Shopping the Net, The Truth about Online Booking

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 online booking a realistic option for wheelers? 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 ensure appropriate access. What’s the best way to do this? Well, there’s not a blanket answer to that question. In truth, it depends on what type of travel arrangements you are booking, because the best method varies drastically from reserving a hotel room to making an airline reservation.

Reserving a Room

Theoretically, booking a hotel room online should be a fairly easy process In practice, however, it can’t be that easy. This is especially true when you throw access issues into the equation. Unfortunately, a few problems inherent in the hotel industry make it difficult to book an accessible room online. Not impossible, just difficult. Two basic roadblocks exist to booking an accessible room online. First, we go back to that age-old problem of defining access. Most hotel websites, travel portals, and consolidators don’t list the specific access features of their accessible rooms. At best, they define their rooms as being accessible or ADA compliant. What access features do these rooms have? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Does the room you’re booking have a roll-in shower? Is it on the ground floor? How wide is the bathroom door? How high is the toilet? Unfortunately, these important details are not listed on most websites. It requires a bit of research (and sometimes a few phone calls) to find out what features are included in an accessible room at a particular property. And, of course, the criteria can change from property to property. The first rule of online booking is to always contact the property directly for the most accurate access information. Second, it’s hard to determine if a property will block their accessible rooms just by looking at their website. Is this important? You bet your bottom dollar. It’s useless to reserve an accessible room, if it’s not there for you when you arrive. Contact the hotel directly regarding their policy on this matter, and don’t do business with hotels that won’t block their accessible rooms. Although these roadblocks make it harder to book an accessible room online, they don’t make it impossible. Three main ways are possible to book a hotel room online: by using either a hotel consolidator, a professional interface, or the hotel’s own website. Although these methods each have different advantages and disadvantages, it’s a good idea to keep the basic roadblocks in mind while using any online booking system. That way, you’ll be able to circumvent the inherent problems and book an accessible room that’s right for you.

Hotel Consolidators

if you’ve ever searched for travel websites on the Internet, you’ve probably visited your fair share of hotel consolidator websites. Hotel consolidators buy blocks of hotel rooms and resell them to the public at substantial discounts. You’ve probably also seen advertisements for hotel consolidators in the Sunday travel section, under a headline such as “save up to 50% on hotels.” The good news is that you can indeed save anywhere from 20% to 50% off the rack rate by booking through a consolidator. The bad news is that it’s virtually impossible to book an accessible room through a hotel consolidator. Worse yet, some consolidators are not very up front about their cancellation fees; so, besides being impossible, it can be downright costly. The best advice is to steer clear of hotel consolidator websites. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize hotel consolidators, because many travel portals use them as booking engines. This is commonly referred to as an affiliate relationship. Basically, the travel portal uses the hotel consolidator interface and receives a commission for rooms booked from the portal website. The hotel consolidator interface is incorporated into the travel portal website, and sometimes it appears that you are booking directly with the travel portal, when in fact you are using a hotel consolidator. It’s pretty easy to recognize consolidators and their affiliates once you understand why it’s impossible to use them for booking accessible rooms. First, consolidators don’t guarantee accessible rooms. You can state that you need an accessible room on the reservation form, but it’s only treated as a request. In other words, you will get an accessible room if it’s available when you arrive. To add insult to injury, this fact is usually only disclosed in the fine print. Additionally, you must prepay your room charges when you book through a hotel consolidator, plus there’s usually a substantial cancellation fee. So basically you pay in advance, but you aren’t guaranteed anything. If you get to the hotel and they don’t have an accessible room for you, you’re still on the hook for the cancellation fee. In short, it makes no difference why you cancel, even if the room doesn’t suit your access needs. One of the worst things about dealing with a consolidator is that you don’t deal directly with the hotel. If you call the hotel to confirm your reservation, they usually won’t find a reservation under your name. The consolidators book big blocks of rooms, so your reservation is technically under the consolidator’s name, until the last minute. So, it’s impossible to communicate directly with the property about the specifics of your reservation, because as far as the property is concerned your reservation doesn’t exist. Of course, this makes it impossible to confirm the amenities of your accessi ble room. Are you starting to understand the problems associated with using a consolidator? Unfortunately, many people do fall prey to the evil hotel consolidator, including yours truly. Before I really learned about hotel consolidators, I used one to book a room online. It seemed like a good deal at the time, even better than I could get by booking directly with the hotel. So, I typed in my credit card number and clicked on the send button. I figured that if I found a better deal, I could just cancel the reservation. I didn’t see anything on the website about a cancellation fee. Of course, the hotel consolidator claimed differently, but apparently the Javascript warning about the cancellation fee didn’t work on my browser. In any case, after I made my reservation, I called the property directly to confirm that I had booked a nonsmoking room. That’s when I learned how consolidators work, because the hotel had no record of my reservation. I also found that they didn’t have any nonsmoking rooms available on the days of my stay. So, I decided to cancel. Well, I couldn’t cancel with the hotel because they didn’t have a record of my reservation. I called the hotel consolidator to cancel. Of course, the reservation agent warned me about the $75 cancellation fee. I almost dropped the phone when I heard that—after all, I was canceling several months in advance. The cancellation fee seemed rather excessive to me, so I explained the situation to the reservation agent. It didn’t matter. In fact, she told me “Even if you died we wouldn’t waive the cancellation fee.” That seemed like a rather drastic solution to me. The story does, however, have a happy ending, because once the hotel consolidator found out that I was a travel writer, he mysteriously agreed to waive the cancellation fee. But the bottom line is that I was let off the hook because of privilege, and the solution to my predicament effectively does nothing to change the unreasonable cancellation policy. Remember, never do business with hotel consolidators. In fact, never do business with any property or service that imposes an unreasonable cancellation fee. You really need the flexibility to cancel your reservation, especially when you’re dealing with access issues.

