Thanks to the Internet, pretty much anyone can make their own travel arrangements, from researching destinations to picking the “perfect” seat on a plane (if such a thing exists). With the advent of websites like Expedia and Airbnb, many travelers and industry observers alike thought maybe travel agents would go the way of the dinosaur. However, the new trend is niche travel and the specialized agents that come with that. More than ever, wheelchair users can benefit from the unique expertise of those agents. Here are some guidelines for when and why you should really turn to an accessible travel agent for help making trip arrangements.
You’ve never traveled with a wheelchair before.
There’s a first time for everything, and that includes wheelchair travel. Some people are born with a disability and need a mobility aid early on, so it’s the parents trying to figure everything out. Sometimes you’re just getting older and realize you need to buy or rent a scooter for big cruise ships and long distances. Or you get paralyzed in an accident and want to continue to lead an active lifestyle with a manual chair. In any circumstance, traveling – and especially flying – with a wheelchair can be a very daunting prospect. Horror stories abound about airline damage to chairs, hotel rooms that bill themselves as accessible and really aren’t, and so on. Using an accessible travel agent when booking your first trip, whether it’s just a hotel room across town or a cruise to Alaska – can really help alleviate the anxiety that comes with a new travel experience.
Your destination is a country without access laws.
Here in the United States, we’re somewhat spoiled by having the Americans with Disabilities Act to help improve wheelchair access in public spaces, even though it’s far from perfect. Many other countries, like the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany to name just a few, have similar access laws (and in some cases even better than those in the US). But just because a country has access laws doesn’t mean it’s easy to find or make reservations for accessible accommodations. In countries without access laws, settling in for the night in a hotel room with a roll-in shower may be downright impossible. Language barriers and different interpretations of what “accessible” means to hospitality workers can result in some unfortunate surprises upon arriving at your destination. An experienced agent will know how to determine the true accessibility of a hotel room, find attractions with accessible entrances, and provide information about accessible transportation.
It often doesn’t cost you anything extra.
And when it does, it’s well worth the expense. A lot of people don’t know how travel agents earn their salaries, and as a result think it will cost them a lot of money to use one. In many cases, using an accessible travel agent won’t cost you one red cent. When agents book hotel rooms for their clients, they get paid a commission – usually a percentage of the cost of your stay – directly from the hotel. When you book a cruise with an agent, they get paid a commission directly from the cruise line. There are some occasions where agents (myself included) charge a research or planning fee. If your trip is more complex, it can take many hours, emails, and long distance phone calls to finalize your arrangements. Commissions sometimes don’t compensate for all this time, so you are essentially paying the agent a fee to do all of the tedious legwork for you. Can you find an equal or lower rate or fare than an agent? Maybe. But their connections and experience can sometimes save you money, get you free upgrades, or onboard credits that you wouldn’t be able to obtain yourself, and often at no extra cost.
Your trip has a lot of moving parts.
In other words, it’s complicated. First, you need to take an 8-hour flight across the Atlantic. Then you need a wheelchair taxi to be waiting for you at the airport to take you to a hotel. Then you need to take a train a few days later to a neighboring country and ensure that a platform worker is available with a ramp to help you board the train. Plus, you need accessible tours in two different cities and a list of museums and restaurants with ramped entrances. Welcome to most of my own trips! In all seriousness, I know exactly how much work this takes because I’ve done it dozens of times for myself. However, there have also been many occasions where I just hand over my credit card, ask a fellow agent or accessible tour company to make it happen, and then I just show up with everything prepared and arranged for me. If time, details, and the Internet are not your friends, then an accessible agent will be if you’re planning a complex trip.
You’re helping out a small business (or a friend).
I think some people imagine that travel agents work for these huge agencies in cubicle farms all wearing headsets and answering phones all day while pulling in a steady salary. The truth is, most agents are independent contractors who run their own small businesses and are just affiliated with a host agency. Many of us work from home, from only a few hours a week to full time, or as a side gig to another full-time job. Travel agents have a strong passion for both travel itself and for making other people’s dreams come true. I’ve been so lucky in my life to have visited 36 countries – 16 of them as a full-time wheelchair user. I know first-hand how amazing it feels to experience a famous landmark in the same way as a person who can walk, and I want to do that for other wheelchair users. By using an accessible travel agent for even your most basic arrangements, you’re helping a small business succeed. If you’re able-bodied and have a friend who’s a travel agent, help him or her out by having them book your next trip – especially since it likely won’t cost you anything extra, and they may be able to get you a better deal.
We’ve been there, so we know who to call.
This doesn’t mean that able-bodied agents can’t help wheelchair users make accessible arrangements. However, working with an accessible travel agent – especially one who also uses a wheelchair – provides a level of specialization and experience that’s hard to match. I’ve stayed in accessible hotel rooms and worked with accessible tour companies all over the world, so I know who to reach out to for the best arrangements – especially if it’s in a city or country I haven’t visited personally. When we contact a hotel, we know what questions to ask to ensure true accessible accommodations. We know what companies to call to have rental mobility or medical equipment available for you in your room or ship’s cabin. We can partner with local agents and tour companies to give you the best authentic experience at your destination. I know to call the cruise line and ask if there is a threshold to cross to get to the balcony in your accessible cabin. Little details like these can make all the difference on your next trip.
If you’d like to find out more about what an accessible travel agent can offer when planning your next adventure, come visit my agency website at Spin the Globe/Travel!