We’re kicking off Accessible Travel Week here at TPG with a discussion about what “accessible” actually means. The truth is accessible travel can mean many things to many people, from being able to book hotel rooms with truly wheelchair-accessible bathrooms to traveling through airports with pet relief areas for service animals to visiting theme parks that cater to guests on the autism spectrum to destinations that are safe for the LGBTQ community.
More often than not the travel industry — especially airlines — falls short when it comes to prioritizing accessible travel, despite the fact that 61 million American adults alone are living with a disability. We hear story after story about those with physical disabilities having their wheelchairs — an extension of their body — damaged by airlines.
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Travelers can also contribute to a negative experience for fellow passengers and guests with accessibility limitations, making assumptions about someone’s disability without knowing the full story. So, before you judge the person next to you, please keep one thing in mind: “Not every disability is visible to the human eye,” as TPG Lounge member Lexi René points out.
To get a better sense of what accessible travel means to the road warriors out there and help raise awareness around these issues, we polled the TPG Lounge to find out what “accessible” means to them. Here’s what they had to say.
Some airlines handle accessibility better than others
“As a blind person that often travels a lot by myself, I find Delta to be the most accessible airline. I had some interesting situations in the past, like AA forgetting me in a gate change in DFW and not finding a single English speaking worker to assist me in some big international airports.” — Lucas Nadolskis
“Thus far I’ve had mobility impairments flying both American and Southwest. American was terrible at accommodating wheelchair assistance, especially when dealing with a layover. The times I’ve flown them when dealing with impairments and their horrible accommodations (or lack thereof) makes me never want to fly them again. Had a perfectly fine experience with Southwest. Unsurprisingly, they were very kind, attentive, and made sure I got bulkhead seats (which I needed because I was in a cast).” — Carla JD
Related: 7 air travel tips for wheelchair users
“I am hard of hearing and travel often by myself for work. I don’t find any of the airlines to be particularly accessible. To me, accessibility means independence and dignity. I wish that systems and structures were designed so any of us could operate and understand without having to ask friends, family, or even random strangers to help us out.” — Kristy Lathrop
“My disability mainly affects my arms/hands so anything requiring dexterity can be challenging. Overall I have found Lufthansa to be the most cognizant to the point that I often don’t even need to ask for help. For example, the flight attendants unwrap my meal tray, open the silverware wrappers, set my drink on the tray vs handing it to me. This was all pre-pandemic of course.” — Teresa Dubovsky
“We travel a lot and my son is a full-time chair user. We prefer Southwest because he can roll straight to the front row and transfer himself as opposed to using those awful, embarrassing aisle chairs the other lines use. We’ve had issues with airport staff insisting on being the one to transfer him into and out of those chairs. He is a 23-year-old with great upper body strength who has been a chair user since he was a toddler. We have really gotten into it with staff wanting to touch him and “assist” him. Leave the families that are independent as alone as possible. We know what we are doing and if we need help we ask. Southwest is AMAZING at doing just that.” — Barb Likos
Often hotels, airports and planes are only partially accessible…
“Taking the chock full airport shuttle bus out of Boston one crowded afternoon, we boarded and then watched the driver struggle with the very obviously inoperable lift ramp for a veteran in a wheelchair. Six US Army passengers in uniform promptly got off the bus, and with barely a word, lifted the heavy ramp and wheelchair passenger onto the bus with flawless precision. Everyone on the bus applauded, not a dry eye in the house.” — Cathy Peloquin Sadler
“I travel a lot. I also take my son, who is in a wheelchair, with me sometimes. One of the biggest issues we face is lack of wheelchair-accessible transportation. Last week the hotel we were at had shuttles all over Omaha but wasn’t wheelchair accessible.” — Pj Sloan
“As a business owner that teaches accessibility all over the country, I agree that hotels with less than accessible areas or rooms need to step up. Just remind them that it’s a civil right…covered under the Civil Rights Act by the Dept. of Justice.” — John England
Related: The most wheelchair-friendly theme parks in the US
“I think it’s important that hotels are more transparent about accessibility on the property. I recently stayed at a huge hotel that had nothing on its website about accessibility issues or stairs or anything, and stayed there following knee surgery only to find out the only way to get between buildings (and only certain buildings had restaurants) was to go up and down several flights of stairs, which I thought they should at least warn people about either before booking or when assigning the room.” — Carla JD
“As someone with a family member stuffing from a cognitive disease, I have, unfortunately now learned there is pretty much ZERO accommodation by airlines for those with cognitive or mental disabilities. We have had issues of even just being seated together let alone assistance with anything else. I was told by more than one airline that they are happy to accommodate physical disabilities but that’s where it ends. My family member can no longer fly, but it infuriates me as there are so many people with cognitive and “invisible” disabilities.” — Nicole McKevitt
“One thing to watch out for are hotel rooms that advertise handicap accessible that aren’t really. Often it’s only a grab bar in the shower, but the wheelchair can’t get in the bathroom because of the angle of the turn, or the shower has a lip or tub. A person who uses a wheelchair full time needs elevator access, ADA door, shower, and countertop arrangements and a shower chair. Best to call the hotel (not the national reservation number) to ask questions about the setup before arrival. Often there is only one room that meets the qualifications and the front desk will need to make notes to save that particular room.” — Susan Hance
“For me, the biggest accessibility issue was as a breastfeeding mother traveling without her infant (baby was with Dad or Grandma). Airlines have made some strides but TSA has not! You know how you’re stuck on the tarmac for 3 hours and the flight attendants keep asking you to sit down? If you need to pump this becomes an almost impossible situation.” — Brooke Jgoot
Related: The Best Airline Seats, Suites, Lactation Rooms and Lounges When Breastfeeding
…But some are getting it right.
