When In Spain... On Wheelz: Planning A Wheelchair Accessible Vacation in Europe - Part III
My European adventures in Barcelona and London, how I navigated the streets and airlines in my electric wheelchair and the true definition of accessibility.
If you would have told me years ago that when I turned 33 years old I would be in the financial position to plan an 8-day wheelchair accessible European vacation to Barcelona, Spain and London, England I would have told you to wake up from your fantasy. Turns out.... it wouldn't be a fantasy, but instead my reality. On March 6, 2019, I would make the journey via Access Paratransit from my Long Beach apartment to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to board my 8:00 pm flight on Norwegian Air, non-stop to Barcelona, Spain.
Traveling on Norwegian Air
Upon arriving at LAX, a curbside porter assisted my nurse and I to the Tom Bradley International Norwegian Terminal, where we were instructed to “check” my wheelchair (standard procedure.) Unfortunately, amid all the LAX chaos... we accidentally let the airline agent weigh our luggage and we got bamboozled into “checking” our baggage at $90.00 each bag. My bag was overweight by 5 kg and my nurse was overweight by 7kg.There goes $100 each from our vacation budget and we hadn’t even boarded the plane yet! We quickly made a mental note to check-in at the self check-in kiosk when we head back home.
Boarding the flight went fairly smoothly. TSA ushered us through quickly and we made it to the gate just in time to board. Before leaving home, I situated a Hoyer Lift Swing under me to assist the wheelchair transfer airline crew who would use the swing to transfer me from my manual chair to the standard airport aisle chair (see photo below) to the airplane seat.
The chair transfers are my least favorite, however, this transfer was better than most so no complaints from me. I highly suggest if you need assistance with transferring ... purchase a Hoyer Lift Swing, It can make an already difficult transfer more bearable and less painful for you and the crew.
Knowing that I would be sitting in an uncomfortable position for 9 ½ hours, I traveled with a regular bed pillow to sit under me to relieve the pressure on my Foley Catheter against the hard airline seat. this saved me from hours of pain. The airplane was clean, however there was no wifi- you couldn’t even purchase it so I was left to the in-flight entertainment. The main cabin seats were a bit tight, but we had decent leg room. Once I was seated under my pillow, took a couple Costco Sleeping Pills and a glass (or 2) of wine ... my arrival into Barcelona was uneventful, just how I like to fly.
Arriving at El Prat Barcelona International Airport
We arrived in Barcelona on March 7, 2019 at approx., 5:30pm (local time) and the wheelchair transfer crew arrived pretty promptly with my undamaged manual wheelchair. We were ushered quickly by the crew through customs and baggage claim (all bags arrived!) and after a few language barrier delays we picked up our Barcelona Bus Tour/Metro Cards inside the airport and headed to the Taxi Cab stand. We requested an adapted taxi for a non-walking disabled person and 5 “normal” passengers. We all waited in prayer that the taxi would be correct. After about a 45-minutes to an hour wait, the adapted taxi arrived and accommodated our entire group and baggage. With the airport charge and two stops, the cab cost approx. $50 USD -- more cost effective than hiring a private car; yes there is a wait but if you’re not in a rush then save the money and use a taxi!
Our hotel, Petit Palace Museum, was literally perfectly central to Downtown Barcelona; we were one block from La Rambla Street and two blocks from Passig de Gracia (the main streets for food, shopping, museums and tours.) The hotel had a true step-free barrier entrance with an automatic door, however, what they failed to think through is that the automatic door only opens if you insert your hotel keycard into the scanner. The scanner nor the “doorbell” is wheelchair accessible. Thankfully, during my stay, I was usually with my friends or nurse and they could let me in or sometimes if the front desk recognized me, they would open the front sliding doors and allow me entrance. I noticed that a lot of things in Barcelona that were listed as wheelchair accessible, would be accessible but only to a certain degree. Such as, a barrier-free entrance that is controlled by an inaccessible hotel key card scanner or a restaurant that is "accessible" but by accessible they are referring to the outdoor seating, I would not have access to the toilet or main dining area.
Unfortunately, despite how exhausted we were, we couldn’t relax; upon checking into the hotel room we noticed red stains on the sheets and the bathroom was not cleaned properly. The hotel quickly rectified the situation by putting us in a newly cleaned room, discounted our stay and provided us with complimentary wine bottle, chocolates, drinks at the hotel bar and free breakfast the next morning. After moving rooms and transferring into my rental wheelchair from Cosmo Scooter we headed down to the hotel bar and began our European vacation. Since it was getting late, we headed to dinner on La Rambla and had dinner at an outdoor restaurant.
