several towers of the medieval theme

We arrive at our hotel the Excalibur, this is a themed hotel (as all of the hotels along the strip are).  The Excalibur has a medieval theme with a castle look to it.  Inside you are greeted with stone walls and knights scattered around upon ledges on the walls. 

Knights armour statue in the Excalibur hotel

You can go into any of the hotels along the strip and use their amenities, shops, casino and restaurants but, I will say this about all hotels that we went in to look around.  They are all freezing…..Aircon on full blast all the time.  I can only assume this is because so many people have complained about the hotels/casinos being very smokey as there is not, a no smoking ban in Vegas. 

I have to say, although freezing, it certainly keeps the smoke at bay.  There was no smell of smoke at all!!  One or two of the hotels did smell musty and damp but not of smoke.

Being a wheelchair user, I booked an accessible room.  It was basic but had all the amenities you could want, well most, we had no tea/coffee facilities in our room.  I believe all hotels in America offer room only type of rooms.

Our accessible room came with the following:

  • Big double bed – I woke up in the middle of the night and thought Jeff had got up to go to the toilet, I didn’t realise he was on the other side of the bed lol
  • Wet room bathroom with real in shower-including a shower chair
  • Hairdryer
  • Iron/ironing board
  • Two armchairs
  • Table with mirror above
  • Flat-screen TV-opposite the bed
  • Wardrobe
  • Plenty of drawer/cupboard space
  • safe inside cupboard

There were only two drawbacks to our room,

  1. The sink in the bathroom was far from an appropriate height for a wheelchair user – It was far too high
  2. There was no tea/coffee making facility in the room

Although there were no tea or coffee facilities in the room, on the lobby floor just outside the lifts there was a kiosk selling tea/coffee/hot chocolate etc and pastries if you wanted them.

We landed in Vegas at 3:15 PM and we got to our hotel approximately 6:30 PM and due to being up over 24 hours at this point, we decided to grab a bite to eat and then just crash in bed. There was a food court on level 1, this had approximately seven or eight different places to eat.

Tip 5: A lot of the food in Vegas, as I am sure you can imagine, is very greasy. There are many places where you can get food that is not greasy.  So, it is worth shopping around.

We awoke Saturday morning at 2:00 am due to the time difference and to my horror, found my electric wheelchair had not been charging. Meaning, it was plugged in correctly to both my wheelchair and electrical outlet but still no charge! Jeff checked my wheelchair, charger and plugs and found nothing wrong with any of the connections. It turns out, (something we had not even thought about), was the voltage used in the USA. Here, in the UK, we use 240v but in the USA they use 110v, therefore, meaning their voltage was not powerful enough to charge my chair.

To cut a very long story short, we spent the best part of Saturday trying to fix my charging issue.  From having to go to a local electrical store to purchase a step-up/down transformer, finding out the machine we bought was faulty and the last one in stock.  (Ever feel the forces are just working against you?).   (I have since spoken to a friend who also had the same issue in a country she had visited and confirmed she used one of these step-up/down transformers and it charged her chair with no problem).

We had visited reception a couple of times, hoping they might have been able to help us as surely I would not have been the first electric wheelchair user to have suffered this problem! Unfortunately, they didn’t really know what we were going on about. Surprised and shocked we were directed to the bellboy desk and told to speak with the manager Andy. Andy Matteucci (Bell Captain) was a lifesaver as he spent a couple of hours trying to solve my problem including getting one of his engineers to confirm the machine we had bought was actually faulty. After exhausting all possibilities Andy suggested using one of his scooter chargers to see if that would charge my chair. (These are scooters the hotel hire out to anyone needing them).  I was praying this would be a solution, as my chair was now in the red and the sole purpose of our visit (Billy Idol concert) was in a view hours time!

Thankfully, my prayers seemed to be answered as this seemed to fix my problem, the charger was charging my chair. There was only one problem with this solution, I assume because of the electrical outlet voltage, the charger wasn’t powerful enough to charge my chair properly, this meant I had to carry the charger around with me to keep charging my chair at regular intervals. Therefore, we had to hire the scooter that came with the charger.

