I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have the opportunity to travel to so many amazing places. In 2017 alone I visited 17 countries and traveled over 118,000 miles! I have enjoyed the glittering beaches of Barbados, heard the strains of Mozart in Vienna, cruised through Norwegian fjords, and laid hands on Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall – all while being completely unable to walk. Although it sounds like an incredibly glamorous lifestyle (*cough* sometimes it is *cough*), not everything about wheelchair accessible travel is Instagram worthy. Some of my worst moments were really scary and frustrating, while others were just downright embarrassing. However, everything always worked out in the end! For your enjoyment, here are my top 10 worst accessible travel moments of 2017.
10. Being forced to miss my train in Warsaw. I have a love/hate relationship with trains. They are easily my favorite mode of travel, especially in Europe, but they also produce the most anxiety – specifically when it comes to figuring out how to get on and off the train. Every train system across Europe has a different system for boarding disabled passengers, which is an endless source of frustration. Some trains have electric lifts and other stations require manual ramps. Some countries only need an hour’s notice that you will be traveling, while others need 48 hours notice. When I was traveling from Warsaw to Krakow by train in September, my tour guide had given the station notice that I was arriving. Despite this, the train company representative at the desk had no clue how to get me on my train. And she spoke no English. Fortunately, the platform security agent knew what to do (after an hour of back and forth). But when my train arrived, the conductors tried to get the electric ramp down for me – and failed. They said the lift was broken, when in fact they just had no clue how to use it. Even though there was a metal ramp right next to me on the platform, they didn’t even try to board me that way. They just shrugged their shoulders and told me to catch the next train. An hour later, the next train showed up. However, the same exact thing happened – the conductors had no idea how to use the lift. However, this time they were easily able to use the metal ramp to board me, meaning I could have boarded my first train after all. You’ll read more about train-related nightmares in #7 and #3 below. See a pattern here?
9. Getting harassed by Batman in Ljubljana. I don’t get much attention from men when I travel, even though I travel alone most of the time. I think I’m a fairly attractive woman, but I never wear makeup when I’m alone, and since cooler weather suits my MS, I’m usually bundled up in not-so-sexy warm clothes. In other words, I’m not really asking for male attention. In September, I was hanging out by myself in the main square of Slovenia’s stunning capital, Ljubljana, when I was approached by a young man in a power wheelchair. He was a local and looked like he (and his chair) had seen better days. He was eating corn on the cob, smelled like peanut butter, and looked like a member of a 90s grunge band. Our conversation started out friendly enough. He asked me name, which I gave, after which he introduced himself as Batman. Things started going downhill quickly after that. He started complimenting me, then flirting, then talking about what he would do to me if he could get me tied up in his basement. He reached down and put my scooter in neutral, supposedly so I “couldn’t get away.” I was sufficiently freaked out by that point and had lost all desire to be polite, so I said goodbye and fortunately didn’t run into Batman again during the rest of my stay.
8. Waiting almost two hours for my scooter at JFK airport. When you fly with a mobility device, usually you check it at the door of the plane and pray to the travel gods that you get it back in one piece (more about this at #1). But first you have to get it back. According to the Air Carrier Access Act, US-based airlines are required by law to return your wheelchair or scooter back to you at the door of the plane – not at Customs or baggage claim – within a “reasonable” amount of time (determined to be no longer than 30 minutes). In August I was returning from Copenhagen on Delta Airlines and connecting through JFK airport in New York. When I got off the plane, I was told my scooter was not at the aircraft door, and (in violation of the ACAA) would be waiting for me at baggage claim outside immigration. I didn’t know my rights under the ACAA at the time, so I let them take me in an airport transport chair through immigration and to baggage claim. My scooter was not there. My wheelchair assistant spent an hour looking for my scooter because no one he asked (and he asked a LOT of people) knew where it was. In the process, he had to leave me helpless and alone for extended periods of time in a very uncomfortable transport chair that I could not move myself. I finally got my scooter back after 1 hour and 45 minutes of waiting and barely made my connection. I did file a formal complaint with Delta and the Department of Transportation for the ACAA violation – for which I was compensated with a written apology and frequent flier miles.