 The Professional Interface

the second way to book a hotel reservation online is through a professional interface, the same type of a reservation system that many travel agents use. Apollo and Sabre are two of the most popular interfaces, and they both have lite or consumer versions. These scaled-down versions are pretty easy to use, because they don’t require any great technical expertise. You just need to know when and where you want to stay. The major advantage of using a professional interface 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. It’s a pretty efficient system. The downside to all this is that sometimes it’s hard to tell a professional interface from a hotel consolidator just by looking at the online 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 professional interface can work well for booking an accessible room, however, the success rate is directly dependent upon each individual property. You can search the database for available rooms based on date, location, hotel chain, price range, and special preferences (including wheelchair access). Your search will return a list of available accessible rooms for that date and location. So far so good; however, your ability to actually book an accessible room depends on the amount of access information that each individual property enters into their own reservation system. Some properties enter specific details about their accessible rooms, whereas others don’t even separate the accessible rooms from the rest of their inventory. In some cases, you can book an accessible room with a roll-in shower using the professional interface, but that’s a best-case scenario. The positive side of this situation is that most of the properties that actually take the time to enter access details about their inventory are pretty access conscious. So, in a way, you’re not only booking an accessible room, but you’re also screening for the most proactive properties. The down side is that sometimes it is a very long search. Still, the professional interface can be a very useful tool in the search for an accessible room. Of course, you should always check with the hotel directly to confirm that they do in fact block their accessible rooms.

 Hotel Websites

The best way to book an accessible room online is to make a reservation directly from the hotel’s website. Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds; in fact, you should follow a very specific procedure to make sure you get an accessible room. The first step is to visit a number of hotel websites and check their rates for the dates of your visit. Pick the best rates and then call those properties directly to inquire about the specific features of their accessible rooms. Ask about each hotel’s policy about blocking accessible rooms upon reservation. And, while you’re on the phone, go ahead and inquire about their rates. If they offer you a better rate than on the Internet, and the room suits you needs, then by all means make a reservation. If not, then go back to the Internet. By now, you’ve eliminated a number of properties: those that can’t meet your access needs and those that won’t block their rooms. Of the remaining properties, pick the one that has the best Internet rate. Go to that property’s website and book your reservation online. Make sure to specify your access needs. It never hurts to mention your access needs twice, so go ahead and also mention them in the comments section. Get a confirmation number and call the hotel directly to confirm your booking. If the reservation is not to your satisfaction, or you find out that the property cannot block an accessible room for you, then cancel the reservation. Of course, you’ll now have to start the whole process all over again. In truth, this whole process takes an awful lot of legwork. As I said earlier, it’s not exactly a simple procedure. Indeed, sometimes your long-distance phone charges will far exceed that 5% Internet discount. It helps to work with properties that have previously demonstrated a progressive attitude towards access issues. Unfortunately, it’s takes time and experience to recognize these properties. Still, some people find substantial savings online, and unfortunately, many of these discounts are only available online. In the end, you’ll have to determine if the savings is really worth your time and effort. But if you do decide to use the Internet to book your room, remember to use the hotel website. For now it’s the safest way to book an accessible room online.

