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Disabled Travel in Europe

Gil from CA

See our new section Accessible Rome, about wheelchair travel in Rome, Italy.

Can I travel though handicapped? In one word: yes. You need more patience than the average traveler, and more flexibility and maybe a better sense of humor. And it doesn't do any harm if you have a little more money, but it can be done.

My wife uses a walker all the time but needs a wheelchair to go long distances - such as from the street to the gate at airports, shopping, and certainly to museums. She also has very little stamina and when we travel takes an occasional day off to rest in the hotel, while I do something she would care less about or not be able to do. But we do go, and we both enjoy it.

Our experience is limited, but I do have some thoughts that might help others.

Your flight

Make all reservations well ahead of time.

Tell the airline you are handicapped and will need a wheelchair at all airports. They have wheelchairs and porters to push them. There's no charge, but the porters will be grateful for tips. Be sure they make it a note in your reservation so it's in their computer. If it's not there and they're busy when you arrive they may give you static. It doesn't do any harm to check a couple of days ahead to make sure your request is actually in the computer.

Arrive at the airport well ahead of the earliest time they tell you to be there.

They say an hour for domestic flights, two for international. Add 30 minutes to an hour to wait for the man to come with the wheelchair and any other hassles. They will usually board handicapped passengers first and to get the advantage of that you need to be at the gate waiting when pre-boarding begins. (Ask the Department of Transportation for its booklet "New Horizons, Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability".)

Airports and airlines will make serious efforts to accommodate you.

As I say, they all have wheelchairs and porters. All airports we have seen have elevators as well as escalators. But, for instance, if you have to change terminals at Heathrow, they will ask you if you can get on a bus - with the rest of the passengers. If you say no, they will bring a Humphrey, a van with a hydraulic lift that will take you in your chair with your luggage and your companion - in our case, me - to the next terminal. (As usual, on the landside at airports, tips are acceptable.) Don't admit it to anybody, but the Humphrey ride is rather fun.

At Fiumicino, the passengers on our flights hiked down stairs to get off the plane and climbed another long set of stairs into the terminal, or vice versa. For us, they brought lifts - like forklifts, but with enclosed platforms - to take us down and up again. Just be sure they know your needs in advance and when you make your reservations, when you check in, when you get to the gate, when you board the plane and at every other opportunity.

On the trains

The same rules as for using airlines applies to railroads and railroad stations. Wheelchairs and porters to push them are available. In Italy, at least, the rule is that you must notify the railroad 24 hours ahead to get the service, but when we have failed to do that they have managed anyway. Not cheerfully, but they have managed.

If you have reserved ahead, Termini in Rome will have a lift and a wheelchair waiting at the door of your car when you get off the train. One busy Sunday they couldn't find a wheelchair big enough for my wife and ended up extending the lift all the way so she was about 10 feet above the floor, and drove her, honking, through the throng in the station. She said she felt she was entering Rome like the Queen of Sheba. She loved it. It's usually less spectacular than that, but they will handle you. Getting a porter to handle your luggage is more difficult. I assume if you are alone, they'll do it.

Your wheelchair

Consider carefully whether you want to take your own wheelchair with you or rent one there. Apart from the hassle on the plane, we are told that they have a nasty habit of getting banged up en route. The airlines can supply wheelchairs and porters to push them at airports. Your concierge can find one to rent for you. Also see the note on TravelMed, below.

Accessible Hotels

Check your hotel(s) by phone or fax to be absolutely sure the accessible room you have reserve truly is accessible - and that the hotel itself is also accessible. If you make your hotel reservation through a travel agent, call the property itself and make sure (a) that you have an accessible room blocked, not merely requested, and (b) that it actually meets your needs, whatever they are. Ask the person you talk to whether he or she has ever seen the room personally. If not, ask to speak to somebody who has. Then instead of asking questions, ask him or her to describe the room - describing what makes it handicapped accessible. If they don't mention something you need (grab bars at the toilet, for instance) ask if they're there.

Be sure to ask if the hotel itself is accessible. We once had a room that was OK but found five steps getting up to the entrance of the hotel.

Accessible Restaurants

Check restaurants for accessibility. Especially bathrooms. They have an unfortunate habit of being downstairs.

