Who doesn’t want a good deal? Especially if you are a frequent traveler like I am, finding a big bargain when it comes to flights or hotels can feel like hitting the jackpot. However, many wheelchair travelers don’t realize the real price to be paid when we book through what’s called a third-party website in order to get that travel bargain. Here are some of the problems associated with booking travel through third parties and with points, and why whenever possible, you should always book accessible travel directly with an airline or hotel.
ADA Compliance Rules are Different
Most wheelchair users know that the vast majority of hotels in the United States need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Airlines also need to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act if they fly into or out of a US airport. In addition to physical compliance, the ADA stipulates that wheelchair users have to be able to reserve an accessible hotel room in the same way that an able-bodied person can reserve a regular hotel room. This means that the traveler should be able to go to the reservation website for Hilton or Radisson or Holiday Inn, for example, search for available accessible rooms, and book the accessible room they need using the same process as anyone else.
However, many travelers like to search for hotel rooms using third-party booking websites like Expedia, Travelocity, or Booking.com. Many times, these websites offer steep discounts for hotel rooms that are not matched by booking directly with the hotel. Sometimes these websites show the availability of accessible hotel rooms and sometimes they don’t. Many wheelchair travelers have had problems getting a guaranteed reservation for an accessible room using these websites. This is because third-party booking sites do not have to comply with ADA rules.
The latest ADA revision in 2010 specifies that a hotel’s accessible rooms must clearly be shown online, and only available to those with disabilities, until all other room types are reserved. Only after all other room types are booked can a hotel open up the booking process for accessible rooms to non-disabled website visitors. As of March 15, 2012, lodging businesses were required to comply with these new ADA website requirements regarding all reservation systems. However, the final rule limits the obligations of third-party reservation systems.
Basically, it is up to each hotel to provide the third-party booking system with its availability of accessible hotel rooms. They are supposed to provide an accurate inventory and communicate to these third-party channels when accessible rooms are no longer available. They must also make reasonable efforts to make accessible hotel rooms available through these third-party services, and must provide these sites with information concerning the accessible features of the hotel. If the hotel makes accessibility information available to the third-party provider, but the third-party provider fails to provide that information on their website, then the hotel or place of lodging will not be held responsible. You also can’t sue Expedia or Booking.com or Travelocity if an accessible room isn’t available when you arrive or doesn’t meet ADA requirements because they are not liable under the ADA.
Beware of Using Third-Party Points
One of the biggest benefits of being a frequent traveler is the ability to use points or miles to offset travel expenses. If you have accumulated points through a hotel or airline, it is pretty easy and straightforward to book accessible accommodations directly through the hotel or airline using their point system. When wheelchair users run into problems, however, is when they tried to use credit card points or miles to redeem travel.
Many years ago, I attempted to book an accessible hotel room in Las Vegas using credit card points through the ScoreCard Rewards program. When I did a search for available rooms at the hotel for my selected dates, there were no accessible hotel rooms showing. I contacted the hotel directly, and discovered that there were actually several accessible hotel rooms available for those dates. The hotel had failed to provide that availability information to the ScoreCard rewards program. The hotel and the credit card program don’t communicate with each other at all. In the end, what I had to do was book a regular hotel room through my credit card points system in order to use my points, and I had to make sure that the room was in the exact same category as the accessible room that was available. Then I had to contact the hotel so they could go into their system, retrieve my reservation, and change the type of room that was assigned to me. This process took three days. On top of that, neither the hotel or the credit card rewards program were liable under the ADA for putting me through this arduous process.
Cheap Flights May Mean Fewer Options
There is no doubt that air travel these days can be very expensive. Fortunately, there are several websites out there to help travelers reduce their flight expenses. However, wheelchair users and people with other disabilities who have special needs when they fly should be aware of the limitations that can be imposed by certain third-party booking systems for bargain airfares.
Pay very close attention to the routing and scheduling of plane tickets that you purchase through third-party websites. Many times they will combine flights on separate airlines. Sometimes they will fly into one city airport and out of a second city airport many miles away. There may or may not be accessible transportation available between airports. The first airline may be able to accommodate your wheelchair on their aircraft and the second might not. Some third-party booking bargains won’t allow you to choose your seat on a plane. This can be problematic if you require bulkhead seating for extra legroom or other specific seating needs particular to your disability. You may also have limited scheduling options. I always recommend to wheelchair users who need their mobility devices during layovers to book a flight with a minimum of a 90 minute layover. This isn’t always possible with bargain fares.
Your Recourse Options May Be Limited
Of course as an accessible travel agent, I will always suggest to wheelchair travelers that they work with me or another agent who can help them. Part of the reason is that I and other agents serve as a lifeline when things go wrong. If something goes wrong at a hotel or with an airline that you have booked direct, you have legal recourse with that hotel or airline. If you book through a third-party travel site, that is not always the case. You could spend days or weeks or months of listening to the hotel and the third-party point fingers at each other for who is at fault for screwing up your travel plans. None of that helps you in the moment when you arrive at your hotel, and Expedia tells you that the hotel was overbooked and they have to “walk” you to another property — that may not have accessible accommodations available for you.
Flight delays, weather, illness, and many other things can cause inadvertent changes to our travel plans. Many times if you book travel through a third-party website, you can’t make changes or seek day-of-travel assistance directly with the airline or hotel. If you have to go through the third-party, customer service experiences tend to be less than ideal and wait times can be very long. Most American hotel and airline customer service representatives have at least a basic understanding of what wheelchair accessibility means. However, the same can’t be said for reps at the other end of the phone for third-party booking companies.
Ask Yourself If It’s Worth the Savings
Every wheelchair user is different, and some wheelchair users have the physical flexibility to manage in unexpected situations, like having to sleep in a non-accessible hotel room when an ADA room was supposedly guaranteed. But before you pack yourself on the back for saving some money using a third-party booking site, find out exactly how much money you are saving, and if it’s really worth it to have potential doubts or uneasiness during your trip. It’s true that people can save hundreds of dollars through third-party booking sites, and that can make the difference between visiting the Bahamas or staying home in Minnesota in January.
However, you must weigh the benefits versus the cost. If you absolutely need a 100% — or as close as you can get to that — guarantee of hotel room accessibility or specific scheduling and seating on a flight, then I would highly recommend spending a little more money and booking direct with the hotel or airline.
Are you ready for your next wheelchair accessible travel adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!