Travelling Abroad with M.E.
Jane & Emily Shaw
I am writing this in October 2018, and most people have had their holidays for this year and might be thinking of where to go next year, if they haven't been put off by Brexit scares and uncertainties.
Travelling abroad is fun for most people, but with M.E. it is very hard work and takes quite a lot of planning to get the most out of it, and to avoid being too ill to do anything whilst away.
Whilst our daughter was young we didn't travel abroad as we thought it would be too difficult and we stuck to self-catering cottages and caravans in the UK. This, for me, always felt like hard work, as I have help at home which doesn't go on holidays with me.
Now my daughter is older and can be helpful, (if she wants to be) we looked at going abroad. Last year was our first attempt. We visited EuroDisney; it was rather ambitious, and my dad died the day we set off, so it wasn't a great time for me. We also had a holiday with my husband Rob’s family, staying with a family member in Cyprus.
This year we wanted to try again and fancied going to lakes and mountains in Austria, Switzerland or similar. It became apparent that this would be too difficult – there are no flights from our local airport and transfers from the airport at the other end are long – but it helped to focus us on what our priorities were.
We decided we needed somewhere that we could get flights to from our local airport, which is Leeds Bradford, about half an hour from home by taxi. We prefer to use taxis as it's easier with luggage and it means that if Rob doesn't feel up to driving he doesn't have to; you never know what sort of flight you will have, and taxi companies can track flights so know if you are delayed. Parking charges are quite expensive, so it evens out really. We have to remember to ask for a large taxi which can take my wheelchair, plus luggage, but most taxis are quite big anyway.
The next thing we wanted was a short transfer at our destination: after travelling to the airport, checking in two hours before flight and then flying time, the last thing we need is more travelling. It is quite hard to find places with short transfer times, but small islands are the place to look at. We also wanted somewhere that wasn't too touristy or built up and very busy. Everyone will have their own feelings about what they want. My daughter wanted a swimming pool! The hotel needed to have a lift or be on one level.
We also decided a place that did buffet meals would be best to accommodate my dietary needs and my daughter’s picky tastes, and we checked before we booked that there would be gluten-free options. I wasn't too worried, as most European places do lovely salads and cold meats and fruit etc. along with cooked meats and vegetables or rice.
So we found a place in Menorca: nothing like we had started out looking for, but it was ideal. It was in Mahon, which is the capital, and just a 15-minute transfer from the airport. We also decided to pay extra for a balcony so that if I wasn't up to leaving the room, there would still be somewhere to sit. As it turned out, we had a north-facing room, which was very fortunate, as it was the very hot weather when we went and the people who had rooms facing the other way and without balconies were unable to sleep because of the heat; we managed to stay a good temperature. The room air conditioning wasn't great (which I didn't mind, as I usually find the air conditioning too cold!), but it would have been unbearable without it at all.
So, back to the beginning. Our flight was from Leeds Bradford at 6.30 am, which meant an early start, but also means there is no traffic. The check-in area was very busy, but we had booked assistance, so got priority, I always feel a bit guilty jumping the queues, but it is much needed. I wouldn't cope with the queues and neither would my daughter. I always travel with my own wheelchair; this has to be checked in too. With some airlines, you can keep your own wheelchair right up to the plane; with others it goes with the luggage onto the plane and you use an airport chair to get to the plane. Arriving at the airport is the hardest bit for us as we have to manage luggage and me in a wheelchair, and you don't get any help until the assistance desk or check-in. This has been one of the main reasons we have avoided airport travel until now. My daughter (Emily) is now old enough and big enough to help; she prefers to push my wheelchair and let Rob take the luggage. She also finds this helps her, as she doesn't like the crowds and my wheelchair helps to avoid the crushes that you get in some areas. It's not much fun for me as I am at the level of everyone's bags, elbows and bottoms!!
Navigating the airport becomes a bit easier after luggage is checked in; the next difficulty is the security, where all hand luggage and people have to be scanned. I usually get separated from the others at this point as wheelchairs don't go through scanners. They do a manual search (pat down) and a swab of wheelchair then someone will take you through the security to collect bags. I am always trying to keep an eye out for Rob and Emily as it's such a busy area and trying to notice where my handbag has gone. Emily gets anxious too, as she has to go through on her own, usually within sight of her dad, but not always. Collecting our stuff again can be a bit manic as mine goes off one way and theirs in another and I am in a different queue to them. Once through this area, it becomes less crowded and frantic.
It's then a case of making our way to the gate and making ourselves known to the assistance people who will take us to the plane and explain what we need to do. Assistance sometimes needs to be requested at time of booking, but sometimes it's nearer to holiday time, so you need to ask when booking. Our experiences of assistance have been varied, but on this occasion, things were easy. Being separated from the rest of the passengers makes it less crowded, but some people don't like it when they think someone else is getting on before them!