Tip 6: Please speak to your wheelchair service (if you have an NHS chair) or your wheelchair manufacturer to ask what their advice would be on charging your chair in the USA/abroad.  I spoke with Invacare (my wheelchair manufacturer) their advice was to purchase a 110v charger for my wheelchair at the lovely price of £300. Yeah right, gonna spend that kind of money on a piece of equipment that I may only use once……. not bloody likely!  (I may look deeper into one of those step-up/down transformers).

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Las Vegas:  My First Time Flying As A Full-Time Wheelchair User -Billy Idol sitting on my footrest between my legs while I'm sitting in my wheelchair

As I said before, the sole purpose of our visit to Las Vegas was to see Billy Idol in concert. As you can see from the image above, this was a dream come true! Billy Idol was doing a residency in the Palms Casino resort hotel. From what we saw of the hotel it looked rather plush but the view I had from the wheelchair space at the very back of their theatre, was crap, to say the least. I was in a space that had what I would describe as a cinema seat either side of me (presumably, carer/PA seats).

The theatre/auditorium was tiered and as I was sat directly behind the last row of seats, the minute people got up to dance, which was as soon as the music started, I may as well have stuck on an eye mask as I would have had a better view! The irony of this, was, to the right of me there was a balcony section for all the other wheelchair users who had no obstruction to their view whatsoever as it was a balcony! So, I have a word with the usher asking if I could sit off to the left by the pillar where the flight of steps lead down into the auditorium. He said no! I went on to explain how my view was non-existent and I would then have to leave as it would not be worth staying. He told me to hang on a moment, he went away, came back and told me if I sat against the wall I could sit by the pillar. Not the best of solutions but better than what I had previously.

Tip 7:  When booking concert tickets or show tickets especially when going abroad to see these shows, try your best to research or contact the venue itself to find out exactly where you are seated and if your view will be obstructed in any way. If like me you have to book a wheelchair space at the venue, you are limited to where you can be seated so definitely worth finding this information out before booking!

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Jeff in between 2 showirls with blue feather headdresses

So, after sadly having our first day taken from us due to my wheelchair issues, we had an awful lot to cram into one day. Wow, we were gonna be busy!  We were told you could not visit Vegas and not go to Fremont Street as this was an experience not to be missed. So we jumped up on a bus (Deuce) and took this to Fremont Street. Here, is where the Vegas strip originally started. It is basically one long street filled with shops, casinos and restaurants, with a roof cover that lights up. At one end of the street, you can jump on a zip wire and travel the length of the street.  Did you know, the Golden Nugget casino that is here, is where the film Sister Act was filmed?  Neither did I!

On the ground, you may very well see Elvis and some showgirls, be careful though, we had passed a couple of showgirls two or three times and each time they asked for us to have a picture taken with them which we refused each time. Towards the end of the day, Jeff decided to bite the bullet and have his picture taken with them. It is customary to tip these picture opportunity people for a better phrase. So before having his picture taken Jeff did ask “how much”? The answer was “whatever you felt like giving”. After the picture was taken both myself and Jeff handed the girls $10 each. One of the girls took this money and the other one asked: “have you anything nice for me”? Jeff explained that the $20 was for both of them, to which they responded by informing us that they normally get $20 each! Sorry, $40 dollars for a photo that you take with your own camera?  (I’m in the wrong business).

Freemont Street in Vegas with overhead cover all lit up with flame images

Be warned though, there are many sights you may wish to forget. For example, we saw what can only be described as an elderly lady wearing a G string, nipple doilies, masquerade lace mask and holding a whip in one hand where she found it very amusing to slap men’s backsides with this as they passed by.

Tip 8: Make sure, you have plenty of spending money if you intend to have your picture taken regularly with these photo opportunity people because in my opinion you will be fleeced!!

After our eventful day, my wheelchair was drained, so I had to use the scooter Jeff had hired that evening.  We took a ride up and down the strip seeing it all lit up and grabbing a few photos.  The strip at night is definitely worth seeing!!

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Monday – Time to go home 🙁   We were very sad as we felt we just didn’t have the time we needed to see and do everything we wanted.  (Oh well, just means we will have to go back again)   

Checking out of the hotel was very easy, there were machines by reception that you could use rather than queue up, all you had to do really was input your name and email address and confirm you were checking out.

