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Disabled traveler abandons vacation, Sunwing apologizes

07/23/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/22/2016 05:59 EDT
Sunwing Travel Group has apologized and says it will provide a full refund to an Alberta man who booked a vacation but didn't get on the plane because he couldn't confirm his hotel room in Cuba would be wheelchair accessible.

Luis Medeiros says it only happened after he contacted CBC.

"After I contacted CBC, it was a different story. They refunded my money right away."

An expert says many travellers with special needs are often confronted with the same travel dilemma.

Medeiros spotted an advertisement last month for a last-minute, one-week Sunwing Vacation package to Varadero that included flight, hotel, airport transfers and breakfasts for $1,031.

"It was a really good deal." he told CBC News. "So I booked the trip, gave them my credit card, asked for a wheelchair room, because I needed a wheelchair room."

A wheelchair accessible room is an absolute necessity, said Medeiros, a paraplegic since 1990, when a truck fell on him in his garage.

"The doors have to be wide enough for me to get inside the room and there can't be any stairs. And then I have to get into the washroom. I need to get into the shower. If it's a like a box shower or something,  I cannot get into the shower." 

No room at the inn?

Medeiros says Sunwing told him that they would request a wheelchair accessible room, but when the booking was confirmed, the accessible room was not mentioned.

In a followup email, Sunwing said the hotel request is awaiting confirmation.

The flight was scheduled to leave Edmonton on Tuesday, June 16.

As the date approached, Medeiros says Sunwing still hadn't confirmed his wheelchair room.

"I was worried, so finally on Saturday (June 13), I phoned and tried to talk to somebody, and they told me to talk to 'special services.' I left a message, because there was nobody there, and I never got a word or an email back."

The day he was scheduled to leave, Medeiros says he still hadn't received confirmation for an accessible room.  

Felt he had to cancel

So he decided not to get on the flight.

He couldn't take the chance that he'd end up in Cuba without a place to stay.

"It would be very scary," he said. "Especially in a different country that I've never been to, where I don't speak the language either. So I wouldn't know what to do."
 
Travel consultant James Glasbergen says not getting on the flight was probably the right decision.

"If you don't get that accessible room, you're not showering for a week."  

Glasbergen himself is a quadraplegic who specializes in helping people with disabilities book accessible travel.

Glasbergen's top 5 accessible vacations

- United States (especially Hawaii) — In 2012, the U.S. amended the Americans with Disabilities Act which ensured that all hotels and attractions would be accessible to people with disabilities.

- Italy — Has a Charter of Rights for Tourists that includes people with disabilities.

- Australia — Many attractions and accommodations for the disabled traveller.

- Canada — Accessibility for travellers in Canada is monitored and regulated by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

- Cruises — Still Glasbergen's preferred way to see the world, because they guarantee an accessible room which allows travel to countries that would be otherwise inaccessible.

He travels extensively himself, in part so he has first-hand experience of the accessibility of the locations where he's sending his clients.  

Glasbergen says most tour operators and resorts in the Caribbean will not confirm an accessible room in advance.  

"They'll note on your reservation that you're requesting an accessible room, but nothing is ever guaranteed," says Glasbergen. "They have a big block of people and two or three days prior to arrival, that's when they assign room numbers. And if there's an accessible room available, you'll get it.

"Every tour operator and resort has told me 99 per cent of the time, it's not a problem. But if it is a problem, you could really be stuck. I've had a client that I booked on a seven day trip to Mexico and they spent half that week in a regular room because there was no accessible room available. It's a frustrating experience."

He adds: "I don't understand why the tour operators won't get together and say 'listen, at the time of booking, you need to block off a specific room, not just put it on request, because that's not fair'.  But they just haven't gotten to that point yet."

In the dark

Medeiros says he wasn't aware of any of this when he booked his vacation.

After he didn't get on the plane, he emailed Sunwing asking for his money back, but Sunwing refused.

The company said it empathized with Medeiros's situation, but it could not provide compensation as all bookings are final and 100 per cent non-refundable.

Medeiros contacted CBC and CBC contacted Sunwing.

The next day, Medeiros got an email saying the company would refund his money.

Three days later, in an email to CBC, Sunwing said it wasn't aware a wheelchair room for Medeiros was an absolute requirement.

"According to the information we received from him, a wheelchair-accessible room was indicated as preferable but not a prerequisite to travel." said Janine Chapman, Sunwing Travel Group's vice president of marketing.

"Most resorts only have a small number of wheelchair-accessible rooms, and so it was necessary to reconfirm availability."

Sunwing apologizes

"When we were able to reserve and confirm a wheelchair-accessible room with our hotel partner, we did not inform him of this, as we had not understood it was essential to travel from the information he had provided us with."

Chapman said Medeiros did not officially cancel his trip, opting instead not to travel.

"Once we learned from him that he felt that we had not delivered what he had asked of us, we offered him an apology together with a full refund for the trip. We will also look to improve the way in which requests for special services are compiled to avoid any misunderstandings of this nature in the future."

Medeiros is happy he will now get his money back. He says he'll do things differently next time.

"My next vacation, I think I'll just book the flight and book my own hotel."

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