I learned long ago that having a disability means more planning for every aspect of your life, especially travel. I plan a trip to the supermarket with the precision of a military maneuver, so even the simplest overnight trip gets the full treatment. Yet, plans are no better than the information on which they are based. My trip to Albany proves how much can go wrong no matter how much care, planning, note-taking, and fact-checking you do.
The capital city of New York managed to prove the old Jewish proverb “A mantrakhtundGotlakht!” (Man makes plans and G-d laughs). John Lennon’s version works well here, too: “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”
We flew to Albany to attend our youngest son’s graduation fromRensselaerPolytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy,New York. Our plan was to fly into Albany and stay in Troy. In February, I researched groundtransport options. I foundout that the Capital District Transit Authority (CDTA) provides mass transit for Albany County. CDTA’sparatransitservice is called STAR. I gave STAR’s fax number to my local mass transit agency. They arranged for visitor status with STAR while I foundout about the fare ($2.50 per person) and ride reservation rules. I could book as early as 2 weeks ahead to as late as 5:00 pm the night before I need the ride. I spoke to STAR’s mobility manager, who told me that there was a fleet of accessible taxis for any same day trips and gave me the number of Advantage Taxi Service, which is STAR’s subcontractor. Armed with that vital information, I went to RPI’s website for the list of local hotels and checked the links to find out which ones in Troy had wheelchair accessible rooms with roll-in showers. Doing this 30-minute exercise would screen out hotels that are not accessible (some hotels think they’re accessible but would never pass the test). I foundfour or five hotels in Troy that advertised wheelchair accessible rooms.
Booking a hotel room in Troy was impossible. I was in shock to discover that all hotels in Troy had been booked solid for a year. According to eachreservationist,RPIparents typically make reservations during their children’s junior year! Eventually, a bed & breakfast owner told me that the Comfort Inn by the Albany International Airport still had rooms available. This was seven miles fromRPI, but it didn’t phase me because I had both STAR and taxi service available during our stay. (The hotel and Southwest Airlines will be covered in separate reviews. This review centers on Albany and its services.)
Two weeks ahead of our arrival, I called STAR to book the trip from the airport to the Comfort Inn. I discovered that our 11:30 pm landing was too late for STAR, which interprets “complementary service” as running only when and whereCDTAhas a live bus route. In order to accommodate our flight, areservationistsupervisor had to override the computer. Even so, she couldn’t give me a time any later than 11:50 pm with an Advantage Taxi vehicle. If we missed it, they would not return; I would have to call a taxi instead.
Three days later, I booked our rides for the Saturday graduation ceremony and tried to book the trip from the Comfort Inn to the airport on Sunday. Thereservationistannounced that there was no bus service on that route on Sundays. Apparently,CDTAhad just implemented service cuts. No bus service meant that I couldn’t book a ride with STAR for Sunday! No worries, call an accessible taxi – every company has a fleet!
We arrived! We were late getting out of the airport, but the Advantage Taxi driver waited for us anyway. I thought this meant transportation would be as promised. I soon found out quite the opposite!
Our trip to RPIon graduation day was set for 7:00 am to ensure that we would get there early enough to get a good spot in the wheelchair access section. This trip worked out very well – more validation that all is well. We had a good view of the stage and speakers (with help from a JumboTron). I got some beautiful close-ups of Supreme Court Justice Scaliaand Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, with my Canon PowerShot A560 (the thought of using a digital camera to capture the image of its inventor just tickles me). I was burned to a crisp because I forgot about sunscreen, but I didn’t care – I watched my baby graduate cumlaude!
After the ceremony, we attended a barbecue lunch in the middle of the campus, giving us a chance to see the beauty of its architecture as we trekked over. I had arranged a later pick-up, so we would have time to eat lunch. I also arranged to have our son, his girlfriend, and our daughter ride with us back to the hotel. My husband suggested that we ask STAR for a closer pick-up point because we were so far away that we risked missing our ride. Mostparatransitcompanies have no difficulty making accommodations like this, especially to tourists. The response was stern: “You get picked up where you were dropped off. You have a half hour to get there, period.” So much for hospitality. We barely made it, and my chair stopped dead on one of the hills. Luckily, the reset button worked. When we got back to the hotel, so I put my chair on the charger and relaxed for a bit before planning the evening’s festivities.
I made reservations at a highly recommended restaurant about two miles from the hotel. The plan was to call for a taxi at 5:00 pm, which gave us plenty of time to get to the restaurant. I first called Advantage, but they had no accessible taxis available. Trying to be flexible, I asked when they would have someone available, but the dispatcher just repeated, “can’t do anything for you.” My husband and the kids called every taxi company inAlbany. Not one of them had an accessible taxi on the road on a Saturday night!
It was obvious that Albany’s transportation services couldn’t care less about visitors with disabilities. Why promise accessible taxi service when “the fleet” is hardly ever on the road? Without transportation, we were prisoners. Actually, I was the prisoner – my family could call any taxi company for a ride anywhere they wanted to go.
Our daughter got together with my husband and founda Chinese restaurant in Schenectady that would deliver to the hotel (reviews about this and two other restaurants that provided take-out or delivery service coming soon). Because we were now worried about getting a taxi for the next day’s trip back to the airport, she visited AlbanyInternational Airport’s website and printed a list of taxi and limousine companies that had permits to serve the airport and told me to start with the airport transportation dispatcher.
The next morning, we first called Advantage. The dispatcher insisted that there was no taxi service until much later in the day. I immediately followed my daughter’s instructions. At first, I got the same “I ain’t got nobody” answer, leaving me in tears. I suppose he heard me because suddenly, the conversation sounded like the Wizard of Ozscene at the gates of Emerald City. The man told me he would find someone, somehow to get us to the airport. He put me on hold for a few minutes and came back with good news. He found someone willing to start his shift two hours earlier in order to get us to the airport on time! (Maybe I should have asked the airport dispatcher to get us to the restaurant.)
To sum it all up, without adequate transportation, all the joys of a city are lost to people who use wheelchairs. There are companies that will rent wheelchair accessible minivans, but the rates are over $100 per day – and there are usually only a few available. It’s nearly impossible to get one for a holiday weekend at any price. Albany needs to fix its transportation system unless it wants the nickname of “Small-bany” to stick.
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Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Mar - May