I recently had an amazing time in London despite traveling with an electric wheelchair AND having a few drama-filled incidents. I learned a few things and wanted to share them with people in chairs who might want to travel there.
Prior to the trip, my main concerns focused on transportation and hotel room accessibility. I was not super concerned with museum or attraction accessibility mainly because I didn’t have my heart set on seeing anything specific. So I did spent a bit of time researching how to get around and where to stay.
Quick Summary (for those of you who don’t want to read below).
1. Almost all taxis in the city have ramps. Ramps can be steep but with help are possible.
2. Taxi to/from the airport was easy and did not require reservations.
3. If you are not a good or confident driver, do not rent a car there!
4. The bus was a great mode of transportation, and free for wheelchair users.
5. Ask about ticket discounts for you and your “caregiver.”
6. Most major attractions are accessible.
Hotels / Lodging
I was traveling with two other people and the preferred option was a room that had beds for each of us. Had there been only one or two of us, a regular hotel room would have sufficed. It was difficult finding a large hotel room that had two beds and a sofa bed or roll-away either because these rooms had been booked or the configuration is very limited. Finally we decided on getting a 2-bedroom suite for the time we would spend in London (split over two different hotels). It was slightly more expensive on a per-person basis, but we each ended up with our own rooms. I did have to sacrifice a roll-in shower since the suites unfortunately were not fully wheelchair accessible.
We also wanted to stay in a castle for at least one night. We ended up spending a night at Thornbury Castle, near Bristol. It was a small, 26-room castle but was exactly what we wanted. The accessible room was amazing, but the bed was very high off the ground. I ended up switching rooms with my friends since their bed was lower but it was still quite high. But overall it was one of those places where you would make sacrifices just to say you spent the night, and I did!
Overall we stayed in three places:
Park Plaza Westminster Bridge: Nice, modern hotel. Not near a lot of food options but easy on/off for bus transportation and close to a lot of attractions. Amazing 2br suite. Low, memory foam beds. I slept on the sofa bed since it was easier to move around on.
Thornbury Castle: About 2 hours west of London. Amazing building and grounds. Great rooms, food was just ok. Not much to do in the immediate area, but great for a day or two.
Plaza on the River Club: Smaller, boutique-feeling, nice sized rooms and great restaurant. Few food options nearby and a bit more time required to get to things. Lower beds, again I slept on the sofa bed since it was easier to move on.
I was excited that pretty much all of the taxis in London have ramps. We ran into a few instances where the driver was grumpy about using the ramp but they got over it! Most drivers were happy to help and this was important since the ramp was steep and required assistance. My anti-tip wheels made boarding the taxi without help difficult unless the curb was very high! There are also Mercedes Vito cabs, which are bigger from a storage standpoint but the headroom is worse than in the regular cab. I am a bit tall in my chair so I spent a bit of time crouched down when we were driving.
We did not pre-reserve a taxi to get from the airport to the hotel and this worked just fine. We exited the airport and waited in the taxi rank. Initially we thought we would only fit into the Mercedes Vito so we waited extra time for that. However, on the way back to the airport we took a regular black cab and we fit, even though it was tight. There were three of us with three large suitcases and carry-ons…and my wheelchair of course, which I stayed in.
The bus turned out to be our primary mode of transportation while there. Using Google Maps we had a fine time getting routes and the buses have built in ramps. Transportation is free for wheelchair users. Most of the time the bus worked fine. If the curb was too high or too low, I ran into some minor issues. The first was that the curb was too high and the ramp could not deploy. I rolled to a different bus stop instead. Another time the bus stop did not have a curb so the ramp was steep. I charged at the ramp but could not get up it. Luckily a few passers-by helped push me in. I noticed that people there were happy to help.
We rented a car in anticipation of spending 4 days on the road. Within an hour we had decided to look for a driver since it was crazy driving there! We eventually decided to turn in the car the next day and alter our trip a bit. It all worked out in the end but I learned that I will probably pay extra to hire a private driver if I cannot find an accessible tour. Unfortunately due to the last minute nature of things we could not find a private driver or accessible tour of the things we wanted to see. So my friends went themselves and I spent the day back in London doing some exploring.
We took the National Rail once from London to Cambridge. After buying tickets we went to the information booth and told them I needed a ramp to board. They gave me direction and sure enough someone was there to put the ramp down when it was time to board. Upon arriving at Cambridge station someone was waiting to put the ramp down again. It worked well. The only issue with trains is that the station may not be accessible, so make sure to check in advance if you are concerned. We avoided taking the tube and found the bus to be a fine alternative.
We bought the London Pass and it worked out but felt like we broke even on the 5 day pass. The London Eye was not included on the pass but we did get a discount for me and one other person. It was very accessible. We also went to Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, took a river cruise, went to a bunch of museums including the British Museum. Saw The Bodyguard Musical, went to Windsor Castle, and finally hit up Buckingham Palace and Harrod’s. Make sure to book your Buckingham Palace tickets in advance and make sure you tell them you need the accessible tour. You will be pleased with the results!
On the day I was to explore by myself, I broke my wheelchair charger. The cord got tangled up in my wheels as I was turning and I pulled it off the table. I saw a white flash, a puff of smoke, and it was dead. I had 4 days left on the trip and panicked immediately. After spending a few hours on the phone the best I could do was get a new charger delivered overnight to me at the hotel. Long story short, I am going to bring two chargers next time I travel!
The only other incident I had with my chair occurred on a particularly rainy day. I had brought an emergency plastic poncho with me (which is great to cover myself AND my chair controls). However I was not paying attention and a front wheel ran over the poncho while I was rolling and the whole thing was pretty much yanked off my body and got stuck up in the front wheel! Fortunately as I kept rolling the plastic stretched and broke and was eventually just rolling around my wheel as I went. I left some of it on the wheel for posterity. The rest we had to pull off by hand.
Other than that, the trip went smoothly. It was misty and rainy most of the time (middle of September) but we really only got stuck in a downpour once.
In hindsight I definitely worried about transit much more than I should have. The city had lots to see and things were easy to get to. Now go book your tickets!