Experienced accessible travel: Sellers offer tips

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To talk with someone who sells accessible travel is to hear stories of inspiration.

Kristy Lacroix, owner of Wheelchair Escapes (http://wheelchairescapes.com), originally booked vacations simply for herself and her husband, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She found that even though she asked the right questions, the people at the other end of the line really didn't know how to answer them. So a decade ago she quit her job and began selling travel for a living.

Wheelchair EscapesShe puts her customers into helicopters, flightseeing planes and whale-watching boats. She has them swimming with dolphins and panning for gold. She can even book scuba diving for her disabled customers. But that's not enough for Lacroix.

"What I really want is a wheelchair-accessible zipline," she said. She's already talked to some providers in Alaska about building one.

"That way they can get the wind in their hair and feel the freedom," she said.

Lacroix is all about saying yes to the disabled.

"I talk to people and I say, 'Do you want to do this or that?'" she said. More often than not, the response is, "I can do this?" To which she replies, "Of course! I wouldn't suggest it if you couldn't!"

It has taken years of work for Lacroix to develop all this on-the-ground, in-the-water and in-the-air knowledge of what is available and what can be done by disabled travelers.

She knows what cruise lines have the most accessible ships, right down to the most accessible merry-go-round (that's Royal Caribbean International).

She has checked out most Caribbean islands to find out which have beach chairs, accessible vans and other equipment for the disabled.

Because she conducts that kind of research all over the world, she can plan trips like a recent 12-night cruise that included shore excursions in St. Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Norway; Tallinn, Estonia; and London. The group did something unique in each port. She has also booked cross-country driving tours for disabled clients.

She turns frequently to the Special Needs Group, which rents wheelchairs; mobility scooters; special beach chairs for getting people onto the beach and into the ocean; and oxygen tanks in about 100 cities in 30 countries. It also provides listening devices for those with limited hearing and Braille text for the visually impaired. Some cruise lines even provide menus in Braille.

Andrew Garnett, president and CEO of the Special Needs Group, worked with a couple who booked a cruise from Rome's Civitavecchia port to Venice. One person in the couple was in a wheelchair.

He booked equipment and tours for them at every port, including Naples, Sicily and Venice. In most ports he was able to find an accessible vehicle. The exception was Venice. However, public transportation in Venice is very accessible. So Garner hired a guide who met the couple at their ship and took them all over Venice.

Money was not an object with this family, Garnett said.

"They didn't care what anything cost," he said. "They just wanted to have the experience, and they were thrilled with everything."

Both Garnett and Lacroix like cruise ships because disabled passengers only have to unpack their paraphernalia once but can still see several destinations.

"The rule of thumb is, the newer the vessel, the more accessible it is," Garnett said.

However, river cruises remain something of an emerging market for the disabled, he said. River cruise ships don't all have elevators, and they sometimes dock alongside another vessel, which means you might be traveling on an accessible vessel but have to get to the port through a vessel that's not accessible.

SNG is talking to one river cruise line in an effort to identify itineraries that are accessible.

Debra Kerper, owner of Easy Access Travel (www.easyaccesstravel.com), said it's important to look at the whole picture. A cruise ship might be accessible, but you have to check out each port of call to make sure there's a way for your clients to get into them. And a wheelchair-accessible cabin is not the same on all ships.

This is a specialty that has a certain amount of heartbreak built into it. Kerper said she knows that some of the trips she books for clients are going to be the last they'll take with their families. The memories created on these trips are probably going to be some of the last these families will have with their loved ones.

Lacroix recently lost a client, a 22-year-old with multiple sclerosis, who had gone on a cruise with her in April. At one point he was moved from his wheelchair into a beach chair and then into the water, where staff put him into a life jacket so he could float freely in the water.

"We fulfilled one of his dreams," Lacroix said. "We took him into the ocean."

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.

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