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The Truth About On-Line 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 on-line booking a realistic option for wheelchair-users? Is it really the best way to get a good deal on airfares?

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 to insure appropriate access. What’s the best way to do this? It all starts with research.

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. Order your free copy of Accessible Air Travel from United Spinal Association at (800)444-0120 or visit www.unitedspinal.org/ to read the on-line version. Learn the law, and fly on US air carriers for the best access.

Even among US carriers, accessibility is still dependent 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 are dependent upon aircraft size.

For example, the ACAA mandates level boarding whenever possible on all aircraft with 30 or more seats. In 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 wheelchair-users. 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 (www.access.gpo.gov/nara). 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, as 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 on-line. Some airports have neither, so you’ll just have to pick up the phone and call to find out about their accessibility.

After you’ve done your access research, it’s time to surf the internet and find your best airfare. The airline websites and the major travel websites are great places to start. Most have competitive prices. When one airline lowers fares, the rest usually follow suit. Stay away from the auction websites or the “name your fare” websites, as they don’t offer choices of airlines, aircraft or routes; all of which are important factors in airline accessibility.

Find your best deal, book your ticket on-line and then call the airline directly to make arrangements for wheelchair assistance, or to request an on-board wheelchair. Remember to reconfirm all arrangements 24 hours in advance.

Of course, there’s a lot more to air travel than just booking a ticket. It can get pretty complicated, so you may opt to work with a travel agent. Finding a competent travel agent is a chore in itself, especially since there is no official certification required to be an “ accessible travel specialist”. The real proof of a competent travel agent lies with their knowledge about the rules, regulations and realities of accessible travel; and the only way to judge that is to become an expert yourself.

Learn your rights, plan your route, watch for airline sales and then book your best price on-line; or shop around for a travel agent to do it for you. The choice is yours. Either way there isn’t a one-click solution. Be wary of any website that claims otherwise. In reality, the internet is great tool for travelers; but remember, it’s not the only tool.