Accessible Museums

Always check for accessible entrances, sometimes far from the main visitors' entrance. The entrance to St. Peter's Basilica is down almost at the main altar. Your taxi can take you past the Swiss Guards at the left of St. Peter's Square. The guards will tell the driver where it is. Many drivers have never been there and will tell you they can't drive into Vatican City. Not so. Insist. The Guards will direct them. That's just an example. Ask (or have your concierge ask) each museum ahead of time.

At the Louvre, you want to go into the main entrance, at the Pyramide, not through the Carroussel du Louvre. Ignore the line waiting for security and go to the egress door. You will ride down an open hydraulic lift instead of going down the escalator. A spectacular entrance. Incidentally, admission to the principal museums in Paris (including the Louvre, Orsay, Picasso and many more) is free to anybody in a wheelchair and one person pushing it. You'll save a few francs and, probably more important, save the time of standing in line at the ticket windows. Just walk in. They'll wave you right by.

Special Needs

You may need to hire help. My wife needs help bathing and dressing. Your concierge will be able to find a nursing agency that can provide a nursing aide for an hour or so a day. That's what we do at home, and the same thing has worked in other cities, domestic and foreign.

Trickier is that I can't push her wheelchair with her in it for long distances because I have a bad back. So we hire a strong man to do that, at an hourly rate. Again, the concierge will do it, but it's not as routine. I always suggest that somebody on the staff - a maid or somebody - must have an unemployed brother-in-law who wouldn't mind picking up a few extra francs, lire or whatever. That doesn't always work. Once in Florence, where there is no unemployment, the concierge got a vocational nurse from an agency. He was a little more expensive than others, but you can't worry about that unduly. And on our most recent trip to Paris, we had a young man from an agency who was strong but also cheerful, eager, intelligent, resourceful, and determined. He spoke no English but our French was adequate. I should add that he was also tactful. He didn't laugh at my French once!

Agencies have set fees. When we have had unemployed in-laws, we have relied on the concierge's advice as to what to pay. And, of course, the concierge also earns a good tip for doing the digging it takes to find somebody. We figure it's money well spent. When you add up the air, hotel, restaurant and other expenses, it's not that much. Besides, it's the difference between taking the trip and not.

The plus side - in addition to making the whole thing possible - is that you have close contact with a real Roman (Parisian, Florentine - whatever). Somebody who doesn't regularly deal with tourists.

They have provided some memorable moments. Gaston, the vocational nurse in Florence, was from Cameroon, so his native language was French. He had lived in Italy for six years so he was fluent in Italian, and he had a tiny smattering of English. We talked mostly French to him. Our French was as good as his English.

But he had boundless confidence. When we got to the Uffizi in the rain and learned that you needed reservations to get in, we were very disappointed. Nobody had told us. Gaston went to the lady at the ticket window and got us in - ahead of the line of people with reservations. He had, by the way, never been in a museum in the six years he had lived outside Florence. We paid very little attention to him: just admired the paintings and motioned when we were ready to move. At one point, when we had finished with a gallery and started toward the next, Gaston suddenly stopped, drew the wheelchair back a few feet, and stood and looked at one canvas for several seconds. Then, satisfied, he moved to the next gallery. He told us at lunch that he had never been to a museum but that he was going to bring his wife and children in to see them. We felt we had made a real contribution to a whole family.

In Rome, Vincenzo spoke only one word of English. He could say, "OK" and that was it. But we managed to communicate with our little Italian and lots of sign language. When we stopped to admire the baptismal font in St. Peter's Basilica, he told me he had been baptized there. We don't know many people who can claim that. He was an unemployed furniture mover, and gave no sign of any great interest in what we were doing, but in the Galleria Borghese, he identified a couple of sculptures at a distance, by sculptor and subject.

In Paris, we hired a young Moroccan through an agency who was sensational. He spoke no English but our French is sufficiently serviceable that we could have conversations with him. Of course he got us taxis when none were available, but he also got us into places you can't go in a wheelchair. Sacr Coeur is totally inaccessible. The guidebooks all say so. But he found a way in through the rectory, which has an elevator that is not for public use - unless you have a susceptible young French lady receptionist and a handsome young Moroccan man who knows how to use his charm.

Some of our stronger impressions of Europe, in fact, come from these men we hired to push wheelchairs.