Our first meal experience was an eye opener, not due to the customer service or food selection but more so due to the homeless man that refused to leave without making a statement. He approached every table and when they refused him he moved along to the next table without a word, until he got to us. When we refused him, he quickly informed us in a smug way that “we had food, and wine and had money to give him, when we declined him again, he eyed us angrily and stood still until the waiter finally made him leave. That would not be the last time the homeless challenged us lol so I suggest you be ready if you plan to visit Barcelona.
Learning The Taxi System, Exchanging Money and Understanding The European Culture
Jetleg escaped me throughout my entire trip, perhaps it’s because my body is used to less sleep than most people require but I was up early to go to Camp Nou, the Football Stadium for the Barcelona Team. I pre-purchased tickets for a guided tour of the museum and stadium for two people for approx. $110 USD. Because I wasn’t savvy on the Metro system, I decided to go to the stadium via Taxi Cab. I figured my hotel could call and request one for me and would know how to request the correct adapted Taxi. The stadium was 15 minutes away from the hotel by car so I called down to the concierge and requested a taxi for about an hour and a half from the time I wanted to leave. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that answering the phone is optional for Barcelona businesses lol.
Despite her efforts, the front desk agent could not get the taxi company to answer the phone. Over two hours went by and they never answered the phone. It wasn’t until almost 3 hours later did we get a response. I missed the stadium tour and learned that if I wanted a taxi I would need to request one at minimum 6-8 hours in advance if not a full 24 hours. So we spent the remainder of the day exploring the neighborhood and how to exchange money. We quickly realized that the people of Barcelona are RUDE and they have no idea what customer service is nor how to provide it. In America, customer service is mandatory, but in Europe it’s optional.
If you decide to visit, you will learn that very quickly. The people will ignore you, speak to you with an attitude, and forgot going to a restaurant and expecting actual service! You’re lucky if they actually get the order correct, let alone refill your glass or bring you condiments.
You have to go in realizing you are on their time and they have no sense of time lol. I also experienced rude comments and stares just rolling along the streets of Barcelona. It is almost like they had never seen black people or someone in an electric wheelchair. I definitely felt like an outsider and throughout my entire trip I was stared at and experienced blatant racism. Before I arrived in Barcelona, I was told that racism was bad, however, it was beyond my belief. I definitely suggest if you plan to travel to Barcelona and you have some melanin in you, be prepared for the slick remarks, constant stares and racism.
After a few credit card swipes we realized that I really should have got Euro before landing in Barcelona. I flew with about $300 in cash, thinking that taxi’s, shops would accept American dollars, but nope, they accept my visa debit card but not these American dollars so I needed to get Euro ASAP! We finally found a bank and attempted to use the ATM but apparently if you want to extract money from your American account, you can only use the ATM inside the exchange houses (see picture below of an "accessible" ATM, unfortunately the height of the screens made this "accessible" ATM machine inaccessible.).To receive 300 Euro it would cost me a $45 fee. I don’t think it matters whether you exchange money at home or when you arrive at your destination, it will cost you regardless.
Towards the end of the day, we wanted to grab dinner and decided to try and find a spot, however, we weren’t aware that at a certain time the full kitchen closes and the restaurant or cafe is only serving Tapas. Tapas are small bites/ appetizers, which would have been great accept the food was not anything that looked/sounded good. It included a lot of ham, seafood that I was not familiar with and at the time was not interested in experimenting. So dinner on day two was potatoes with a weird red sauce called Brava and a spinach and cheese concoction.
We quickly realized that we needed to ask for all the sauces on the side and to eat before the main kitchen closes otherwise it would be slim pickings, especially since we learned that you can’t buy alcohol after 11:00 pm unless it’s at a bar/ restaurant, and a lot of the bars weren’t step-free. I know Spain is known for their food, well I'm not much of a foodie in America (I like what I like) so I knew this wasn't going to be a vacation where I tried too much out of my comfort zone. For the majority of the trip, I ate KFC and McDonalds (see the picture below of a typical meal with Beer!) and enough pastries to last me a lifetime. Oh! the pastries and cafe con leches were some of the best food moments of my life thus far and their gelato is from another galaxy! You can also see that each meal included either Cava (champagne) or wine *with a straw!
