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The Truth About Online Booking for Wheelchair Users

Nobody is ambivalent about the internet. Some folks claim it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, while others blame it for the downfall of modern society. Regardless of your feelings about the internet, it’s a great tool for travel junkies. But is on-line booking a realistic option for wheelchair-users? Is it really the best way to get a good deal? The answer is a conditional yes. In reality there isn’t a one-click method; but you can use the internet to save money and to ensure appropriate access.

Let’s start with airfares. Airline websites and travel portals are the best places to book air tickets on-line if you have access needs. Shop around, find the best fare, then book on-line. Most of the major websites even have places on their booking forms to specify your access needs, such as wheelchair-assistance, accessible seating or an on-board wheelchair. After you’ve made your reservation, call the airline to make sure your access requests are noted.

It’s a pretty easy process, however there is one type of website you need to avoid — the auction or name-your-price website. These websites go by many different names and are promoted by scads of celebrities, but collectively I call them pig-in-a-poke.coms.

At pig-in-the-poke.coms you enter your departure city and your destination along with your credit card number. Then you state how much you are willing to pay for the ticket. Finally, you receive a response indicating if you bid has been accepted. Once your bid is accepted, your credit card is immediately charged.

The catch is, you can’t chose the carrier, routing, aircraft or even the time of day you travel. In fact, you don’t find out these details until after your bid is accepted and your credit card is charged. Although this process may be acceptable for travelers who don’t have access needs, it’s a big gamble for anybody who does, as these factors can determine the accessibility of the flight. So just say no when it comes to pig-in-the-poke.coms

Of course, there’s a lot more to travel than just booking an airline ticket. It’s also possible to book an accessible room on-line, but only if you know what websites to avoid. Hotel consolidators top the bad boys list. Why?

Well, first off hotel consolidators only treat reservations for accessible rooms as requests for accessible rooms; however more importantly the reservations are held in the consolidator’s name (not the traveler’s name) until approximately 24 to 48 hours prior to the traveler’s arrival.

In other words if you were to call the hotel directly to confirm your reservation (and to make sure an accessible room is blocked for you) in most cases your name would not even be on file. Consolidators book blocks of accessible rooms, and specific rooms are not assigned to travelers until the last minute. In most cases travelers get pot luck.

Worse yet, when you discover this fact and realize that in all likelihood you won’t end up with an accessible room, you can’t cancel without paying a substantial cancellation fee (which of course is automatically charged to your credit card). So basically, you pay in advance but you aren’t guaranteed anything. Not exactly a fair deal, is it?

How do you spot a hotel consolidator? It’s pretty easy. They all require prepayment with a credit card and most have pretty stiff cancellation fees.

On the other hand, many travel portals offer a professional interface that enables users to book accessible rooms on-line. The major advantage of using a professional interface on a travel portal is that you deal directly with the hotel. You request a reservation, the request goes to the hotel, and you get a confirmation number back; all within a matter of seconds.

The downside to all this is that sometimes it’s hard to tell a travel portal with a professional interface from a hotel consolidator just by looking at the on-line booking form. Both forms ask you for the same information. There are however two big differences. One is that, aside from a no-show fee, you won’t encounter a cancellation fee when using a professional interface. And two, when you use a professional interface, you don’t have to pay the hotel charges in advance.

The best way to book an accessible room on-line is to make a reservation directly on the hotel’s website. Why? Because you can be assured you are dealing directly with the property. After you make your reservation on-line, call the hotel and confirm the access details of your reservation.

In the end if you shop around, watch for sales and stay away from travel consolidators and pig-in-the-poke.coms, you’ll probably find some good deals on-line. But remember, you need to follow up every on-line reservation with a call to the hotel or airline to confirm you access requests. Yes, it takes a little longer, but it’s the only way to make sure your access needs are met. In reality, the internet is great tool for travelers; but remember, it’s not the only tool.

A recognized expert on accessible travel, Candy is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She also shares insights, information and industry updates about accessible travel on her Barrier Free Travels blog. Candy can be contacted at Candy at EmergingHorizons dot com.