Here's what companies offer and the reality of renting a car as a wheelchair user.
You know the image: a wheelchair user in front of a wide-open vista with their hands raised in triumph, free to live life independently. It’s meant to be a tribute to the resilience and the hope that disability doesn’t inhibit a full and happy life. But what if travel is how a wheelchair user explores the world and feels fulfilled?
Many people look to travel to fill their need for new experiences and fun. For those with different mobility requirements, it’s no secret that the services regularly offered to travelers can be more challenging to use, such as renting a car. We spoke to experts about the challenges and realities wheelchair users face when renting a car and what to remember the next time you make a rental car reservation.
What Equipment Is Offered?
A few standard pieces of car equipment are available from major rental companies. Hand controls can attach to the accelerator and brake to make those operated by hand rather than foot, while spinner knobs fasten to the steering wheel, allowing the user to turn the wheel with just one hand, making turning easier and quicker. Other rental car equipment can include left-foot accelerators and pedal extenders.
Plan Ahead, Well Ahead
While the big rental car agencies offer adaptive equipment (frequently at no extra charge), there’s usually a bit of lead time to install these accessible features. An exception is Hertz, who (according to their website) can accommodate the installation of this accessible car equipment with only 8 hours’ notice at most major airports.
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“While Hertz is able to provide hand controls on certain vehicles within our fleet, due to customer safety concerns and vehicle availability considerations, we cannot provide adaptive driving devices on every model or confirm a particular make or model for a reservation,” reads their website.
This can be tricky as wheelchairs come in a host of different sizes, and how they are loaded into a car can vary by the make or model of that vehicle.
As with all travel, it is best to plan ahead as much as possible. Give yourself plenty of lead time to secure an available vehicle that can be fitted with hand controls, and check on your reservation well ahead of your trip.
Enterprise also has accessible cars at bigger airports but regularly requires two to three days lead time for installing hand controls, as does Alamo. Avis has a special phone number dedicated to disability services and asks for a one-day lead time to install hand controls within a rental car.
Use an Adapted Van Rental Service
Getting a car customized to your specific needs can be hard with so many different mobility requirements. It may be better to rent an accessible van from a company that specializes in wheelchair van rentals. Mobility Works offers side and rear entry newer model vans at rental locations across the country, many located near major airports. Katie Harkness, Director of Rental Operations at Mobility Works, aims to equip wheelchair users with usable, clear information.
“I think that knowing what’s available to you is half the battle for many people. When you do, you can plan ahead. Our goal is to help clients, so we’re very likely to recommend a competitor if we don’t have something available,” explains Harkness. “You can call our 800 number (our call center is open six days a week) or directly call any location. You can also go on our website and book an available rental during business hours for real-time availability.” With this service, three days’ notice is recommended by Harkness.
Other companies that offer a similar service include, Wheelers or Braunability. Wheelchair Getaways is an online referral network of 190 independently owned mobility dealers and accessible transportation providers. You can search by location and contact the nearest to your travel needs.
The Reality for Wheelchair Users
Even though it seems like renting a car with just a few days lead time is worry-free, the reality is often not as easy. Fred Maahs of Maahs Travels has traveled worldwide as an accessible travel consultant and public speaker. The last time he tried to rent a car with hand controls was around two years ago, a process that proved too challenging.
“It was such a hassle,” recalls Maahs. “They wanted to check inventory. They weren’t sure if they could install the hand controls in time. I had called a month ahead, and it got to such a point that I ended up canceling the reservation because I didn’t feel they were as knowledgeable as they should be with the hand controls.”
A few years before, Maahs had a dangerous experience driving down a highway in Florida. The car he’d rented had hand controls that hadn’t been installed properly and came apart mid-drive.
“They literally just dropped to the floor,” remembers Maahs. “I put the car in neutral and rested my foot on the brake. I called the rental agency once I pulled over to the shoulder, and they asked if I checked the hand controls to ensure they were tight. It’s not my job to inspect the car to ensure the tires don’t fall off, and I didn’t think I had to inspect the hand controls to see if they were installed correctly.
These days, Maahs is happy sticking with ride-share services and skipping the obstacles of renting a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.