Below is an article written by Doug Smith, a disabled cruiser who believes that ‘Cruising isn’t just for able bodied people’. (Personally I think he should start a blog with that title..) The article is a comprehensive guide from embarkation to disembarkation for disabled cruisers. If you’re disabled and considering taking a cruise this article really is all you need to read. Even if you’re not disabled you may learn something new, I know I did!

Happy reading…

Just a little disclaimer here that all of the below opinions are Dougs and are based on his experiences as a disabled cruiser. Experiences may vary on different cruise lines. 

The disABILITY To Cruise?”

Is it possible for people with disABILITIES to go on cruise holidays?  ABSOLUTELY!

Cruise holidays are a fantastic way for people with disABILITIES, as well as their families, friends and/or carers to enjoy a relaxing (or otherwise, depending on how you like to enjoy your holidays). How do I know?  There are three reasons why I can say, hand-on-heart, that cruise holidays are fantastic for people with disabilities:

  1. I worked in the cruise industry between July 2007 and November 2011 – that was until ill health took me back from Southampton, on the south coast of England to Peterhead in the north east of Scotland. (This is a 12-hour drive, but only 90 minutes by plane.  I will explain the different ways you can get from your home to your cruise ship, irrespective of where in the world you live, a little later.)
  2. I have conducted cruise ship tours for travel agents as well as members of the public.  some of whom have/had a disability of one kind or another
  3. I have been on a few cruise holidays, myself.

You may be asking yourselves, “What do you know about disability, and how do you know cruise ships are fully accessible to people with disabilities?”  That is a very good question, so, to answer this questions, please allow you to give my full, honest answer:  I, myself, am a full-time wheelchair user, having had Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus since birth.

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However, cruise holidays are not just accessible to able-bodied people.  No!  They are accessible to EVERYBODY!  Let me give you some examples of how this is possible:

Getting to the ship.  There are many ways you can do this:

  1. If you live close to the cruise terminal, you may have a couple of choices.  One of which is to take a taxi.  There are accessible taxis in many towns and cities, and there is no need for wheelchair users to “transfer” from your wheelchair once you are inside the taxi.  You just stay in your wheelchair, and are “fastened” to the floor of the cab using specifically designed clamps or straps, thus ensuring you do not go for a spin while you are being transferred to/from the cruise terminal.
  2. You can drive to the terminal, and either be dropped off by relatives/friends right outside the cruise terminal.  Or, on specific cruises, you can park your car in a secure car park – for the duration of your cruise holiday – in the knowledge that your car will be looked after by highly trained security staff.  If you want to drive to the terminal and use the car parking facilities, but there is no promotion to give you free car parking, you can pay to have your car looked after during your cruise.  One word of caution here – it can be rather expensive, but your car will be totally safe.
  3. If you live further away from the cruise terminal, you can always take one of the many coaches, who’s companies have contracts with the main cruise lines.  These coaches will pick you up from specific points around the country, take you directly to the cruise terminal, and at the end of your cruise, they will pick you up at the terminal, and take you back to your original point of boarding.  Again, if there is no promotion for your specific cruise, giving you free coach transfers, you will have to pay to hitch a ride.

These coaches are fully wheelchair accessible, and can accommodate a small number of wheelchair users at a time.  Please check with the coach company for availability.

  1. If you live, for example, at the opposite end of the country, or in a different country from where you will be boarding your cruise ship, you can always take your standard schedule or charter flight to get you to the nearest airport, then take a taxi to the terminal.

Arrival at the terminal.

On arrival at the cruise terminal, you may see something like in the picture below.  This is Princess Cruises’® Emerald Princess, berthed in Civitavecchia, Italy, during my Mediterranean cruise holiday earlier this year (2016).

Once you arrive at the terminal, and found your jaw, after it has dropped to the ground due to the sheer size of these ships, all you need to do is take your luggage (already tagged) out of your car, or from the coach, and the rest will be done for you.

What do I mean by that?  What I mean, is that your luggage will be taken from you, taken into the cruise terminal, scanned through security, boarded onto the cruise ship, and the ship’s staff will – on 95% of the time – have your luggage in your cabin/stateroom before you have boarded the ship.  The other 5%?  The staff will, hopefully, get your luggage to your cabin before the ship departs.

Before you board the ship, you will have to go through check-in and security – just as if you were at an airport.  However, that is when the similarities stop.  You see, there are no waiting lounges after you go through security.  No!  You just walk (or push, for us wheelchair users) from security, directly onto the ship.

