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Traveling is a challenge for seniors and those requiring wheelchair assistance in the United States and can be even more challenging in Spain. This article provides suggestions for traveling to or through Spain by plane or train that may help, especially if you are visiting from the United States.
AIRPORTS in Spain
The major airport terminals, such as Madrid and Barcelona, can be very spread out and involve a lot of walking. Electric shuttle carts common in many U.S. airports are nonexistent or rare in Spanish airports, so don't expect to just hop on a shuttle to get to baggage claim or your connecting gate.
Fortunately, the airports have wheelchair services which, in the past, were usually excellent. However, recent experiences by some travelers suggest airports may be understaffed to keep up with demand.
First, be sure your airline, whether a U.S. or European carrier, has you confirmed for wheelchair assistance when you buy your ticket. Most Spanish airports require at least 48 or 72 hours advance notice for wheelchair service, so if you are not sure your carrier has put in the request, contact your carrier by phone or on-line well in advance of your departure date.
Arrivals: when you arrive from the U.S. or elsewhere you may have a wheelchair at the plane or at the gate at the end of the jetway or there may be a special van. For example, if you arrive at Terminal 1 in Madrid, you'll likely be met at the plane exit or at the gate.
If you arrive at Terminal 4S in Madrid, your plane might park on the tarmac rather than at a jetway. If so, there will be a special van that will drive you to the 4S building for passport control and, after going though the passport check, there is supposed to be another special van or bus to go to Terminal 4 for baggage claim. (Terminals T4 and 4S are quite far apart and connected by a train.)
Some travelers have experienced long delays when arriving at 4S because of a lack of enough wheelchair personnel. If you can walk moderate distances, you may want to just abandon their service. Just on the other side of the passport check, take the elevator down to the train which takes you from 4S to Terminal 4. When you get to T4, it is a relatively short walk to the baggage area. Luggage carts are free --- but inconveniently all queued together in a few spots. The baggage area is quite large and can involve some walking to find your carousel. Once out of baggage/customs, the terminal is compact with a moderate walk to the start of the taxi line, for example.
Changing planes: If you are changing planes in Madrid, Barcelona or other major airports, BE SURE YOU ALLOW ENOUGH TIME BETWEEN FLIGHTS. Considering the recent spotty wheelchair service when arriving at Madrid and Barcelona, even an hour may not be enough time for connecting flights.
If you have to wait until all passengers on your plane have exited before the assistant shows up to get you off the plane (which happens, for example, if parked on the tarmac at Madrid T4S), that wait time alone can take 20-30 minutes. Be sure your airline personnel know that you requested wheelchair service for your connection.
Departing: If you are departing from Madrid, Barcelona or other major airports, wheelchair service is likely to be more dependable compared to arrival. Two things to note when you are checking in:
A) If there is a long check-in line, don't hesitate to bypass it and tell an agent that you have requested wheelchair service. Or if you see the airline's customer service counter, tell them of your need. They will usually get you checked in without standing a long time in line.
B) Typically, there is very limited or no sitting areas near the check-in counters. When you get closer to the security section, there may be more seating and some yellow seats designated for handicapped.
If you are early for your flight, the wheelchair assistant may take you to a small "staging" area in the gate concourse where you may wait until someone takes you to your actual departure gate. In Madrid, for example, this waiting area may not be convenient to rest rooms or any food shops. However, the staff are usually accommodating if you need to stop at the toilets or want to pick up some food.
If your plane is not boarding from a jetway but is parked on the tarmac, then the wheelchair personnel will likely take you to a special van that will drive you to the plane. (The other passengers will board a bus.) These vans have built in lifts that raise the van compartment to the height of the plane's entrance so that you don't have to climb steps to the plane. If you require a wheelchair, this can be convenient. Unfortunately, the vans are not air conditioned and can be very uncomfortable in summer, especially if the van sits for some time before departing. If you are reasonably mobile, you may want to use the regular bus to the plane and walk up the steps with the other passengers.
Luggage carts: Unlike U.S. airports, luggage carts are usually free. In Barcelona, there are even free mini luggage carts in the gate concourse for use after going through security, that is, between security and your gate. These have to stay in the gate concourse and you then can switch to a regular cart in baggage claim, or vice versa.
Navigating the Barcelona airport: About 70% of flights to Barcelona arrive at Terminal 1 and virtually all the major airlines arrive here. The T1 layout is complicated, involves extensive walking (some of it unnecessary) and is not senior or handicap friendly. It is sort of shaped like a bird with gates in the wings and in a very long neck. Gates A and D are on the north wing, C and E on the south wing, and B gates are in the very long neck in the middle. If you decide to walk to or from your gate, there are some moving sidewalks in the concourses but not in the shopping area.
