Breaking News: Landmark Disability Settlement Changes Hotels.Com Reservation System

Change is in the air with the way Hotels.com makes reservations for wheelchair-accessible rooms. And that’s a very good thing. Currently it’s almost impossible to reserve an accessible room with this major hotel consolidator, as a reservation for an accessible rooms is only treated as a request. But under the settlement terms of Smith v. Hotels.com L.P, Hotels.com has agreed to alter their way of doing business.

Under the terms of the settlement, Hotels.com and Expedia will include information about accessible room details on their website; and give disabled travelers some personalized attention in the reservation process.

First and foremost, travelers will actually be able to search for an accessible room with specific access features. So, for example, you’ll be able to search for a room at a three-star hotel with a roll-in shower in Cleveland. That’s a huge improvement in the whole system, as currently you can’t determine a room’s accessibility features when you search their database. And let’s face it, different travelers have different access needs.

And, in many cases you will actually be able to reserve that specific accessible room. It won’t exactly be a point, click and book option, but a trained customer service representative will work with each disabled customer to make sure an accessible room that meets their needs is reserved. The representative will have to contact the property directly to make these arrangements, as hotels.com buys blocks of rooms, not specific rooms. Still it’s a great solution, as now people will be able to have the confidence that they’ve actually reserved an accessible room.

I expect that in some cases an accessible room won’t be available, but at least this way you’ll know what you are getting. And, more importantly, a reservation won’t be made unless an accessible room is actually available. In short, a reservation for an accessible room will no longer be treated as a request. This is a huge victory for disabled travelers.

According to attorney Victoria Ni at Public Justice, the deadline for implementing these changes is September 2009. “I hope this also sets the standard for other hotel consolidator websites”, says Victoria, “and that they will alter their practices as well. After all, they have to compete in the marketplace and this is a very lucrative niche.”

Additionally, this settlement may very well influence the Department of Justice as they revise the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) for hotels (also called transient lodging). Revisions under consideration include making hotels responsible for third party reservation systems that don’t adequately reserve accessible rooms; and requiring properties to block accessible rooms upon reservation. The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) opposes both of those proposed revisions, but perhaps this settlement will tip the scales in the favor of disabled travelers. We can always hope.

For now I applaud the hotels.com settlement, as a huge step forward in making travel more accessible (and affordable) to everyone. Kudos to DRA Legal and Public Justice for taking the case and to Hotels.com for agreeing to a reasonable settlement!