Europe by Power Chair
By Marilyn Schrader ©1999
and Tony Schrader are seasoned European travelers. Tony is an attorney in
private practice in Austin, Texas, who specializes in Insurance Regulatory
Law. Marilyn is his office manager, paralegal, and bookkeeper. Most recently
Tony traveled to Europe with a power wheelchair (Quickie P200). Portions of
this month's feature were previously published in "PV Magazine." The
Schraders generously offer the following bevy of 'how- tos' and insights to
help readers spin their wheels with ease throughout the continent.
This article is to help educate travelers who are anticipating traveling to Europe with a power wheelchair. We have been to Europe on four other occasions where we traveled solely with a manual wheelchair, and the biggest advantage of a power chair is the independent mobility it provides. The wheelchair user can go off on his/her own if desired, and need not depend on someone else for assistance. Where one cannot go up a curb with the manual chair, one can jump a small curb in some electric chairs. My husband's chair can purportedly go up a six inch curb.
Traveling with the electric wheelchair is great. After working out some minor details it was well worth the effort. We always travel with a manual chair as a backup in the U.S. and this was also the case on our last European trip. The manual chair comes in handy where an electric won't go i.e. onto trains and into some elevators. Let me also tell you that a normal power converter "will not work" for your battery charger. Battery chargers are designed to be on for an extensive period of time. Power converters are not for continuous use. After making calls to the makers of the wheelchair, the battery charger, and the dealer who sold it to us, we left the states with the chair, the charger, and a new standard power converter. We noticed right away the charger was not staying on all night as it did in the states. We continually had to switch it off and back on to keep it charging. This worked in a sense the first week as we did charge it some each night but as time passed the batteries did not hold a charge as long and we began to get the low battery indicator in the middle of the day.
We located a wheelchair dealer and repair shop in Vienna where we purchased an international battery charger. It solved all of our battery power problems. I recommend it to anyone traveling abroad with an electric chair to make such a purchase before leaving home. We spent an entire day (cumulative) making phone calls and tracking down a dealer who had one that would work with our chair.
The charger purchased in Vienna was purchased from a dealer referred by Sunrise Medical. The dealer's name is Fa Fruhwold. located at 1030 Wien Jocquing 57. Sorry I don't have more info on this but it would have cost us $100.00 more to have them write us a receipt so we didn't get one with their name and address printed out. It is a charger for a Sunrise Medical for a Quickie P200.
We spent quite a bit of time trying to track down transportation to enable us to travel with the electric chair. Ideally we wanted a van with either a lift or ramps for access. Most car rental companies do not have such a vehicle. Some will consider removing the center seat if you can bring your own ramps. They will not do so if you want to pick up the van in one country and drop it in another. That in itself is a challenge. The drop off charge at one company was equal to a weeks rental. Another company would not even consider renting to us in that situation. A station wagon is an option, although they are generally not as large as some found here in the states. Even broke down into the various parts, an electric chair is heavy and takes up a lot of room. One does need to consider the space required for the chair and luggage.
In books that I had acquired during earlier travels ("Access In London" and "Access in Paris," both worth their weight in gold) There was a source listed called Wheelchair Travel. Proprietor Trevor Pollitt was very helpful. If we could fly in and out of Heathrow, he could rent us a van in London and we could drive it south, cross over on the Chunnel, and continue our trip through Europe. In our case this would not work as the plane tickets had already been purchased and we were meeting six other people in Paris and two more later in the trip. He gave me the name of a possible source in Paris, Guy Gbioczyk with AMP.
AMP (Aide A la Mobilite des Personnes) was the answer to our problem. Although doing continental tours was not the usual course of business for Guy, he listened to our needs and desires and worked out a course of action that worked for us. He furnished us with a van and a driver. The driver, Phillipe, was a young man (24-years-old) who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English and a smattering of other languages. Philippe drove us around the continent for 16 days. His salary was paid by AMP (included in the cost of the vehicle) but his lodging and meals were paid directly by us. Although not an inexpensive way to travel it was worth every penny.