7. Missing the train/tour to Galway. My best friend and I spent a week in Dublin this past April, and we were most looking forward to a day tour she had booked for us to Galway through Viator. The plan was for us to take a train from Dublin to Limerick, ride a tour bus that supposedly had a wheelchair lift to several stops along the east coast, visit the famous Cliffs of Moher, then hop on a return train from Galway back to Dublin. Erin checked three times with Viator to make sure the tour was wheelchair accessible and they said yes each time. We even rented a manual wheelchair in case we came across any smaller obstacles/steps that could be managed. We arrived at the train station, arranged for the ramp to get me on the train, and right before we were about to board, a tour leader came off the train and gave us a very stern look. She harshly told us in no uncertain terms that the tour was not wheelchair accessible at all. To say we were crushed is an understatement. But we were undeterred! As we were rolling back to the terminal, we decided we were going to Galway anyway. We were able to book round-trip tickets departing 30 minutes later, and while we were on the train, we found a taxi company that was able to provide the same tour as Viator for even cheaper – and private! What started out as a nightmare turned out to be one of our best experiences in Ireland. However, it was a stark reminder that many people have no idea what “accessible” really means.
6. Getting locked in a Jerusalem hotel bathroom. Few things are worse for a wheelchair user than arriving at a hotel to discover your supposedly “accessible” room is nowhere near. During a Greece/Israel cruise in October, we were docked at Ashdod for two days. To save time, our tour guide recommended staying at a hotel in Jerusalem. Not only was the “accessible” room cramped; the bathroom was small, and while it had a roll-in shower and a grab bar next to the toilet, it was arranged in such a way that I couldn’t maneuver my scooter into the shower (which had no seat) or comfortably transfer to the toilet. I settled for a sponge/washcloth bath and an awkward toilet transfer – and I had to do it with the door open because it only opened in (or so I thought). The front desk clerk told us we could press in the door catch in the frame to allow the door to open out. Great! We did that, and it helped a bit – although I had to squeeze into a corner to enter the bathroom that way. Anyway, at around four in the morning I had to use the bathroom. I closed the door so the light wouldn’t wake my sleeping best friend. Well, the door catch caught when I closed the door, meaning now it would only open IN. I now had to figure out how to jam my scooter between the shower wall, toilet, and fixed grab bar to allow enough room to open the door IN and get out. I could have started yelling to wake my friend up, but she’s a deep sleeper and I didn’t want to wake her. I finally got out after a 72-point turn and fifteen minutes of being stuck in that awful “accessible” bathroom.
5. One red dot in Amsterdam. I have an incredible electric scooter, and my Pride Go Go UltraX can spit out roughly eight miles on one charge. Well, I put that limit to the test during a very full day in Amsterdam in April. While the city itself is very flat, there are hundreds of bridges everywhere and you don’t realize how much work your power chair or scooter is doing. You can imagine my anxiety at the end of a very busy day of sightseeing when I looked down at my battery indicator and had one red light and only two orange lights (meaning I only had about 15% power left) with half a mile still left to go to my hotel. Needless to say, by the time I made it to my hotel’s street, my one red light was blinking and I was looking around for someone who might be able to push me into my hotel room! The sun was going down, I was alone, and not many people were around. Fortunately, I made it to my room safely, if completely running on fumes.