So, back to the airport, we go!  We jumped on another bus (SDX) to take us back to the airport.  We got a little confused as to which side of the road we needed to be on as of course, the traffic is going the opposite direction to here in the UK.  We asked someone and was directed to a bus stop, only to find we were on the wrong side of the road and on the wrong road lol.  We should have been literally on the side, just around the corner.

Checking in was a little slow as the man dealing with us didn’t have a clue how to check in a wheelchair user!  Back and forth he went, asking me the same questions repeatedly.  One thing I didn’t understand, when booking, I had to input all the necessary info regarding my wheelchair, weight, dimensions, battery type etc yet, here I was giving all this info all over again at all the airports I passed through.

Tip 9:  Have a handy info sheet with all this info with you whenever going through the airport.  You will be asked repeatedly for it!!

We went to the assistance desk where we told this time we had priority boarding, something not told to us flying out!  We were told to go to the boarding desk approx an hour before take-off.  The time came for pre-boarding, we were already at the seating area by the desk waiting.  I was taken to the plane door where I had to transfer into an aisle seat, then I was told to wait.  The man dealing with me had to go and help another passenger?  So I was left in this aisle chair sat by the plane door, waiting, waiting and waiting.  Passengers had now started to board the plane, all passing me by a looking!  Even the cabin crew started to look worried!  Eventually, the man returned, I was now finally boarding the plane and yes, you guessed it, the aisle chair fiasco once again!!  Although that was bad enough, the biggest issue we had with our return flight was the disability assistance at Gatwick……Basically it didn’t arrive!! When we arrived back at Gatwick, I was told by a member of the cabin crew, that I wasn’t down as a “carry on”.  I explained that BA themselves booked this and nearer our flight date, confirmed all was well.  After investigation, it turned out that another lady (who had NO assistance booked) got my assistance??  This now meant my electric wheelchair had NOT been brought to the plane door!  How does this kind of mistake happen??   Getting off the plane at Gatwick, the man taking me down the aisles of the plane had no idea what he was doing.  He kept bashing my hips into the seats and at one point I had to reach out and physically stop him as he nearly crashed my legs into a doorway!!  Again, causing me lots of pain!! Because of this major cock-up, I was made to transfer from the plane seat onto the aisle chair then into another chair onboard the jetty bus that was at the plane door, I then had to be taken to luggage claim where I was again made to transfer into another wheelchair so I could be taken off the bus into the terminal entrance.  Eventually, my electric wheelchair was found and yet again, transfer into it.  This caused me a great deal of physical pain in my coccyx, arms and back.  I am still in pain as I write this!  Then, once I was in my own chair, we were left alone!  All assistance was just gone.  We had no idea where or what to do next!  My husband who also had assistance booked was now left to walk everywhere and struggle to search for and lift our luggage!!  His assistance was non-existent!!  So he also is in great pain!! Unfortunately, this kind of mistake is out of our control, all we can do is book assistance and get confirmation nearer the time.  Beyond this, our assistance is literally in the hands of the gods!!  I count myself lucky though, it could have been a lot worse in the respect my wheelchair could have been damaged, thankful for small mercies!!!

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Conclusion

We had a fantastic time and will go again.  Yes, we had our ups and downs but well worth it.  We didn’t really have the time to spend in the casinos due to the issues we had with my chair.  Next time I may have a flutter 

 It is a noisy place with machines pinging and beeping in the casinos, the general hustle and bustle of the strip and all the traffic.  The lights are amazing but I can see how they could be very overwhelming for some. The weather is great if you love the sun, we found it not too hot and not too cold (unless in a hotel). 

My Tips

TIP 1 – Take something warm to wear on the flight or you WILL freeze!!

Tip 2 – Do check to see if there are other toilets laid out differently as this might make the difference in whether or not you can actually go.

Tip 3 – Make sure if you have a cushion on your chair, you take it on board with you to use.

Tip 4 – If you can, use the Deuce or SDX buses when travelling up and down the strip.  Daily bus passes are fairly cheap.

Tip 5: A lot of the food in Vegas, as I am sure you can imagine, is very greasy. There are many places where you can get food that is not greasy.  So, it is worth shopping around.

Tip 6: Please speak to your wheelchair service (if you have an NHS chair) or your wheelchair manufacturer to ask what their advice would be on charging your chair in the USA/abroad.  I spoke with Invacare (my wheelchair manufacturer) their advice was to purchase a 110v charger for my wheelchair at the lovely price of £300. Yeah right, gonna spend that kind of money on a piece of equipment that I may only use once……. not bloody likely!  (I may look deeper into one of those step up/down transformers).