If traveling in a group the cost can be split which is helpful. Besides the navigation and driving, Philippe assisted with baggage, and the wheelchair in the instances where we used a manual chair (Venice, Italy & on the train to Budapest, Hungary). Besides the driver, the van had seating for either five and space for two wheelchairs or four and three wheelchairs (maximum). The more people, the less room for baggage. It came complete with adequate tie downs and seatbelts to make the wheelchairs as safe as any of the other seats. We did look into driving the van ourselves but the cost of insurance was almost equal to the salary of Philippe and the insurance could not have carried any bags or assisted with the wheelchair. The van had a manual ramp that folded out from the rear door of the vehicle. Although manual, I could fold and unfold it using one hand. With Philippe this didn't come up often but he did let me do it to see how easy it really was. A set of portable ramps would have came in handy at different times during the trip as we often had a single step to manage. With Philippe this was not a problem but alone it could have been.
Accommodations is another source of concern. We did not have reservations for all nights of our stay but finding our own was not hard and in some ways better than those made by the travel agent. I advise confirming your reservations, if made by a travel agent, verbally yourself with the hotels directly. On three different occasions over the years, reservations made by a travel agent proved to be accessible rooms only after traversing one to three steps. In one instance an accessible room was up one step at the entrance and a rather poor ramp up another step inside. By that I mean a short and steep ramp up a four to five inch step. The step would have been easier to manage without the excuse for a ramp. In several instances we stopped at local information centers where they had access to information on the hotels in the area. They could check the area you wanted to stay in, the price range, accessibility, and availability. The hotels we found in this manner were all adequate. This proved to quite effective.
When traveling with no reservations I only caution that you start thinking and looking for a room in late afternoon so you have the options to travel further if there are no accommodations in the first town you try. It is easier to find a place, in an area you don't know, if you find it while the sun still shines. Once you have a room you will still have time to visit the locale you are in. In 1987 we traveled to England and France with a group of 12 other people, ranging from 40 to 7 years in age. There were plenty of people to share the task of pushing the wheelchair. We traveled all over England on the train (that in itself is a story, impossible for the electric chair I think) and to Paris via the train to Dover, a boat to Calais and a train to Paris. If there is a large group of people to assist you, and you plan on using public transportation, a manual chair will work best as it gives you more flexibility about the mode of tansportation, via bus, underground subway, train, or boat. It also eases the strain on a single individual assisting the wheelchair, and handling baggage.
In 1989, my husband and I traveled to London, England by ourselves. On this trip we found the English "black cabs" to be more accommodating. We were told by one of the cab drivers that all new cabs were being equipped with the back doors that would open to a right angle and a set of manual ramps to enable a wheelchair person to be loaded easily into the cab. The key to spotting a newer cab, so equipped, was to look for the cabs with the black door handles. It worked. I believe they would also work for the electric chair we now use. With the aid of a friend we had made in 1987, we did take one train trip to Hampton Court Castle.
In 1990, my husband and I traveled to Paris with two of my nieces, 16 & 17 years old. They assisted with the pushing of the wheelchair along with helping with the baggage. We had some problems with the French cabs in that some drivers did not want to assist with the wheelchair. They were essentially lost as to what to do. As long as I took care of folding and loading it they were quite accommodating. The cabs here would be next to impossible for a person in an electric chair to use. One would need to use a service such as AMP for local transport. We traveled to London on this trip, by train to Calais, boat to Dover, and train to London. I believe the electric chair would have been next to impossible on the trains.
In 1994. we traveled to Frankfurt, Germany where we met another couple from the states and traveled all over central and south central Germany. We rented a station wagon and it was all we could do to pack the luggage for four people and the manual chair into the back. We traveled east out of Frankfurt into what was old East Germany, back into central Germany, south along the Romantic Road to the Schwangua region and west along the south border to the Black Forest region, north through the Black Forest back into Frankfurt where we flew home from.
Except for Frankfurt (where we had hotel reservations when we arrived) we traveled for two weeks without any reservations. With the aide of a "Deutschland Michelin" red book, we were able to find accessible accommodations each night. Around 3:00 pm each afternoon we would check our location and the book and determine a town to stop in. We would then determine from the book a few possible accommodations. We did not look solely for wheelchair accessible, but for hotels with a "lift" (elevator). On most occasions that was all we needed.
Some people may require more specialized accommodations but accessibility to the lavatory area was what we looked at. If the doorways were at least 24" wide they worked for us as my husband uses an adult narrow chair with wrap around armrests. We will be happy to discuss this or any of our trips with anyone requiring further information on aspects of accessibility from our viewpoint. We can be reached at 512-473-3619. We are on Central Standard Time.
