Travel - International


Looking at adverts for dream holidays in far flung places can easily conjure up images of days relaxing, recuperating and restoring one's health. And for most people the excitement and sense of adventure starts the moment the plane touches down. 

For those with serious health concerns, that dream is every bit as achievable and can be just the tonic needed - whether just to get away from it all or to see a place you've always wanted to go. With careful planning and thoughtful consideration of the realities that travel will impose, the sky is the limit.

I have been on a few overseas trips over the years. While some have been fantastic, others have been needlessly stressful, both physically and emotionally, and thrown my health back into severe relapse. 

The best of these trips was one I took in 2009 with my daughter. Being our first trip anywhere in 8 years, and her first ever holiday, we were super excited and planned carefully. My daughter understood that there was a definite possibility that my health could suddenly deteriorate and our trip could be cut short, but accepted this happily. As it turned out, half way through my vision completely collapsed, but thanks to her incredible understanding and support, and her allowing me time to recover, the crisis was temporary and we spent the rest of our holiday having a blast and loving every minute. It was a dream holiday that I will never forget, made all the more special by the compassion and care that was given so freely just when I needed it.



So what can you do to make sure your trip has the best chance of success?

Firstly it is easier than ever, thanks to the internet, to cover the easy bases well ahead of time. 
  1. Passports and visas
  2. Travel insurance and pre-existing medical insurance
  3. Booking flights 
  4. Booking accommodation 
  5. Pre-purchasing tickets
  6. Printing out maps and planning routes 

We ended up saving a huge amount of money and time by doing this. The big bonuses being that you don't need to queue for tickets or worry about having cash on hand; You usually can get your choice of room or seating before others begin booking and you can make any special requests, such as bulkhead seating, well in advance.



Planning ahead

NZ's Safe Travel website holds a wealth of information, the key points of which are shown below.  
I have addressed some of their checklist items in following sections instead - including passports, visas and health/travel insurance.


CHECKLIST:

  1. Check our travel advisories for your destination country for issues that you should be aware of -  http://safetravel.govt.nz/advisories/index.shtml
  2. Vaccinations, medication, prescriptions - It is vital that you plan medications and vaccinations for travel well in advance. Your doctor will be able to help you with the planning including prescriptions that allow enough medication (plus any emergency supplies you may need), and a letter to carry outlining what medications you are carrying should immigration or security ask you to provide this. Keeping your doctor's phone number with you while you travel is always a good idea in case you need an emergency script in case of problems such as lost luggage. http://safetravel.govt.nz/beforeugo/health.shtml#medicaladvice
  3. International driver's licence - http://www.aa.co.nz/drivers/driver-licences/international-driving-permit/
  4. Money - Don't rely on a single form of money - for example, take cash, travellers' cheques and a credit card. Allow enough to cover emergencies. Don't keep all your money in one place.
  5. Register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade - It is recommended you record your itinerary and travel details with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is voluntary and the information provided will be used for consular purposes only, for example, in the case of an emergency. https://register.safetravel.govt.nz/kos/kos.aspx
  6. Itinerary and other documents - Give a detailed copy of your itinerary, including accommodation details, and your travel insurance policy to a relative or friend so they are able to get in touch with you if necessary or access your insurance provider if required. Remember, if you change your itinerary, do let your relatives/friends know. Keep them updated.
  7. Know where your nearest New Zealand Embassy is located - http://safetravel.govt.nz/embassies/embassies.shtml
  8. Obey local laws - The New Zealand Government cannot intervene in the judicial processes of other countries. Being a New Zealand citizen does not entitle you to any special treatment.

Make copies of other important documents such as your birth certificate, passport, credit cards and driver's licence, both to take with you and to leave at home with a trusted friend or family member.

Take down important phone numbers that you may need in an emergency such as insurance agent, doctor, hotels, travel agent.


Passports

This step is relatively straight forward but there are a few things that you have to know, namely:
  1. Many countries require you to hold a passport that will be valid for at least 6 months after you plan to leave their border. 
  2. You need to check you have at least one clear page in your passport for immigration stamps. 
  3. You should always take a photocopy of your passport with you and leave a copy at home with a trusted friend or family member.
  4. To make sure you meet all of their requirements for entry, you should check with the Embassy or Diplomatic office of any country you are visiting - http://www.mfat.govt.nz/Embassies/2-Foreign-representatives-to-NZ/Diplomatic-and-Consular-List.php
  5. It is wise to make a note of the phone numbers for the NZ passport office in case of loss or theft. Phone 0800225050 within NZ, or phone +6444639360 when calling from overseas.