Check in.

What happens at check-in?  You will be called forward to the first available check-in desk.  There you will be seen by a member of staff, who will take your e-ticket (more on that later), along with your passport.  They will complete the check-in process, take your photograph (for shoreside security purposes).  They will then give you your “boarding card”.  DO NOT LOSE THIS!!!  Why?  There are a number of reasons.  You will require your boarding card to:

  1. Get on/off the ship in the ports of call
  2. Get into your cabin/stateroom, as it acts as the key to the room
  3. Activate the lights and air conditioning in your cabin/stateroom
  4. Pay for everything you purchase on board the ship.  You see, cruise ships use what they call a “cashless” system.  Everything is charged to your on board “account”, and payment is settled on the final evening/morning on board.

So, again, please do not lose this card!

After you have checked in, you will be called, in groups, to go through security.  As I mentioned previously, it is just as if you are at an airport, apart from, there is no waiting area at the other side.  All you do, is head directly on to the ship, along a glass-sided walkway.  It is only now that you get to see the immense size of your cruise ship, as it is only mere feet from you.

Arriving at the ship itself, you will be asked to produce your boarding card.  You will again have your photograph taken.  This time, for ship security – to make sure you are meant to be boarding the ship, and not a stowaway.  After this, your cruise holiday really begins.  You are now free to explore the ship, which will be your “home-from-home” for the next week or two.

Exploring the ship.

The first area you will come to will be the ship’s atrium.  This is the “hub” of the ship, where passengers come together.  The atrium can be between three and six decks high, depending on the ship, and is where passengers come to mingle with other passengers, or have a drink with family and friends.  There is seating, and corridors leading from it to other parts of the ship.

Below, is the main atrium on board a cruise ship.  This atrium is three decks high, and you can see the tables and seating there for you to relax and watch the world go by.

From the atrium, you may want to explore the different areas of the ship.  No doubt, the first place you will want to explore, will be your cabin/stateroom, and to check whether your luggage has arrived.

For the rest of this article, I will refer to cabins/staterooms as “cabins”.  There is no difference between the two.  It is just that some cruise lines call them “cabins”, and others call them “staterooms”. Depending on the type of cabin you have booked, you will have different facilities inside.  Let me explain:

  • Inside – This type of cabin has no window, so there is no natural light coming in from outside.  Some people find inside cabins claustrophobic, and may choose to have one with a window.
  • Ocean View (Obstructed) – This type of cabin has a window, letting natural light come into the room.  However, I hear you ask, “What does obstructed mean?” or “What is obstructing the view from the window?” Obstructed view cabins have either part of the ship’s structure or one of the lifeboats obstructing view from the window.  If you are not bothered about “a room with a view”, this won’t bother you.  However, if you would like to have a full-view, then you would be better upgrading.
  • Ocean View (Unobstructed) are exactly what they say.  They have a window with nothing outside to obstruct the view.  Natural light floods in, just like at home, however, there are different types of unobstructed view cabins, depending on the cruise line and the individual ships.  Some will have what they call a “porthole”.  This is a small round window, which is not as big as a full-window, and does not let in quite as much light.  Some, on the other hand, will have a “picture window”, which is a larger window, giving a clear view of the outside world, along with letting in much more light into the room.  If you would like to have your own little private outside space, you would be better upgrading to one with a Balcony.
  • Balcony cabins have larger interior space than Inside and Ocean View cabins.  They, as they are described, have their own balcony on the outside.  This balcony is your private outside space, and nobody can gain access to it from either side.
  • Mini-Suites are – you guessed it – larger than any of the aforementioned cabin grades.  They have larger interior space than any of the previously mentioned cabin types.  They also have a balcony, which again, is larger than your standard balcony.
  • Suites are La Crème de la Crème.  They are the largest of the cabin grades, again having a balcony.  Inside, they can be – depending on the cruise line – single floor rooms, or “Duplex” rooms, which have the living areas on the lower floor and sleeping areas on the upper floor.

In wheelchair accessible cabins, there is more floor space than in standard cabins of the same grade (for obvious reasons). By the time you have looked at your new “home-from-home”, your luggage – if it wasn’t in your cabin when you arrived – should now have arrived, and you can look forward to getting ready for your first evening out.

