Travelling with disabilities is challenging, and booking the trips can also be tricky. Tourism Update spoke to Andree Venter, travel manager at First Corporate Travel, who also advises clients, corporates and agents on these issues in her capacity as The Travel Coach.

Planning travel for disabled clients requires expert knowledge, says Venter. The first place to start, she says, is to fully understand the extent of the disability and any related medical conditions. She says this often requires one to get quite personal with first-time clients, asking them details of what medications they take, if they can go to the toilet themselves, if they have colostomy bags etc. However, once this is established and a seamless trip is booked, Venter says clients will return to you overwhelmed with gratitude for the freedom that you have helped them achieve.

“It is important to note that not all airlines assist with wheelchairs. When I last investigated, only, Comair and SAA could assist with wheelchair bookings on local flights,” she said.

The consultant would need to make a booking with a code entry in the GDS – WCHR (assistance to the ramp), (WCHS) assistance to the stairs, or WCHC (assistance to the seat). This requires the agent to complete a full report on the client’s condition. Venter says in the past, the airline would then advise if the wheelchair was confirmed directly in the GDS, but more and more airlines now require the agent to call in for confirmation.

Travel tip

It is advisable for agents to check the flight LK list in the GDS to establish how many assisted passengers are booked on a particular flight and confer with the client before booking.

Venter says, in the case of a quadriplegic, airlines often ask you to book a full stretcher case but this is not always necessary (a stretcher case requires three or four seats to be removed in economy class to accommodate the passenger).  Some airlines also ask a quadriplegic to travel with a medical doctor and nurse. As a result, the airfare portion of a simple international return trip can amount to over R300 000. She has a quadriplegic client who travels frequently to the US for treatment. She says he is able to travel in business class with his wife, while his full-time caregiver travels in economy class, administering to his needs every hour.

Venter says because her client is a frequent traveller with his own caregiver, she tries to be both firm and persistent with the airline, insisting that the client travels in business class instead.

Flights and hotels are not the only services that need to be checked for wheelchair accessibility.  Venter points out that normal coach transfers often cannot accommodate wheelchairs. Many attractions and sightseeing excursions are also not able to accommodate disabled travellers.

Venter says she has learnt over the years that cruises are a great option for disabled passengers, as the ship areas are well fitted for accessibility. Some cruise excursions do cater for disabled passengers and an able-bodied partner can head to shore alone, knowing there is plenty to keep their disabled partner busy while remaining on the ship. Venter is always on the lookout for wheelchair friendly holidays and says Disneyworld often stands out as a very accessible destination.

Travel Tip

International SOS hires out qualified medical escorts if an airline insists that it is necessary.