Holidays with a Disability – My Experience

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The Bay of Naples from our Hotel by CC Cachia

It has been a long winter for everyone this year. For some of us, it has seemed even longer. If, like me, you live with a lung condition, you will have been advised to stay indoors throughout the colder days. Then, when the sun finally appeared you may have been told to again stay indoors as air pollution indices started to climb.

My sister has stenosis of the spine and was given the news in December that her lumbar vertebrae are crumbling. Stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column, causing severe compression on the nerves. It can lead to extreme weakness and paralysis.

She went into hospital for scheduled back surgery in January, but at the eleventh hour the consultant decided it was not safe to operate for various reasons.

To say this was a disappointment is an understatement.

So, after reconciling herself to a life supported by drugs (including some heavy duty painkillers that were not without their own issues) she decided we needed a holiday.

Where to go and the cost of travel insurance

We decided that we wanted somewhere not too hot, and that would be not too far from shops etc. The flight needed to be fairly short for both of us, and we needed somewhere that my sister could get around with her tri-walker. We also wanted somewhere that enabled us to take a few trips out, planning for three trips for the duration of our fourteen night break.

With all this in mind, we opted for Italy. We had both been to Italy (albeit in better health) and all things considered Sorrento looked to be a good base for us. Situated in the beautiful Bay of Naples, Sorrento also would allow us to visit the towns that clung to the rocky cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. Also, travelling with a leading UK tour operator would provide the peace of mind of having a travel representative in resort. We placed our deposits and started to look at travel insurance.

I always have difficulty obtaining insurance for myself. With both interstitial lung disease and chronic kidney disease the majority of insurers are unwilling to bear the risk. Using one of the comparison websites (www.comparethemarket.com ) bore negative results. Eventually I managed to get my insurance through Saga (www.saga.co.uk/Insurance/Travel) it was more expensive than my sisters, who bought hers through the Post Office (www.postoffice.co.uk/Trave/Insurance) which was cheaper for a comparative level of cover.

I would encourage anyone looking for insurance to do you research before you travel – sometimes the cost of insurance can be almost as much as the holiday itself.

Medication

Remember to pack your medication in your hand luggage and always bring more that you need. You never know if you are going to be delayed. Also, always carry a copy of your prescription in case you need to see a pharmacist or doctor. Remember too, that some over the counter medicines (e.g. codeine) require a prescription in some countries.

When you arrive, it is also worth locating your nearest pharmacy and opening hours. Your hotel should be able to contact a doctor on your behalf in the event of an emergency, but remember this will usually be a private doctor and you will have to settle payment before you can claim from your insurance company. Many insurance companies stipulate that you need to contact them before you see a doctor, so check your policy carefully.

It is also worth applying for an EH101 card which you should carry with you. This enables you to receive free medical treatment in European hospitals. For more information see https://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/1073.aspx

Getting there – planes, automobiles and wheelchairs

We had advised our tour operator that my sister needed assistance at the airport, and was travelling with a tri-walker. The advice was to make ourselves known to the special assistance service at Gatwick. This worked very well.

Before and after check-in at both terminals Gatwick (www.gatwickairport.com) offers dedicated areas for disabled passengers with reserved seating and accessible toilets. This is also the case at Heathrow, who, in addition to a very informative website, publishes its Special Assistance improvement plan and performance against it.

Stansted does ask that you book special assistance through your tour operator or directly with the airport at least 48 hours before travel. It also runs an Autism Awareness wristband scheme which discreetly alerts airport staff to this issue. For more information see www.stanstedairport.com .

After security we went directly to the special assistance gate where we were transferred to our departure Gate at the appropriate time. I was glad of this myself as the walk to the Gates at Gatwick can be 15 – 20 minutes away.   My sister’s walker was taken from her as we boarded and transported to Naples in the hold.

Pre-booking seats? Remember, that if you opt to sit in the extra leg-room seats these are situated beside the emergency exits and you will need to be fit enough to take the necessary action if needed. We chose the first row seats which allowed space for my sister to negotiate her way to her seat and sit reasonably comfortably throughout the journey.

On arrival at Naples, our problems started. We had to climb downstairs out of the plane and get onto a minibus. Without her walker, it was a struggle. The step into the bus was very high, and she ended up being lifted onto the bus by two other passengers. Her walker did not arrive with the luggage, nor was it with the over-sized luggage.

After a frantic 45 minutes it was discovered still in the hold. Fortunately we had booked a private transfer to the hotel so we didn’t have to worry about coach steps, which were not designed for disabled passengers.

We’re here! Where’s the Pool?

Our hotel had a faded Italian grandeur, with welcoming staff. There was a ramp into reception and a roomy lift. So far so good.

We had booked one of the better rooms which (as advised by the tour operator) had a larger balcony so my sister could sit outside unaided, and without having to re-organise the furniture.

What we had not been told was that there were four steps down into the room itself, and a tiny shower. The hotel was sympathetic, but full. Changing rooms would not be possible until the fourth day of our holiday. Oh well. We managed, but it was not ideal.

The restaurant was lovely, and the food excellent. Every choice on the menu was annotated with potential allergens, and although there was only ever one vegetarian option, there was a fresh salad buffet provided every evening. The waiters always gave us a table with plenty of room to park my sister’s walker.

The pool was on the roof of the hotel, taking advantage of the fantastic views across the bay. There was a lift up to the sun terrace, but a flight of steps to the pool itself. In the end, this proved too difficult for us.

Day trips and excursions

As with all these types of holiday, the main role of the local representative is to sell trips. All the trips offered involved either a coach or a minibus, neither of which were accessible for disabled travellers. The only trip open to us was wine-tasting in Sorrento!

We discovered that the local busses were good for getting to the nearby beach (wide doors, lowered floors), were frequent and not too busy. This was our best option.

Through the hotel we also booked a ferry to Amalfi. The ferry was roomy with lots of space and seats, and it was nice to be at sea. However, like most of the area the Amalfi streets were very busy and cobbled, which played havoc with the walker and my sister’s arms.

Most cafes and restaurants in the area were small or tightly packed. Unlike UK tourist attractions, there were very few disabled toilet facilities which hampered us a fair bit. Also, many of the ancient attractions are left in their most natural state. This is authentic and great, but does not lend itself to wheelchair access.

I have since discovered some specialist tour groups that offer disabled-friendly trips to sites such as Pompeii, which has recently opened its barrier-free path. Consider looking at www.sagetravelling.com if this is of interest to you.

Booking again

Next time I would do much more research myself, and not rely on the advice of the tour operator.

I would recommend using an independent travel agent or a tour operator that specialises in disabled travel, so that you can provide them with a list of your requirements and they can undertake the research on your behalf.

If possible, call your hotel ahead of your stay to make sure that everything is how it should be. You can save a lot of valuable holiday time if you spend a little more time and effort before you book.

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