In accessible cabins, you will see that many items have been lowered to a more accessible, manageable height for wheelchair/scooter users.  This includes items such as:

  • Sink and taps
  • Toilet seat
  • Light switches
  • Shaver point
  • Shower seat
  • Detachable shower head

There are items such as a raised toilet seat, should you find that the height of the toilet is too low to use.  This can be requested, either before you travel (preferably), or when you board – Just request one from your cabin steward/ess. Also, very importantly, there are a couple of “Emergency” buttons in and around the cabin, one of which is usually within the wheel-in shower room, and the other is situated by the bed in the main part of the cabin.

These buttons are there in case passengers get into some sort of trouble inside your cabin.  The buttons are connected directly to the Purser’s Desk (Main Reception Desk), and when pressed, this will alert the staff at the Purser’s Desk you require assistance.  Within a couple of minutes, a member of staff will knock on your cabin door, and ask if you are ok, and if you require assistance.  NOTE OF CAUTION:  These buttons are VERY sensitive, and if knocked accidentally, you will have a member of staff at your door very swiftly indeed.  So, please make yourselves aware of their position, and try not to press it inadvertently.

If you are lucky enough to have booked a wheelchair accessible balcony cabin or higher, the balcony will also be fully accessible.  There will be a table with one or two chairs, and if you have booked a mini-suite or suite, there may (depending on cruise line and ship), be a recliner on your balcony.

Moving on from your cabin, there are plenty more places around the ship to explore.  These include:

  • Main and Alternative Dining Venues.  (I will explain more about these later)
  • Entertainment Venues
  • Outer Decks
  • Swimming Pools and Whirlpool Spa’s (Jacuzzi’s)
  • Retail Outlets
  • On-board Spa
  • Purser’s Desk
  • Shore Excursion Desk
  • Medical Centre (Let’s hope you never need it, but it is there just in case)

There will be more than one dining room on board your cruise ship.  Indeed, there will be more than one “type” of dining room on board your cruise ship.

Dining Rooms are split into the following categories:

  • Main Dining Rooms – Anytime Dining and Traditional Dining
  • Alternative Dining Rooms
  • 24-Hour Dining
  • Buffet Restaurant
  • On-Deck Pizzas, Burgers and Hotdogs
  • On-Deck Ice Cream and Sundaes
  • 24-Hour Room Service
  • Balcony Dining

Main Dining Venues

The Main Dining Room (MDR) is where you usually go to have your main evening meal during your  cruise.  The cost is included in your cruise fare.  Sumptuous three course meals are served at your table by knowledgeable, friendly, helpful staff.  There are two types of MDR.  These are:

  • Freedom (Anytime) Dining – Where you can go anytime between 5:30pm and 9:00pm, and you can sit where, and with whom you like each night
  • Fixed Dining – Where you sit at the same table, with the same people every night during your cruise.

Don’t worry!  If you choose Fixed Dining, you won’t miss any of the evening’s entertainment, as it is fitted around the different dining options.  If you want to go to the shows in the theatre, again, don’t worry, as there are two shows every night (usually the same show).

Alternative Dining Venues

There are a number of dining venues – different venues from the above – which you can go to, to have your taste buds tantalised.  There will be a cover charge for these venues, and they will usually have to be pre-booked.  They are usually around £25 – £40 per person (including wine.  Although, you don’t have to drink wine, if you don’t want to).  Not bad, when you consider that if you were to go out for an evening meal at home, it can cost you anything up to £50 or £60 per person.

Buffet Restaurant and Other Venues Around The Ship

There is usually a buffet restaurant on board the ship, where you can dine virtually 24 hours a day.  There is a vast selection of food items to choose from, so you can tickle your taste buds.

On-Deck Pizzas, Burgers and Hotdogs, Ice Cream and Sundaes

For kids of all ages, there are outlets on deck where you can get (if you wish) pizzas, burgers, hotdogs, ice cream and sundaes.  These, again, are included in your cruise fare, so there is no need to worry about the cost mounting up.

24-Hour Room Service

Room Service is available 24 hours a day, so if you don’t feel like leaving the comfort of your cabin, you can call up Room Service, and they will usually deliver your meal, piping hot, within about 30 minutes.  If this is going to be longer they will advise you.  The Room Service menu is usually the same menu as in the MDR, so you won’t miss out on your nice juicy steak – should it be on the menu.

Balcony Dining

If you choose, and you have booked a balcony grade cabin or above, you can have your evening meal – or your breakfast – on the privacy of your own private balcony.  This is especially good – and convenient – if you have something special to celebrate, like an engagement.

