Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Some useful tips for travelling with a chronic illness: special assistance

Apologies for the interval between this series of blog posts on travelling with a chronic illness. Perhaps now is a good time to start up again though, with the advent of Spring (yes I'm a comedienne) putting many people in the holiday mood, or more likely just the rubbish weather making us want to escape to the sun. I know that I certainly am desperate to jet off to my favourite Greek Haven.

Just to recap, I started this mini series of posts to give advice to help chronically ill people know that there are ways and means to travelling when you have an illness. Yes, it requires a lot of planning and consideration but it is possible. The first installment of this series on research, a very important stage of preparing to go away can be read here. My tips on finding travel insurance can be found here and a list of all the planning, a checklist of necessities that you will need to do here. You can read about my adventures abroad here, where I had a meltdown at the airport because I could literally not walk another step, so we had to ask for last minute assistance. This is also where I knew that when I got back from holiday I'd be needing a wheelchair to help me get around. Then the next time we went away I used prebooked special assistance, which you can read about here.

This post is dedicated to the mecca of spoonie travel and that is special assistance. It really does make all the difference. Special assistance is a service that helps those with a disability of any kind or those that cannot walk far through the airport and on the flight.

Airports are big, busy places, generally with lots of walking and waiting/ standing around. Cueing to check in, cueing at passport control, cueing at security, cueing for the toilets (ladies), cueing at the boarding gate, cueing on the plane as people stow their things. And the distance to your gate can be long. Therefore special assistane for anyone with limited mobility is ideal. 

I reccommend anyone with a chronic illness or disability, invisible, hearing or sight problems or otherwise, including learning or mental health difficulties consider adding special assistance when booking their flights. Say for instance you are travelling alone and you are hard of hearing then special assistance through the airport can help you get through the airport and onto the plane. A member of the team can help you at check in, security and th boarding gate. Also I have seen people who are very nervous about flying use the service so that they avoid cues getting onto the plane, which may bring on a panic attack. Special assistance through the airport is usually ran by a seperate company, however it must be reqested through the airline so that they have all the necessary information to keep you safe during the flight and arrange assistance on arrival at both airports. I will list the special assistance pages of a number of airlines at the end of this post. However when booking assistance I always reccomend phoning them as you can discuss your needs in more detail then. Phone numbers can be found on each page.

If you have mobility problems and use a walking stick or crutch then these can be taken onboard, they don't incurr any extra charges and don't count towards the number of carry on items you are allowed. The only rule is that they are scanned and that they do not obstuct the planes ailse once onboard. For wheelchair users or those that need to use one to cope with walking distance at the airport but do not have your own whelchair, then you can request one to help you through the airport. Sometimes if you only require assistance to your boarding gate a buggy may be used. You also have the option of someone taking you, which s good if you are travelling alone or one of the other members of your travel party can push you. Before boarding anyone using special assistance is asked to wait in a designated  area, where members of the special assitance company will come and collect you for boarding. 

Different airports and airlines have different boarding policies, some will board you first, others last, sometimes there is some cross over with other passengers so be careful and clear that once on board you do not want to be stuck in a cue as others stow their bags. This is why you are usually boarded first or last. To get onto the plane you have the option of walking up the steps if you are able to or to use a special lift. Once you're up you can then choose whether you walk to your seat or use a specialist wheelchair that will fit down the ailse. The lift will be used at the back of the plane for reference on how far you will have to your seat. Think about the size of the plane you are on. Last year I choose not to use the lift and was boarded at the front of the plane, our seats were towards to centre but it was still quite a walk, luckily by that point everyone was sat down and I had help of one of the ground crew to lean on. Funnily enough there had been some mix up between the airline and special assistance company, so the gate manager was wondering where the heck 7 passengers were and a wheelchair to go in the hold. A few more minutes and they probably would have had to have took our bags off the plane. I was just grateful that everyone else was sat down and the aisle was clear.

In terms of your seats again it varies between airlines. Some have specific seats that have moving armrests on the aisle seat for easy transfer and slightly more leg room. These seats will be reserved for you at no extra cost. When we flew out last year I was lucky as we got 2 rows between 4 of us, so I could stretch out my legs. it is dependant on how many passengers there are. Other airlines will allow you to book seats where you like, other than on an emergency exit for safety reasons. Of course it can also be dependant on what class you are flying.

I mentioned there about wheelchairs going into the hold. If you are taking your own wheelchair, which you can do free of charge then it needs to get tagged at check in. You can stay in it until you are on the plane and then it gets put in the hold. Once you arrive at your destination it will be taken out first and be ready for you to get into. If you are using the lift you will usually sit in one of the special assistance chairs until you are on the ground and can be transfered into your own chair. One thing to note if you are taking your own wheelchair is that if you have any tools for your chair tell security so that they can be put into your tray to be scanned. 

It is also possible to use a scooter but there are different rules about types and batteries, which can be read in each airlines policies below. The same applies for powered wheelchairs. Sometimes you will need to give dimensions when you book to assure there is room in the hold. All airlines are supposed to give an allowance of 2 pieces of special assistance equipment to go in the hold, unless the flight starts or ends in America in which case there is no limit.

There is a range of other in-flighg services available too depending on your airline and often destination. For example an onboard wheelchair for access to the toilet. On board oxygen. Specialist meals for different dietary requirements. Captioned entertainment on longer haul flights. Again it is always best to ring up the airlines special assistance helpline who can taylor requirements to your needs.

Here is a list of a number of airlines special assitance pages click on the names to be taken to the page.

Thomon Holidays as Thomson is a holiday company they also have more information about assistance requirements needed at your resort or onboard one of their cruises.

Stay tuned for the next installment, all about medication whilst travelling.

Please share your experiences if you have ever used special assitance to go abroad or have any more tips to share.

Sian x

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