How you board the plane will vary. On this occasion we were put on the Ambulift: this goes up to the door of the plane then it's just a few steps onto the plane and to your seat. I am able to walk to my seat; narrow wheelchairs are available if you are unable to walk. My wheelchair was then taken to be put on board. It's always a bit of a worry as to whether it gets put on; we remind them that it's my own chair.
The airline we used asks you to book your seats on the plane; this is an extra cost but is compulsory. You are asked to book them online and can choose wherever on the plane you want that is not already booked. As our last experiences of flying were several years ago, we thought that there may be seats that are kept for disabled travellers, but this was not the case and the front few rows were already taken, so we ended up about four rows back. We rang the airline to see if any "disabled seats" were available, but they said no, it's first-come first-served for everyone. We had booked fairly early; I don't know how early you have to book to get the front seats. Disabled passengers are not allowed seats next to emergency exits.
Once on the flight there isn't much to worry about, except if you need to go to the toilet, which I did as I was suffering with an irritable bladder. As there is only one toilet at the front and one at the rear this does make the seats you get make a huge difference; there is no way I could have walked the length of the plane and then stood in a queue.
If you book food for the flight, availability varies by airline. On our flight there was no gluten-free food so I had to make sure I took things I could eat. There was also no gluten-free food in the airport, despite some of the outlet’s websites saying they did have it available.
After landing, disabled passengers are usually taken off last. This means you quite often get chatting to the crew whilst waiting and you also miss the crush going into the arrivals. Again, different airports and airlines vary as to procedure, but in our case, this holiday my wheelchair was brought up in Ambulift to meet me off the plane. We have had flights where we had to get on the bus to the terminal and my wheelchair meets us there, but staff are always helpful and tell you what you need to do. I can remember sitting on the tarmac at one airport years ago and the pilot came to talk to us and gave us chocolate! This time, on our return flight, Emily got talking to a female pilot in the toilet queue. She told the pilot the planes coming into land go over our house a few minutes before landing. The same pilot came out to chat with us whilst we waited to get off and asked Emily if she had seen her house. They had landed in a different direction that day because of the wind! Emily was most disappointed, but I am sure we wouldn't have seen our house anyway.
So, back to landing in Menorca. It is a very small airport, so it is easy to navigate, and staff were very helpful and all spoke brilliant English. We got out of the airport quite quickly and easily and were directed to a minibus right outside the main entrance; it was taking us and another couple to our hotel. This was great as there was no waiting for stragglers coming out or for another flight to arrive before you can leave.
When we arrived at the hotel it was still only late morning. Some rooms weren't ready; luckily, ours was so we were able to go straight up and settle in. The room was a family room, not huge when three beds are out, but the bathroom was big so we stored my wheelchair in the bathroom. The room wouldn't have been accessible to someone who can't get out of a wheelchair, but we didn't ask for an accessible room. We had checked the hotel had a lift, which it did, but it was very small: I could just get my wheelchair in with the footplates folded back. We have been in hotel lifts where the wheelchair wouldn't fit! Our room was quite close to the lift and the stairs. You can request things like rooms close to the lift or accessible rooms when you make your booking.
The restaurant and pool areas were accessible from inside the hotel, but via steps. We had to walk around the outside to access them.
View from Hotel Port-Mahon
So now we were on holiday. You have to accept that you will still feel ill on holiday and there may be days when you can't do much.
The bonus of staying in a hotel is that there is no housework and you don't have to plan meals. We did have to check each meal time which dishes were gluten-free. Due to our location there were a lot of fish dishes and I also have an allergy to fish, so my choices were limited, but there was something I could have each day. Breakfasts were limited as there was no gluten-free bread, but there was cereal and fruit and cooked breakfast (I never fancy the cooked breakfast).
Menorca (Minorca) is one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Traditionally more low-key than its neighbours, Mallorca (Majorca) and Ibiza, it’s known for its endless beaches, from miles-long sandy crescents to rocky, turquoise-watered bays called “calas”. Pine trees fringe the coast. The capital, Mahon, is on a bluff overlooking a large harbour, with Georgian mansions and a church with 13th-century roots.
Before we booked we looked at the hotel and surrounding areas on Google Maps and Streetview. The hotel overlooked the harbour but wasn't on the quayside. It looked, on Streetview, as if there was a massive flight of steps to get down to the harbour, where all the restaurants, shops etc. are. We found a way that we could walk around (quite a long way round). To our surprise, the first time we set off to walk around, we discovered just along the road there was a lift down to the harbour; this was great and it's a glass lift with an amazing view of the harbour on the way down.
Before we left home we had looked up about things to do in the area and being a small island, nothing is very far away. Mahon itself doesn't have any beaches, but there are several close by. Our first beach experience wasn't very good as it was very busy and built up and very English, but it depends what you want. On another day we found a great beach and one where we could get in the shade too. Many of the beaches have wheelchair access. This beach was pebbly so didn't appeal to sun worshippers but was better for us and it was a kind of inlet, so the sea was close, and I managed a paddle!