Tours, Excursions, and Adventures
Throughout my time in Barcelona I went on a few tours, not as many as I would have liked but overall I got to see a lot. I toured the Liceu Opera House, Sagrada Familia, Casa Bastillo, and the Barcelona Bus Tour which has multiple routes and focuses on different elements/ regions. I tried to attend the Museu de L'Erotica (Erotic Museum), however, the elevator was not in operation. To view all of my European photos/ videos please click on the links at the end of this post.) The main tour was the bus tour. I was able to see so much of the city. In the city center, you can choose which routes (red /blue) you wish to ride. We had plans to take both the Blue and Red Route on the same day, however after one go-around on the bus I wasn't too thrilled to go for round two. We took the Blue route that goes from the city center to the Ocean.
Unfortunately, the tour bus did not have wheelchair securements and I was told that all the buses in Barcelona are only equipped to secure manual wheelchairs only. I had to decide if I would take the risk and ride the bus without securements. I decided to take a chance and ride. Throughout the 3-hour tour, my chair slide around a bit too much for my comfort so I didn’t want to participate on the Red Route.
My suggestion for electric wheelchair users who wish to go on bus tours, either bring a belt that allows you to secure your wheelchair to a handlebar or if you prefer full securements/safety measure perhaps hire a private car/ taxi that may have securements installed; have them take you to the main attractions. This may cost a lot more than the $35 dollar tour I purchased, but at least you will be properly secured and not worried about tilting over, etc.
One eventful night we stumbled upon a traditional Flamenco Show. The hostess allowed my group of 3 to receive a discount due to my disability (winning!) This allowed us to sit front row for only 15 Euro each (approx. $18 USD) instead of the original 55 Euro (approx. $58 USD). The show was amazing and very theatrical. I'm happy I experienced it. See video to the left.
Coffee Shops, not your average Starbucks
One of my favorite adventures in Barcelona was gaining membership and visiting an official "coffee shop," and I'm not talking coffee beans and creamers, I'm referring to the weed/smoke cafes that Europe is famous for. Recently, I tried CBD + THC oil for pain management and noticed how it helped me sleep better and ease my chronic pain. So while in Europe I wanted to visit a smoke cafe, however in Barcelona you must be in a social club to gain legal access to purchase cannabis products. So, of course I googled until I found a reputable social club, requested membership and within a few hours they accepted me.
Membership to the social club is for a year and cost 20 Euro (approx. $22 USD.) The membership allows you access to purchase cannabis products and smoke safely in their establishment. The club room we went to was simple, clean and safe. Although we didn't stay for long, I enjoyed the chill vibes and 90's board games it provided and only wish America was capable of achieving something similar.
The Hotel Fiasco
As I previously mentioned, during my time in Barcelona -- the racism was at an all-time level and unfortunately, my hotel was the main source of improper actions. Three nights into our stay, the hotel came to our room at approx. 10:00 pm and informed me that they need to charge 50% of our expected hotel bill because they are only able to retain a hotel bill of 700 euro at a time ... per their policy. Now, this is a Spain Hotel Chain and the hotel location is located in the city center of Barcelona. I find it hard to believe that they can only retain a 700 euro bill. When I informed them that my card was provided at the time check- in and that they verified it's validity, they pushed even more and requested I get up and provide them the physical card so that they can retrieve partial payment. I then told them I would handle the issue in the morning. They pushed even more and demanded we go to the front desk to process the payment. At this point I knew this was not a "policy" unless you were Black.
It was clear, they thought we didn't have the money to pay for our 8-day stay due to our skin color. Instead of arguing and risking the authorities coming out, I went downstairs to allow them to retrieve the partial payment. Upon the approval of payment, I knew they were mad, because they just knew we didn't have the money and were ready to kick us out if the charge was declined. Upon checking out, I asked the front desk what is the maximum bill amount they can carry, and the man said 1000 euro, when I questioned the difference from the other night when it was 700 euro, the man said "oh, 700 and 1000 euro, it's the same thing!"I reviewed their policies and procedures and was unable to find a policy regarding maximum bill charges. I didn't have time to argue with him since I had a flight to catch, but I knew they were subjecting us to this treatment due to our skin color and I plan to file a formal complaint with their hotel chain.