Watching a Movie on the Top Deck

If your ship has an outdoor movie screen – usually up on the top deck – you can snuggle down under a warm blanket, and receive from the staff, along with complimentary popcorn… just as if you were actually at the movies back home.

One final important (Haha!) note about food.  Be prepared to put on at LEAST a few pounds, unless you intend to regularly go to the gym, or do a few laps of the running track (on some ships). After you have had your fill of sumptuous food, you will probably want to relax.  There are plenty places on board your ship to unwind.  These include:

Main Theatre

In the main theatre, you can see West End and Broadway style shows twice nightly, so whether you are having early or late sitting for your evening meal, you won’t miss any of the shows. There may also be special guests on board to give you talks on certain subjects from astronomy to how the ship is run from the bridge.

Cabaret, Tribute Acts, Musicians and Magicians

There are lots of different acts to see in and around the ship, so you will not be at a loss for entertainment. Also, during the day time, there will also be acts in and around the ship – especially in the atrium (like jugglers, singers, quartets, soloists etc).

Retail Outlets

Here, you can pick up anything from toothbrush and toothpaste to clothes and perfume/aftershave.  Some ships even have jewellery outlets on board, or maybe even an art gallery.  So, if you see a picture you fancy, you can ask for it to be delivered to your home (probably at a charge for postage), but just think of that lovely picture you yearned, hanging up on your wall… something to remember your cruise by.

Onboard Spa

Here, you can have anything from a neck, shoulder and back massage, to a manicure and pedicure to rejuvenate your weary bodies and minds.  The staff in the onboard spa are specially trained in all types of relaxation methods to help ease your tensed up muscles, and have you relaxed in no time. If you wish, you can – again, on specific ships – get that all-new hair-do you longed for, especially if it is for a specific celebration on board.  Go on, spoil yourself!  After all, you deserve it!

More Serious Stuff

Emergency Evacuation Drill

This is exactly what is says it is… a DRILL!  However, it is a VERY IMPORTANT drill.

Before your cruise ship departs on your first day, there will be an emergency evacuation drill.  After everyone is on board, approximately one hour before the ship leaves the port, the Captain or First Officer will announce over the tannoy that there is going to be an emergency evacuation drill – which EVERYONE ON BOARD MUST – by International Maritime Law – obey!

The captain will announce the impending drill once again, approximately five minutes before the drill commences.  This will be followed by seven short and one long blast of the ship’s horn.  This is your opportunity to get to your cabin (if you are not already there), collect your life jacket(s), and check the notice on the back of your cabin door to see where your “Muster Point” is.  You must then leave your cabin immediately, and go directly to the muster point.  Don’t worry, as there will be members of staff to direct you, should you need guiding.

Also, if you require assistance, please let a member of staff know, and they will assist you down the stairwell and on to your Muster Point.  You see, lifts/elevators must NOT be used during either an evacuation drill, or for that matter, a real evacuation.  Hence, they will be switched off, and out of use. When you arrive at your Muster Point, members of staff will assist you – should you require – to get your life jacket on, and show you what (and what not) to do before evacuation, should the eventuality arise.  Please obey all instructions from members of staff.  Once everyone has been accounted for, the Captain or First Officer will announce over the tannoy that the drill has completed, and everyone can return to their cabins.

When the ship is departing port, most of the passengers will head up on to the top deck and wave “Goodbye” to everyone on land who are watching.  Your cruise holiday has now begun.  And the party has started.  Usually there is music being played, either by a DJ or a live band on deck, to get everyone in the mood for a party.  It is a great time to mingle with other passengers, and begin to get to know some of them.

Going Ashore At The Ports of Call

Going ashore at the different ports of call, and exploring the different ports and surrounding areas during your cruise holiday, is really why you want to go on a cruise holiday… just like you were going to, say, Benidorm.  You wouldn’t stay in your hotel room for the duration of your holiday, you would get out and explore the area.  This is exactly the same on a cruise holiday, only, you have more than one port or country to explore.  How you get there, depends…  “Depends on what?” I hear you ask. It depends on whether the ship as berthed alongside the quayside, or at anchor.  There are many reasons why a ship would be at anchor.  Let me explain:

If a ship is too long, or has a draft (the depth of ship under the water line), to berth alongside the quayside, then the ship will have to weigh anchor.  This means that the ship will have to drop its anchor offshore, and passengers will be brought ashore by tender (the ship’s lifeboats).

