Time to Travel

Posted October 6, 2018

International travel can be daunting to anyone, especially if it's your first time, you have a disability or both. Luckily for me I've spent my life travelling...as an international adventure guide & adventurer in my wheelchair. Having the knowledge gives confidence...therefore I thought I would share my experiences and insights, let you in on a few secrets and explain what I think it's important.

The most important thing is realising it's not difficult, the world is small and travelling is an experience like no other. Even if your'e flying from the other side of the planet. Being a Kiwi every time I fly international, each leg can be 12 hours in cattle class... as I'm writing this I've just completed a 48 hour epic from Christchurch to London two days ago. Not my first rodeo either... every year for as long as I can remember I endure these mammoth trips. In the past it was a piece of cake... but now my tetraplegic body needs a bit more care to arrive unscathed. Taking into consideration sitting up for 48 hours, having limited chance of movement, false cabin air to breath, air conditioned airports, plane toilets, airport toilets, wheelchair meeting me at the plane door (especially in transit), having enough catheters to pee, losing luggage where my medication is (yes I need basics for bladder, spasm etc) and catheters, not needing to go for number two whilst travelling, and the most fun part of all airport staff, dealing with & randoms transferring me (sometimes with no idea & no English). Then there is always the next destination, the other end when tired, broken and jet lagged being able to be transported easily to your relaxing accommodation ready to recharge and enjoy your travelling experience. Always on my mind are pressure areas on my bum due to extended sitting times or scratching my butt when getting transferred. The rest I don't have any control over except precaution, organisation and confidence. Reading this you maybe disenchanted to travel with a disability, however it's awareness I'm providing making your travel experience easier. The reward of travel far outweighs the risk of flight!! So let me share my experience.

For an insight into Jezza's mind you need to understand whom your dealing with...Australia the Kimberly's where we tried to start a rafting operation amongst the crocodile infested waters of Lake Argils spillway creek after the wet season, was my first travel experience. Walking out the airport door I was looking for the air curtain, really this is the temperature... chatting to a local aboriginal whilst fat taxi drivers looked at me sideways... senses running ballistic, cultures, food, sounds, experiences my mind is enlightened like never before... snakes, spiders and all things nice I was addicted. Venturing further was inevitable as Switzerland, a one way ticket, $200 in my pocket and a guiding job... hitchhiking to Malaga my bivouac and me... Honduras guiding, jungles, rivers, poverty and gunrunners... Darien deep dark jungle, Kuna & Emberá Indians, dugouts, chicha fuerte... Roadies Panama to Canada... Eastern Europe, Turkey, more guiding expeditions Morocco, Zambezi... Roadie Zambia to Capetown... living a life of a gypsy not working to travel but travelling to work... immersing myself in the wonders of the world.... 15 years later I thought my life as an international adventurer was up when I shattered my neck canyoning in the Swiss Alps.

My first travel experience as a tetraplegic was the easiest yet... after my 11 months learning to live again it became time e to return to my routes... the Swiss system... travel doctor and nurse at my service, business class, a hotel in Singapore, insurance paranoia, hop schweiz money not an issue. Although, travelling high class with a medical entourage and a team to organise my every step sounds appealing, it's fantasy land, financially impractical and unnecessary.

It wasn't long before my withdrawals kicked in and travels were calling. As my first winter in a chair approached, making the most of the globe and the endless summer life, I wasn't ready to let a little issue of being a tetraplegic slow me down. The summer dragged me back to Europe... again and again. New places to discover old friends to see, family in Europe needed me. A stubborn man I am, to prove a point I went on just the silliest rally in the world, London to Mongolia and back again. A roadie of 26,000km, my friends and I, to learn my limits and see possibilities. With trips like these now I know travel is memories that build my soul. The last eight years as a tetraplegic I've had two winters, this one just past I still got my fix and here I am telling you this story, an alien in London.

I've put my body on the line so you don't have to... here's my advice for international travel:

*1-Call all airlines and explain you are a wheelchair user- some airlines only allow two wheelchair users on one trip...ie Jetstar. You can also use online assistant instead of expensive calls. They will ask the questions, size, weight, batteries etc. Make first contact at least 5 days prior.

*2-If you get a travel agent to book flights, make sure you get them to inform all airlines of your wheelchair, including size, weight and batteries if any.

*3-Keep it simple, if you don't require a power chair full time, leave it at home. Airlines are famous for damaging power chairs. It's way easier to use taxis, tuc tuc, pick-ups if you are in a manual chair. If you have battery assist wheels, be aware some airlines have restrictions. Inform the airline when you first make contact. Most taxi drivers in developing countries, throughout Asia & Europe wilł help you into their taxi, rather than paying for or trying to find an accessible taxi. It's also a great way to meet locals, everyone enjoys helping you into restaurants upstairs etc... that's my experience anyway. Traxtravel gives you an option of hiring an off-road power wheelchair.