Getting Lost in Barcelona: Understanding the Metro
They say that you haven't experienced a city until you use their Metro system. Well, they aren't lying! I purchased a Metro Card and decided to take the Metro to the beautiful Montserrat (see photo to your left.) Unfortunately, what ended up happening was myself and my nurse getting separated for hours on the Barcelona Metro and me exploring the Metro more than I ever wanted. Using Google Maps, the night before, myself and my friend coordinated the step by step travel from the city center to FCG tram that would take me to the breath-taking Montserrat. the next morning, my nurse and I embarked on our first Metro travel and noticed all the "lifts/elevators" were clean and working properly, which was a good sign compared to our train stations. The ticket carousel wasn't the most accessible for someone with limited arm movement, as you would need to push a button to open the sliding doors and then input your ticket in the scanner and wait for it to return the ticket and exit the compartment before the doors close. If you aren't quick, it can become a disaster. Once I got through the maze of which direction and side of the tracks I needed to be on, I noticed the trains arrive every 3 -5 minutes so I knew I wouldn't be too late. I boarded the train at Passig de Gracia station, which is an accessible station with a leveled platform (see below)
As you can see from the pictures below, I boarded the train and snapped a #TrainSelfie! I was on my way to the Espanya Train Station. After about 5 minutes riding, my stop was coming up and I begin maneuvering myself to the train door and upon it's opening the platform was not level and there was no way I could safely get off the train. Finally, one of the passengers told us we needed to go to the front car because that is where the elevated platform for me to exit is. My nurse went to verify this first and once verified, we got off at the next stop and waited for the train to take us back. I will say that in general, even with the elevated platform, the gap between the train and the platform is large and very unsafe. Several times I tried to board the train my front tires would get stuck in between the gap and I literally had to become a race car driver, max out at the highest speed and floor it to just get on the train due to the large platform gap.
After several attempts to exit at our correct stop, we realized that the Espanya station just wasn't accessible... so I got off at the next station and attempted for over an hour to get new directions that would skip the Espanya station. Once I got new directions, my nurse and I headed back to the train station but somehow we didn't hear or see one another on the train and when I realized the doors were about to close I quickly drove off just in time to see her on the train and the doors shut close. From that moment I was lost, alone trying to navigate the Metro without much assistance. For over 3 hours I rode the rails trying to get back to my hotel area safely.
Due to my limited arm mobility, I wasn't able to reach the lift / elevator buttons, the ticket carousal nor the button on the train to open the doors. When I asked passengers to help me they either ignored me or just starred at me. Needless to say, it took me far too long to link back up with my nurse, especially since the Metro doesn't offer wifi and getting to the street level was difficult. Once I was on street level and reunited with my nurse, I reconfigured my route to exclude the train ( over it!) and decided to take the bus. Taking the bus was another mistake. Although all the buses have ramps and a designated section for the wheelchair, there are no securements and you are expected to just hold on for dear life; and don't expect the bus driver to get up and assist you on... nope it's all on you whether you can get on.
Overall the accessibility of the Metro is "ok" but if you are not using a manual chair or have arm strength, it's not really accessible to all wheelchair users. Sadly, I never made it to Montserrat -- I attempted to take a taxi the next day there but the taxi cab would only agree to drop us off only, they would come back and pick us up unless we paid for them to wait. The cost would be too great for me to justify.
Day-Trippin to London-Town!
After a few days in Barcelona, it was time to break away and see something different -- off to London, England. On March 12, 2019, I headed to the El Prat airport to board my non-stop flight via EasyJet Airlines. One thing that I experienced with my airplane boarding was the trailer elevator (photo above). This trailer is used to escort wheelchair users onto the plane for "Tarmac Boarding' which is when the passengers board the plane on the tarmac using the airplane stairs instead of the boarding ramp tunnel. For this flight I also used my Hoyer Lift Swing to transfer from my rental to the aisle seat and then to the airline seat. The transfers went smooth and within 2- hours I arrived in rainy but beautiful London, England and my rental was not damaged!
Once I landed at London - Gatwick Airport, the transfer crew ushered us through customs and assisted us to the taxi cab stands. London- Gatwick's Airport is about 45 minutes to an hour from Central London and taking a black cab was possible but it would cost over 100 GBP, which is over $130 USD. The only other option was to take the train. Taking the Gatwick Express train would take me to the London-Victoria Station for 35 GBP; from there I would take a 10 minute taxi to Picadilly Circus (P.C.) aka the center of town for approx. 15 GBP.
Mind The Gap
Navigating the Gatwick Express was so easy! It reminds me of riding our Amtrak or Metrolink trains. If you are a wheelchair user, you must request assistance on the platform, since the gap is not level. They will provide a ramp for you to board or exit the train. See my video below.
Once we made it to the London - Victoria station, we walked out the station to a sea of black cabs, and went directly to a gentleman with a minivan. He wasn't the nicest driver but he did get us to P.C, safely. I will note that although all the cabs come equipped with ramps (it's not difficult to haul/hire a cab at busy locations such as P.C. and train stations) the incline on the ramp is extremely high and may require additional assistance getting in the car safely. Both the driver and my nurse had to help me get up the ramp (see my video below) and down the ramp. Once I was in the car, I expected to see securements but there are no securements so once again I must hold on tight and pray that my chair doesn't tip over.