The B wing is very long and deserves special mention. If you arrive at the B concourse and start following the signs to baggage, you will find that when you get to the main terminal, there will be signs pointing both to the right AND to the left to baggage claim.
It doesn't really matter which direction you take -- just be aware that both routes involve needless walking. This area of the terminal is designed so you will be exposed to the restaurants and shops. So, if you go RIGHT you will walk past many shops and when you reach the end of the row of shops, the signs to baggage will then point LEFT taking you back to the middle of the terminal -- again, past many more shops. That circuitous route adds about a city block or more of walking.
You can avoid this needlessly long route by noting, when you reach the terminal area, that you can go straight ahead into one of the stores which have entrances on both front and back and then exit on the other side of the store, still in the middle of the terminal. You will then find signs pointing straight ahead to baggage.
Of course, they don't want you to cut through the shops, but it is doubtful if anyone will object, especially if you are obviously a senior or using a cane. If anyone does object, then demand they get a wheelchair (silla de ruedas) for you.
If your flight is departing from the B concourse and you decide to walk to your gate, the same issue of excessive walking arises, as discussed above. Instead of heading right or left after you leave security, head straight through the shops that seem to block the way. The B concourse is exactly in the middle of the terminal. For gates A,C,D and E, you do have to head right or left.
One final note, the airport personnel who provide the wheelchair services are usually very conscientious, professional and possibly overworked, as well. Unlike the U.S., they do not expect a tip and may even be a bit insulted if you offer a gratuity. Just thank them for their help.
TRAINS in Spain
Trains can be a viable and interesting alternative way to travel for seniors and handicapped if you can handle unexpected obstacles. However, be aware that, like most countries in Europe, trains and stations in Spain are not very handicap or senior friendly. For long trips, flying is likely a better option for those who must use a wheelchair or cannot tolerate at least moderate walking.
Handicap / wheelchair accessibility:
Wheelchair service, such as provided at airports, is virtually non-existent at Spanish train stations. Theoretically, there is a way to arrange for use of your own wheelchair on some coaches that have ramps or lifts on some trains. It is rare to see this being used. There is information on the Renfe.com website -- on the English page, select "Passengers" then look for "Atendo service" under "Useful Information"; then buried in the left column of the main ATENDO page is "Informacion al Cliente" where phone numbers are given to arrange for service. (Unfortunately, the page is only in Spanish.) Note that if you need a wheelchair, then there is a different number to call. There does not appear to be an advance notice requirement, although it says to call when you arrange your ticket, so advanced notice is highly advisable. On the ATENDO page there are also links for information about specific stations.
Except for some commuter trains, expect to have to go up two or three steps to get on the coach, even on the newest high speed trains. Some commuter trains are "double decker" so that you have to go up or down steps to get to a seat. Be especially careful to hold onto the railing when using these stairs as the train may suddenly start or stop.
Some newer commuter trains have walk-on coaches like a subway car with no steps or only one step (depending on the station platform). If your schedule is flexible and the train that arrives has steps to get on, you can try waiting for the next train hoping it will be a newer model. There does not appear to be a way to determine which trains are newer from the timetables.
The larger train stations have escalators and elevators which are usually working. Smaller stations may or may not have an escalator or elevator. For example, the small station at Sitges, a popular tourist village near Barcelona, now has escalators and an elevator. But the station at Figueres, also a popular tourist destination because of the Dali museum, has neither elevators nor escalators. Because arriving or departing can require you use a tunnel to get to or from the proper platform, you will likely have to use stairs at some smaller stations.
Discount card: If you are 60 or over and plan to use local, regional or high speed trains, consider getting a Tarjeta Dorado discount card for 6 euros. It can save 20-40% on most train tickets. Details about the card can be found on-line at www.renfe.com under fares and discounts.
You can get the card (bring your passport) when you are in Spain at a train station ticket window or at most travel agents. In spite of what some "information" booth staff or travel agents may tell you, you DO NOT have to be a Spanish or EU resident to get the card. A recent computer change for how agents access the Renfe system may have a bug that rejects U.S. or other non-Spanish passports. Hopefully, that will get fixed. So, if the travel agent has problems processing your application, go to a train station, preferably one of the smaller, less crowded ones with an agent window.
High Speed Trains: For a different view of Spain, the high speed (up to 180 mph) AVE long distance trains offer an interesting alternative to flying and a better view of the countryside. Here are some tips for buying your ticket:
Depending on the class of service, prices can be as much or more than flying economy class. The Tarjeta Dorado card can make a big difference here.