*4-You can take extra baggage free if you need it for your disability i.e. toilet chair. Although I recommend the luxury of travelling light. Traxtravel gives you an option to hire a toilet chair.

*5-Always carry extra medication & catheters. Depending on your length of stay, my rule is a week's supply extra-minimum. Always spread them through you luggage in the slight chance you forget your carry on bag somewhere or the airline loses your luggage.

*6-Bring a sliding board if you can't transfer yourself. Just one, I recommend the banana board. Even if you don't normally use one, it comes in handy for taxis, toilet transfers ect. You may be surprised.

*7-When purchasing tickets think about in transit transfer times, you are first on last off and your wheelchair can be delayed. I recommend two hours minimum. When it comes to extended flights from Europe to New Zealand, it's a good idea to rest your body. Pressure areas are taxing on your body when you fly direct. Less adventurous, there is a hotel in Singapore Airport or more adventurous Thailand is a very user friendly cheap stopover.

*8-When checking in always be early, it's easier to request the perfect seat & if there are any issues, can be resolved earlier.

*9-Check in, firstly luggage. If you are checking your luggage all the way through, make sure you have enough medication and catheters for the trip. Carry extras and be aware of the time differences.
Secondly, wheelchair - be assertive about needing your chair at the boarding gate especially during transit. Some airlines have a priority "meet at gate" tag, I recommend always asking for the tag! Don't worry about getting your chair on the flight rather than the hold, at this point.
Thirdly- assistance. Again be assertive in regards to your needs... some airports have assistance to help you get to the gate, in reality if you're travelling solo or with someone it's way easier to just make sure the isle chair will meet you at the airport door, not before. Reason being the difference between the flight crew and ground crew are huge. The flight crew are normally very helpful and speak your language. This is where you can ask for your manual chair to be stored on the plane not the hold, if it can go on the plane lucky you, ifnot it's not a major just tends to take a little longer. Some airports can be a little chaotic!
It's always worth a shot at the gate, not the check in to ask for a sneaky upgrade, it's worked before. Dress nice and smile.
Always take your seat cushion with you & fold down the back of your wheelchair if going in the hold. Only explain how to pop off the wheels if staying on the flight.

*10-Transfers - not all assistance speak your language or understand your needs, slow them down, be assertive but friendly and explain what you need. It's good training for them. Most international airplanes will have a slide board & belt if needed, but I recommend keeping it simple. I find the flight crew extremely helpful.

*11-On board - For pressure reasons I have a Roho thin air cushion that I sit on. It's important to shuffle your butt as often as possible, due to pressure from trouser seams etc.
Wear pressure socks, even if you never have before, extended sitting, pressurised cabin etc will give you swollen feet.
Drink a lot of water and minimal alcohol, due to cabin air and dehydration e.g. constipation.
Seating is entirely your call, but I will explain what option you may like in regards to the bathroom.

*12-Bathroom on board. If you can't transfer easily by yourself and use intermittent catheter,  I fully recommend a temporary indwelling catheter, as the cabin pressure can cause issues, plus you want to drink a lot of water. You will feel way better in the long run if you drink loads of water. In this case it's good to have a window seat, for privacy and the view. Good for sleeping too.
If you want to use the bathroom, most planes have a foldable isle chair on board. Ask when you first get on the plane. Some plane toilets fold and open out making a big awesome accessible toilet, some are nearly impossible. The flight crew are very understanding and will let you have privacy behind the curtain in the prep area. I recommend an 800ml good plastic bottle with wide opening and screw top lid, plus small rubbish bags for intermittent catheter use. In this case an isle seat close to the bathroom or prep area. It's good to be honest and direct when letting the flight crew know your needs. Explain this when you're first on the plane.
Empty your bladder just before you board as the cabin pressure will mess with your bladder.

*13-In transit, enjoy the perks of travelling with a disability. Some airports have ground crew to take you through all the sneak routes, priority lines. So even though you're last off sometimes you're first through security. Be assertive that your chair meets you at the airport door on all transit stopovers.

*14-In transit bathrooms. Just be aware that some airports don't have unisex accessible bathrooms and you may need to go with your carer to the male toilets. In some Muslim countries this is illegal, so ask an attendee. Accessible toilets in Dubai say they are out of order, however they are still fine. Remove the barrier and enter. They just close the bathrooms to stop pedestrians from using them.

*15- Welcome to your destination, take your time. Hopefully you have organised your accommodation and transport before your flight. If not don't go with the first person that approaches you... in most developing countries like Thailand you are a wealthy tourist to the locals not disabled and they will assist you in any way possible. There are laws in place so it's all set prices. The poorer the country the more helpful the locals!! If you are on your way to Kiwiland on a Traxtravel trip, you're in awesome hands and our smiley faces will be there to greet you and deliver you to your awaiting comfort zone.

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