Barrier-Free Travel
A Nuts And Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers

Q&As with Barrier-Free Travel Author, Candy Harrington

Q: What led you to start writing about accessible travel, and eventually to write Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers?

Harrington: I’ve been a travel writer for over 30 years, and about 15 years ago I decided to cover accessible travel. Nobody was really doing it at that time and to be honest, it just seemed like a challenge. In 1997 I founded Emerging Horizons, a magazine which focuses on accessible travel.

Barrier Free Travel is the result of my experience with Emerging Horizons. I found a lot of new resources over the years, but I kept answering the same basic questions over and over again. At one point I finally realized there was a need for a comprehensive resource on the basics of barrier-free travel. I guess you could say I wrote the book so I didn’t have to keep repeating myself.

Q: What kind of information does Barrier-Free Travel contain?

Harrington: Well, as the title suggests, the book focuses on travel for people with mobility disabilities — from slow walkers to wheelchair-users. It’s a nuts and bolts guide that educates readers about access laws, so they know what to expect when they get on an airplane or call a hotel to reserve an accessible room. There’s also a great cruising chapter and long chapter about what to do when things go wrong; however, I think the most popular chapter is the one about protecting your wheelchair when you fly.

Q: What’s new in this third edition of Barrier-Free Travel?

Harrington: The whole book has been updated and fact-checked, however there’s lot of new information, especially about air travel. For example, there are updates on the recent changes in the Air Carrier Access Act, details about Canada’s new One-Person One Fare Rule and information about the European Union’s new laws regarding accessible air travel. Additionally, there’s a whole new chapter about planning accessible shore excursions, complete with the contact details for 45 tour operators with ramped or lift-equipped vehicles. A comprehensive list of accessible van rental firms around the world is also included. I guess you could say, it’s just chock full of new resources.

Q: With the resources in your new shore excursion chapter, now anybody can book accessible shore excursions around the world, right?

Harrington: Well, not exactly; however it is a good resource for folks who want to put the time (and sometimes the money) into it. Having the name and phone number of a local tour operator is just the start. Many of these small operators are hard to get a hold of, and some speak only limited English. You may have to play a lot of phone tag (on your dime) and if you aren’t fluent in their language, you might even have problems determining what exactly you are booking. This is one area where a travel agent with an expertise in accessible travel can be a godsend. But if someone wants to cut out the middleman, they can certainly do that with the resources in that chapter. And of course, it’s a great resource for travel agents.

Q: How has accessible travel changed in the years since you started Emerging Horizons and wrote the first edition of Barrier-Free Travel?

Harrington: Well, there are definitely more choices than there were 15 years ago, and I think that’s due to the fact that people are just getting out and traveling more. There’s more of a demand for accessible services these days, and the hospitality industry is very competitive. Everyone wants those tourism dollars. In the past 15 years I’ve seen just about everything from accessible safari parks and Adirondack lean-tos, to canal boats, tree houses, dude ranches and even a hot air balloon. To be honest, if you have a specific interest, there’s something accessible out there for you.

Q: What is the biggest travel barrier facing people with disabilities today?

Harrington: The biggest problem that exists worldwide is the lack of accessible ground transportation. Now, some places are great. Take San Francisco, for example. There you’ll find accessible taxis and a pretty accessible public transportation system. Not all cities are like that. Still, there are work-arounds, and many people just take their own vehicles.

Q: Given that the world isn’t yet universally accessible, what’s your best advice to people to make travel easier?

Harrington: Do a lot of research so you know what to expect when you hit the road. I also advise people to play a healthy game of “what if”, before they leave home, so they can identify possible problems and solutions in advance. For example, you should ask yourself questions like “what if my wheelchair breaks while I’m on holiday?” A good solution to that problem would be to take along the phone number for a wheelchair repair shop at your destination. Having some well thought out solutions to possible problems, can help things go smoother if something goes wrong while you’re on the road.

Q: What’s the best approach to take when a disabled traveler confronts a hospitality provider who is reluctant to meet needs?

