A small but growing number of specialist tour operators and travel vendors have created vacation products that are both accessible and affordable
By Gina Shaw
Julia Cooper thought she’d found the perfect vacation: accessible and affordable. A low-level quadriplegic, with limited mobility in her arms, Cooper couldn’t believe her luck when her travel agent told her that a bargain-rate special through a well-known cruise ship company offered an accessible cabin.
BUT ON the day she arrived at the dock for her Caribbean getaway, Cooper discovered that the cabin was indeed accessible-but the bathroom wasn’t. She couldn’t fit her wheelchair through the bathroom door. A disappointed Cooper had to cancel her cruise.
When you have a disability, planning a vacation that’s truly accessible—and that doesn’t require a second mortgage on your home—sometimes seems impossible. Until recently, you could only find wheelchair-accessible rooms and other adaptations for people with disabilities in “upper bracket” accommodations.
But that has begun to change. “There’s a trend toward more affordable, accessible travel,” says Carol Randall, who manages the Access-Able Travel Source (www.access-able.com), one of the Web’s premier resources for travelers with disabilities. Carol has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair or scooter on her worldwide travels. “When things first started becoming accessible, even in this country, it was mostly the high-end hotels that had accessible rooms,” she says. “Now hotels like the budget-priced Microtel Inns & Suites are priding themselves on the fact that they’ve almost all been built since 1995, and they have good accessible rooms.” The key to planning an affordable and accessible vacation, Randall advises, is finding travel agents and other such vendors who are willing to consider your individual needs-not all disabilities are alike or require the same level of service-and your budget at the same time.
THREE AFFORDABLE VACATIONS FOR TRAVELERS WITH DISABILITIES
Cruise Away to Alaska: Cruising remains the number one accessible vacation, and the two cruise lines that consistently win accolades from disabled travelers are Princess and Royal Caribbean. “Princess was the first line to issue a brochure that showed accessibility on all their ships,” says Joan Diamond, owner of Nautilus Tours and Cruises (800/797-6004), who specializes in travel planning for people with physical disabilities. “They’re really trying to make their shore excursions accessible, too.” Royal Caribbean actually hired a woman in a wheelchair to make one of their major commercials, reports Mark Jackson of Discovery Hills Travel (800/750-5975), another leading specialist. “She turned to them after filming and said, ‘Okay, now where’s the hard part?’ They told her, ‘You’ve done it.’” New Royal Caribbean ships even have wheelchair lifts for access to the pools, and many also feature services like alert kits and TDDs for people with hearing impairments. Alaskan cruises frequently offer the most disabled-friendly shore excursions. “They even have a helicopter company that can accommodate wheelchair passengers,” says Diamond. To snatch a fully adapted cabin at bargain rates, plan ahead and work with a travel agent that specializes in cruises for people with disabilities, like Discovery Hills (see above), Nautilus (see above), or Accessible Journeys (800/846-4537), another disabled-travel specialist that books accessible group Alaska cruises on Princess and other lines. With enough advance planning, you can nail down a gorgeous outside stateroom with roll-in shower (and sometimes a balcony!) for a weeklong Inside Passage cruise for $1,300.
Hit the Trail at an Accessible Dude Ranch: You can be one of the first guests at Stagecoach Trails, a barrier-free guest ranch that opened its gates in December, 2000. Owners Dan and Carrie Rynders, whose daughter is disabled, offer a range of riding programs designed to suit the needs of any disabled traveler, from ring riding to trail riding. Rates for a week’s stay range from $790 to $1,035 and include meals, riding, and a heated pool and hot tub. Contact Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch: Doc Holliday Road, Yucca, AZ 86438, 866/444-4477, www.stgr.com.
Paddle Your Own Canoe-Through the Everglades: A six-day canoe
trip among the “10,000 islands” of Florida’s Everglades costs only $745
with accessible adventure specialists Wilderness Inquiry (800/728-0719).
WI’s mission: outdoor adventure travel for people from all walks of life.
Disabled and able-bodied travelers explore the outdoors together, whether
they’re kayaking or dogsledding. Financial aid for travelers and their
personal-care assistants is available. As a nonprofit organization, supported
by charitable donations and partnerships with other nonprofits, WI can
keep prices low and trip access wide open.
