En español | Whenever we travel — even to visit family — we have to stay in a hotel. The typical home just doesn't accommodate Barbara's 350-pound power wheelchair. We need wider doorways, grab bars in the bathroom, ample turning space and a special shower.
Fortunately, hotels in the U.S. have accessible guest rooms for wheelchair users. But how well a guest room works for us varies from hotel to hotel.
At some, wheelchair users like Barbara face obstacles that can range from mild inconveniences to major safety concerns — when a shower's bench is unstable or its grab bars are missing, for instance. That's despite the fact that adults with disabilities spent $58.7 billion in 2018 and 2019 on travel, according to a survey by the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.
If you use a wheelchair or travel with someone who does, follow these tips to manage some of the common difficulties encountered at hotels.
Plan and reserve
A small fraction of hotel rooms are designed for guests who have disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that hotels with 151 to 200 guest rooms have six accessible rooms, and only two must include a roll-in shower (a shower that is typically larger with a zero barrier threshold, a handheld shower sprayer and a bench so the wheelchair user can transfer and sit while bathing). Hotels with 50 or fewer rooms are not required to have any roll-in showers.
Bill Sears, a 62-year-old retiree in Baltimore, spent 80 days driving solo across America and parts of Canada in 2019. Sears can't walk or stand and uses a manual wheelchair. Before beginning his journey, he secured reservations for wheelchair-accessible guest rooms with roll-in showers at 36 hotels.
Sears says he knew that hotels at national parks fill up fast, so he made his reservations there a year in advance. For other hotels along his route, he booked two to three months before his arrival date.
Knowing your choices are limited, always make reservations as far in advance as possible — especially if you are visiting during peak tourist season or for a major event.
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Finding specific information about a hotel's accessibility features is time consuming. Unfortunately, most hotels do not post photos of their actual accessible guest rooms and the bathrooms online.
If you have questions, call the hotel directly — not the corporate reservation line. Get the name of the person you talk to and their email address. Take the time to patiently explain your specific needs. For example, some wheelchair users need open space under a bed for a Hoyer lift.
Another way to find an accessible hotel is to book hotels through accessibleGO.com. The company, part of the Priceline Partner Network, has collected access data on approximately 4,000 hotels in 45 U.S. cities. It's important for travelers with accessibility requirements to know how seriously the properties will take their requests: “Asking for a roll-in shower or accessible tub with grab bars is light-years away from requesting a late checkout,” says Miriam Eljas, accessibleGO's cofounder and CEO. “Hotels don't always register the severity of the need.”
We've seen some standouts. We've stayed in Aloft Hotels, a Marriott brand, in Chicago, Corpus Christi, Texas, Minneapolis and Munich. Each time, we've been impressed with how well the modern accessible rooms are designed. The new 14-story Holiday Inn Express Houston Galleria, an IHG Hotels & Resorts brand, has a sofa sleeper in the accessible king guest room — a great feature for families. Our room at the elegant Waldorf Astoria Chicago, a Hilton brand, had a cozy in-room fireplace with a roll-in shower and a bathtub — a rare combo.
When asking your questions. consider these issues:
Room configurations when traveling with others. Wheelchair-accessible guest rooms, especially those with a roll-in shower, routinely have a king-size bed. A room with only one bed is awkward for anyone who travels with a companion. And families typically need more than one bed. Paying for an extra room is expensive.
One solution is to request a roll-away bed. Call the hotel to ask whether it offers this amenity — many do not — and, if it does, ask if you'll be charged extra for it. Consider booking an all-suite hotel (also known as extended stay properties). These hotels are more spacious and some of their room configurations include a separate living space with a sofa sleeper. Brands to compare include SpringHill Suites, Embassy Suites, Hyatt Place, Home2 Suites by Hilton, Residence Inn and Comfort Suites.
Guest room obstacles. Not every access issue is covered by the ADA. Bed height is not, for instance, even though it can dramatically affect someone's hotel stay. As luxury beds get higher and higher, wheelchair users find transferring from their chair to the bed impossible. “If I can't get into the bed, I can't sleep,” Sears says. “Usually the hotel is willing to remove the bed frame to lower the bed. This works well because it takes about 8 to 10 inches off the height. But some frames are fixed and can't be removed. Then I need to remove the mattress and just sleep on the box spring."
Too much furniture in a guest room impedes the wheelchair user's navigation. If you can't easily access the drapes or thermostat, ask the hotel staff to remove some chairs. There often are not enough electrical outlets or they are not located where needed. Be prepared by bringing your own extension cord and surge protector.
Bathroom barriers. Roll-in showers consistently receive low marks from wheelchair users. The shower controls are often located opposite the seating bench, and are not within arm's length. Grab bars are missing or placed incorrectly. The shower seat is too small, too low, or there is no seat at all. (Because they are also notoriously messy, request extra towels when checking in.)
Professional speaker Rosemarie Rossetti, 67, travels from her home in Columbus, Ohio, more than a dozen times a year. Paralyzed from the waist down, she uses a manual wheelchair and always inspects her guest room before unpacking her bag. When a shower doesn't have a seat, she'll ask the hotel to provide one. (On one occasion, a bellhop returned with a shower chair that belonged to his grandmother.) Rickety seats are a safety hazard. Another option for some travelers is to bring their own portable shower chair.
And because the bathroom counter space is often inadequate, Rossetti brings a hanging toiletry-organizer bag for easy access.
Pool accessibility. Thanks to a new ADA regulation, people who can't manage steps will find hotel swimming pools have lifts. A pool lift is an immersible chair that swings over and into the water. It may be permanently installed beside the pool or portable and located in storage. If using the pool is a priority, contact the hotel 48 hours before your visit to be sure the lift will be available and working (battery-operated lifts need to be charged).
After your trip
When you get home, help other wheelchair users know what to expect by posting pictures and reviews of your accessible guest room on social media and with companies like accessibleGO. Join the hotel reward programs (they're free) and provide the hotels with feedback. When you stay at a hotel that meets your needs, make a note of the room number so you can request it on a future stay. Let the manager know that you appreciate that the guest room was well designed and that you will be recommending the property to friends.
The Twardowskis are freelance writers and photographers whose work has appeared in The New York Times, PBS, NextAvenue.org, AAA magazines and additional outlets.