Can I get a passport?

You can get a NZ passport if you meet the following criteria:
  • You were born in New Zealand, Niue, the Cook Islands or Tokelau before 1 January 2006. 
  • Children born on or after 1 January 2006 are only New Zealand citizens if one of their parents was a citizen or a permanent resident of New Zealand, Niue, the Cook Islands or Tokelau at the time of the child's birth.
  • If you were born elsewhere and have obtained New Zealand citizenship you will have received a citizenship certificate.

How do I get a passport?

There are two ways to apply - on paper or on-line.

If this is the first time you are applying for a NZ passport you will need to fill out the form "Application for a NZ Passport-Adult" or "Application for a NZ Passport-Child". Children are 0 - 15 years old; Adults are 16 years and older. 

The application forms listed above have to be done using the paper form which can be found at the bottom of this page.

If you are renewing your passport you will use the form "Application for a NZ Passport-Adult Renewal",  and you can choose either on-line or paper formats to do this. The form can be found at the bottom of this page or you can access the on-line form here

Once you have filled out the form, with your passport photo and references completed, you can either drop it off or post it to one of the branches listed below:

Auckland:
Department of Internal Affairs
Level 6, AA Building
99 Albert Street
Auckland 1010

Manukau:
Department of Internal Affairs
Level 1
20-24 Lambie Drive
Manukau City 2104

Christchurch:
Department of Internal Affairs
Level 3
109 Featherston Street
Wellington 6011

Wellington:
Department of Internal Affairs
100 Orchard Road
Christchurch 8053
 
All of these buildings are wheelchair accessible.

How much does a passport cost?

Passports are issued by the NZ Passport Office and prices are as follows:
  • First time Adult applicants;  Child applicants first time, and renewals
Standard service (up to 10 working days) - NZ$140.00 Adult, NZ$81.70  Child
Urgent service (up to 3 working days) - NZ$293.30 Adult, NZ$235.00 Child
After-hours (by appointment) - NZ$651.00 Adult, NZ$592.70 Child

  • Adult Renewal Applicants
Standard service (up to 10 working days) - NZ$134.50 Adult
Urgent service (up to 3 working days) - NZ$287.80 Adult
After-hours (by appointment) - NZ$645.50 Adult

On-line renewal (Not available for child passports)
(up to 10 working days) -  NZ$124.50 Adult


Visas

Below you will find an overview on travel to Australia, USA and the UK - the most popular destinations outside of NZ, and their visa criteria.

Following that is a full list of all countries and the current visa requirements for each, if you are travelling as a NZ citizen. It is of course always recommended that you check with the embassy in question to ensure that there rules are not out of date at the time of travel. 


Australia

As a NZ citizen, you will automatically get a special category visa when you arrive, provided you meet certain security, character and health requirements. Your passport will be stamped when you arrive, which is proof that you hold the visa.

New Zealanders can stay and work in Australia indefinitely


USA

New Zealanders travelling to the United States without a visa must obtain on-line authorisation to travel at least 72 hours before departure. This process became mandatory from 12 January 2009.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) assists in determining eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP). New Zealand is one of over 30 countries included in the programme, which allows visitors for tourism or business to spend up to 90 days in the United States.

You can apply at any time prior to travel; however, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recommends that applications be submitted no less than 72 hours prior to travel. In most cases you will receive a response within seconds.

ESTA checklist -
  1. complete an online application form at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov (The ESTA registration system is a website run by the United States Government, and is not associated with the New Zealand Passport office, or the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs).
  2. you will need to provide your personal details, passport information, the airline you are booked on and other details.
  3. ESTA permits are valid, unless revoked, for up to 2 years or until your New Zealand passport expires, whichever comes first.
  4. ESTA permits can be used for multiple entries into the United States.

Important: this service is no longer free. From 8 September 2010 a fee of US$14.00 is payable for a new or renewed travel authorisation application. The fee is paid by credit card or debit card as part of the on-line registration process. This fee is paid to the United States Customs and Border Protection Service, NOT to the New Zealand Passport office.


United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales)

If you hold an Australian or New Zealand passport and intend to stay in the UK for 6 months or less as a visitor, you do not normally need to apply for a visa before travelling. But some categories of visitors do require visas. You should also apply for a visa if you have any unspent criminal convictions in any country or you have an adverse UK immigration history. 