Finding A Flight

admittedly, booking an accessible flight online is much easier than booking an accessible room online, quite simply because there are fewer choices. But it does require some advance planning. Before you even begin to shop for airfares, you need to learn your rights under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Among other things, the ACAA mandates that a passenger with a disability cannot be denied boarding solely because of their disability. In theory (and under AIR 21 ), the ACAA also covers foreign air carriers; however, in practice this legislation is difficult to enforce on foreign soil. Learn the law, and fly on U.S. air carriers for the best access. Even among U.S. carriers, accessibility still depends on the aircraft, airline, and airport you choose. Size does matter, so learn a little bit about the different types of commercial aircraft. Many of the ACAA regulations regarding aircraft accessibility and boarding depend on aircraft size. The ACAA mandates level boarding whenever possible on all aircraft with 30 or more seats. On aircraft with fewer than 30 seats, level boarding is not required. Some airlines have aircraft diagrams available on their websites. You can also call the airlines directly to find out about the seating capacity and access features of specific aircraft types. Seating is another important access issue. Wheelchair-users are not always guaranteed seating in bulkhead areas. Contact each airline directly to find out about their specific seating policies for wheelers. Some airlines will seat you in the bulkhead section, and some won’t. Seating is addressed in the 1998 amendment to the ACAA, which was published in the March 4, 1998 issue of the Federal Register. Learn the rules, then contact airlines in advance to find out about their seating policies. Do business only with those airlines that can provide you with appropriate seating. Finally, do some research on your departure and arrival airports, because boarding options can be dependent on airport size. Not all airports have jetways to enable level boarding. Some regional airports board directly from the tarmac. Many airports have print access guides, and some even have access information posted online. Some airports have neither, so you’ll just have to pick up the phone and call to find out about their accessibility. Basically, there are three major places to book flights online: on travel portals, auction websites, or airline websites. It’s only possible to make accessible flight arrangements in two of these places, however.

 Travel Portals

here’s where things get confusing. Although it’s usually a bad idea to book an accessible room through a travel portal, it’s a great idea to use a travel portal to book an accessible flight. The reason is simple. Most travel portals use hotel consolidators for hotel reservations, but they use a professional interface for airline reservations. When you book a flight on a travel portal, you are most likely dealing directly with the airline. After you’ve completed your initial research, search the travel portals for flights on U.S.-based airlines. Prices may vary from portal to portal, because each portal has strategic partnerships with different airlines. Some portals may only display prices from select airlines; while others may feature all airlines but only have competitive prices on a select few. Shop around for the best price, but keep your access needs in mind. You’ll want to avoid small airplanes, regional airports, and multilegged flights. It’s important to note that the best price for your access needs may not necessarily be the cheapest price. Book your flight when you find the best price. Airfares are somewhat volatile, so there’s no guarantee that the same fare will be available next week. Most fares are based on load factors, and when fewer seats are available, prices usually rise. Make note of your access requirements when you book your flight online. It’s also a good idea to make note of any cancellation penalties. After you book your flight, call the airline and speak with the special services department to confirm your access requests. This is also a good time to request any special seating (if you qualify for it), or to request an onboard wheelchair. Additionally, remember to reconfirm all access arrangements 24 hours in advance.

Pig-in-a-Poke.Coms

Although the internet is a great tool for booking travel, people with disabilities should steer clear of one type of travel website: the auction website or the 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. Why? Well, because you buy merchandise (in this case airfares) sight unseen, without the benefit of important information that determines flight accessibility. It may seem like a good idea at the time; however, reality will quickly set in when you arrive at the airport and find out you’re booked on a turbo-prop that makes seven stops between Boise and Atlanta. Pig-in-a-poke.coms all operate in much the same way. Basically, you log on and either name your price or bid against other users for airline tickets and hotel rooms. Sounds pretty good, right? I mean, who wouldn’t like to name their own price for an airline ticket? Well, the catch is that you can’t choose your 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 you pay for the ticket. Although this may be acceptable for travelers who don’t have access needs, it’s a big gamble for anybody who does. Unfortunately, these websites are hyped heavily across cyberspace as being the best places to find cheap airfares. Indeed, they may be cheap, but many times the tickets are not useable by people with disabilities. The sad part is that most people don’t find this out until it’s too late. A hybrid type of website includes both an auction interface and a traditional booking engine. While the booking engine may be OK to use (although I wouldn’t pay a fee or commission to use it), steer clear of the auction or name-your-price options. The bottom line is, stay away from pig-in-a-poke.coms, as they don’t offer choices of airlines, aircraft, or routes, all of which are important factors in airline accessibility. Remember, cheap airfare is no longer a bargain when you can’t get on the airplane. And of course the tickets are nonrefundable.