Tip 7:  When booking concert tickets or show tickets especially when going abroad to see these shows, try your best to research or contact the venue itself to find out exactly where you are seated and if your view will be obstructed in any way. If like me you have to book a wheelchair space at the venue, you are limited to where you can be seated so definitely worth finding this information out before booking!

Tip 8:  Make sure, you have plenty of spending money if you intend to have your picture taken regularly with these photo opportunity people because in my opinion you will be fleeced!!

If you decide to go, happy holidays, I’m sure you’ll have a fabulous time as we did!

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Cruising As A Wheelchair User: Is It The Best Holiday?

I have been very lucky and managed to go a few holidays, Ireland, France, Las Vegas, Tunisia, caravanning and of course cruises. So far, cruising has been the most hassle-free to book and to get to and of course to holiday with. Cruising is not for everyone but if you can, I recommend you take at least one cruise in your life.

My apologies from the offset, this may end up being a lengthy review of cruising with a disability.  In all fairness, would you want it any other way? Most holiday reviews in my opinion, or holiday tips, are always about flying, airports, assistance etc.?  Is this the only type of transport one can go on holiday with?  What about, riverboats, caravanning, camping and of course cruising??  Do these no longer exist?  Well, I’m going to show you they do!!

I have been very lucky to have been able to do two previous cruises and thoroughly enjoyed both.  In this review though, I am going to talk about our next cruise, which will have already happened by the time I publish this.  I hope this review will help anyone thinking of taking a cruise holiday.

It was April 2017 when I actually booked our holiday.  Yes I know that’s very early but for those of you who have booked holidays yourself, you will know how disabled rooms/facilities get booked up very quickly indeed.  As cruising is becoming ever more popular, I put nothing to chance as previous experience has shown me that the accessible cabins go like hotcakes.

We decided to go with Royal Caribbean as they had been recommended to me by a friend who is also a wheelchair user.  She said she had a great time and found them very good for wheelchair users.  So we looked online, found a cruise we liked and booked up.  We booked a 2-week Mediterranean cruise on the Navigator of the Seas, (picture above), inside cabin with virtual balcony and my time dining.

I have supplied a video of our accessible room at the bottom of this review, for you to see for yourself.

Royal Caribbean Website

Unfortunately, their website designer should be sacked immediately.  RC website is one of the most confusing websites I’ve ever had the misfortune of browsing.  It is practically impossible to find the information disabled passengers would/may require and if you do manage it, don’t expect to find it again.  Bits of information on their site seems to appear, disappear and reappear again……Very confusing indeed!!

To initially book your cruise, everything seemed to go according to plan but once we booked and wanted to find more information at our leisure, this is where things became a bit twilight zone!!  Forget finding out how accessible the ports are, there’s no information regarding that whatsoever.  I have supplied links at the end of this review, taking you to different sites that help with this type of information.

In my experience, their site seems to contradict itself in many places.  Especially where excursions are concerned, see the Accessible Excursions section.

Accessible Excursions

Why book a cruise?

So the first thing you should obviously do, is decide if cruising is for you, after all, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

  • If your cruise starts from a port in your country, then boarding the ship should be pretty simple and easy.
  • You arrive at the port, your car is parked for you (Not all car parks offer this).
  • Your luggage is taken away and boarded for you and delivered to your cabin.
  • You’re on a floating hotel and the world comes to you.
  • You get to see more than one destination (depending on length of cruise)
  • Many different bars/clubs to keep you entertained, all in one place
  • Wheelchair accessible cabins

To name a few…

Once you’ve decided a cruise is the way forward, you then have the wonderful experience of choosing where to cruise.  Mediterranean cruise?  Caribbean cruise?  Or even a Fiords cruise?  So many to chose from, how do you decide?  Well, there are a couple of factors to bear in mind.