To come to the UK as a general visitor, you must be able to show that:
  • you are 18 or over;
  • you intend to visit the UK for no more than 6 months (or 12 months if you will be accompanying an academic visitor);
  • you intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit;
  • you have enough money to support and accommodate yourself without working or help from public funds, or you and any dependants will be supported and accommodated by relatives or friends;
  • you can meet the cost of the return or onward journey; and
  • you are not in transit to a country outside the 'Common Travel Area' (Ireland, the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands).

You will need a visa if you:
  • are a visa national (NZ is not on this list but check here if you were born elsewhere); or
  • are stateless (you do not have a nationality); or
  • hold a non-national travel document (a travel document which does not give you the nationality of the country that issued it); or
  • hold a passport issued by an authority that is not recognised in the UK.
For more information, click here



The map below shows the countries where NZ can enter visa free (mid-blue), or with visa on arrival access (light-blue). The trans-tasman agreement means it is visa free for entry to Australia (purple). All grey areas are where NZ citizens need visas prior to arrival.



AFRICA - LENGTH OF ADVANCE VISA EXEMPTION

Botswana                                         90 days 
Burundi                                         Visa can be obtained upon arrival
Cape Verde                                         Visa can be obtained upon arrival
Comoros                                         A free 24 h transit visa issued upon arrival at the airport. 
                                                        Within 24 hours this must be converted into a full visa at 
                                                        the immigration office in Moroni (fee payable) 
Djibouti                                         1-month visa can be obtain upon arrival for DJF$5,000 
                                                        with onward ticket, entry documents for next 
                                                        destination, sufficient funds and, if a tourist, part of an 
                                                        organised group
Egypt                                                 30-day visa issued upon arrival for US$15
Eritrea                                         1-month visa issued on arrival with a passport photo if 
                                                        requested by local sponsor at least 48 hours before 
                                                        arrival (visa renewable for a further 2 months)
Ethiopia                                         visa on arrival for US$20~$100
Gambia                                         90 days
Ghana                                         Visa issued on arrival for US$100 if the arrangement has 
                                                        been confirmed at least 48 hours prior to arrival by the 
                                                        Ghana Immigration Service
Kenya                                         3 month visa issued upon arrival for US$50
Lesotho                                         14 days
Madagascar                                         90-day visa issued upon arrival for MGA$140,000 
Malawi                                         90 days
Mauritius                                         60 days (tourist), 90 days (business) 
Mayotte                                         90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Morocco                                         3 months
Mozambique                                 30-day visa issued upon arrival for US$25
Namibia                                         3 months
Réunion                                         90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Saint Helena                                 90 days
São Tomé and Príncipe                         1-month visa issued upon arrival for US$100 if arranged             
                                                        through the airline up to 24 hours before arrival
Seychelles                                         1 month
South Africa                                 90 days 
Swaziland                                         30 days
Tanzania                                         visa issued upon arrival for US$50
Togo                                                 7-day visa can be obtain upon arrival with onward 
                                                        ticket, yellow fever vaccination certificate and 3 
                                                        passport photos for XOF$10,000~35,000
Uganda                                         30-day visa can be obtained upon arrival for US$50 
Zambia                                         visa issued upon arrival (single entry visa fee US$50) 
Zimbabwe                                         3-month holiday/1-month business visa issued upon 
                                                        arrival for US$30 ~ 55



