Cruise vacations can be excellent choices for travelers with disabilities, but choosing the right ship is key. It's important to note that vessels built during the past few years are more likely to have purpose-built staterooms, usually in more than one category and conveniently located for easy access to elevators. Most lines adhere closely to ADA requirements, and some even go several steps beyond. For older ships, cruise lines often retrofit staterooms to conform, but these cabins are never quite as good as cabins specifically designed for accessible cruising.
Before you get started on planning your cruise, here are some helpful hints:
Ask if the cruise line has a Special Needs brochure; many lines have published these brochures, detailing the amenities offered to those with disabilities. Holland America even offers a DVD. In addition, many lines have Access Departments, whose staff can help you make sure you have all the equipment and assistance you need on your cruise vacation.
Most cruise lines have alert kits, which can be fitted to any cabin, for guests with hearing impairments. These kits include visual-tactile alert systems for travelers who cannot hear knocks at the door or the sound of the telephone, alarm clock or smoke detector. Passengers can also often request teletypewriters to hook up to ships' phone systems.
Service dogs are permitted on all ships but may not be allowed to disembark at all ports. Special documentation may be required to enter certain ports of call. Cruise lines require advance notice if you will be bringing a service animal onboard and may also ask for vaccination records, an International Health Certificate or written proof of the dog's training as a service animal. (Check with your cruise line well in advance of your cruise to find out what documentation is required.) The number of service dogs allowed per sailing may be limited by the number of animals the ship can comfortably accommodate.
While ships themselves may be quite accessible, the same can't always be said for tenders, ports and shore tours. Ask the cruise line about its tender policies if you'll be using a wheelchair or have other mobility issues. Rough seas and other specific conditions may make it impossible for some travelers to leave the ship at certain tender ports. Even better, choose itineraries that feature ports of call with cruise piers; in destinations like Grand Cayman and France's Villefranche, ships always have to tender, and you might get stuck onboard if boarding the tender proves difficult.
Also, onboard shore excursion desks don't always have the full information about how accessible a port or tour is (or understand what is or isn't possible, given your personal abilities), so it's often wise to do your own research or make your own tour reservations in advance. A travel agent specializing in travel for people with disabilities can be an amazing resource.
Cruise ships may not be able to provide you with all necessary equipment, such as wheelchairs sized to fit through cabin doors or oxygen concentrators. If you can't or don't want to bring your own equipment onboard, consider renting from a provider like Special Needs at Sea. Also, if you have some difficulties with mobility but don't typically use a wheelchair, consider renting a chair or scooter for your upcoming cruise. A cruise can be a very walking-intensive holiday, with long corridors onboard and long days of sightseeing onshore, and you may find you can do more with the aid of a chair. Holland America passengers should note that the line has partnered with Special Needs at Sea to offer wheelchairs, other mobility devices and oxygen to guests. Special Needs at Sea operates equipment pick-up and drop-off kiosks at Holland America's homeports.
If service and attitude are as important to you as the physical layout of the ship, splurge on a luxury line. Cabin stewards and ship staff tend to be more eager to assist passengers and more willing to go the extra mile. On these ships, the crew-to-guest ratio is higher, meaning onboard staff have more time to devote to taking care of passengers on an individual basis.
Want to make sure your needs are met? Try a charter cruise, aimed at passengers with disabilities. Dialysis at Sea organizes cruises for travelers who need kidney dialysis and makes sure the appropriate equipment and medical staff are on hand. Passages Deaf Travel (passagesdeaftravel.com) and Deaf Travel Club (deaftravelclub.com) organize charter cruises for cruisers with hearing impairments, and Accessible Journeys (disabilitytravel.com) offers cruises for guests who are wheelchair-bound or who are slow walkers . Mind's Eye Travel (mindseyetravel.com) occasionally offers cruises for blind or visually impaired travelers. You can also find more travel agencies and charter companies on the Web.