We discovered that the local bus service was rather unpredictable: there is a timetable, but they don't seem to stick to it. There is also a road train, again which has a timetable, but comes and goes when it feels like it, so was rather frustrating. We decided to hire a car. We wanted it for two days but could only have it for one or three!! We went for three, so we could spread things out and not have to cram lots into each day. Mahon itself is a big one-way system, which was confusing at times, but using Google maps on our mobiles got us to most of the places we wanted to go. We did try to visit a colonial house that we could see from our hotel, but we couldn't find any way in; it is open to the public! I drive very short distances at home and only if I have to; driving on the “wrong” side of the road would have been too much for my brain to cope with.
We didn't plan to hire a car before we went, and I didn't take my Blue Badge. It is worth packing your Blue Badge as it covers all of Europe, at the moment. I used mine last year in Cyprus and it would have been useful in Menorca, but we did manage without it. If I had it, we could have parked right outside the hotel, as there was a disabled space that was rarely used. I did have a picture of my Blue Badge on my phone and the Tourist Information rang the local police to see if they could issue a temporary badge and they said they could, but we never got it done as it didn't seem worth it, but it probably would have been worth it, particularly if you are walking rather than using a wheelchair. It doesn't make any difference to me as I am in the wheelchair, but it does make a difference to how far people have to push me.
We found that visitor attractions were very helpful at explaining where was accessible and the Tourist Information gave us a map showing accessible attractions and beaches. We went on a boat trip, visited a fort and up to the highest point in Menorca – Mount Toro.
Having the car meant we could go out without too much effort and just go and see somewhere else. We really want to go to Cornwall, but don't want to drive all that way, but you need a car to get around. We always say it will be too expensive to hire a car and talk ourselves out of it, yet when we were abroad we didn't mind the cost; it's strange how minds work! We didn't use the car a lot, so if you really want your money’s worth, it's probably not worth it, but it was worth it for us just to be able to come and go when we felt like it. The daytimes were very hot, but if you have a car you can venture out in the evenings and see the sunsets and such like. To hire a car, you need to have your driving licence and passport.
As I have said above, the daytimes were very hot, about 35ºC. In the hottest part of the day we tried to stay in the hotel, so had peaceful afternoons. Emily would have gone in the pool all day every day. The pool itself wasn't in the shade, but there were shaded areas to sit around the pool. There were only a few children staying in the hotel, so it was quiet around the pool, with most people reading and/or sunbathing. Luckily, the children got on together and we could sit in peace. I often stayed in the room and only ventured into the pool once on the last day for about five minutes! I used to love swimming, but now it is too much effort and even in the really hot weather I was shivering when I got out of the pool.
There will be days when you feel really awful and have to decide if you can do things. I usually try to push through, but it's not always the best option. With having no chores and responsibilities, you do have more for doing what you want to do rather than just getting by each day. There was no late-night entertainment in the hotel, so we were all going to bed after our evening meal. If there had been things to do in an evening I would probably have been on my own in the room and feeling that I was missing out. There were some peaceful musicians on a couple of the nights, but not on late.
All in all, we ended up with a good holiday for us; it wouldn't have been everyone's cup of tea, but it suited us. It is well worth doing your homework before booking and making a list of priorities that you want, and if places don't meet those requirements then accept you can't visit. There are so many places available to visit there will be somewhere to suit most people.
Maybe this should have gone at the beginning. I always find packing really stressful and tiring, so try to start in good time, just putting things we need aside and making lists of what we need. Emily is now old enough to sort her own things out, even if I do end up putting half of them back again: she packs enough for a month. Going somewhere warm means you don't need lots of clothes, although Rob thought he would manage with just a few t-shirts, but he got so hot and sweaty we had to rinse t-shirts out to wear again, but it's not a problem. We always forget something when packing, but as long as you aren’t visiting somewhere isolated, you will be able to buy most things. I always say if we have got medication and passports we can sort out anything else; it doesn’t stop me panicking though. Last year I managed to forget one of my prescription medications, but in Cyprus it is available over the counter. This year we ended up at the pharmacy twice for over-the-counter medication. We didn't do too badly for forgetting to pack this year, only missing the insect repellent and Emily's socks; she ended up wearing some of mine and rinsing them. We also bought some sunhats that were better than the ones we had taken with us.
From a health point of view, you must have travel insurance and may need to shop around for a good deal. The company we used didn't have any concerns about the ME, but I haven't had any hospital admissions for it. They charged a small fee to cover my husband, as he had cancer 12 years ago and requires hospitalisation if he has a vomiting bug.
Travelling in Europe you also need a valid European Health Insurance Card which covers hospital treatment in most places. I don't know how these will be affected post-Brexit.