AMERICAS - LENGTH OF ADVANCE VISA EXEMPTION

Anguilla                                         3 months 
Antigua and Barbuda                         1 month 
Argentina                                         90 days 
Aruba                                                 30 days 
Bahamas                                         3 months
Barbados                                         6 months
Belize                                                 1 month
Bermuda                                         6 months 
Bolivia                                         30 days 
Brazil                                                 90 days 
British Virgin Islands                         30 days 
Canada                                         6 months
Cayman Islands                                 30 days 
Chile                                                 90 days 
Colombia                                         90 days
Costa Rica                                         90 days
Cuba                                                 30 days provided holding a Tourist Card from travel 
                                                        agency/tour operator/airline
Dominica                                         21 days
Dominican Republic                         30-day tourist card issued on arrival US$10
Ecuador                                         90 days
El Salvador                                         90 days
Falkland Islands                                 30 days 
French Guiana                                 90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Greenland                                         90 days 
Grenada                                         3 months
Guadeloupe                                         90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Guatemala                                         90 days
Guyana                                         90 days
Haiti                                                 3 months
Honduras                                         3 months
Jamaica                                         visa-free access
Martinique                                         90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Mexico                                         180 days tourist/30 days business
Montserrat                                         3 months 
Netherlands Antilles                         3 months 
Nicaragua                                         90 days
Panama                                         90 days Tourist Card Issued On Arrival
Paraguay                                         90-day visa issued on arrival for US$140 
Peru                                                 90 days 
Puerto Rico                                         90 days (entry under federal Visa Waiver Program 
                                                        requires on-line ESTA in advance for a fee of US$ 14.00) 
Saint Barthélemy                                 90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Saint Kitts and Nevis                         3 months 
Saint Lucia                                         42 days 
Saint Martin                                 90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Saint Pierre and Miquelon                 90 days (during which work/paid activities are permitted) 
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines         1 month 
Turks and Caicos Islands                 30 days 
United States of America                 90 days (entry under Visa Waiver Program requires on-
                                                        line ESTA in advance for US$14) 
Uruguay                                         3 months 
U.S. Virgin Islands                         90 days (entry under federal Visa Waiver Program 
                                                        requires online ESTA in advance for a fee of US$14.00) 
Venezuela                                         3 months 


ASIA - LENGTH OF ADVANCE VISA EXEMPTION

ASEAN:

Brunei Darussalam                                 30 days 
Cambodia                                         30-day visa issued upon arrival for US$20/US$25 
Indonesia                                         30-day visa issued upon arrival for US$25 
Laos                                                 30-day visa issued upon arrival for US$30 
Malaysia                                         90 days 
Philippines                                         21 days
Singapore                                         30 days 
Thailand                                         30 days; or 15 days (if entering by land)

Non-ASEAN:

Armenia                                         120-day visa issued upon arrival for AM$15,000 
Bahrain                                         14-day visa issued upon arrival for BH$5 
Bangladesh                                     90-day visa issued upon arrival for US$50 
China                                                 Visa-exempt for a stay of up to 72 hours in Beijing; up                     
                                                        to 72 hours in Shanghai; up to 7 days in Dalian when 
                                                        arriving in and departing from China by air (and flying 
                                                        to/from different countries - e.g. NZ to UK via Beijing)             
Cyprus                                         90 days 
Georgia                                         360 days
Hong Kong                                         90 days 
India                                                 30 day visa issued on arrival for US$60 (Applicable for 
                                                        entry from Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata airports
Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan only)                 Visa issued upon arrival at Erbil airport 
Israel                                                 3 months 
Japan                                                 3 months 
Jordan                                         1 month visa issued upon arrival for JO$20 or free of 
                                                        charge if travelling as part of a tour group 
Korea, Republic of                                 90 days 
Kuwait                                         3-month visa issued upon arrival for KW$5 
Kyrgyzstan                                         1 month visa issued upon arrival (fee US$35 ~ US$70)
Lebanon                                         1-month visa issued upon arrival 
Macau                                         30 days 
Maldives                                         30 days
Nepal                                                 15/30/90 day visa issued on arrival for $25/40/100
Oman                                                 90 days
Sri Lanka                                         1 month visa issued upon arrival 
Syria                                                 15 day visa issued upon arrival 
Taiwan                                         90 days
Timor-Leste                                         30-day visa issued upon arrival for US$30 
Turkey                                         90 days 
Qatar                                                 1 month visa issued upon arrival for QAR$100 (must 
                                                        arrive via Qatar Airways) 
United Arab Emirates                         1 month visa issued upon arrival 


EUROPE - LENGTH OF ADVANCE VISA EXEMPTION

Schengen Area                                 90 days in a half year 
Albania                                         90 days
Andorra                                         90 days 
Bosnia and Herzegovina                         90 days 
Bulgaria                                         90 days in a half year 
Croatia                                         90 days 
Ireland                                         3 months 
Kosovo                                         90 days 
Macedonia                                         90 days 
Monaco                                         90 days 
Montenegro                                         90 days 
Romania                                         90 days 
San Marino                                         90 days 
Serbia                                         90 days 
United Kingdom 
(incl.  Guernsey,  Isle of Man,  Jersey) 6 months  or 3 months if arriving directly from the Irish Republic 


SCHENGEN STATES

New Zealand citizens are classified as 'Annex II' foreign nationals, and so are permitted to stay visa-free in the 26 member states of the Schengen Area as a whole — rather than each country individually — for a period not exceeding 3 months every 6 months.