Once we got to P.C. we immediately made a pit stop to the Gap. It was beyond freezing and we weren't ready for that level of cold. I purchased a fleece zip up hoodie, beanie, scarf and gloves! That cold was not going to ruin my day in London. For the remainder of the day I toured London on the Original London Bus Tour. The 3-hour tour cost approx. $85 USD for two people and to my happy surprise, the bus came equipped with wheelchair securements!
The driver informed me that he hardly ever used the securements so it took him a minute to remember how to use them but we eventually got me fully secured and I was able to see London without the threat of injuring myself. I will say that during the tour, I noticed a lot of the buildings had several steps in front to gain entry, so I'm not sure if there was an accessible alternative entrance, but from the looks of things, it may be difficult to navigate certain business. Even when it was time to eat lunch, the restaurant we choose, it required me to go through the back entrance.
Overall, my time in London was amazing! The people are friendly, helpful and in general cool. Accessibility would definitely have some challenges, however, even with a short 9 hours, I fell in love with London. I loved every rainy, cold moment and will definitely be returning. As you can see below in my pictures, even through the cold ... my smile was wide and long-lasting. I took a picture in from of a telephone booth, the front entrance to Buckingham Palace and snapped a picture inside the same tea store that the Queen shops at! As a Tea drinker this was a dope moment lol.
Damaged Goods in London!
After a late arrival into Barcelona, I was greeted by a damaged wheelchair! Sure enough, the flight/baggage crew of Easyjet Airline damaged my rental chair's headrest. Upon further inspection, I noticed the entire metal bar attached to the headrest is bent. When I brought this up to the crew, they played dumb, but I'm well versed in holding people accountable. I demanded they file a report and begin the process to repair it. The next morning, I informed Cosmo Scooter of the damage and let them know there was a claim/report filed. Thankfully, Cosmo Scooter handled the repair directly through Easyjet Airline.
* This is exactly why I don't travel with my personal wheelchair; thankfully this was just a damaged headrest, but what if it was the motor or a severed wire. I prefer to damage a rental than my own collection.
After 8 full days exploring Barcelona and London, it is in my opinion that although Barcelona is accessible, the accessibility is geared towards manual wheelchair users and/or people with the full use of their upper body. I can definitely see that Europe is making a better effort to include differently-abled people in their tourism planning efforts, however, I personally found some of their "accessibility"standards are a bit backwards. The perfect example of this "backwards accessibility" is in the photo below:
As you can see in the photo, there is uneven ground, that then leads to a smooth ramp. Despite my best race car driving... I was unable to clear that gap. The gap may seem small in the photo, but it's very high. Throughout Barcelona, I noticed a lot of store fronts, boutiques, and cafe's that have high uneven ground that make it inaccessible to electric wheelchair users that can't pop a wheelie. I will say, if you have a desire to visit Spain -- Barcelona in particular, be prepared! I have not desire to return to Barcelona, however, if you wish to visit, you should know how what to expect:
Manual Wheelchair vs. Electric / Powered Wheelchair: If you can comfortably (minimal pain/discomfort) navigate the streets in a manual chair, do so. This will allow you complete access.
Airport Transfers: Don't bother with expensive private cars, just have the taxi porter stands haul you an adapted taxi via Taxi Amic. Once you make it to your hotel, have them book your taxis in advance, especially if you will be traveling in an electric wheelchair.
Taxi vs. Metro: Even with my pre-travel research on the Metro system, I was still caught off guard with the unaccessible Metro stations that were supposed to be accessible. My suggestion, if you are traveling in an electric wheelchair, use taxis, if you are traveling by manual wheelchair-- you may be ok on the Metro.
American vs. European Accessibility: Understand that your idea or accessibility is completely different than what the European standards are so make sure you are asking the correct questions and have patience because you are in Europe and should expect the unexpected.
Remember it's a vacation, don't let the small stuff stop you from having fun and enjoying the moment. You can only plan so much after a certain point you have to just give in and say YOLO!
Photo and Video Albums
To view my personal vacation photos, click the link --> Photo Album
Barcelona Liceu Opera House - Accessibility Video 1
Barcelona Liceu Opera House - Accessibility Video 2
( I was terrified lol not sure why but I was completely worried I would fall)
Until next time, this is my world ... on wheelz!