By Holly Onslow, Aspire's Charity Support Officer

I travel regularly and in the past five years have had eight holidays abroad.  I have recently returned from a package holiday to Cuba, which is the worst trip I have taken with regards to accessibility and issues with my wheelchair, which caused a lot of stress.

I booked the package holiday to Cuba last through Thomas Cook with my husband and friends.  Before going in to book, I ensured that I had all the information with me in regards to my wheelchair - dimensions, weight, type of wheelchair and that I had e-motion wheels (power assisting devices that are attached to the wheels of my chair). Initially they said that I wouldn’t be able to fly with the wheels due to the type of battery they had, which was confusing as I have done so before, but after numerous phone calls and visits into the shop we finally had it sorted that they would allow my wheelchair to fly.

I had some advice from another airline a few years ago that if you are travelling with items such as medication and necessary items such as my e-motion wheels charger, that you can request to have a second hand luggage bag.  I spoke to Thomas Cook about this and they agreed that I could have a second bag for medical items, which gave me another 5kg of hand luggage.  They added this to the booking form so that I would have no issues at the airport.

At Gatwick, we were asked if I needed medical assistance before going to the gate which I did not, and the lady we spoke to said that she would meet us at the gate prior to boarding. Going through security was not a problem and everything was fine until we got onto the aircraft.  Even though we had pre-booked our seats, the aircraft was not the same as what had been shown to us in the shop and we were separated from each other.

Landing in Cuba was where the problems really started, as the only way to get off the aircraft was for me to go down the stairs.  Luckily I can use crutches but, after a nine hour flight sitting in one position, moving is not easy.  My husband and friends helped me down and we were told that my wheelchair would be brought to me as soon as I was off the plane.  Instead, I had an airport wheelchair with a member of staff meet me, and no one would tell me where or when I would see my actual chair. The only thing this member of staff would say was “I help you, you give me money”.  When we got through to baggage claim we still did not know where my wheelchair was, until my husband saw the baggage handlers trying to force my wheelchair through the hole in the wall where the baggage goes through. Once we got my wheelchair it took four of us to take off the metres of rope which they had used to tie it down in the hold.

Holly

The hotel was beautiful.  However, we had booked a wheelchair accessible room but on arrival were told there were none available.  Therefore, although I had a ground floor room, the bathroom had a bath which was not useable. When asked when a disabled room would be available they said there wouldn’t be one for 11 days!  The beach was also not accessible for wheelchair users as there were steps down to it, and even the one ramp had a step at the end.

Returning home was another headache. At the airport they wanted to take my chair away from me at check in but we told them no.  Then when I went through security they kept saying to me that they would take my wheelchair away and would give me an airport one, although no one would tell me where my chair would be going and when it would be given back to me. After lots of arguments we eventually spoke to a manager who said that she would take it away and scan it and bring it back to me within 10 minutes.  We waited longer than this, but eventually they did bring it back.

Going through customs was my next problem.  On arrival they had had a booth large enough for a wheelchair but on the return they did not, so I struggled to get through as my wheelchair isn’t narrow in comparison to others and my rims were touching the walls either side. When we were about to board the plane we tried to explain that it was important that if they turned on my e-motion wheels that they then turned them off again so that the battery wouldn’t go flat. Again, the only way for me to get onto the aircraft was to go up the stairs.

Holly and friend on a boat

Arriving back into Gatwick, as usual I was the last person to leave the aircraft.  When we got out there was no one waiting for me with a chair as they knew that I had my own, but we were then told that they couldn’t access the part of the hold that they had put my wheelchair in due to a fault with the door.  They said they would try to get my wheelchair to me in baggage claim, and worst case scenario would have it delivered to my address.

We then had to wait for someone to come and meet me with a wheelchair, and after about 15 mins we saw that they had managed to get the door open and the guy who got it out was asking where we were.  As we were still by the doors of the aircraft he carried it up two flights of stairs. Luckily, apart from a few scratches on the rims my wheelchair made it back in one piece.

Despite all this, I did manage to enjoy my holiday once I got to Cuba, but I don’t understand why airlines and airports aren’t able to sort it out and make it easier for people to travel with wheelchairs.  I won’t let it put me off going on holiday abroad, but I certainly won’t be booking with Thomas Cook again.

 

The best UK airport I have flown out of is London Heathrow Terminal 4.  So far, the best airline I have flown with is United Airlines and the other airlines which are part of the Five Star Alliance.  I was advised by the check in staff to ask at the gate if they have any upgrades available as I am disabled and, apart from one flight which was a full plane, we have been upgraded.

The best destination I have been to in regards to accessibility is Oahu, Hawaii.  The airport staff cannot do enough to help and you have a guide from when you get off the aircraft, all the way through to your transfer or car hire, and the same on your return flight, from arriving at the airport to getting onto the plane. The hotels are fully accessible, and the DDA suites are the best I have ever seen. The paths in the main tourist areas are completely flat, which means I don’t have to wheel more on one side, and all the drop curbs are easy to get up and down as the majority of them are level with the road, and pavements and roads are all washed every day.  Even on the main beaches they have beach wheelchairs and a lockable room to keep your own wheelchair in if you want to. Everywhere we have visited in Hawaii is wheelchair accessible and everyone is really helpful if you need any assistance.