During the visa exemption period, New Zealand citizens are permitted to work in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. In addition, New Zealand citizens intending to stay and work in Estonia for up to 90 days can do so without a visa as long as the employer has completed a 'registration of short-term employment'.

New Zealand has individual bilateral visa waiver agreements with the following Schengen signatories:

Austria
Belgium
Czech Republic
Denmark
Finland
France
Germany
Greece
Iceland
Italy
Luxembourg
Netherlands
Norway
Portugal
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland

The comprehensive guidelines for each country can be found here:

Note: Currently all travel to Lybia or Syria requires extra measures before travel, that can take up to a month to complete. The requirements can be found here - http://www.passports.govt.nz/

Travel Insurance

In New Zealand there are a number of ways to access travel insurance and it is worth finding out what your options are. 

In some cases you can claim free travel insurance on your credit card, or loyalty scheme, or even through you employer. Most banks also provide travel insurance and this can be purchased using reward points in part or full.

Otherwise you are looking at the major providers.

There is a website called 'Compare Travel Insurance' which can be found here -

This service compares AMEX, 1 Cover Direct and Downunder travel insurance policies and gives you quotes on each. As a starting point this will give you some idea of the range of prices you are looking at.

This is also a great article showing the difference between six of the big insurers and the difference in their policies:

It is well worth reading so you understand how great a variation there can be in covered items and values, which can help you make an informed choice when choosing who to get cover with.


Following is a contact list of most of the big NZ providers:

Southern Cross -                 http://www.southerncross.co.nz/travel-insurance-new-zealand.aspx
Travel Insurance Direct NZ -  http://www.travelinsurancedirect.co.nz/
Air New Zealand -                http://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/travel-insurance
1 Cover NZ Ltd -                 http://www.1cover.co.nz/
Tower -                             http://www.tower.co.nz/insurance/travel/
AA -                                  http://www.aa.co.nz/insurance/travel-insurance/
STA Travel -                      https://insurance.statravel.co.nz/
Good to go! -                     http://www.good2go.co.nz/
ACE (for Seniors) -              http://senior.aceinsurance.co.nz/
AMEX -                             https://www.insurance.americanexpress.co.nz/travel-insurance/
Cover-more -                     http://www.covermore.co.nz/?gclid=CMfgs8L64bUCFQxepQodLWcA7g
Worldcare  -                      http://www.worldcare.co.nz/
World Nomads -                  http://www.worldnomads.co.nz/


Flights and accommodation

It is definately a buyers market when it comes to prices on rooms, fares, flights and activities. Following are some fantastic resources, many of which I have used myself. It is by no means a full list as the internet is crammed with information, but these are some of the bigger sites with proven history. This list will give you some good places to start your research and planning.

This is a great site where you can book pretty much anything you are after. It is jam-packed with reviews and photos from customers on hotels, restaurants, airlines, rentals and activities. It is so comprehensive that I cannot imagine that any existing service is not on there. Hotels for example are divided into reviews for business clients, families, couples etc. You can read everything customers have said and many offer great advice on local eateries, access to public transport and things that a hotel may not provide such as travel adaptors, or towels for the pool - which means you can pre-plan what you may or may not need well ahead of time.
http://www.tripadvisor.com/

As above, this is a very comprehensive site with all the major services catered for. While there are star ratings given, the website's main value is in sourcing great prices, with discounts up to 70% in some cases. Expedia can also offer package deals on flights, accommodation and activities, but flights from NZ are not usually on the list. But this is definitely made up for by the prices you can get. 

We discovered this site a few months before our trip so I kept an eye out on places we wanted to stay which mostly had discounts around the 30% off mark. We opted to wait until the week before we left to book our accommodation and while some of our choices sold out, the discounts got bigger and we ended up getting the place we wanted for 50% off - saving us over $500 which we could then use to pay for all the activities we wanted to do. 

While this used to be a general travel tip site, it now focusses on train travel throughout Europe, with extesnive information including timetables, fares, routes, tips and maps. 
http://www.seat61.com

  • Kayak.com - www.kayak.com
This is an international site which sources prices from hundreds of airlines simultaneously to find the lowest possible fares. It gives a three day window either side to show variations of price within a week. Armed with this information, you can then choose whether to book through them, or through a travel agent or the airline directly. 