  • Do you want to have to fly to get out to the ship you are cruising on and get another flight to come home?  Do you want to sail from Southampton (Or a port in your country) and return to Southampton (or port in your country)?
  • What countries would you like to visit?
  • Do you want to cruise on a large ship (up to 3000 Passengers) or would you prefer a smaller ship?
  • How long do you want to cruise for?  Length of cruise can determine what destinations you can visit.
Cruising As A Wheelchair User:  Is It The Best Holiday?  -  Front of cruise ship with blue interior lights

I think the biggest factor to keep in mind is if you want a fly-cruise holiday, or not.  Let me explain:  Some cruises, regardless of company, will sail from Southampton docks and at the end of the cruise, return back to Southampton.  On a fly-cruise holiday, you must first fly out to where your ship is docked.  Let’s say we’re doing a Caribbean cruise holiday.  This would entail you flying out to let’s say Jamaica, you then get on your ship, do your Caribbean cruise and then sail back to Jamaica or neighbouring country to then fly home again.  (Just remember, not all cruises will require you to fly home from the same place you flew out to.  Sometimes you will fly home from the last port of call your cruise ship makes).  So you need to decide if you want to fly and cruise, or just cruise.  Many cruise operators like P&O and Royal Caribbean (links at bottom of page) will offer cruises that sail from and back to Southampton, so no flying is needed.

Booking your Cruise

Once you’ve decided you want to cruise and you know where you want to go, the next question you need to ask yourself is do you go to the travel agents, or do you book directly with the cruise company? This really boils down to personal choice. Our previous cruises, we booked via a travel agent, this time we booked directly with the cruise company. The table below shows the pros and cons for both routes, please bear in mind everything I’ve mentioned is from my own experiences, so I can’t cover every aspect, plus this is only my opinion.  It is meant to be a helpful guide, not a rule book.

As I mentioned before, we booked directly with Royal Caribbean cruises via the telephone rather than online via their website, as I had a few questions before going ahead.  I found them to be very friendly and willing to do their best to answer my questions.  So we went ahead and paid our deposit.  One thing to remember….RC did not offer any child prices.  We had to pay full price for our daughter, (aged 14 at the time of travelling).

When making your initial booking, there are a couple of bits of information you will be given

  • your cabin number – now you can take a look on your cruise companies website and see where you’re cabin is situated on the ship
  • dining option you have chosen – most cruise companies will require you to book your dining option at the time of booking your cruise.  Royal Caribbean offers traditional dining and my time dining (this was our choice) – Explanation is given below

Traditional Dining

Cruising As A Wheelchair User:  Is It The Best Holiday? - Main dining hall - Big glass chandelier above table and chairs with white table cloths

As the name implies, traditional dining is the classic means of experiencing dinner on your Royal Caribbean cruise.  There are two seatings, first and second seating.  First seating is usually around 6:00 pm and the second seating is usually around 8:00 pm. Exact times will vary.

When you book your cruise, you can choose which seating you like. Typically families choose first seating because it’s harder to keep kids up later for the second seating.  You will still see kids in second seating, but there tend to be more families in the first seating.  You will be assigned a table in the main dining room that can be as small as two people or as large as 16 or even larger.  Royal Caribbean can also place you at a table with other guests onboard your ship.  Who you sit with (if anyone else) depends on a few factors but it’s usually the norm to be seated with others.    You can change your seating if you prefer not to sit with others or are unhappy with whom you are seated.  Speak to the head waiter to arrange a change, although changes are subject to availability.  

Source:  Royal Caribbean website

My Time Dining

My Time Dining is a lot like traditional dining with one big exception: you do not have a set time that is the same every night of your cruise.  You will still dine in the main dining room, but you can choose between making reservations or showing up and waiting for a table.

My Time Dining advertises its benefit as being you do not have a set time to eat each night.  So if one night you feel like dinner at 6 pm but another night you want to stay at the pool later, you can come to eat at 8:30 pm.

Like the main dining room, you may be seated with other people at your table.  Where you sit is subject to availability.  Unlike the main dining room, you may not have the same wait staff each night.  You can request certain waiters but you may have to wait to be seated at a table they serve.

My time dining experience once seated is nearly identical to traditional dining.  You order off of the same menu as traditional dining and can order as much food as you like from that menu.  

