During the last three weeks I have travelled unaccompanied from England to Paris and back by Eurostar and from England to Frankfurt Hahn and back by Ryanair. I booked Mobility Assistance through the booking agent. This also included help embarking and disembarking the train from Birmingham New Street station to Stansted airport. (Usually for internal train travel in the UK I need minimal assistance.)
What a varied experience this was! I had intended to write a mini manual to help other VI people planning similar journeys alone but I doubt if it would help as I suspect each experience is different because the train companies and the airlines appear to employ different facilities for each journey. I could be wrong about this but I would say that the unique qualities that prevailed seemed to be organised chaos and the great helpfulness of officials.
My preferred mode of travel to Europe would always be Eurostar. At St Pancras terminus in London, the passengers with mobility problems are simply escorted through security and straight onto the train. I didn’t see any wheelchair or buggies in use but I am sure these must be available. The downside was that there was no assistance for disembarking at Gare du Nord and assistance for the return journey had not been booked. This was no problem for me but could be difficult for others so it is worth double checking.
My Ryanair trip to Germany started in Birmingham. At New Street station, clutching suitcase, big handbag, magnifier and cup of coffee I managed to drop everything in the waiting area. Tissues, towel and mop appeared instantly together with reassurances that there were no coffee stains on my black trousers. At Stansted I was escorted on foot from the train right into the airport assistance area. The assistance was, I believe, either booked through Virgin Trains or Network Rail.*
At Stansted airport assistance area there were about 20 other people waiting for various flights, some with plastered legs, some on crutches, some very old and some with other mobility issues. In spite of mild resistance in some cases all were encouraged into wheelchairs for the journey to the aeroplane. However, I do believe a buggy would be more dignified and also could take more people.
Stansted is huge and the journey involves lifts, trains and long corridors so even for those of us who would be able to walk, transportation can be helpful. My helper skilfully manoeuvred me through this maze with good humour and patience. Security was tight and even each helper was searched. Slow but reassuring. My helper explained that this is their busy period when children are back at school and the retired and elderly start their travels.
At the departure gate Ryanair took over and I was released to walk to the plane. Whew! Seat found and hand baggage stowed we were off. On Ryanair you are allowed 10 kilos of hand luggage which is good because you can then avoid stowing and collecting at the other end. If you need walking aids make sure they are designated for their specific purpose. Ryanair are ruthless in their charges for ‘excess’ baggage. I heard of a case where someone had taken climbing sticks instead of specified walking sticks for the disabled and was charged 60 euros or threatened with the climbing sticks destruction. No negotiation was allowed.
At Hahn, German efficiency was alarming. Two people turned up to carry me off plus a wheelchair and an ambulance to take me 50 yards to the terminus. There was obvious disappointment when these facilities were refused but nevertheless they fast tracked assistance passengers through security and into the arrivals lounge. At the time I found this amusing but, in retrospect, not so funny.
The return journey was much the same but more relaxed. I discovered that at Hahn, assistance is provided by the Red Cross. This time the plane at Stansted was met by a large mechanical lift which took some time to get attached to the plane and only took three of us from plane to tarmac. Evidently, as it cost £150,000 it must be used! More wheelchairs appeared when I think a buggy would have been better and would need fewer helpers.
High security at Stansted meant delays but eventually I was reunited with my son and independence.
I did not like being so dependent on other people but must admit some of it was fun and all of it made travelling alone possible. Ryanair came through as helpful and pleasant…unlike their reputation! Next time I travel abroad I shall be better prepared and less anxious. Certainly the end justified the means. BUT having mobility needs does not mean we are invalids and I believe the trains and airlines need to take another look at their accessibility provision. I should be interested to hear from other travellers who have used transport assistance and to have their views on the use of wheelchairs. I do appreciate that these may be necessary in some circumstances but maybe not all.
* Mobility assistance to London Euston
Virgin Trains 08457 443366
London Midland 0800 092 4260
In theory help should be booked 24 hours in advance but I have found assistance available at short notice.