  • Hotels.com - www.hotels.com
This site has a database of more than 150,000 properties for it to search between, based on destination, preferences and dates requested. You can find last-minute deals, which are updated daily, and big bargains with the site's seasonal sales, destination-specific deals and other special offers.

The site also has a Welcome Rewards program whereby for every ten nights you spend at any combination of the program's 53,000 member properties, you'll earn a free night's stay worth up to the average daily rate of your ten nights.


For those wanting a more special place to stay, then this site hosts the world's largest directory of B&Bs, from historic inns and guest houses to cabins and farm stays.

The site also features 210,000 consumer reviews and over 100,000 property photos.


Hotwire is a good place to start when looking at rental car prices as it features rates from most major rental car companies, including Avis, Budget and Enterprise, and their vehicles are available at 20,000 locations worldwide - which somewhat guarantees that it will be a good indicator of what is out there in the way of standard prices and bargains that you can look for.



Pre-purchasing tickets

Pre-purchasing attraction tickets in advance can be a great idea. By buying in advance you can budget out trip expenses (leaving less to pay at the end of the trip), go straight to the head of the queue and there is no worrying about the exchange rate and hidden fees on your credit card.

There is also enormous convenience in planning to buy ahead of time. You can research what the ticket entitles you to and use it to its full potential. 

For example, across the United States and in parts of the UK you can purchase a range of City Passes or GO Cards. The city passes - such as the London Pass or New York Pass - allow the ticket holder free entrance to a large number of major attractions within a city at a set price per day. The general rule of thumb is that if you can do three things a day you will save money. 

In small cities such as York, England this can be a major benefit as the locations are all relatively close, the attractions are relatively quick to get through and therefore there is money to be saved. In a major city such as London however, this would be an extremely hard itinerary to maintain and it would likely be cheaper to pay individual admission prices when you get there or find a service provider that sells individual tickets.

There are always exceptions however and they are fairly easy to find. The Southern California City Pass, for example, has admission to four attractions and can be used any time over the course of 14 days so it is easily manageable and saves a whopping 26% off admission prices.

Another great option to consider is the Entertainment Book series. These are made for most major cities around the world, or in our case one book includes most hubs in NZ. They are usually valid from December/January of one year through to December/January of the following year and are designed for people who live in that particular area. However, they are full of discount coupons (two-for-one, half price, 20% off etc) to attractions, restaurants, services, car hire and more. If you are going to base yourself in one place for a period of time they may well be worth considering. You can view what is in them at the below websites (or google "entertainment book" followed by the country you will be in)




Disability Assistance - Airports & Airlines

Airports at the best of times are tiring and overwhelming places, but never more so than when you are already overloaded from the physical and cognitive demands of travel.

When preparing for my last trip, I received no feedback from either the airline or my travel agent on what help I could get, outside of a dismissive mention of wheelchairs in the terminal. This ultimately left me feeling hurt and frustrated. Each leg of a trip can prove exhausting due to the long distances to walk and weight of the baggage you are carrying. 

Don't rely on others to meet your health needs when travelling as it appears that in most cases the cheerful commitment statements on the websites of airports and airlines are more lip service than customer service. 

The following are lessons I learned the hard way about how this can translate and transform your entire 'holiday' experience...

On the first trip I went on with my daughter we were due to fly out of Auckland at 3pm. We duly checked in and went through to Departures. When we arrived however, we were immediately greeted by a staff member who informed us there was going to be a 6 hour delay for our flight. It turns out that this information was available at the time we checked in - had we been advised we could have gone home and rested prior to our flight. In addition we were told we were not allowed to leave Departures and could not exit the airport now we had checked in. Not being a seasoned traveller, I believed this - but have since discovered we could have left at any point either to go home or at the least to go back out of the airport and sit in the fresh air. 

Due to the delay there were no seats available anywhere in the lounge. As someone who suffers from severe fatigue this was particularly problematic. So my daughter and I paced with our heavy bags for two hours until my bod felt as if it were on fire. I eventually went to the Qantas support desk and pleaded, in tears, as to if they had any pain relief, whether I could put my bags somewhere safe or if they had any advice on what we could do as I was getting very unwell rapidly. I was told that I should have packed medication if I 'knew' I was going to feel unwell. To date, the most unhelpful advice I have ever received. So we were left with no option but to sit in the middle of the walkway for the next four hours until we could board. No wheelchair, no pain killers, and most critically no support.