Why: Holland America typically attracts a mature crowd, so the line is highly attuned to guests with mobility or other accessibility issues. The 85,000-ton, 1,900-passenger Vista-class ships are perfectly mid-sized -- easy to get around but large enough to offer multiple dining venues, lounges and activities.
Special Features: With 28 accessible cabins on each ship, you can take your pick of staterooms in every category -- four insides, five outsides, 13 balcony cabins and six deluxe balcony cabins. You can also request additional in-room equipment, such as elevated toilet seats, hand-held showers and TTY/TDD equipment. We don't typically think of Holland America as being on the cutting-edge of technology, but its nifty, wheelchair-accessible tender transfer system is unique and makes boarding tender boats much easier for passengers with mobility issues. Another cool innovation is Window-Eyes computer software (in the Explorations Cafe) that will read text on the Internet to guests who have trouble seeing. The line has also partnered with Special Needs at Sea to provide wheelchairs and other special equipment to guests (see above).
Caveats: Holland America does not allow scooters or wheelchairs weighing more than 100 pounds to be transferred from the ship to a tender and from the tender to shore.
Why: These 160,000-ton, 3,634-passenger ships are the second biggest cruise vessels ever built (second only to fleetmate Oasis of the Seas). They also have some of the most accessible cabins of any cruise ships at sea. Royal Caribbean, in general, gets high marks for taking very good care of passengers with disabilities.
Special Features: Each Freedom-class ship offers 32 accessible cabins, so you can save your cash and book one of the 16 inside cabins, or splurge on one of the two accessible suites. Passengers with hearing and visual impairments are not forgotten -- Royal Caribbean offers sign-language interpreters, portable room kits, assisted-listening devices and closed-captioned televisions, as well as Braille and large-print menus and Braille signs and elevator buttons for passengers. One pool and one whirlpool each has a lift, so you can join in the general sea-day splashing about.
Caveats: Did we mention these ships are huge? If you have trouble walking long distances, these ships might be too much for you. If you typically use a cane or walker to help you get around, you might want to consider renting a scooter or wheelchair for the cruise.
Why: Princess gets high marks for its customer service and accessibility, and its newest ships are lovely -- especially if you're looking for a romantic cruise getaway with balcony dinners and movies under the stars.
Special Features: Princess' 113,000-ton, 3,100-passenger ships nearly match Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships for most accessible cabins at sea. Out of the 31 staterooms, you can take your pick of six insides, four outsides, 16 balcony cabins, four mini-suites and one suite. If gangways are not your friends, try the ships' special wheelchair-transportation gangway mechanisms. You can also find ADA "all-in-one" kits for passengers with hearing impairments and Braille elevator buttons.
Caveats: Some past passengers report they weren't allowed to take scooters or heavier wheelchairs on tenders, essentially confining them to the ship at tender ports. Princess does not have a fixed policy about wheelchairs and tenders but, instead, makes decisions on a case-by-case basis, dependent on the passenger, the equipment involved, the weather and sea conditions.
Why: Although these ships only offer 15 to 19 accessible staterooms each, they're the hands-down reader favorites on the Cruise Critic message boards, offering cozy atmosphere on what, today, are considered mid-sized ships with contemporary amenities.
Special Features: We're big fans of accessible cabin doors that open automatically, either with a key from the outside or a push-button from the inside -- we don't understand why these aren't available on Voyager-class ships. These 90,090-ton, 2,112-passenger ships also get high marks for plentiful, accessible public restrooms, spacious cabins and public areas (including the casino), lifts for the pools and hot tubs and some of the best customer service afloat (in terms of crew interaction with disabled travelers).
Caveats: These ships have only half as many accessible cabins as their Freedom-class siblings. They're also lacking many of Royal Caribbean's signature amenities like the Royal Promenade and ice-skating shows, so if you or your travel companions want that "wow" factor, these might not be the ships for you.