Airline Websites

the airline websites are good places to book air tickets online. In fact, it’s a good idea to develop a relationship with one specific airline. It doesn’t really matter which airline, and indeed the choice will be different for everybody. The advantages of working exclusively with one particular carrier are manyfold. First, you can collect frequent flyer miles and cash them in for free flights. Second, if you live near an airline’s hub city, you’ll be able to get more nonstop flights on that airline out of the hub city. This means fewer connections and fewer plane changes, which is a great plus for wheelchair-users. And finally, if you travel on one particular airline, you’ll be more familiar with their policies regarding people with disabilities. This includes everything from pre-boarding to seating. In short, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll know immediately when something is wrong, and you’ll be able to voice your complaint before it’s too late. There are many benefits of one-carrier loyalty; however, you may need to shop around until you find the airline that best suits your needs. Once you find that carrier, it pays to book online at the airline’s website. Most airline websites also offer special online deals or special promotions. If you book consistently with one airline, you can theoretically shop the sales. Of course, this requires some advance planning and familiarization with the airfares. After all, how do you know when you’re getting a good deal on something unless you know the regular price? Plan your route, check the fares, and book online when the fares fall. Again, bear in mind that the best deal is not always the cheapest fare; the best deal should also include appropriate access for you. Using an airline website to buy your ticket online just makes good sense, and (relatively speaking) it’s a pretty simple procedure. Once you’ve found the right flight for you, purchase your ticket on the airline website. A drop-down menu is usually provided to indicate if wheelchair assistance is needed. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make note of any special access requirements in the comments area. One word of caution: Before you hit that send button, make sure you are familiar with the aircraft type used for the flight. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to have a look at the seating diagrams and even the cargo door dimensions. Many airlines have this information available online. SeatGuru.com also features seating diagrams for many airlines, and although accessible seats are not noted, you can still get a good idea about aircraft size and configuration. After you get a confirmation number, call the airline directly to make sure your access needs are properly noted and to request special seating (if eligible) or an onboard wheelchair. Finally, make sure to call the airline to reconfirm all access arrangements, 24 hours prior to your flight.

Cruises

Can you also save money by booking a cruise online? More and more cruise websites offer some type of discount booking option, but what about access? Can you really book an accessible cabin online at those discount cruise websites? According to accessible cruise expert and travel agency owner Connie George, none of the major cruise lines release their accessible cabins to the discount cruise websites. This is done to ensure that accessible cabins go to people who need them. Says George, “If you want to book online, you have to book a not accessible cabin and then call the cruise line or dot com agency to see if an accessible cabin is available in that category. Then you have to change your reservation.” Is the savings worth the hassle? That depends on how you define savings. Yes, you may pay a lower cruise fare if you book with a discount cruise website, but that’s only part of the total cruise price. Most dot com agencies operate on volume and their agents (who aren’t usually trained in disability travel) can’t afford to spend time on the telephone fielding questions. In short, customer service is slim to nonexistent. If you book through a discount cruise website, you’ll have to follow through with the cruise line regarding any special needs, such as medical equipment allowed on board, rental equipment delivered to the ship, specific access features of your cabin, and accessible transportation to and from the port. You’ll also have to research each port, determine its accessibility and, in most cases, plan your own accessible shore excursions. The cost of these calls alone (many of which are international) can far outweigh any money saved by booking online. When comparing savings, it’s important to compare the bottom line costs of both options. This includes the extra time and money it takes to make the accessible arrangements after you book your cruise. The cruise fare is just part of the total cruise cost. In most cases, discount websites don’t really offer any substantial savings on accessible cabins. Your best bet is to book directly through the cruise line or deal with a travel agent who specializes (really specializes) inaccessible cruises.

The Solution

in truth, there is no one perfect solution for booking accessible travel arrangements online. Different people have different preferences and different needs. The best solution for many people may be a combination of the methods outlined in this chapter. It pays to be creative, so don’t be afraid to customize a method that works best for you. Learn your rights, plan your route, watch for special deals, and then book your best price online, or shop around for a travel agent to do it for you. After all, the Internet isn’t for everybody. The choice is yours. And as I said earlier, there isn’t a one-click solution to online booking. Be wary of any website that claims otherwise. In reality, the Internet is a great tool for travelers, but it’s not the only tool.