The second example of this was my return flight home recently. I had contracted a chest infection a few days into the trip and this cascaded into a relapse whereby I could no longer eat or sleep. We contacted Air New Zealand and over the course of an hour re-booked both my and my daughter's flights home. The airline were told I was very sick and we opted to upgrade to their premium economy in the hopes that it would bring a higher likelihood of my sleeping as well as providing a more immediate response from the attendants should I need their help. We also asked for special wheelchair assistance from Heathrow, through LAX for the three hour stopover, and then on arrival into Auckland so we wouldn't need to walk through the terminals between flights. This seemed to be fine.

We then repeated this procedure at check in at Heathrow to ensure that our requests had been processed. They hadn't. We spent a further hour sorting this out prior to going through to Departures, where we were taken in their electric cart through to the gate.

As it turned out our seats were in the back row perfectly positioned between the two toilets. This is not the greatest place to be sitting when you are profoundly nauseous and haven't slept in days, as you are met hour after hour by the constant noise of talking, doors opening and closing, the loud whoosh of each flush and the inevitable odour. Within the first few hours I also began to start shaking from the cold. After requesting extra blankets and still getting colder I called the attendant as I was getting concerned that this sudden drop in temperature was signifying a very scary and sudden drop in health. He informed me however that it was likely due to the fact that the seats we were in backed on to the freezers and it was well known (to them at least) that the cold therefore seeped through the seats. 

Now, if you were an airline charged with booking seats for someone with a chest infection, nausea, chronic fatigue and a head injury to boot - why would you book them into the two seats that were 'known' to be freezing cold, and with the closest access to those things they have upgraded to avoid?! 

We were sold on premium economy due to the fact that, as their brochure maintains, you can lie down in almost any direction with at least ten different positions that enable you to put your feet up or down; you can snuggle with the person next to you in a horizontal position; and all manner of other options which are presented in their illustrated booklet. The reality however is that even my eleven year old daughter could not contort herself into any of these positions, and in fact the seats are not in line with each other but are facing out at opposite angles so there is absolutely no way that you can recline and enjoy the comfort that they have sold. Your extra money will buy you legroom only. Neither my daughter or I got a single minute of sleep.

On the plus side, we were treated like royalty. My daughter cannot eat egg and like me, is a vegetarian but all vegetarian breakfast meals seem to come with egg as the main course- and we were booked on two back to back flights that were both serving breakfast. This wasn't a problem in premium economy as they simply rushed off to find her a more suitable meal from within the other classes of seat. This was a great relief to me given the state I was in.

We arrived into LAX and had to convince the airline that I still needed the two wheelchairs we had pre-booked. After some confusion they eventually conceded to provide one of them, leaving my daughter to walk the twenty minutes through the airport, with bags, no sleep and a chest infection. We were advised we did not have to wait in transition and would I prefer to go outside into the fresh air instead? Fantastic! We spent that next two hours happily out of the noise and dry air gaining back some sense of sanity. The LAX lady had told us where to get a wheelchair back, who to ask, what we could access - she was an angel as far as I was concerned. 

We were met by two attendants with two wheelchairs for our return through the airport which meant my daughter could rest and I could stop worrying for five minutes about how clearly exhausted she was. We were taken through security and the various checkpoints all the way to the gate. The two attendants were very kind and despite my apologies for giving them this extra work, their responses were always, 'it's not a problem at all ma'am'. 

We were booked into basic economy for the next leg and the difference was palpable. Twice I went to use the toilet three rows in front of us and was forcefully told that I was to leave the area immediately as it was only for premium economy passengers. Both times the entire plane as far as I could see was fast asleep and there was certainly no pressing demand on facilities. I was sent instead toward the back of the plane to use the lower class facilities I had evidently paid for. 

It would seem to me that if you know someone is on board who is very ill and they are making a hasty dash for the bathroom that it would be better to aid them in that effort than to stop them and begin a conversation about how they should make their way in the dark, while profoundly nauseous, to the other end of the plane. Customer service? That's an optional extra it would seem. 