Why: Celebrity goes above and beyond with extra amenities -- such as pool and whirlpool lifts and several accessible cabins that can sleep three or four people (ideal for families) -- for guests with disabilities. The line also focuses on accessible shore excursions, including several "easy" excursions on its European itineraries.
Special Features: The new 122,000-ton, 2,850-passenger Celebrity Solstice is the line's most accessible vessel with 30 accessible cabins, all featuring automatic doors. Among them are four Sky Suites with butler service, four Concierge Class staterooms and four Aqua Class balcony cabins for spa lovers. The ship is also quite simply one of the classiest ships afloat, offering fabulous new amenities, such as 10 restaurants, posh pool areas and glass-blowing demonstrations. And, wheelchair users will appreciate pool and whirlpool lifts, as well as lowered casino tables and Guest Relations/Shore Excursions desks.
In addition, the lines' Millennium-class vessels each offer 26 wheelchair accessible cabins -- including 11 balconies and six suites -- plus ramp access, wide bathroom doors and bathtubs with grab bars. Like to be really pampered? Three of the balcony cabins are Concierge Class, and all six suites come with butler service -- so you can have a taste of the high life during your cruise. Constellation also has pool and whirlpool lifts.
Caveats: Millennium, Infinity and Summit do not have Celebrity's most up-to-date accessible features, such as lifts and lowered desks.
Why: Crystal is a terrific blend of big-ship amenities and small-ship luxuries. The line does its best to accommodate travelers with disabilities, so you can enjoy an upscale vacation with no worries.
Special Features: Crystal's accessible cabins have the typical amenities -- extra-wide doors, fully wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and "wheel-in" closets with low-fitted hanging rods. We especially like that, whenever possible, Crystal arranges for lifts on tour buses that can accommodate wheelchairs and passengers with mobility issues.
Caveats: While Crystal Serenity offers accessible staterooms in outside, balcony and suite categories, Crystal Symphony only offers accessible outside cabins and suites. So, if you're looking for a regular balcony cabin that accommodates wheelchair users, you're out of luck on that ship.
Why: For a mostly inclusive cruise experience (all beverages and gratuities included in your fare), book a luxurious and accessible suite on Regent Seven Seas. With the line's personalized service and high crew-to-guest ratio, ship staff will take very good care of you onboard.
Special Features: Seven Seas Mariner offers six standard suites (two each in categories D, E and F) with verandahs in prime locations around the atrium area -- so you'll never be far from anywhere you want to go. Seven Seas Voyager only has four suites, but two are luxurious Penthouse suites. (Although only slightly roomier than standard suites, these accommodations come with butler service.) Accessible suites have wider doors, ramps between the living areas and bathrooms, large shower stalls with seats and grab bars. The cruise line also appoints one staff member to each guest with a disability to make sure he or she is taken care of in case of an emergency.
Caveats: These 700-passenger ships only offer a handful of accessible suites, so book early -- especially if you want the prized Penthouse suites.
Why: Disney Cruise Line has always been tops in the family market, but it's especially good for families with disabled children. The line's philosophy is that any child should be able to participate in youth programming, regardless of ability, and youth counselors have experience working with children with special needs, including autism and behavioral challenges.
Special Features: Each Disney ship offers 16 staterooms with wheelchair access, wide bathroom doors, bathtubs with grab bars and roll-in showers. These rooms come in inside, balcony and suite categories. Onboard theaters offer wheelchair seating and assisted-listening devices. Even Braille bingo cards are available. Disney's popular private island, Castaway Cay, is easily accessed by guests with mobility impairments. Ships dock right at the island, rather than tendering, making debarkation a breeze, and as an added bonus, Disney offers special wheelchairs, designed to make navigating sandy beaches a lot easier.
Caveats: Only two of the accessible staterooms on each ship can sleep four people, so families who don't book in time might have to fork over more money for additional cabins. In addition, the wheelchair-accessible bathrooms don't have Disney's family-friendly split setup, with shower in one room and toilet in another.