Updated October 10, 2019
As a disabled passenger, or a carer of a disabled passenger travelling in Europe, you might well assume that under the EU Passenger Bill of Rights there are no circumstances when you would be barred from taking a cruise. You'd be wrong. There is an exception, which is exercised at the discretion of the cruise line, and that is if the ship's crew is unable to (or unwilling, due to health and safety concerns) carry the wheelchair-bound passenger onboard, and that wheelchair passenger cannot get up and walk onboard. It is rare, and is often a combination of factors such as inadequate port infrastructure and aforementioned safety concerns, but our advice is to always inform your agent or the cruise line at time of booking if you or your charge is wheelchair-bound.
What rights do I have on a cruise as a disabled passenger?
Firstly, the EU Passenger Bill of Rights makes it very clear that your request to travel cannot be refused solely on the grounds of a disability, or reduced mobility, and you are also entitled to travel at no extra cost under the same conditions that apply to all other passengers. This should cover both in port and onboard the ship, as well as assistance with boarding and leaving the vessel, and help with baggage and/or any medical equipment.
Request for assistance, however, should be made in as early as possible -- and at very least 48 hours before travelling -- with the nature of the disability and of any specific requirements. There are also rare cases where wheelchair-bound passengers have been refused a booking due to a combination of inadequate port facilities and a cruise line policy whereby assistance stops short of actually carrying the passenger onboard (for health and safety reasons).
This exception is also covered in the Bill, stating: "Whilst every effort will be made to take a booking, a request to travel can be refused by the operator on the grounds of safety. This will usually relate to the legal requirement to evacuate all passengers from a vessel in 30 minutes, though it may also be where the design of the ship, or port infrastructure, makes it impossible to carry you in a safe or operationally feasible manner."
How do I know if a port has adequate assisted boarding facilities?
The majority of UK ports have plenty of provision for assisting mobility impaired and wheelchair-bound passengers. Dover, for example, has a dedicated team of porters to help guests onboard, and London International Cruise Terminal also provides specially-trained porters to push guests in wheelchairs from the terminal to the vessel and vice versa. While Portsmouth doesn't offer hands-on help, there are plenty of access ramps, lifts and buses to ferry passengers quayside. Southampton also, while fully accessible, relies on individual cruise lines for assisted boarding, which is generally not a problem – unless the cruise line will not assist.
For example, in 2015 Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines changed its policy in regards to its crew carrying wheelchair-bound passengers onboard, and if there aren't facilities in place -- as was the case in Liverpool Cruise Terminal -- disabled guests can be left high and dry. Also remember that not all tender facilities will be disabled-friendly which can mean passengers being left onboard when in port and missing out on shore excursions. The best bet is always to contact the cruise company to be 100 per cent sure both they, and the port, can accommodate.