Below is a list of places we've stayed at various times with some personal notes.
London, England / Tara ( the mezzanine level has been converted for wheelchair use) 1989, 1990
London, England (Finchley) / Chumleigh Lodge Hotel (1 step at entrance, 1 step down to room - small bathroom across the hall, sink in the room) 1987
London, England / Stanley House (steps at entrance, needed assistance - near Victoria train station) 1987
Gemunden, Germany / Hotel Atlantis (east of Frankfurt) 1994
Bamburg, Germany / Barok Hotel am Dom (along the Romantic Road) 1994
Erlabrunnen, Germany / Weinhaus Flach (along the Romantic Road) 1994
Rothenberg, Germany / Gasthof Zum Rappen (along the Romantic Road) 1994
Nordlingen, Germany / Hotel am Ring (along the Romantic Road) 1994
Donauworth, Germany / Parkhotel (along the Romantic Road) 1996
Waltenhofen, Germany / Gasthof am See (Schwangau region near Castles) 1996
Bad Tolz, Germany / Post Hotel Kilberbrau (south of Munich) 1996
Munich, Germany / Hotel Drei Lowen (city center Munich) 1996
Kirehan-Hausen, Germany / Gasthof Sternen (southwest Germany) 1994
Bad Wildbad, Germany / Hotel Alte Linde (Black Forest area - west Germany) 1994
Waldorf, Germany / Hotel Bruke (near Frankfurt airport, just adequate) 1994
Frankfurt, Germany / Novetel Rhein-Main Airport (near Frankfurt airport) 1996
Frankfurt, Germany / Ibis (central Frankfurt) 1994
Paris, France / Utell International, Sully Saint Germain (adequate room, 1 + 1 steps at entrance) 1996
Paris, France / Hotel Cayre (3 or 4 steps down to the elevator level, needed assistance, adequate room) 1987
Paris, France / Hotel Residence Saint Christophe (two steps up to room level - adequate room) 1990
Nitry, France / Hotel Axis Nitry (east central France) 1996
Rapperswill, Switzerland / Hotel Hirschen (south of Zurich along the lake) 1996
Vienna, Austria / Novetel Vienna West (outside the city center) 1996
Vienna, Austria / Hotel Josefshof (city center Vienna, entrance through the underground garage) 1996
Innsbruck, Austria / Hotel Mozart (city center) 1996
Klagenfurt, Austria / Pension Zlami (1 + 1 step at the entrance/we took the interior doors off their hinges) 1996
Sources For Transportation
Trevor Pollitt, Wheelchair Travel, 1 Johnston Green, Guildford Surrey, GU2 6XS 93100, England
Tel.: (01483) 233640
Fax.: (01483) 237772
Mobile: (0585) 224723
Guy Gbioczyk AMP 59/61, rue Desire Chevalier Montreuil, France
Tel. :011 33 1 48 58 86 95
Fax: 011 33 1 48 58 18 54
Access in London by Gordon Couch, William Forrester and Justin Irwin. First published by Quiller Press Ltd. 46 Lillie Road, London SW6 1TN Copyright 1996 Pauline Hephaistos Survey.
Projects Access in Paris by Gordon Couch and Ben Roberts First published by Quiller Press Ltd. 46 Lillie Road, London SW6 1TN Copyright 1993 Pauline Hephaistos Survey Projects I ordered and received a new copy of Access in Paris over the internet from http://www.Amazon.com
We have only flown American Airlines and British Air to Europe, and both were great. We fly two airlines predominantly since we moved to Texas: American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. Both are great. We used to fly United and they were good too. We have flown on TWA, America West, Delta, Hawaiin Air and Canadian Air. I have not been happy with Delta the times we've flown them. My opinion is that they were not quite as willing to listen to us when we tried to tell them what they could do to help us. They acted like they knew everything and did not want to admit that every disability is different and every disabled person has different capabilities and needs different types of help.
We had a bad experience with Canadian Air. They charged us for extra baggage on two pieces shipped back to Texas. What do you know - the two extra pieces were my husband's electric wheelchair and the accompanying battery charger which was packed in a battery box for shipping. I will not fly them again if I have any other choice. The flight was fine, the service was fine, but their policy regarding the extra bags went a little overboard as my husband's chair is "his legs".