The price can vary a lot depending on how far in advance you book your trip and what time of day. For example, if you book two weeks to >30 days in advance, there can be a limited number of heavily discounted tickets available for certain departure times.
Even if not booked early, you can check timetables and prices on-line on the official Spanish website (renfe.com). For example, the AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid may show as much as 50% lower fares for some departure times compared to a departure only an hour before or after.
Most, but not all, trains have tourist, tourist plus and business (preferente) classes. Tourist class has two seats on each side, tourist plus has 2+1 seating with reserved seats.
Business class may include lunch or dinner, which reports suggest are mediocre at best and not worth the extra cost. The seats in preferente are indeed a bit nicer, but seats in tourista plus are comfortable, too. Business class coaches are typically #1 and #2 which can be at the near end or far end of the train when you depart. In any case, your walk to (or from) these coaches can be very, very long, at the beginning or at the end of your trip -- as much as a large city block. Tourist or tourist plus coaches closer to the middle of the train can be a compromise in terms of walking. Note that the cafeteria coach is typically #3 or #4.
Because of all the price options, it is advisable to check on-line to determine which departure times you want. (And the pricing can change from day to day.) Local travel agents will be patient enough to check alternative times for you but window agents at busy stations may not be as patient. In either case, if your timing is flexible, be sure to ask the prices for adjacent times in the timetable.
Technically, you can book high speed and regional trains on-line (and using the Tarjeta Dorado discount, too). However, at least in the past, the Renfe website has been reported as notoriously fickle and temperamental, e.g. slow and sometimes not able to process your purchase, making you to start all over from the beginning.
If you're not internet savvy, the safest route is to buy at a travel agent or a station (or before you leave the U.S., see below). Although agencies are gradually disappearing, you can find them in the larger cities and tourist towns. Even some department stores, such as El Corte Ingles, have travel departments.
You can also buy train tickets on-line before you leave the U.S. using booking websites such as eurail.com or raileurope.com (which may behave better than Renfe's website). You may not necessarily get discounts for advanced booking but you can be confident you have reservations before you depart for Europe. Be sure to allow time for delivery of your tickets by mail if electronic tickets are not available. Also note that train prices and schedules may not be available more that 60 days in advance.
Specific train stations:
Sants in Barcelona. Sants is the largest station and handles high speed, regional and commuter trains. The high speed trains leave from the main floor through a security check (which can be slow sometimes) on the right side after you enter the terminal.
There is only one large public toilet (Sanifare) on the extreme right side past the shops closer to the tracks; it was recently remodeled, is clean, and vastly improved, although there is a 50 cent fee. If you have a business AVE ticket, there is a very nice air conditioned AVE lounge with refreshments and toilets.
The station is hot in the summer with very poor AC. The commuter, regional and medium distance trains are downstairs (sometimes cooler downstairs than up). If you want to get to the Metro (subway), it can be reached without going outdoors. Line 5 is virtually in the station, but line 1 is a two block walk (underground) -- both stations with steps. Always assume you willl need to use stairs if you use the Metro in any city. Get taxis at the taxi stand on the opposite side from the terminal entrance (they won't stop for you on the main entrance side).
Atocha in Madrid. A modern station with good AC. Check out the tropical garden and turtles on the lower level. Figure to arrive about 45 minutes before your train. There are only a few seats in the departure waiting area for long distance trains and none specifically for elderly or handicapped. Arriving at Atocha on an AVE train involves a long walk to the terminal but fortunately there are several moving sidewalks. As usual, there is a specific taxi line outside.
Luggage. It is worth noting that even the newer high speed trains are not equipped well to handle large luggage. On AVE trains, there is a small area at the end of each coach for suitcases (best suited for carry on size) and the only other place is in the overhead rack. And you have to lug it up steps to board the coach, too. Train personnel standing by the coach entrances may not volunteer to help you get your suitcase on board unless you specifically ask them. On other trains, the available areas for luggage are even smaller. If you have to travel with large luggage or more than one suitcase per person, flying might be a better option.
Trains can suddenly slow down or speed up, especially when arriving or departing. Apparently some conductors think they are driving a sports car! Best to NOT try to walk when the train is approaching or leaving a station until it has come to a complete stop. You may think it is coming to a gradual stop and then the conductor hits the brakes at the last second, especially on commuter trains. Hold onto handrails, poles and seats when you are navigating.
By the way, commuter trains and subways generally have designated seating for handicapped. There is a reasonable chance someone will offer you a seat, especially if you are using a cane.
Also beware of pickpockets, especially on crowded commuter and tourist trains and at busy train stations. Wear a money belt under your clothes, for example, and only over-the-shoulder purses.