Traveling while disabled is four times more expensive

Access is a human right—not a luxury.
Access is a human right—not a luxury.
Image: Reuters/Annegret Hilse
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Five years ago, Kathleen Burt took a vacation to Puerto Rico with her parents. The trip itself was enjoyable. But traveling one way—from Edinburgh, Scotland, to San Juan, Puerto Rico—took nearly 22 hours, including a stop in Amsterdam and a long layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Because Burt and her mother have arthritis that often leads to flare-ups (and her mom also has vascular disease), sitting in basic economy seats for a prolonged period of time was out of the question, Burt told me over the phone recently.

“The only way we could seriously think about traveling long-haul was to go for business class so we could actually have seats that lay flat,” said Burt, 35, who has psoriatic arthropathy and lives in Dundee, Scotland. 

So that’s exactly what they did. 

On average, a business class airline ticket can cost up to four times more than an economy or coach ticket. But for disabled people who need these accommodations, it’s not a matter of luxury, or splurging, or pampering yourself. It’s the price disabled people generally have to pay for basic access. It means having to spend extra money on high-end services—or not traveling at all.

As I spoke with Burt, her decision to book business class flights with her family called to mind several instances in my own life where I’ve had to make similar choices. 

As an avid traveler with multiple disabilities, I can only reserve hotel rooms that have air conditioning (to stave off migraines and nausea) and a refrigerator (to hold my liquid medicine, which has to remain cold to be effective). I can’t sit in the back of airplanes because of similar issues, so I have to be mindful of what part of the plane I sit in during flights. 

But having the ability to choose travel features like electing a specific passenger seat usually comes at an extra cost, even if you’re traveling basic economy.

Both Burt’s and my experiences highlight a painfully familiar dilemma for the many disabled people who travel every day: Most accommodations that people with disabilities need in order to get from point A to point B are only available through luxury travel. 

Things that are considered luxury amenities for abled people are often necessities for people with disabilities. Newer, fancier, and thus more expensive hotels are more likely to be accessible and have elevators, for example. And airline customers who need extra space—like Burt and her mother—often have no choice but to opt for expensive flight upgrades. 

Access is a right, not a luxury

Luxury travel is defined as a “relevant, personal and exclusive experience” that “money can buy, but only for a select few,” according to a 2016 industry report on trends in the luxury travel market. 

There’s a lot of irony in the fact that the only options available to most disabled people are designed to achieve the very opposite of accessibility. Luxury is about exclusivity; it is non-inclusive by design, created to keep out the masses and cater to the special few who can afford it. That’s another ironic double-entendre: Luxury is meant to make a person feel extraordinary and special. 

But while “special” is a word often assigned to the needs of disabled people, by calling our needs special, we perpetuate a harmful misperception. My needs for accommodations as a disabled person are not special. They are a basic human right.

While luxury travel services are what grant many disabled people access to travel, luxury travel is hardly accessible in terms of cost. People with disabilities are more likely to earn low incomes and have less access to the resources necessary to afford those luxury options in the first place. This is especially true for disabled people of color.

Luxury should be a choice for people who can actually afford it—not the only available option. The constant need to either compromise experience, money, time, or all three, for accessibility is a trade that abled people rarely have to make for themselves. 

The luxury travel sector holds a captive consumer demographic in the form of millions of disabled travelers every year who have no choice but to pay more money to achieve what is often a baseline travel experience at best. 

There’s a strong case for the disability community as a loyal travel consumer base, when they do have the buying power and, therefore, the choice: People aged 55 and older, who are far more likely to be disabled than other age groups, account for about 80% of the luxury travel market as it is. 

This may simply be because older people tend to have more savings, and tend to spend more on luxury spending in retirement. But at the same time, people with disabilities (who are not in retirement) have been spending more money on travel than previous years. Disabled adults spent about $17.3 billion annually on travel in 2015, compared with $13.6 billion in 2002

Several features that mean the difference between standard and luxury travel for consumers already mirror certain disability accommodations, such as personal travel assistants and technological devices or apps that help track belongings.

But when luxury travel is the only option available to accommodate (note: not special) needs, disabled travelers have to spend more money if they want to get a comparable travel experience—well, or any travel experience.