Editor's Note: As a result of Marilyn's complaint to American Airlines regarding the flight on their partner Canadian Airlines (hereinafter CA) , her money was refunded. They indicated that it is not there policy to charge excess baggage in that instance and that it was an oversight of the person who did it.
Here's An additional hint on flying. If taking an electric chair, our advice is to remove all parts, i.e. electric controls with joy stick and foot rest and pack in a suitcase between layers of foam to prevent breakage. Check this suitcase along with the chair through to the final destination. We travel with a manual chair in addition to the electric. We use it between gates. We ask the airline to gate check it to the point of changing planes i.e. flying from Austin to Dallas to Des Moines. We gate check the manual wheelchair to Dallas then they bring it up at the gate in Dallas. We use it to go between gates and recheck it to Des Moines. It is important to us since Tony can then get into restrooms etc without airline personnel's help. The airport chairs cannot be pushed by themselves and I must have someone to push them. This means you have to have someone help you in and out of restrooms if you cannot walk at all (which is Tony's case). If a person cannot walk at all it is advisable that they gate check there own chair for use between gates. Since wheelchair using passengers are the last off, our chair usually beats us to the jetway. Some airlines don't like to gate check to the interim city but we always insist and they "will" do it.
Editor's Note: Before putting the above article online, we received the following account of yet another European trip taken by Marilyn & Tony in December 1997. We thank them for generously sharing the following valuable insights.
We just returned from another trip to Europe with the electric chair again. No problems at all this year thanks to the international charger! We stayed in London and Paris and used the two transportation services that were mentioned in my previous article. It was the first time using the London service and I must say they were absolutely wonderful to us. We also took the Eurostar (train) from London to Paris.
The trip formerly took us approximately six hours going by train from London to Dover, England, ferry from Dover to Calais, France, and then train from Calais to Paris. We rode in the baggage (guards) car because of the non-accessibility of the regular train cars.
On the Eurostar, a wheelchair passenger rides in the "First Class" section and pays a reduced fare. The fare for our trip was 90 pounds for an adult in coach. We traveled first class for 36 pounds and that included a full course meal, from champagne starter to after dinner chocolates. They even gave us a box of chocolates afterwards. I'm not sure if this happens on all trains but we traveled over the noon hour. The fare varies depending upon the time of year, the time of day, whether it is on a non-stop train or one that stops enroute. I made my reservations by phone and picked up the tickets at the train station the morning we traveled. They were real friendly and helpful. There is ramped access and my husband stayed in his chair for the trip. It takes three hours when you take a train that is scheduled to go non-stop London to Paris. Information on fares and train schedules can be obtained by contacting Eurostar - phone number from the U.S. is 011-44-1 0345 303030.
We stayed at a Novetel in London (Waterloo area). This is a modern hotel in a European chain. The room was an accessible room and could sleep three. We has stayed in Novetel in Frankfurt in 1994. They seem to have accessible rooms but not the charm of an older hotel. Eurostar goes out of Waterloo station so everyone walked to the station except me and I loaded all our suitcases in a cab and went to the station. It was an easy walk for the electric chair and could be done by a manual chair with assistance.
In Paris we stayed at an Ibis hotel. The rooms were small, the bed was against one wall, but the bathroom was large and very accessible. We stayed in an Ibis in Frankfurt in 1996 and it was a "very good" room. Ibis is another chain and tends to be more modern. The Paris hotel had two rooms and they were basically the same except the bed was on a different wall which would make a difference if one needs to transfer from their wheelchair from a particular side. "We should have been in the other room" but it was occupied. Both hotels were listed in the Access books, which are invaluable for anyone traveling to London or Paris and I believe there might be some on other countries listed in those books.
The weather was decent when we were there - a lot like what we had been having in Texas (Texas was having a "Cold" spell.) - 50s during the day for the most part. We had two days with some intermittent rain in London and I understand that is not abnormal. Paris had similar weather. They had a "freak" snowstorm the day we left. I heard they ultimately had six inches, but we were gone by the time the majority of it fell. It did delay the "early" morning flights though.
Learn More About European Access by reading articles on London, Austria, Paris, Germany and more in our Travel Archives.
Visit our Travel Books section to learn more about several European access guides.
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