My notes about Europe travel in general

Europe tends to be less accessible than the United States. They are conscious of handicapped people in the big cities, certainly, and on transportation, as I've indicated. But you don't have a federal agency you can threaten them with if things don't go exactly your way. That's where your patience comes in. You don't demand; you cajole.

And Europe itself has been there a long time and often hasn't been remodeled to deal with special needs. My wife says riding a wheelchair over cobblestones limits even her endurance at shopping.

It is usually possible to get around, though forget Venice entirely. Every intersection involves a tall flight of centuries-old stone steps to climb and descend. I understand wheelchair lifts have been installed at four of the staircases. That's four out of several hundred.

Also inaccessible: Pompeii, unfortunately. You have to climb a steep hill to get there and once there, it's constant climbing up and down the streets (which doubled as sewers in historical times). We took a bus tour (another mistake we haven't repeated) and my wife ended up waiting 2-3 hours in the hotel where we had lunch while I went to Pompeii. The guide told me that the Guide Association has frequently discussed doing something to make it available to the handicapped but hasn't figured out how.

In other cities, be prepared for obstacles everywhere. Not insurmountable ones, if you have strong men to help.

Bus Tours

Avoid bus tours unless you're sure you can get into and out of the buses with little or no help, and can keep up with the crowd. Our travel agent booked us on a couple on our first trip and they were very unsatisfactory. The drivers and guides had no patience for my wife. There are bus tours especially for handicapped people. We don't really like tours anyway, so haven't looked into them.

Be prepared!

One good rule of thumb is that you can't be too prepared, but you also can't be too flexible. Plan for all contingencies, but try not to sweat it when those you didn't plan for crop up.

Go! And Enjoy!

Notes from Others

Mary from the AOL boards: See Mary's detailed notes for Rome: Accessible Rome.

Tom and Janet from OR: We have not had experience with wheelchair travel, but did go to Italy in 1998 and France in 1999 with a handicap parking permit. We found lots of parking that was designated for handicap which surprised us. In fact, the police were very helpful in helping us find the handicap spaces in areas that were crowded. It worked well for us on most occasions. The largest city that we used it in was Siena.

Pauline's notes about accessibility in Tuscany: A lot of the Tuscan countryside is not "wheelchair friendly" - these hill towns are really on hills. You park outside the city walls (cars are not usually allowed inside) and then you walk up very steep, narrow roads to the top of the town. You do not see many people in wheelchairs in Italy.

There are certain parts of Tuscany which are not as hilly, where you can drive into the towns and the towns are flatter. Chianti, which is one of the nicest regions, is like that. Greve, Castellina, Gaiole - are all not your standard hill town. For a first time trip to Italy, I always recommend staying in Chianti anyway. It is the most "touristed" area - which means there is lots to do, great stores, great restaurants.

If you stay in a vacation rental, you will need a car. But it will be a more relaxing way to travel. If the handicapped person needs a day to recover from strenuous activity, they can be comfortable in their vacation rental.

Resources

www.accessibleurope.com: Accessible Europe

www.sath.org: Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality

www.disabilitytravel.com: Accessible Journeys

www.access-able.com: Access-able Travel Source

www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/disabled.htm: Rick Steves has a good list of resources for the disabled traveler

www.disabilitynow.org.uk: Disability Now, website with travel information and forums

Sources for Italy

penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/: Bill Thayer's website has a page listing most towns in Umbria and their accessibility.

www.coinsociale.it: CO.IN - Consorzio Cooperative Integrate. Turismo per Tutti (Tourism for Everybody) a project of the Consorzio Cooperative Integrate, known as CO.IN, the Italian branch of a Europe-wide project to make tourism accessible to people with handicaps.

www.disabilitynow.org.uk: No Strain by Train in Italy, an article from Disability Now (1999)

Sources for France

www.parisinfo.com: The Paris Tourist office publishes an excellent guide to Paris called "Paris for All".

www.mobile-en-ville.asso.fr: Mobile en Ville. Site in French. (List of books.) They have a book "Paris Commes des Roulettes", a guide to Paris on wheels, mainly for rollerbladers and skateboarders but they were intrigued at the possibility that it would be of use to people in wheelchairs, too.

www.gihpnational.org: Groupement pour l'Insertion des personnes Handicapes Physiques (G.I.H.P.) (Help for the Physically Handicapped). Site in French.

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