Cruise ships -- even vessels sailing under foreign flags that dock in U.S. ports -- are required to abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act (the law doesn't apply to foreign ports). However, the industry is waiting for the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, to approve the Passenger Vessels Accessibility Guidelines (PVGA), which specifies the physical accessibility guidelines for new construction and alterations of vessels. Though it could be years before these guidelines are set in stone, most cruise lines are already building accessible ships.
Cruising can be an easy and enjoyable vacation for travelers with disabilities, but you need to be vigilant about choosing the correct ship for your needs and doing some advance planning to get the most from your time in port. Here, we share some tips for making the most of your vacation at sea.
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Accessible features vary from one cruise line to another, and even ships within the same class can be different. When choosing a ship, newer is generally better, but don't discount older ships. As these vessels undergo refurbishments, many cruise lines use the opportunity to make ships more accessible to travelers with disabilities. For example, when Holland America Line upgraded Veendam in 2009, it added a new category of staterooms -- called lanai cabins -- with sliding glass doors facing the walk-around promenade. It made two of those new cabins accessible, featuring a roll-in shower, bathroom grab bars, lower closet rods and a button to automatically open the glass doors before entering or exiting over a ramped threshold. In 2013, Celebrity Cruises installed pool lifts -- a chair that carries the occupant into the water -- on all of its ships.
How can you find out the width of a doorway, whether the restaurant menus will be in Braille or other ship details that could make or break your trip? Begin by reading a cruise line's website (use the search term "special needs" or "accessibility"). Most lines have a dedicated department that assists passengers with special needs, and you can call with questions. Before you book, carefully review the relevant information to make sure the ship can handle your requirements, and be sure you know the line's policy regarding solo travel. Some lines require those with disabilities to travel with a companion.
Once you're booked, the line's accessibility department will ask all passengers with disabilities to complete a form describing their limitations and needs. The more information you can share and the earlier you submit it, the better. For example, Royal Caribbean requires 60 days' notice prior to sailing for passengers requesting sign language interpreting services and 30 days' notice to provide a raised toilet seat. Norwegian Cruise Line staffs each ship with an access officer, who is the go-to person for passengers with disabilities.
Hire a Travel Agent
You can book a cruise yourself, but hiring an experienced travel agent might save time and ensure all your needs are met. A knowledgeable agent is familiar with the various cruise lines and their ships, port access at destinations, and what type of accessible excursions are available. Travel agents can arrange for medical equipment rental, coordinate accessible transportation from the airport to the ship, reserve accessible hotel rooms pre- and post-cruise, and organize private accessible shore excursions. Travel agents often specialize in a particular disability. For example, Sage Traveling caters to clients with mobility issues for cruises to Europe and the Caribbean. The company's founder and owner, John Sage, sustained a spinal cord injury from a snow skiing accident and is a wheelchair user. His company books cruises and coordinates all the accessible services required including private tours using wheelchair accessible transportation. Connie George Travel Associates plans vacations for travelers who are wheelchair users, slow walkers, deaf or have developmental disabilities. Flying Wheels Travel serves those with physical disabilities, chronic illnesses and those who have trouble walking.
If you are new to cruising, taking a group trip may be a good choice. Organizations such as the Amputee Coalition and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation publicize cruises on their websites and in their newsletters. Travel agents, like Debra Kerper of Easy Access Travel, orchestrate group trips. In January 2013, for example, Kerper -- who has lost a limb -- took 58 young adults with spina bifida on a Caribbean cruise.
Cabins are usually smaller than hotel rooms, but most cruise lines offer "accessible" and "modified" staterooms. On Holland America Line, a "wheelchair- accessible stateroom" has wide entry doors and a roll-in shower with a bench, while a "modified accessible stateroom" offers a shower-only bathroom with low thresholds. Just like hotels, a small percentage of staterooms are accessible, so book early. Generally, cruise lines require passengers to store their mobility equipment (wheelchairs, scooters) in their stateroom. Equipment cannot be stored in hallways, stairways or public areas because of safety regulations. Read the cruise line guidelines regarding the acceptable width and weight of mobility aids, including the types of batteries and chargers.
Service dogs are usually permitted onboard but might not be allowed to disembark at all ports. Check with the cruise line to determine what documentation is needed so arrangements can be made to accommodate the animal's needs.