CUT COSTS ON YOUR OWN
The biggest added cost of a fully accessible trip is an adapted vehicle-a van or bus with access for wheelchairs and scooters. If you need this kind of transportation, a group tour whittles down the cost of these pricey vehicles. But if you’re mobile enough to transfer into and out of a car, try planning independent holidays at rates that would make Scrooge smile. “If you can get by without an adapted vehicle, you’re going to have a much more affordable trip, especially overseas,” says Laurel Van Horn, former executive director of the Society for Accesible Travel & Hospitals (212/447-7284).
It’s worth a little money to hire a travel agent that specializes in travelers with disabilities-one who’s willing to put together an independent trip for you. They have the expertise to make sure you don’t wind up like Julia Cooper, in accommodations that are billed as “accessible” but don’t meet your needs. Discovery Hills (800/750-5975), Travel Turtle Tours (800/453-9195), and Accessible Journeys (800/846-4537) will work with you on “go where you want, when you want” trips both in the United States and abroad.
So where should you go? If you’re looking for bargains and accessibility in the United States, go west! “If you’re on a budget and want to get out and do something, I always recommend good ol’ Las Vegas,” says Mark Jackson. “All the MGM Mirage properties, for example, are fully accessible-they even have specialized lifts at all their pools to help people in wheelchairs into the water.” MGM Mirage hotels also offer loaner wheelchairs, in-room TDD and visual phone alerts for the deaf, and ramped access to pools, restaurants, and public areas. And since MGM Mirage set that standard, most of the other hotels in Sintown have been competing to measure up-so if you don’t like the package you find at one Vegas hotel, try another. You don’t have to gamble to love Las Vegas, Jackson says. “The showrooms are accessible, and a lot of the attractions are accessible, so what better place to go if you really want to have a fun vacation?” Accessible van transportation from the Las Vegas airport costs about $7.50 round-trip (Coach USA Gray Line Express Shuttle, 702/739-5700; Bell Transportation, 702/739-7990) and the city buses in Las Vegas are all accessible as well (702/CAT-RIDE).
Travelers with disabilities also rate free lifetime admission to all U.S. national parks and national forests, thanks to the Golden Access Passport. Available at all national park sites (you can’t order it in advance), this pass permits you and a carload of traveling companions free access to parks from Acadia to Zion, as well as a 50 percent discount on camping, boating, and other facilities. And the natural wonders of many national parks are surprisingly accessible. “Some of the facilities around the Grand Canyon are very good,” says Adam Lloyd, founder of Gimp on the Go, a Web-based travel resource for people with disabilities (www.gimpon thego.com). “Yellowstone is fairly good, whereas Bryce Canyon is more difficult to get around.”
For a German family whose son has multiple sclerosis, Mark Jackson arranged a three-week independent trip through Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and other parts of the western U.S., using an accessible van and a ramped pop-up tent camper, for just $2,100 for the entire trip.
Gina Shaw is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who specializes in travel and health issues and has traveled for years with her polio-disabled father.
A tool box for travelers with disabilities
These travel agencies, Web sites, and other resources can help you plan a vacation that meets all your access needs without draining your bank account.
• Accessible Journeys (800/846-4537 or 610/521-0339): For over 15 years, owner Howard McCoy has specialized in travel for people with disabilities. The company is now the largest group cruise organizer for wheelchair travelers and plans more than 40 tours and cruises each year.
• Access-Able Travel Source (303/232-2979)
• Discovery Hills Travel (800/750-5975)
• Gimp on the Go (www.gimponthego.com) Editor Adam Lloyd, a quadriplegic, has collected a wealth of travel tips and destination reports from travelers around the world. The site's centerpiece is a database of accessibility information on hotels, restaurants, attractions, and transportation in 17 U.S. cities.
• Nautilus Tours and Cruises (800/797-6004 or 818/591-3159). Trips for persons with physical disabilities and those seeking a slower-paced tour.
• Neverland Adventures (800/717-8226) Co-owner and founder Andy Huesing, who has a spinal cord injury, has taken disabled travelers hot-air ballooning and bungee jumping. "Accessibility should never mean compromise or having to pay more to get it," Huesing says.
• SATH (212/447-7284): Founded in 1976, SATH is an advocate for the interests of travelers with disabilities.
• Travel Turtle Tours (800/453-9195 or 520/204-1781) After losing a leg to cancer in 1990, Carroll Driscoll was inspired to found this small tour company for people with disabilities that brings new meaning to the words "personal attention."
• Wilderness Inquiry (800/728-0719)
Copyright © 2003 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.