Source:  Royal Caribbean website

Once you have booked your holiday and paid the deposit, you then receive a few emails with all your holiday details, deposit/payment confirmation and a special needs form that you MUST fill in.  If my memory serves me right, I did mine via email.  Once you receive these, you will have the ability to sign in to your holiday account on RC website where you can:

  • Pay any remaining balance.
  • Print your Set Sail tickets – Time dependant – normally 90 days before your sail date.
  • Book excursions
  • Buy drinks packages
  • Purchase WIFI packages
  • Special event packages

You should receive emails leading up to your holiday informing you of any procedures or forms you may need to fill in along the way, so don’t worry.

Now we get all excited as our holiday is now booked….Very exciting indeed.

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Accessible Excursions

RC’s website leaves a lot to be desired and trying to find the information you want can be like trying to get blood out of a stone!  We’re looking for accessible excursions via our holiday account.  To say this was difficult would be an understatement I’m sorry to say.  Hubby was getting completely different info to what I was getting when we each logged into our account, to find the excursions.  Also, most of what RC advertise as “accessible” excursions are very miss-leading to say the least.  For example, we looked at one supposed “accessible” excursion but when you then read the description, it says you must be able to navigate the steps of the coach??  So how is this accessible for full-time wheelchair users or people unable to climb steps???  Very confusing!!  Then, when we view our online cruise planner, at the available excursions, we’re told there are 14 available but we can only see a handful of them.  RC doesn’t make it clear as to what excursions are for full-time wheelchair users like myself.

I was then forced to phone RC, beware…..they charge 7p a minute and whatever connection charge your provider charges!!  I explained my issue and was told he would put me through to the excursion department, where I could be helped better.  Only to find I’d been put through to the private excursion line??  He then told me I needed to speak to RC??  Oh my god, pulling my hair out much?  He gave me an email address so I could contact the department needed as they don’t do phone calls.  (If anyone needs this email address, drop me a line and I’ll give you the address).  So, for now, I’m taking a break and will email them tomorrow.

I emailed them the following day explaining I am a full-time wheelchair user and can they tell me if the following excursions are suitable?  I supplied the names of the excursions we were interested in.  Oh boy, the response I got made me want to punch my monitor!!!!  They gave me NO information regarding the “Accessible Excursions” I asked about but instead another form to fill in about my wheelchair. 

This was their reply:  Read reply here

You will see the number of questions that they ask and what measurements they want about me and my wheelchair, which I might add were already supplied in their “Special Needs” form I had to fill in months ago.  RC mentions the two types of excursion levels.  You are not given this info via their website.  There is no mention whatsoever that excursions come in two levels……Again, very misleading!!

Putting all the trials and tribulations to one side, being unable to take the planned excursions is not the end of your holiday. Most ports of call will have a town close by. For example, when we arrived in Rome we were unable to take either RC’s own excursion or any other means of getting into Rome but you had Civitavecchia’s old town by the bus station you were drop off at via the shuttle bus. So you should still be able to get off the ship and visit a town to do some shopping if you wish.

Warning! Your ship pass is your entry back onto the ship if you get off the ship at any of the ports.  If you lose your ship card, don’t expect to get back on the ship. Your card is not only for purchasing stuff on the ship, it is also your room key and your pass to get on and off the ship.

Your Holiday is Booked, Now What?

One word of warning, we found RC excursions to be astronomically overpriced.  So please, exhaust every option before you decide what to book.  I feel it’s vital to look into what you can visit without having to book an excursion, before booking your holiday.  After all, you don’t want to book a holiday where you can only take in the sights via an excursion.  That would be very disappointing and expensive.  Our last 2 cruises, we were able to see what we wanted to see by ourselves.  At one port, we did have to catch a bus but it was wheelchair accessible and free, as it was supplied by the cruise company to take passengers into the local town.

I wanted to know if RC knew anything about accessibility, like disabled toilets while at the different ports.  RC was unable to answer this question.

So I took it upon myself to do my own research. I have listed below two websites that I have found to be extremely helpful.  These websites seem to have a mountain of information regarding ports, where most cruise ships will dock on their journey.  One even sorts out excursions for you.  As I mentioned, excursions can be very expensive indeed.  For example, we would love to do an excursion that takes us to Pisa, this is costing £169 per person through RC.  So for 4 people, that’s a whopping £676.  When you have already paid over 6 grand for your family holiday, do you really want to pay this on top??  To take their excursion to Rome, they wanted £285 that’s £1,140 for a family of 4.  So for two excursions for a family of 4, you are forking out £1,816, really??  (Prices correct at time of writing this).