If you can't or don't want to bring your own equipment onboard, consider renting from a provider like Special Needs at Sea. Travel agents and individuals can contact them to get medical equipment such as oxygen, wheelchairs and scooters delivered to the cabin. Also, if you have some difficulties with mobility but do not typically use a wheelchair, consider renting a chair or scooter for your upcoming cruise. A cruise can be a walking-intensive vacation, with long corridors onboard and long days of sightseeing onshore, and you may find you can do more with the aid of a chair. If you choose to bring your own equipment, make sure it's serviced and in good working order before you depart. It can be difficult to fix problems or replace parts mid-cruise.
Once onboard, don't hesitate to ask for what you need. The cruise lines are happy to help -- you just have to be specific about what will make your cruise more enjoyable. Tenders
While ships can be quite accessible, the same can't always be said for tenders, ports and shore excursions. When a ship pulls into a port of call, passengers cross a gangway to the shore. Sometimes, because of lack of dock availability or inclement weather, the ship cannot dock at certain ports and the ship anchors offshore. In those instances, passengers are shuttled to shore in small boats called tenders.
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.
"The tendering process can be extremely difficult for a passenger using a wheelchair or with limited mobility. Normally, the wheelchair must be lifted down a gangway to a platform and then transferred into the tender. Guests may have to be transferred separately from their wheelchairs. In certain situations, it may be impossible for guests using wheelchairs to transfer to the tenders due to safety concerns," reads Disney Cruise Line's brochure, "Information for Guests with Disabilities." All of the company's ships can dock at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.
"Unfortunately, tenders are one of the tough challenges we have as a cruise line," said Ron Pettit, ADA and access compliance executive with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises. "If there was a solution, we would have done it a long time ago. We sail to over 300 ports around the world. They have varying degrees of accessibility. About one-third of the ports are tendered. Even when you are scheduled to be docked, it can change at a moment's notice and you can be tendered."
"The most common mistake people make is booking a cruise before they research the accessibility of the ports," Sage said. "Often, it turns out there is a ship sailing one week later with a different itinerary, and they could have gotten off at every port. Instead, they have to stay on the ship half the time."
Princess Cruises, for example, gives a detailed explanation of the embarking and disembarking difficulties for those with limited mobility on its website. The line states that being unable to tender can be disappointing and "there will be no refund or credit for missed ports."
Cruise lines sell shore excursions for each port. These onshore adventures can range from a day spent hiking in a national park and swimming with dolphins to a leisurely walking tour through a city and hands-on cooking classes in restaurants. One of the biggest difficulties is finding accessible excursions. "It is unfortunate that the cruise lines don't offer a wider selection of shore excursions," said Sage who has researched every accessible European excursion provided by the top eight cruise lines. "They typically have zero or, at best, two accessible tours in a city." Contact the line's shore excursion department and review its brochures or online information to inquire about accessible transportation and to determine the physical ability required for each excursion.
Cruisers who need a wheelchair-accessible excursion can make arrangements through a travel agent or local tour operator before leaving home. A customized private tour might include a morning checking out ruins, lunch at a restaurant and an afternoon shopping or museum hopping. Be warned, a private tour on an accessible van that seats four to six people might be much more expensive than a bus filled with 40 passengers.
Each destination can present unique challenges. Cobblestone paths, steps and a lack of curb cuts all present obstacles for those who have reduced mobility. Even if you are planning to explore a locale on your own, contact the area's convention and visitors bureau to discuss the terrain and availability of wheelchair accessible public transportation. Some places, such as Halifax, Nova Scotia, have museums, restaurants, and art galleries a short walk from the port. Yet the city's impressive Citadel and a lovely Public Garden are located on top of hills that may be too steep a climb for someone who uses a wheelchair.
Transportation -- whether on buses with wheelchair lifts or vans with ramps -- can be difficult or impossible to arrange in some destinations. "A whole lot more options open up if you can take a few steps into a bus," Pettit said.
The Bottom Line
The popularity of baby boomer and multigenerational travel, as well as regulations improving accessibility, mean more people who have disabilities are choosing to cruise. As the lines continue to create an accessible-friendly environment, passengers will have more choices when it comes to ships and excursions. Before booking a cruise, investigate all your options. "People who have a disability and travel can do things. They just have to do them a little differently," Kerper said.
For more information, check out the Top Ships for Cruisers with Disabilities