Guest post: Sylvia
Accessible Cruising Opens the World to Wheelchair Users
Few experiences can compare to watching a sunset over Caribbean beaches or listening to the shotgun crack of a glacier cleaving into Alaskan waters. It’s only a dream for many to see the colosseum in Rome or meander through the canals of Amsterdam. For many wheelchair users and seniors with mobility limitations, reaching these places may appear to be an impossible dream. However, visiting all of these destinations and many more can become a reality for people with disabilities through the excitement of cruising!
I’ve had multiple sclerosis (MS) for over 12 years and can’t walk as a result. However, I routinely travel around the world by myself with my electric scooter, and I’m addicted to the thrill of discovering new accessible places. Cruises are one of my favorite ways to travel for so many reasons—many of which are shared by travelers in general. You only have to unpack once, you have a consistent place to eat every day, and you have many activities to choose from to pass the time between ports. You also get to see many places on the same voyage, which would otherwise cost more money and take more time.
Accessibility of cruise ships
For wheelchair and other mobility aid users, cruise ships offer so much more. Newer cruise ships have cabins that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and many major cruise lines have retrofitted their older ships to meet ADA standards. This means there is a flat entry into accessible cabins, wider doorways, and roll-in showers and grab bars in the bathrooms. Wheelchair seating is available in theaters and many doors have automatic openers. Elevators can take guests to all decks, and many newer ships even have pool lifts so wheelchair users can splash around with their families.
There are some things that are important to note. Some parts of the ship—usually small viewing areas near the bow or stern—can be inaccessible, and there are areas that for safety reasons will still have thresholds or heavy doors that require assistance to open. Boarding the ship and disembarking at ports of call can be tricky because the gangway can be steep at times. Fortunately, there are always many crew members available to make sure you can go up and down the gangway safely. Finding a secure area is also very important during rough seas.
Ports of call
The most important thing for wheelchair and mobility aid users to research when looking for a cruise itinerary is the ports of call (POCs). Many POCs require a tender, or small boat, for passengers to reach the shore because the ship is too large to dock. Some cruise lines have tender boats that allow manual wheelchair users to board, but still require the passenger to go down a few steps. Most cruise lines will post on their itineraries whether each POC will allow the ship to dock or if a tender may be required. You can also use resources like CruiseCal to check the schedule for each POC so you can plan accordingly.
When looking at itineraries, you will also need to research the availability of accessible tour options at each POC. Some of the larger cruise lines are providing more tour options to wheelchair users, but sadly they are still extremely limited. Fortunately, there are many independent tour companies and accessible travel agencies that can help you arrange accessible transportation and exciting ways to explore each destination. Consider yourself warned; accessible taxis and tours are usually much more expensive than those for non-disabled travelers. Also, keep in mind that the American definition of “accessible” may not be the same in other countries.
To give you an idea of what the experience might be like for you, I’ll recount when my best friend and I went on an Alaska Inside Passage 7-night cruise out of Vancouver on the Star Princess in May 2016. The Star is a mid-sized ship that holds roughly 3,100 passengers and has several accessible cabins. Erin and I splurged on a verandah cabin so we could watch the glaciers go by from the comfort of our balcony. I used my electric scooter everywhere on the ship, and there were only a couple of places on board that had steep threshold ramps and heavy wooden doors. Plenty of people were available to help anytime we needed it.
We had three POCs—Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan—and we knew ahead of time that we might have to miss Sitka in a tendering situation. Fortunately, we were able to consult the cruise calendar to see we would be docking and could plan a tour accordingly. I rented a manual wheelchair for excursions (which I highly recommend in rougher POCs), but I really didn’t need it. We booked two tours through Princess, but I called each operator independently to confirm the tours were wheelchair friendly. In Juneau, much to my surprise I was able to find an accessible helicopter tour operator, and that was easily one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The entire cruise experience was amazing!
And more cruising adventure awaits me this fall. I will be boarding the Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas on August 12 to visit Scandinavia and Russia for seven nights, and in October I will be cruising again with my best friend on Celebrity’s Silhouette for a 12-night voyage to Greece and Israel. If you use a wheelchair or have any mobility impairments, the world is waiting for you, and I highly recommend taking a cruise to get there!
Thanks for this Sylvia! Brilliant post. It’s really reassuring to know that cruise ships are generally pretty accessible for people who need to use a wheelchair. I have on a couple of ocasions been asked if cruises are a good idea for people in wheelchairs, I have always just said ‘oh I guess, so yeah!’ but now I know. (+ will direct their questions to you in future).
Not surprised you were voted Ms Wheelchair USA! Always looking glamorous, even when surrounded by lumberjacks!
About Sylvia: Sylvia Longmire is an accessible travel consultant and blogger for Spin the Globe . She is also a service-disabled US Air Force veteran and Ms. Wheelchair USA 2016.