4. Rolling alone to my hotel in Munich. Germany is a very safe country, and honestly I’ve never felt endangered anywhere in Europe. However, I follow some simple rules, including not going anywhere alone at night. Well, one night in Munich I had an amazing dinner with some friends near the Marienplatz and didn’t start heading back to my hotel until 10:00PM, My plan was to roll near groups of people on the way so at least someone would hear or see me if I got in trouble. The problem is a lot of those people were drunk, and one group of drunk men tried to grab my chair and looked like they wanted to harass me. I was able to slow down and separate myself from them, but the more I moved away from the Marienplatz to my hotel a kilometer away, the fewer people I saw. I’m sure one married couple and one guy listening to his music while walking were wondering why this creepy girl in a scooter was following them. I was just glad I made it to my hotel safely that night.
3. Thinking I’d get stranded on an overnight train in Norway. I had already experienced a full day of train issues in Norway when I embarked on an overnight tour from Oslo to Bergen to see the Sognefjord. My first of three trains had been cancelled, the second train was 20 minutes late, and I almost missed the Flam Railway descent. After a pretty amazing cruise through Norway’s largest fjord, I boarded my last train, which would take me from Bergen back to Oslo through the night. My ticket said I would arrive at 6:35AM, but a small courtesy card on my bunk said we would arrive at 7:00AM. I was inclined to believe the information on the actual train, so I set my alarm for 6:30AM and went to bed. I’m normally a light sleeper but the movement of a European high-speed train will knock out the worst insomniac. When the alarm woke me up, I couldn’t understand why I didn’t hear any noise or feel any movement. I pulled back my cabin curtain and saw WE WERE AT THE OSLO STATION ALREADY. Commence freakout session. I buzzed the conductor and started throwing on my shoes and coat in a frenzy. When he arrived and saw me panicking, he started laughing hysterically. He told me since it was an overnight train, it wasn’t going anywhere soon and they wouldn’t even ask passengers to disembark until 7:15AM. Biggest. Exhale. Ever.
2. Not quite making it to the bathroom in time. In addition to having multiple sclerosis, I have a pesky little condition called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It usually rears its ugly head when I’m anxious or stressed out, but it can also kick in if I eat a heavy or large meal after not eating for several hours. This happened during a Celebrity cruise to Greece and Israel in October, and shortly after eating a huge hamburger I HAD TO GO. I absolutely despise using the public toilets on ships because I’m a germaphobe and don’t need a raging case of anything while on a cruise, so I was determined to make it back to my cabin in time. Needless to say, I didn’t. Fortunately I was alone when it happened and it wasn’t too bad, but it was an embarrassing reminder of my physical limitations. I did lose a nice pair of underwear to the trash, but the jeans were saved. Hey…silver linings.
1. Watching my broken scooter get loaded onto a plane. I have no idea how I’ve managed to travel internationally with my scooter for two years without having it damaged outside of a few scratches and chips. That all ended as I prepared for a short flight from Frankfurt to Ljubljana in September. I was with my scooter in an elevator truck getting ready to board to plane on an aisle chair. Before the truck raised up to the cabin door level, the ramp crew took my scooter and started rolling it towards the back of the plane to load it in the cargo hold – no more than 30 yards away. To my horror, as I was about to be rolled onboard, I noticed the ground crew wrestling with the tire of my scooter’s front wheel, which had somehow magically become dislodged from the plastic hubcap in that short distance. The plane captain and crew assured me they would fix it in Ljubljana, but I spent the entire one-hour flight in a panic over possibly getting stranded alone in Slovenia with no means of mobility. Fortunately, the amazing ground crew at the Ljubljana airport did get the tire back on after 30 minutes of fighting with it, and I counted my blessings that the situation wasn’t worse. This was easily the worst experience of my traveling career.
I assure you that the vast majority of my travel experiences are extremely positive; otherwise, I wouldn’t keep doing this. But I do think it’s important to share some of my more challenging moments so you have a realistic idea of what challenges can come your way so you’re equipped to handle them. As always, safe (accessible) travels in 2018!
Are you ready for some new adventures in the New Year? Check out my accessible travel agency at Spin the Globe/Travel and ask me how I can help make your dreams come true!