Burt, for example, has traveled to nearly 40 countries across North America, Asia, and Europe. She said it probably takes her twice as much time to book flights and hotels because of the amount of research she has to do beforehand.

Last fall she founded an online resource blog called Wandering Wounded, which provides travel tips for disabled people. 

“The only thing I need is a reasonable bed, a shower head and a toilet. I don’t need a pillow menu or the plush carpeting. I could do without a lot of those things. I just want the basics,” Burt said.

But identifying those basics is a pretty involved process. With hotels, for example, she first finds at least 10 options that look promising before making calls and sending emails to a shortlist. She spends hours reading TripAdvisor reviews and scouring them for photos of the elevators and guest rooms. 

Every now and then, Burt rejects a hotel when it doesn’t provide any information about accessibility, even if it looks amazing.

“People sort of say, ‘Well, if you’re willing to be proactive and lug your bag up two flights of stairs, you can get such good deals.’ It’s not about willingness,” she said.

The returns on access

Accessible travel isn’t just beneficial for the disability community. People with disabilities have a tremendous economic impact on the travel industry as a whole. More than 26 million disabled adults traveled for business or pleasure from 2013 to 2015, according to a 2015 study by the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to improving disability inclusion across the travel and tourism industry. 

Although the reason for the hike in travel spending is unclear, it has helped us identify areas that need improvement: A Department of Transportation report found that disabled flight passengers submitted more than 32,000 complaints in 2016 related to lack of access, damaged assistive devices, seating problems and other issues with disability accommodations. Most recently, the hashtag #DisabledAirlineHorror started trending in late July after model Jillian Mercado tweeted about how airport workers broke her electric wheelchair.

A quick online search for “travel accessibility” yields a seemingly endless number of travel sites dedicated to the needs of disabled travelers—wheelchair-accessible museums, “special” tours that are just for disabled patrons, theme parks that are “autism-friendly.” 

But a society where a group of people must actively look for positive signs in order to know they’re welcome is not an accessible, equitable society. 

When a disabled person travels with a group of abled people and they come across an inaccessible stop on their trip, one of two things tends to happen: Either the disabled person gets left out, or the group finds an alternative activity, which can often make the disabled person feel like a burden. If more features provided access with everyone in mind, this wouldn’t be the case. Traveling is supposed to be about discovering new things about the world around you, and yourself, not navigating an awkward web of compromises and missed opportunities. 

When we talk about our need for disability accommodations, we aren’t talking about luxuries, special treatments, favors or extra add-ons. 

I can’t stress this enough: Our access is a basic human right, not a special need.

What if luxury travel features got a disability makeover and marketed services directly to disabled consumers, with more price variety? What would tourist attractions and travel destinations be like if they were designed to be universally accessible? 

The Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee, along with the premier V&A Museum in London, are both prime examples of a public space that’s been proactive in providing full disability access, according to Burt. 

“For me, I can walk into a museum and walk around, but if there aren’t enough places to sit, then I can’t stay there very long,” she said. 

Instead of allowing accessibility to fall by the wayside or to be addressed only at the time of request, the V&A Museum features a range of accommodations as part of its regular visitor services—including a quiet room, wheelchairs available to loan for free, induction loops for Deaf people, drinking bowls for guide dogs and elevators on every floor.

Accessibility means thinking beyond wheelchair access. It means recognizing that there are many, many different disabilities in the world, both visible and invisible, and that access comes in just as many forms. 

Even if access came at an additional cost, the luxury market could diversify its options, with luxury and disability consumers in mind. As Burt said, at least having more power to choose affordable accessibility options would allow more disabled people to travel—which is ultimately good for the sector and the overall economy.

“There are things that will never be cost-neutral,” she said, “But I think that, as much as possible, there needs to be some freedom in having the information and ability to make informed choices.”

People with disabilities already have to navigate a world that wasn’t designed with them in mind, and the travel industry is no different. But with a built-in captive consumer base, luxury travel services have a huge opportunity to change the way we design—and price—services for disabled people.

Accessibility affects every aspect of travel. Each step of the way, both literally and figuratively, requires months of preparation, even for what might seem like a simple trip—from the width of a hotel bedroom door to the number of steps outside every landmark building on the itinerary. 

We have a long way to go, but I hope one day we’ll reach a point where destinations around the globe become universally accessible. And then maybe luxury travel can remain just that—a luxury.