Cruising is a fast-growing vacation choice, and fortunately, it's an increasingly accessible one. Whether you have special needs, are hearing or vision impaired, or require wheelchair or scooter use, here are a few tips to assure you book the right cruise and have a fabulous time:
While some oceangoing lines have nicely retrofitted older vessels with accessible features, generally, the newer the ship, the more likely that accessibility for all guests was built into the design. These ships typically will have everything from ramps to all areas, doors that open with a touch button, accessible cabins with wider doors to accommodate wheelchairs, "roll-in" showers and a pool or whirlpool lift to assist those who want to enjoy a cool dip.
Cruise lines typically publish special needs brochures and many are online. They spell out what services are available and what staff will or will not do (some cruise lines require an able-bodied person to travel with a guest needing assistance). For example, Norwegian Cruise Line's information says it has accessibility coordinators, accepts children with special needs, assists vision-impaired or blind guests with Braille/tactile signage and much more.
Passengers with hearing impairments should ask about a visual/tactile alert kit, designed to keep the guest safe if a general alarm or smoke detector siren sounds. It can also indicate a steward knocking at the door. Some lines have a teletypewriter that can be hooked up to the ship's phone system.
Some ships may have a limited number of wheelchairs or other equipment available for loan or rental to guests. But if you absolutely must be assured of having a wheelchair, oxygen concentrator, scooter or other equipment during your cruise, definitely rent it in advance. Holland America has partnered with Special Needs at Sea to assist its guests with equipment rentals. Ask your travel agent about other options as well.
Mega-ships can require covering long distances to get to the different dining and entertainment option onboard. On a recent Caribbean voyage of Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas trip, this writer rented an electric scooter for her mother. Pricing was based on the equipment chosen, the cruise home port and the cruise length. They provided their stateroom number upon booking and the equipment was charged and waiting in the room upon arrival. With the scooter, she explored freely on her own, which enhanced her enjoyment of the cruise.
Book early and make sure the cruise line is informed that you are traveling with a service dog; some may limit the number on any one cruise. Ask what documentation is required, such as proof of service dog certification or vaccination papers. Check whether foreign authorities will allow your service dog to go ashore in ports so that you aren't stuck without the assistance you need.
Just because the ship is accessible, doesn't necessarily mean the ports are, or that getting ashore in the port will occur. Look for itineraries in which the ship will "dock" at a pier, providing easier access for wheelchair guests than if the ship must "tender" guests ashore — essentially taking them in small lifeboats. Does the cruise line permit a motorized wheelchair or scooter in a tender? If so, are there any weight restrictions? For expedition cruises using tiny Zodiacs, guests typically need to be able to climb in and out on their own.
Does the cruise line offer any shore trips on wheelchair-accessible motor coaches? Are attractions in a destination wheelchair friendly? In certain ports, the cruise line or your travel agent might set up a private day tour with a great guide and wheelchair-friendly transportation. To enjoy touring ashore, pick the right itinerary. Not all foreign destinations have ADA-type requirements. While some cities like Stockholm, Sweden, are highly accessible, others aren't. Ancient or medieval destinations often have uneven pavements, cobblestones, no ramps and ancient staircases or small hills to climb. That said, it pays to ask: The Roman Colosseum has a modern elevator for access to its upper level!
Cruise lines set aside a selection of accessible staterooms and, at times, suites. For example, the 1,258-passenger Oceania Cruises' Marina and Riviera each have six accessible staterooms — two inside-facing, two ocean-facing and two verandas. Booking very early will provide the best choice of accommodations.
Your cruise adviser will know all the ins and outs of booking accessible cruises and can match you to the right cruise line, pick the right ship, analyze what you'll need in the way of equipment on vacation and talk with the line about special needs. Cruise lines are increasingly designing or upgrading their ships to add accessibility features. Crew members are typically eager to serve and assist. So if you use a wheelchair or have other special needs, just do your homework and you'll likely have a great cruise.