Accessible ground transportation is one of the most important components of any trip because without it, you can literally fall flat on your face. You can also be stuck at the airport, trapped at your hotel, or segregated and separated from the rest of your party. The availability of accessible ground transportation can literally make or break a trip. It’s also one of the major components of seamless travel, a term I coined many years ago while researching a story on San Diego. Seamless travel is defined as “travel without any gaps inaccessible services or facilities.” Quite simply, it means you can get from the airport, train, or bus station to your accessible accommodations. And it means once you get there, you won’t have to sit in your hotel room because the tourist attractions or public facilities are not accessible. If you’re talking about cruises, seamless travel means that cruise ships, as well as shore excursions and transfers, should all be accessible. Obviously, we have a long way to go in making seamless travel a reality; however, I believe it’s a very viable goal. Until seamless travel becomes a reality, it pays to thoroughly investigate your accessible ground transportation options before you leave home. This will not only save you a lot of time and trouble but in some cases, it will also save you money.
Because many people travel by air, finding accessible airport transportation is a top priority. Your options vary depending on your destination, and in most cases even on your arrival time. You can do some advance research, but it’s not a foolproof system. The best advice I can give you is to do your research, know your options, and make advance arrangements whenever possible—and be prepared for unexpected delays. If you are staying at a hotel, find out if they offer courtesy airport transportation. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), hotels that offer courtesy transportation must also provide accessible transportation free of charge. The catch is that most front desk personnel don’t know this fact; so you have to know your rights and learn how to advocate for yourself. I shudder to think how many people are charged for this service because they don’t know that it must be provided free of charge. In fact, that’s exactly what (almost) happened to my friend Dana. When Dana first made her hotel reservation, she inquired about airport transfers. The clerk told her that they did have a courtesy shuttle, but it wasn’t accessible. Before Dana had a chance to express her disappointment, the clerk chimed in and said he could make arrangements for her with a local accessible transportation company. Dana was relieved that somebody else could take care of the details. The clerk called her back later and told her that everything had been arranged and even gave her a confirmation number. He also told Dana that it would cost $25. At first, this seemed fine to Dana. Of course, she blew a gasket when I told her that, legally speaking, the hotel could not charge her for this service. She immediately called the manager and registered a complaint. The manager apologized profusely and told her that of course there would be no charge for her airport transfers. Remember, if a property offers free airport transfers, they must also provide accessible airport transfers at no charge. Additionally, they cannot charge guests for this service, even if they have to contract it out. Don’t let hotels off the hook on this issue, and if you run into problems (like Dana did), ask to speak to the manager. Management is usually well educated on ADA matters. Many cab companies now have at least some accessible vehi cles in their fleet. If you are staying at a hotel, you may be able to glean a little information about the local cab companies from the desk clerk. Call the companies directly and ask if they operate any accessible vehicles. If not, ask if they know of any local companies that do have accessible vehicles. Be sure to specify your needs when talking to a cab company. Some cab companies operate ramp-equipped vans, while others consider a cab with a large trunk an accessible vehicle. If you can travel with a folding wheelchair, it greatly increases your accessible ground transportation options. If this is the case, you can use a standard taxi as long as your wheelchair fits in the trunk. It’s also a good idea to carry a transfer board with you. You may be able to make advance arrangements for an accessible cab. This policy varies, and most companies only accept reservations 24 to 48 hours in advance. If a cab won’t suit your needs, find out if any airport transportation companies serve the area. Again, some of these companies do have accessible vehicles. The service varies from company to company. The good news about airport transportation companies is that you can always book them in advance. The bad news is that sometimes they show up without the accessible vehicle. My friend John travels with his Hoyer lift and uses airport transportation companies frequently. John reports that there seems to be no consistency in service, because even national companies are locally managed. Sometimes John has a great experience, and sometimes it’s the pits. The best strategy is to call and reconfirm your reservation at least 24 hours in advance and, of course, remind the company that you do need an accessible vehicle. Super Shuttle is usually a good airport transportation option if it is available in your city. Granted, there were some access problems with this company in the 1990s, but as the result of a 2002 ADA settlement, Super Shuttle added more accessible vehicles to their fleet. Now, you can even make reservations for accessible transportation on their website at supershuttle.com. It’s important to note that all accessible services require at least 24 hours advance notice. Of course, accessible airport transportation is far from flawless. For example, take Paula and Mike’s recent experience at Miami International Airport (MIA). Paula and Mike planned ahead and made reservations with a shuttle company for accessible airport transfers. Upon arrival at MIA, Paula called the company as instructed. She was told a vehicle was on the way. Two hours later Paula and Mike were still waiting. The problem? Well, it seems the shuttle driver had never driven the accessible vehicle, so he wasn’t aware of the extra clearance required for the high-top van. Somehow, he managed to wedge the vehicle under a pedestrian overcrossing at MIA. He did manage to extricate the van, but in the interim he also attracted the attention of the police, the National Guard, and a good number of curious onlookers. Suffice it to say that, in this day and age of heightened security, the police took a while to sort out the matter. And of course the shuttle company had no other accessible vehicles to dispatch. Three hours after they touched down at MIA, Paula and Mike finally made it to their hotel. So, what’s a traveler to do? Plan ahead and be aware of the weakest link. Always have a back up plan when accessible transportation is involved. Never schedule tight connections when accessible ground transportation is involved. Public transportation is another option, although I tend to shy away from buses. There’s nothing worse than riding on a crowded bus after a long plane trip. Plus, buses are at the mercy of traffic, and if you hit it at the wrong time of day, a 15-minute trip can easily turn into a 45-minute ordeal. Find out if there is a local rail or metro station at the airport, and if it stops close to your hotel. Contact the public transportation authority to find out if it is accessible. Many airports have great metro service. I personally recommend taking the metro from Ronald Regan Airport in Washington, D.C. It’s convenient, accessible, and very affordable. If you arrive late at night, however, I’d stick to private transportation. It’s never a good idea to wander around a large city, suitcase in tow, after dark. One of the big drawbacks to metro systems is that most of the stations are located underground. Access is usually by elevator; however, most elevators are routinely down for maintenance at one time or another. Many transit systems have a hotline you can call for an updated status report on the working (or nonworking) elevators. It’s a good idea to get this number in advance and then call it just before you hop on the metro. It could save you a lot of time and trouble. It’s nice to know if the elevators at your destination station are operational before you get on the train. Finding accessible airport transportation is sometimes just a matter of whittling down your options. Contact the local Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and find out what airport transportation options exist. Then, inquire directly with the individual providers to find out if they offer any accessible transportation. Most CVBs don’t know a lot about accessibility, but they can usually provide you with a long list of transportation providers. Additionally, a few CVBs now publish access guides. These access guides describe the accessibility of all tourist services, including airport transportation. Hopefully, in the coming years, more CVBs will realize the importance of providing accurate access information. Until then, it never hurts to ask. No matter what type of transportation you choose, it’s a good idea to take a cell phone with you when you travel. It comes in handy when you’re curbside, waiting for that long-delayed hotel shuttle. It sure beats trekking back to the terminal in search of a phone. Shop around and find a cellular plan that allows you to make long distance calls at no extra charge, and one that doesn’t add roaming charges for calls made out of your home area.