Mary Arnold needs both knees replaced and has two new hips because of arthritis. The 58-year-old retiree from Los Angeles can walk only a few steps and uses a scooter outside of her home. But she doesn’t let her mobility issues interfere with her desire to travel.
A longtime fan of cruising, she has set sail 14 times. Ms. Arnold finds it convenient, affordable and an accessible vacation option. If you’re also considering a cruise, and have mobility challenges, here’s what you need to know before booking a cruise.
Selecting a Ship
Multiple cruise lines offer accessible staterooms for people who have disabilities. These rooms typically provide wider doorways, lowered closet rods and enough turning radius for a wheelchair. The bathroom has been outfitted with grab bars, a raised toilet, a roll-in shower with a fold-down bench, hand-held shower heads and a lowered sink. Be sure to confirm with the cruise line the exact dimensions and specific features of the cabin before you book. Even within the same cruise line, an accessible guest room may be different on different ships.
Like land-based hotels, the number of accessible cabins on any ship is a small percentage of the total inventory. For example, Celebrity Cruises’ newest ship, the Celebrity Edge, has 25 accessible staterooms across several price points, including two with butler service, out of a total of 1,467 staterooms. Accessible staterooms tend to fill up months or even a year before a cruise departs.
Most cruise lines have an accessibility department that assists guests with special needs. Carefully review a cruise line’s online accessibility information before booking a cruise, and reach out with questions. Some cruise lines may require guests to travel with a caretaker. You’ll need to bring your own wheelchair or scooter with you, though vendors such as Special Needs at Sea and Scootaround rent mobility devices and will deliver them to your stateroom. Passengers traveling with a wheelchair or scooter must store and charge it in their stateroom. (And no, you can’t leave it out in the hallway overnight.)
Newer ships offer a wealth of accessible benefits, including modern public bathrooms and better-designated wheelchair seating at theaters. The exterior doors of ships that lead to the decks can be a struggle to open — particularly when the wind is blowing — and modern ships have more automatic doors. Some ships offer pool lifts beside the swimming pools or spas; these submergible chairs allow people who cannot maneuver steps to get in and out.
However, not all ships are created equal. “The newer ships and the larger ships are easier to get around,” said Kristy Lacroix, owner of and agent at Wheelchair Escapes. “If you’re on a smaller ship, the isles are narrow. Just getting from your room to the elevators is going to be a problem when housekeeping has the linen carts out.”
Choosing an Itinerary
When selecting a cruise itinerary, it’s crucial for people with mobility challenges to know how they will get from the ship to the shore. Depending on the ship and the port of call, the ship may not directly dock at the destination. Instead, the ship anchors offshore. Small boats — called tenders — shuttle passengers to land. Almost all tenders are not wheelchair accessible. People who cannot walk a few steps must stay on the ship. Cruise lines usually know in advance which ports require a tender and state that information online.
“The biggest mistake people make is booking their cruise before looking at port and shore excursion accessibility. I’ve seen people book a cruise with seven ports and six of them are tenders where they can’t get off the ship,” John Sage, chief executive and founder of Accessible Travel Solutions, said.
Scheduling a Shore Excursion
Once your ship arrives at a new destination, you can spend the day independently exploring, or you may pay extra for an organized shore excursion. These preplanned outings range from bus tours to strenuous hikes. Descriptions of the cruise line’s excursions can be found online, along with the activity level necessary to participate.
Before booking an accessible excursion, you’ll need to know the dimensions and weight of the mobility equipment you are using. Compare it to what is allowed on the excursion. You must be able to self-propel or have the assistance of a companion. The number of accessible vehicles in most ports is extremely limited and cruise lines encourage guests to book early. Typically, small group-accessible excursions require a minimum number of guests to operate.
“The cruise industry will add more accessible shore excursions in 2019 than in the previous 20 years combined,” Mr. Sage said. For instance, a wheelchair user can take an elevator ride to the top of the Acropolis of Athens when traveling with Royal Caribbean. MSC Cruises offers an accessible Jamaica tour that includes visits to waterfalls, a museum, mini-zoo and gardens. Both excursions are designated appropriate for wheelchair users. These excursions include accessible transportation, step-free paths and knowledgeable tour guides.
With a bit of planning, you can take a cruise that fits your needs. “Using my scooter has opened up the world to me,” said Ms. Arnold, who has taken trips to Hawaii, Mexico, Alaska and the Panama Canal. “I feel like I could go anywhere.”
Barbara and Jim Twardowski write about travel, lifestyle and Baby Boomer topics. Given that Barbara uses a wheelchair and Jim is a registered nurse, they frequently cover accessible travel. Follow Barbara on Twitter at @BTwardowski.
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