Cruise Countdown

Log in page for cruise countdown

Most cruise companies will have their own type of countdown to your holiday.  It will inform you of things like when you are able to print off your set sail tickets, luggage tags and info on drinks packages, excursions and special events bookings like birthday, anniversaries etc.

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Cashless System

Here’s something you may not know. To my knowledge, ALL cruise ships operate a cashless system while on board. We had to tell RC how we would like to settle our onboard account.  Our options were:

  • Credit/debit card –
  • Cash
  • bank transfer

The cashless system works like this, when checking in at the docks, your photo will be taken and attached to your ship account/card, which is then given to you.  Your ship card is then used similar to a credit card while aboard the ship to pay for anything and everything you purchase.  From drinks to the shops onboard.  At the end of your holiday, the bill must be paid.  Hence the options above.  Our preferred method is cash. Purely because we are terrified of getting an astronomical bill at the end of our holiday and not being able to pay it.  You see, it is very easy to get carried away while on holiday and not really be aware of what you are spending.  14 days is a long time to keep tabs on every penny you and your family are spending.  especially when you’ve got kids.

Also, by choosing the option cash, you have the ability to go to reception every couple of days, ask for an up-to-date bill and pay off what you owe at that point.  Remember though, RC is an American company, so your account will be in dollars.  Bear this in mind with the exchange rate.  Again, at the end of the day, it is a personal preference.

Tip: RC don’t inform you of this beforehand but if you pay your account by any means other than cash, you are charged a %5 convenience fee in the casino every time you use your ship card to purchase chips at the tables.

Boarding Your Ship

We took RC’s pier assistance which turned out to be the best decision we made, the check-in terminal was so chaotic I doubt very much we would have navigated the system by ourselves. We had a gentleman assist us to the check-in desk, sort out all our documents and then take us in the lift up to what I would call the boarding ramp/gangplank onto the ship. He took us up the ramped zigzag undercover gangplank, right up to the entrance of the ship itself. We were told this was as far as he could take us. We were now left to our own devices. Somewhat confused and unsure of what we should do next.

Accessible Cabins

All accessible cabins will have wider doors, ramped threshold into the wet room.  Sometimes you’ll be supplied with a safe in your room which, as with RC will be lowered and turning circle space for your wheelchair.

As an example Royal Caribbean advertises their accessible cabins as having;

  • Stateroom door width: 32″-34″ (vessel-dependent)
  • Bathroom door width: 32″-34″ (vessel-dependent)
  • No doorsill to get into the stateroom
  • Ramped bathroom threshold
  • Bathroom grab bars
  • Lowered sink and stateroom vanity
  • Roll-in shower bench
  • Fold-down shower bench
  • Hand-held shower heads
  • Lowered closet rods
  • Refrigerator in stateroom (upon request)
  • Raised toilet seats (most are between 17 to 19 inches high; commode chairs available – please request prior to sailing)
  • Accessible balconies (selected staterooms)
  • Lowered safes for easy access (not including Majesty of the Seas, where safes are located at Guest Relations)

Please note: Accessible suites have roll-in showers, not bathtubs except on Quantum of the Seas.

Source: https://www.royalcaribbean.com/experience/accessible-cruising/accessible-staterooms

I was also able to find information regarding inside cabins on the ship we are sailing on.  I found the following info:

  • Door width – 32 inches wide
  • Wet room door width – 32 inches
  • Toilet height from floor – 18 inches
  • Grab rails when seated – left-hand side

As a right-handed person with very weak upper body strength, it would have been beneficial to have known about the grab rails before booking our holiday, as I would have preferred them to be on my right. Hopefully, now you know this information, this will benefit you.

Note:  Our room only had ONE 240v plug socket.  It had two 120v plug sockets but I believe they are no good for European electrical equipment.  The video below shows more.

Our bed was so hard it felt like we were sleeping on stone, I suffered two nights in pain before I went to Guest services and asked if there was anything they could do, thankfully they were able to supply a mattress topper.  This helped greatly but still wasn’t perfect. So remember, if you find any kind of issues/problems with your room, it is worth having a word with your stateroom attendant, reception/Guest services and asking them if there is anything they can do.

