We had only been back a few days from our trip to 8. Europe when Louise said she thought we might go to New Zealand next Christmas. It was then I knew the travel bug had bitten. All we needed was a golden egg-laying goose and we’d be right. Fortunately for us one came along and I know it’s like finding a needle in a haystack for people with disabilities to be tripping over such a windfall, however we were lucky. But enough of multiple metaphors; New Zealand was great! Before we went, we asked people who had been where we should go. Nearly all replied, “Everywhere’s good”. Not much help, we thought. Now we know they were right!

There are many reasons why an Australian disabled tourist should go to New Zealand. For a start, they speak English (well sort of. I had almost perfected my Kiwi accent, but the rest of the family forbade me ‘prectising’ in the car). This makes communication and understanding of our needs so much easier.
New Zealand is so close to Australia, only 3 hours on the plane, and so much cheaper than Europe. Even in their High Season car hire, accommodation and tourist attractions were much cheaper than Europe in the middle of Winter. Although food and petrol were dearer than Australia, they were still quite a bit cheaper than Europe too.

Like Tasmania here there’s lots to see and do in a small area. Unlike the rest of Australia, you don’t have to drive for hundreds of kilometers between big ‘tourist spots’ (in New Zealand everywhere’s a tourist spot!) And it really is true that most New Zealanders are tremendously friendly and helpful.

Things for me seemed a bit harder than Europe in some ways; but that was because with chronic progressive MS things get worse and it was a year later. Louise was right though; it’s a good idea to try these things while you still can.
Before You Go It’s important for anyone to get organized for a trip overseas, but when you’ve got a disability it’s essential!

Here’s some tips:

1. Make sure you take plenty of any medication you may need. Never try to buy it overseas. It will be enormously expensive, or may not be available. Get a covering letter from your doctor and make sure the airline is aware. Needles are OK in the hold, but if you need to take them as cabin luggage, you’ll need to make special arrangements.

2. If you suffer from incontinence, for men I’d strongly recommend wearing a leg bag as it takes away a lot of the pressure of trying to find a toilet in time.
3. You also need to choose a good airline and inform them of your special needs. We’ve tried some cut-price airlines and a few wobbly luggage hoists and tarmac steps later I can tell you it ain’t worth it! Contact the airline well ahead to arrange seating. We found the best place was up the very back, right near the toilets.

4. Almost all airlines will take your wheelchair for free (that includes electric ones). You’ll need to arrive at check-in a bit earlier to book it in and to get a wheelchair for use at the airport. Ask for a staff member to help you through to the plane. This has the added advantage of giving you quick checking through customs. You’ll be put in an “aisle chair”, which is a wheelchair narrow enough to get you down to your seat on the plane and you’ll get taken to your seat first.

Unfortunately this also means that you’ll be last to get off, but don’t worry; with the VIP service through customs you’ll be first at the luggage carousel! And ask for staff help all the way through as it will make things much easier and quicker.

5. When traveling if you are disabled, it’s very important to book ahead. Unfortunately your days of just dropping into a town and grabbing somewhere to stay on the spur of the moment are over. We started booking accommodation almost a year prior and the internet is a wonderful (and cheap) tool for this. Don’t rely on those ‘wheelchair friendly’ symbols because sometimes they’ve been put there for no apparent reason.

Contact the owners directly by e-mail and check on steps, space inside rooms, doorway width, safety rails, bathroom configuration and accessibility generally. (In fact, I could write a book on motel rooms-I have quite a list of practical suggestions for improving them for disabled travellers!) In general, I found it’s better to exaggerate rather than downplay your level of disability. That way you’re less likely to end up somewhere unsuitable.

6. You’ll want travel insurance; if only to cover any medical emergencies. We had to pay a little more to cover my “pre-existing condition”, but it wasn’t at all hard to get. Most insurance companies will be happy to cover for everything apart from your illness!

7. I bought a lightweight partially collapsible electric wheelchair especially for the trip. Luckily I bought it early enough ahead to iron out a few teething problems and to get used to using it (at the expense of our house, which has been gradually destroyed by my earlier miscalculations).

8. Louise began cursing the wheelchair early in our trip as its rather small battery began running out of charge and I had to keep finding power points and wait for a re-charge. In future we’ve decided to just take the manual wheelchair overseas. It’s a lot less bulky and if you’ve got someone to push, they’ll appreciate the exercise!

9. Don’t forget your disabled parking pass, if you’ve got one. We tried to organise an NZ pass before we left, through CCS, but it didn’t eventuate. So we just used our Australian sticker and had no problems at all. In fact in New Zealand you’re very unlikely to encounter parking problems even in the peak tourist season.

10. And don’t be afraid to say you could do with help. It’s taken me a while to work this out, but most places are set up to cater for disabled people and are only too happy to help if given notice. You might be pleasantly surprised and even find yourself at the front of the queue for once!