When traveling with a disability, choosing the right hotel is key to a fun and successful trip. This guide will help you with some basic ideas and suggestions to put you on the right track, and avoid common mistakes. I will be focusing on traveling with a mobility disability, as that is my area of experience. As always, I welcome your feedback and personal experiences in the comments below.
Since the early 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required that places of public accommodation, including hotels, be wheelchair accessible. The ADA requires very specific minimum standards to be met, including the size of rooms and pathways, bathrooms, showers etc. The majority of hotels have renovated and have or should have created accessible rooms that meet the standards. Of course the reality is that not all hotels have complied with the law, and some are better than others.
Before you book a room, decide what level of wheelchair or mobility access you require. For example, if you can walk but just need a wheelchair for longer distances, a regular room on the ground level or with elevator access may be adequate. However, if you need safety rails by the toilet and bathtub, you should request an accessible room. In my experience, any room which purports to be accessible will have rails by the toilet, and usually in the tub or shower.
It gets more complicated when you need a room that fully complies with the ADA, particularly when you need a roll-in shower. To comply with the ADA, any hotel with more than 50 rooms is supposed to have at least 1 with a roll-in shower. The shower must have an attached, fold-down seat. For those who are not familiar with the concept, I’ve included a photo on the left. Roll-in showers make it easy and safe for people who use wheelchairs to park our chairs close to the seat and transfer over. We can then use a handheld sprayer to enjoy our shower. Transferring to a tub, even one with a seat, is more difficult, because it’s hard to park a wheelchair close enough and swing your feet over the side of the tub. They make sliding seats that help, but hotels rarely have them.
A roll-in shower is very important to me, though I can make do with a tub. I absolutely must have a shower seat and handheld sprayer. Many hotels will claim they have an accessible room, yet do not have any shower chairs, or their shower chair is small and/or unstable and unsafe to use. It’s also far too common for them to only have a standard shower sprayer and no handheld. I’ve taken to bringing along my own shower seat just in case, and I’m thinking about getting a portable handheld sprayer. If you’re road tripping and have the space, I recommend bringing whatever you need that a hotel might not have – even if they SHOULD have it.
Don’t forget to ask how many beds the room has. If you’re like me and travel with a friend/assistant, you’ll want two beds, and it’s surprisingly difficult to find accessible rooms with two beds – especially rooms that also have a roll-in shower. This trend not only violates the law, it defies logic. A person who needs a roll-in shower is more likely to have a more severe disability and require assistance, and therefore may be traveling with a caregiver or other non-romantic companion. Two beds would not prevent a single person with a disability or a couple from using the room. So if a hotel has a roll-in shower, it should be in a room with two beds! On a related note, roll-away beds are terrible. Spare your travel companion the torture and choose a room with two real beds if possible.
Although most hotels now offer the convenient option of booking a room online, I rarely if ever do so. Unfortunately I’ve had a couple of experiences where I arrived only to find out they had not reserved the accessible room for me, or did not hold the roll-in shower room, or the room with 2 beds. Instead, I find the direct phone number for the hotel and do my booking via the front desk. This gives me the opportunity to ask specific questions about the room, and I’m more likely to get an accurate answer. If I’m booking for a particularly long or important stay, I will ask the employee to go to the room and check to see if it meets my needs. I may even ask for pictures, as sometimes hotel staff don’t know what to look for even after I explain it. These problems with reservations are supposed to be corrected by new regulations that went into effect in 2012 – but I still advise calling the hotel directly. Better safe than sorry!
You can increase your odds of finding a room that meets your needs by getting recommendations or trying different chains until you find one that’s consistently good. Although I’m typically a fan of small businesses, in the case of traveling to an unfamiliar place, I recommend staying with a well known hotel chain. Large corporations have the knowledge and resources to comply with the law, and are more likely to offer a consistent experience, particularly in small towns where overall wheelchair access may be lacking.
The specific hotel you choose will be based on your own needs and budget. There are chains with good accessibility track records in all price ranges. For example, I have stayed in a couple of Motel 6 that had roll in showers. Surprisingly, you may want to be more careful and ask detailed questions about high-end hotels. For example, at high-end hotels many customers would be disappointed if they were given a room without a bathtub, so they may be less likely to have roll in showers.
While my budget doesn’t allow for frequent stays at expensive hotels, I have had a few experiences, and they weren’t all good. I was very disappointed by the W in Hollywood – they only had bathtubs, and their bed was very low to the ground and had a large wooden frame around it. This made transferring extremely difficult. Their priority was creating a room that looked fancy and expensive, rather then one that was actually accessible. On the other hand, the Marriott in Times Square in New York City is wonderful for accessibility, if you can cope with the $200 per night price tag. If you can’t, it’s still worth stopping by while sightseeing, as they have the only nice wheelchair accessible public bathroom in Times Square.
In my experience, the midpriced and business class hotel chains are the best choice for accessibility, and offer the perfect balance between comfort, convenience, and price. My favorite is Holiday Inn, and especially their Express locations. They almost always have at least one room with a roll in shower, and the rooms have plenty of space to wheel around. The beds are comfortable and a reasonable height for transferring. The Express locations offer free hot breakfast including eggs, toast, etc. The same company owns Crowne Plaza, and their rooms tend to be excellent for accessibility as well. They are sometimes, but not always, a bit higher priced than Holiday Inn.
Location is another important factor to consider, particularly in relation to your transportation options. If you’re a road tripper like me, find out if the hotel has parking, and if it costs extra. Those $200 per night hotel rooms in New York City are steep – and then consider that you have to pay $50 or more per day on top of that for parking. You may want to consider doing what I did on my third trip to NYC and staying in New Jersey. I stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Englewood, NJ – the room was just over $100 per night, parking was free, and it was only 15 minutes to get to Manhattan by car. When I drove in, I would still have to pay that 50 bucks to park, but I saved $100 on my room.
If you’re not driving, is there accessible public or private transportation? Many hotels offer a free shuttle to the airport and to popular tourist destinations. The shuttles are sometimes, but not always, wheelchair accessible, so be sure to ask before you book your room. If you won’t have a car and your transportation options are limited, it may be worth paying extra to stay near the destinations that are important to you.
My final piece of advice is one that I should have been better about taking myself, and I have resolved to do so in the future. When you stay at a hotel – whether it’s good or bad – review it. Share your experience with the disability community – in the comments here is a great place, and on disability related Facebook groups etc. but don’t limit yourself to just there. Yelp is an excellent place to post reviews and make the world more aware of disability issues. When hotels realize that being accessible benefits their business, they will be more likely to go the extra mile to comply with the ADA and provide a great experience for guests with disabilities.
TripAdvisor – provides information on hotels, including many pictures of accessible rooms
Common ADA Problems – this document is spot-on and reflects my experiences with access issues in hotels. Feel free to ask hotel staff about these issues when booking a room!
Making Your Guest Rooms ADA Compliant – this article includes information on the new rules that give people with disabilities greater protection when making hotel reservations