“Took my 80+-year-old mother to Cabo San Lucas. The resort (Pueblo Bonito Rose) was amazing. They had a loaner wheelchair to make transport easier around the resort and town. While curbs and sidewalks aren’t what we are used to here, the people were amazing and always coming over to lend a hand, steady her as she walked to a table or chair, or even help lift her into the boat. We did the same trip for several years because they made it so easy and she really enjoyed it. Accessibility isn’t always ramps and lower sinks.” — Candace Black WerthI
Related: The most wheelchair-accessible beach destinations in the US
“Royal Caribbean is great with their Autism of the Seas cruises. They have specially trained staff and a worry-free agenda that works with both adults & children.” — Rebecca James Smith
“I took my partially disabled mother to the Fairmount Southampton in Bermuda. I could not believe how accommodating they were. They had a golf cart take her to and from the beach every day and provided a beach wheelchair for her to use. They were not able to provide her with a handicap room so they let her use the spa shower since that was accessible. Due to the inconvenience of having to go to the spa to shower, they allowed her to use all the amenities there and had someone from the staff help her the whole time she was there. I couldn’t have asked for more.” — Dianne Frommelt
“I know people have many more challenges than I did, but I’m just so grateful that hotels have stopped switching my bed preference to Double/Double when they see two men on the reservation.” — Michael Mahoney
Helpful accessibility features
“Features I love in travel: All the information I can find in the United app about the status of my flight, luggage, upgrades, etc. Being able to converse with United agents via Twitter DMs. The United call center almost always has good quality connections if I need to actually talk to someone on the phone. I appreciate that I can check in on the Hilton app, and can usually converse with the front desk via the app or text (hotel phones have the WORST sound quality and I dread talking on one of them). National makes everything easy through their Emerald Aisle and app — I always know exactly what to expect and don’t have to worry about a conversation with questions I might not understand.
Features I wish the travel industry used: Masks like the ones made by Safe n’ Clear so we can read lips. Live transcription on the screens at airline gates and in-flight for all announcements. And this last one is not really essential, but would be nice: a CC option on all in-flight entertainment (right now it’s only on a select few options).” — Kristy Lathrop
“Cruising is a bit better as you can heavily research your exact cabin and know for sure you will be getting THAT room. Cruising is also good in that the ships are usually very accessible. Unfortunately, most ports aren’t. So there is a toss-up there. You just know that you will miss several stops as part of the deal.” — Barb Likos
Related: 5 tips for going on a cruise as a wheelchair user
“As someone with hearing loss, understanding anything gate agents say is nearly impossible. There’s the live transcribe app on my phone for when I expect an announcement but when they come out of nowhere, there’s no time to open it and I miss the announcement. Live captioning at gates would be helpful for those of us with hearing issues.” — Brian Beauchamp
“Accessible travel means having enough family/companion care restrooms in an airport. It means someone with a tailor-built wheelchair can fly with their chair in the cabin (I know that one’s a long shot). It means no extra burdens imposed on people with disabilities in order to stop “able-bodied” people from abusing the system. It means airplane bathrooms that can accommodate an assistant to help if needed. It means a lot of expensive changes, but the status quo isn’t good enough.” — Pat Chamberlain
“I am hearing impaired to the point that I travel with a service animal to assist me. I have found having my documentation submitted to my airline and preferred hotel brand helps. I have status with both American Airlines and Hilton and they have it noted in my loyalty accounts. Hilton now automatically puts me in the hearing accessible room and American has always been kind to me. My one complaint is actually due to current masking requirements. I read lips. It’s the only way I understand many people. It is quite frustrating right now to not be able to understand agents at the gate or even the flight attendant. This is not meant as a political debate only a personal frustration at the moment.” — Kristin Norgart
“My wife and I each have conditions that make driving impossible. Even though we can fly any airline completely independently, it means we really only visit big cities where public transit and rideshare are plentiful such as NYC and Chicago. Places such as national parks out west would be difficult for us. I will say later this summer we have a big trip to Denver and South Dakota. South Dakota would’ve been difficult if it weren’t for the generosity of someone I met in the points and miles community. We can’t wait to hang out for a few days!” — Nathan Patrick Hagan
Related: These are the most wheelchair-accessible cities around the world
“Lounge access is imperative. The bathrooms make all the difference. Airport family bathrooms are often disgusting if you can even find one and when you do usually there is someone using it. This is why lounge access is a real necessity, not just a “card perk.” — Barb Likos
“We use Hilton properties for work travel and any of their latest tech upgrades have made travel so much easier — using the hotel app to unlock my door or keycards you tap vs swipe. Things that really make travel hard — the Roman shades on hotel windows with that tiny metal cord!” — Teresa Dubovsky
“Disneyland and Walt Disney World have the DAS (Disability Access Service) which is good for those who can’t wait to get on a ride.” — Frank J Genovay III
Related: Your guide to visiting Disney World with a child on the autism spectrum
“Accessibility in the U.S. is way different than the rest of the world. I wish there was a cheat sheet of sorts for resorts on what they have that could be useful ie: sand wheelchairs, lifts for pools, shower chairs.” — Lisha Vialet Manning
Bottom line: Hold your judgment about others’ disabilities
“My husband and I traveled a lot before COVID. He is 89. He can walk some distance but certainly not the miles required to get to the gate. He has double hip replacements and other issues. So he is the one you will see arriving at the gate in a wheelchair and then moving slowly around by himself. It is difficult to judge what a person’s problem is.” — Santina Vignati
A huge thank you to everyone in the TPG Lounge community who shared their stories of challenges and triumphs. Hopefully raising awareness around the issues facing this community of travelers can help convince the industry to take steps to make everyone’s experience enjoyable and dignified — regardless of physical, mental or other disabilities.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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