If the port has easy access from the water, then people with disabilities will be allowed to go ashore on the tender craft.  However, If the Captain deems the access to the shore (there are steps which are either too steep or too narrow for a wheelchair), to be too dangerous for passengers and crew, then, unfortunately, you will be prohibited from going ashore at that port of call.  This is why it is VERY IMPORTANT that you do your homework BEFORE you book your cruise, so that you are not disappointed when you get to that specific port of call.  The Captain of the ship will have the final say on whether you can, or cannot, go ashore, and his/her word is final.

Let me give you an example of this:  If there are steep steps to get from the tender craft to main street level, and you slip or fall and injure yourself, or if one of the staff members gets hurt, the Captain will have full responsibility, and he/she will be liable for any damages.  So, as you can see, it is very important to understand, respect and adhere to the Captain’s decision.  I know it may come as a disappointment to you, should you not be allowed to go ashore, but the Captain is only looking out for the health and safety of you, your fellow passengers, and his crew.

Also, as with the ship being at anchor, if the ship is berthed alongside, there may be a time when the Captain will refrain you from going ashore.  This will be if the gangway is at too steep an angle due to high or low tide.  Please do not get me wrong here.  The ship’s staff will endeavor to get you ashore – if possible – but if there is any sign that this could cause injury, either to you, or a member of crew, then again, you will not be allowed to go ashore.  The last thing that the Captain, his crew and the cruise line want, is for you to be held “prisoner” on board the ship, but, as I have said before, they are only looking out for your health and safety.

One last thing about going shore in the ports of call…  Please Remember:  You MUST be back on board the ship no later than one hour prior to the departure of the ship.  If you are late, or you know you are going to be late, please let the ship know. You may be asking yourself, “How on earth can I let the ship know… I don’t have their telephone number?”  If you ask the staff at the main Purser’s Desk, they will give you the telephone number, so you will not need to worry about contacting the ship if you are late.  Also, please remember that “ship time” is “local time”… NOT British time, so please remember to set your watches to ship time.  That way, you have less chance to be late back to your ship, and less time to miss your ship’s departure altogether.

Shore Excursions

Should you wish to take one of the ship’s organised shore excursions, and you cannot board the coach to take you on that excursion, you can advise the staff at the Purser’s Desk, and they can organise accessible transport to get you on the excursion.  Please remember to do this on the evening before you arrive in port.

Final Day/Evening On Board

This is usually a very happy but also sad time.  You have enjoyed your cruise so much, that you do not want to leave.  I know, I never wanted to leave ship at the end of the cruise.  After all, you will have become firm friends with passengers from different parts of the country, or indeed, parts of the world.  You may also have become friends with some of the members of staff on board.  However, they are there to see that you enjoy yourself right up until you actually disembark (leave) ship on your final morning.

The Final Evening/Morning

Before you go out for your final evening meal and evening’s entertainment, you will have to pack your bags and suitcases, make sure they all have tags on them, and leave them outside your cabin door.  This is if you do not want to carry your luggage off ship yourself.  Please take time to look around your cabin and balcony (if you have one) to make sure you have not left anything. If you wish to have “Express Disembarkation”, please notify your cabin Steward/ess, who will ensure that your baggage is left in your cabin.  Express Disembarkation is where you may have a taxi, coach, train or flight to catch, and you wish to get off the ship early.  Please remember, that if you request Express Disembarkation, you will have to take all of your own luggage off the ship yourself.

On the Final Morning

If you have requested Express Disembarkation, you can leave the ship just as soon as Customs have been on board, and given the Captain the “all clear”.  If you have NOT requested Express Disembarkation, you will be notified where you need to go until you are directed to leave the ship.  All you do, is go to your “holding point” and wait for the announcement over the tannoy, that you are clear to disembark.

When you reach the gangway, you just hand over your boarding pass, say your “Goodbye’s”, and leave the ship.  On disembarkation, head directly to the luggage holding point, pick up your luggage and head home to reminisce about the fantastic cruise holiday you have just had.

Now, there you have it!  All the information you require to go on a fantastic relaxing cruise holiday.  Should you require anything clarified, please go to my website:  Here, I give you all of the information you need, along with the opportunity to purchase my book entitled “The disABILITY To Cruise?”.  In my book, I give a full rundown of all the information you require to decide whether a cruise holiday is right for you.  I certainly think it is.  In fact, I KNOW it is!

So, as I say in my book…   “What are you waiting for?  Go on, get out there!  Book a cruise!  See the world… or at least part of it!  After all, it is YOUR world!”

Happy Cruising

Doug Smith


Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community.

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