One thing to remember about your cabin, the door is a storm door therefore it will be extremely heavy.  So, anyone like myself with weak upper body strength you may find it very difficult to open the door, hold it open and manoeuvre yourself through the doorway.

If you liked my blog, why not sign up to my Newsletter so you never miss a beat, or leave a comment below. If there is anything you would like me to blog about, don’t hesitate to Contact Me.

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Train speeding through a station

Wheelchair user travels on a train for 1st time!!

Wheelchair user travels on a train for 1st time – I travelled on a train but will I do it again!! – I have been a full-time wheelchair user for over 15 years and I have NEVER travelled on a train…..Why? Fear!! Fear of being crushed, fear of being trapped in the doors, fear of my wheels getting trapped in the gap, my list of fears were endless! That was until 2 days ago when I faced my fears and went riding on the trains with a lovely man called Alan (@AlansTweets).

I met Alan at Twickenham station, where we were to start our journey. I arrived early so I could take a look around inside, to familiarise myself. Not much to see really, just a few ticket machines and a ticket office, which was closed.

We took the lift down to the platform and asked a member of staff if we could have the ramp for the next train heading to Clapham Junction on the SWR (South Western Railways) line. Not a problem, the train arrived and we got on using the ramp without any incident whatsoever. I have to say, I was extremely surprised as to how much room was available for wheelchair users, both Alan and I (both wheelchair users) had more than enough room to park our chairs.

Wheelchair user travels on a train for 1st time!! - Alan and myself sat in our wheelchairs in the disabled spaces on the train.

During our journey, Alan spoke about his experiences and the pitfalls that can happen. He said, “The key is to stay calm and be polite but firm when dealing with mishaps”. Very good advise indeed! After all, you can’t expect to travel problem free ALL the time, thing are going to go wrong, that’s called life! But, if they do go wrong, just stay calm and deal with it the best you can.

Wheelchair user travels on a train for 1st time!! - Cazbarr sat on the platform in front of a parked train.

We arrived at Clapham Junction where we jumped onto the Underground. Now I hope I have our journey correct below, it was hard taking in all this wonderful new information at once. I was like a big kid taking in all the new sights/sounds etc around me. But I think our journey went something like this:

Twickenham > Clapham Junction – SWR
Underground – Clapham Junction > Waterloo
Underground – Waterloo > Westminister – We popped out to take a look at Big Ben
Underground – Westminister > Victoria
Victoria > Twickenham – SWR

I tried my best to remember everywhere we had been, take in the sights AND remember where & how I would travel in the future and ask for assistance.

I have to say I was not looking forward to travelling on the underground, this was my biggest fear. Crowds, pushing/shoving all the things we all know about the underground. But I have to say, (ok it was approx 2:30 pm) but the underground was pleasantly not as busy as I had expected it to be. Don’t think I would ever attempt to travel in rush hour.

Wheelchair user travels on a train for 1st time!! - Big Ben clock with scaffolding

We arrived at Westminister as I asked if it would be possible to see Big Ben. We went outside the station and low and behold, what was staring me in the face? Big Ben haha, I never realised it sat right outside the station. So, we didn’t have far to go.

My only memories of train travel/underground, was as a child when my Mum would take me to Great Ormand Street hospital and we would have to use those big, rusty, caged lifts where the doors had to be slammed shut and then the big iron gate door had to be slid across. Scary days really (for a toddler). My one attempt at train travel as a late teenager is not one I am going to go into but be assured it probably was the reason I never attempted it again until now!

We then travelled back to Victoria to get on SWR back to Twickenham. Again, no problems at all……..Until we reached Twickenham and no-one turned up with the ramp! I pressed the red button so someone would be alerted to our dilemma. We spoke with whom I believe was a guard, explained our situation and then this announcement came over the train: Link is to a video Alan made of our journey, this is the announcement: https://twitter.com/i/status/1238576905135296514

Well, you can imagine how upset we both were over this. I think Alan was going to email about this. It was unfortunate that this had to be the one lip in our whole journey. Everything went lovely and smooth without any problems and then that happened!!

Will I do it again? Damn right I will. I can’t thank Alan and wife enough for taking time out of their busy schedule to take me on the train and show me how easy it can actually be…..Thank you to both of you.

Any questions, why not drop me a line using my Contact Page.

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