Harrington: Well I hate the word “confront”, as it sounds so adversarial; and travel should be fun, not a battle. I’d say if a supplier or a property is unable or unwilling to meet your access needs, then take your business elsewhere. It’s a very competitive market out there, and you have a choice where you spend your travel dollars, so give them to someone who welcomes your business.

Q: Does travel often end up costing more for people with disabilities, because of special accommodations or arrangements?

Harrington: Accessible hotel rooms and cruise ship cabins are the same price as standard rooms and the airlines don’t charge extra for wheelchair assistance. Additionally, the airlines don’t charge extra to transport medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and walkers. So in most cases, no, it doesn’t cost extra for accessible accommodations.

On the other hand, if you have to travel with an aide, you’ll have to pay for their expenses too, so in that respect it will cost extra. Some people get around this by traveling with a friend or family member who also acts as an aide.

Another place where you will pay more is for accessible rental vans. The average price is $100 per day for these specially equipped vans. That’s a big chunk of change for a week - $700 for an accessible van as opposed to $179 for a rental car. It should be noted that all US rental car outlets can provide hand controls (with 48 hours notice) at no extra charge. So if you can get by with a large car and hand controls, you can save a few bucks.

Q: Do people with disabilities typically need to start planning their travel farther in advance than other travelers?

Harrington: I would say in some cases, yes, especially for a cruise. If you want an accessible cabin, then you need to book very early, sometimes more than a year in advance. The accessible balcony cabins go like hotcakes, especially on Alaska cruises. But you should plan cruises early anyway, because in most cases you need to find accessible shore options on your own. If you can’t walk a few steps and transfer to a standard bus seat, the shore excursions the cruise lines offer are generally not wheelchair-accessible.

As for other types of travel, in most cases availability is not a big issue, so you don’t need a lot of lead time. I’m a great believer in researching your destination though, so I think you need at least enough lead time to do that.

Q: Can a person plan a successful, relatively trouble-free holiday using the internet only, or do you need a specialized travel agent to help with some of the bookings?

Harrington: First off, there is really no such thing as a trouble-free holiday, and if you run into someone trying to sell you one, then you need to find another travel agent. Travel by its very nature isn’t trouble-free, and things don’t always go off as planned. So pack along your patience and enjoy the trip.

That said, you can plan your journey yourself, though not entirely on the internet. The internet is a great research tool and you can book a number of things there, but you still need to follow up with phone calls to make sure your access needs are met.

I personally don’t think you need a specialist all the time; especially if you understand the laws and have the time to do research. If you are visiting a foreign country, speaking the native language is also a plus. Truthfully you have to be careful how you choose your travel agent though, as there are some “access specialists” out there who are pretty clueless. On the other hand, a good travel agent is worth his or her weight in gold. If you decide to work with a travel agent, put some time into the screening process.

Q: You have years of experience covering accessible travel issues and helping people resolve accessibility travel problems. What are the most common problems wheelers and slow walkers face when planning and taking trips?

Harrington: Believe it or not a lot of people forget to arrange accessible airport transportation. They just assume there will be accessible options or they don’t even think about how they will get from the airport to the hotel. Granted, many airports have accessible public transportation right to the terminal; but that’s not the case at every airport. Best bet is to do some advance research and find out if accessible taxis or airport shuttles are available. And in the US, if a hotel provides free airport transfers, they also have to provide accessible airport transfers, free of charge — even if it costs them to do this. It’s the law, but some hotels aren’t aware of it, so it pays (literally) to be educated.

Q: Does making travel more accessible for people with disabilities improve travel experiences for everyone, including those without disabilities?

Harrington: Yes. First off, I’m a great fan of integration. I think we should have inclusive tourist attractions and tours so that we are exposed to all types of people. That’s part of the whole travel experience after all - meeting new and different people.

Also, by making things accessible it’s easier on parents and grandparents with strollers. And it’s safer. You don’t have to worry about twisting your ankle on a curb, tripping on a raised threshold or falling down a few stairs.

In the long run, good access really benefits everyone.

Q: What is the key thing, in your opinion that you cant be without when you’re traveling?

Harrington: Your sense of humor. Don’t leave home without it.

Cover of Barrier-Free Travel

Books by Candy Harrington