The head attendant twice approached me in the final hours to ask whether I really needed a wheelchair on arrival. Having by this stage been awake for two days, not eaten for five, barely coherent and in extreme pain - I said, 'yes please, I do still want the wheelchairs I have pre-booked'. His second visit back was to let me know that he felt that it was unnecessary as the distance were very short. When I asked how short, he believed it to be no more than a few minutes from the gate to exiting arrivals. I maintained that I would still like the wheelchair thank you as I am very unwell. This led to a new conversation about how my daughter surely doesn't need a wheelchair. At the gate, we walked past the attendant off the plane and waited patiently for our wheelchairs. There were about twenty lined up so no lack of chairs available. We waited and waited and eventually gave up. We were clearly not getting the chairs due to the opinion of the attendant that we didn't need one. The few minute walk took us just under half an hour to complete, including picking up our bags, getting through security - all the while carrying two heavy bags each and our pillows. It was the final straw. 

Less than 48 hours later, I would spent ten straight hours in the bathroom with the most violent vomiting and diarrhoea that I have ever experienced, before calling an ambulance. The damage had well and truly been done. 

It is now nine weeks later:
  • It took four weeks to be able to walk 100 metres; 
  • Six weeks to build up to eating one meal a day (I'm no further yet);
  • Eight weeks to be able to swim a few lengths of my local pool - a drop from fifty lengths two months previous;
  • At nine weeks, I am still not able to sleep through the night without prescription sleeping pills - something I have never needed (or wanted) in my entire life, yet now can't sleep without;
  • I am not yet laughing - I am depleted, spent, broken.

So where does that leave thousands of disabled travellers? What is a guarantee worth from an airline, travel agent or airport provider? What can you do to ensure that you get what you ask for? And at what point should consumers be able to expect the most basic human kindness and understanding regardless of how much their seat costs?

Unfortunately I don't have those answers yet but at some point this year I plan on emailing the airlines and asking exactly where they feel their responsibilities lie and whether the level of care they offer can really be provided. I will keep you updated.

In the meantime, I would recommend the following:

  1. Pre-book wheelchairs at every stop on your flight and make sure you re-check these are in place once you arrive at the airport.
  2. If you are travelling with someone, ask whether they can help ensure that these needs are met. It is far too hard to fight when you are exhausted and unwell, and having someone support you can mean a lot emotionally and physically.
  3. If you ask for a transfer or upgrade, make sure you are not placed near the toilets or in the back row. The airline are well aware of the layout and as such are in a position to recommend the best seats to meet your needs. Ensure you get them.
  4. Do not rely on in-flight entertainment when travelling. The screens are much closer to your eyes on some flights than on others, and in our case this meant two flights where the visual and cognitive discomfort was simply not worth the risk of getting sick. 
  5. If you have problems with one flight attendant ask for another. Within a single flight, I have had the full range of nice to nasty. Don't accept poor service if you don't have to, especially when you are asking for help. 
  6. Make sure your dietary needs are met as food is very important when you are trying to keep your energy balanced. This may mean bringing your own food.

On our way over to the UK, we transited in Hong Kong and faced with yet another egg meal my daughter couldn't eat, we opted to walk to the food court and get her pancakes for the flight. The walk ended up taking over thirty minutes and once on board the airline said they couldn't heat the breakfast up for her later, put it in the warming drawer or allow her to eat before take off due to the safety risk. So she ended up with yet another cold inedible meal and flagging physical health as a result. 

National flights with this same airline provide nutritious breakfasts with options of cereals, muesli, fruit, yoghurt and more. There is no reason why these same options should not be available to all passengers flying internationally. For an airline to take a 'just don't eat it' stance when you are on a twelve - twenty-seven hour long flight and have no other option is unacceptable when it endangers the health of more vulnerable persons. I now know that there is full access to a surplus of healthy alternatives such as muffins and sandwiches that could be used when needed, but at present these are only available to those paying a premium for that service. Should exceptions to that rule not be considered in exceptional cases? It would seem to me that when you are responsible for disabled travellers who have taken the necessary steps to pre-advise before travelling that this is common sense with the advantage of being good for business.


Your feedback on what works and doesn't would be greatly appreciated. Tips ad tricks, good stories and bad - somewhere there has to be some solid advice that can apply to everyone. 

Please send your comments or feedback to kate@hopeworks.org.nz and together we might be able to effect change for the next traveller.






 
 

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Kate Johns,
Feb 27, 2013, 5:57 PM
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Kate Johns,
Feb 27, 2013, 5:58 PM
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Kate Johns,
Feb 27, 2013, 5:58 PM
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