Cruising is a great way to travel and see the world and that’s also true for many people with disabilities, but only if you’re willing to actively advocate for yourself, plan carefully and accept some compromises.
A little background: I’m a veteran cruiser who also uses a power wheelchair, has worked with and for various disability advocacy organizations and has substantial knowledge of disability affairs and law. Here are some important steps I’ve learned work well when considering cruising with a disability.
First, ask yourself some very important questions before you make any plans or spend a dime. Your honest answers will shape your cruise experience.
Are you fully independent or will you need at least some help in an unfamiliar environment? Do you have a travel companion willing and physically able to help you if necessary, and to what extent? Someone who once travelled with me put it this way: “It’s one thing to assist a wheelchair over a bump; quite another to push it all day up 400-year-old, uneven cobblestone streets in 90-degree heat.”
How flexible are you when it comes to making dining, excursion and other special arrangements? How resourceful, patient and tenacious are you? Do you have a good sense of humor? You’ll need it because cruising offers many memorable – and sometimes strangely absurd – experiences and adventures for people with disabilities.
Next, do some basic research to get a better idea of what cruise line, ship and itinerary may best suit your wants and needs. Each of the major cruise lines offers comprehensive websites and brochures with information about their destinations, ships, general charges and services. Many will also give you basic access information and restrictions.
Start your research with a general idea of what you’d like to do – such as, “go someplace warm on a ship catering to mostly adults for seven days sometime in the Spring.” Once done, you should be able to more specifically narrow that to “go to Puerto or Bermuda on a Royal Carribean or Princess Cruises ship roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale in April or May.”
Where a ship embarks/debarks should factor into your decision because if you choose a ship that docks fairly close to where you live you may be able to eliminate some travel expense and the hassle it entails. For instance, I live fairly close to ships that dock in New York City, New Jersey and Boston. I drive my van to those ports and use my power wheelchair during the cruise. I may still have to pay to park for the length of the cruise but I don’t need to book travel to/from the port or rent a third-party vendor wheelchair to use during the cruise – both of which can be expensive.
Next, find a good travel agent – preferably one who knows the sometimes unique demands of traveling with a disability and who specializes in booking cruises. This person will be invaluable because he or she will know the right questions to ask the cruise company and the right people who deal with access issues to contact. Tell the agent what your research found, your specific preferences, your budget and your special needs (such as an accessible cabin). He or she can then find you the best fit.
Typically, the agent will offer you a few cruise options. As you review and narrow them down, you should ask many questions and take nothing for granted.
One of the first things I’ve learned is that the word “accessible” means many things to different people. Don’t simply ask, “Is the ship and my cabin accessible?” Be very specific about what you need to accommodate your disability and put it in writing, if necessary. Can you get to every area on every deck, or are there places with stairs or that are hard or impossible to reach? Does your accessible cabin have a lowered threshold, roll-in shower, raised toilet and a bed that’s easy to maneuver around with a wheelchair, walker or crutches? Is there Braille or large-print signage on the ship?
Once you’re satisfied with all the answers and made your cruise decision, you’re ready to book. After you’ve confirmed and paid your deposit, most cruise companies will send you a detailed questionnaire asking about your disability, limitations, specific needs, what medical equipment you will be bringing and whether or not you will be travelling alone. Your agent can help here but I also always talk directly with the cruise company – most have specialized toll-free contact numbers for people with disabilities – and email a follow-up summary to ensure they know what I’m expecting and need.
Typical questions you may want to ask include: “Is there disabled parking near the ship and how do I get from there to the ship? Can I expect help getting on board? With whom do I speak to request accessible dining, early boarding and priority departure?”
You should also talk to both your agent and cruise line before choosing which excursions to take in each port. For a person with a disability, these can be major decisions.
It’s much easier when visiting ports in U.S. territories because ADA (usually) applies. When I cruised to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, I found the former mostly accessible, but the latter’s cobblestone streets, steep inclines and mostly inaccessible shops in Old San Juan to be downright dangerous when using a wheelchair. Generally, you’ll be ok in built-up areas; not so much once you get out of the major towns.
You need to do the most excursion homework and may be again required to provide vendors with detailed written disability information when visiting ports in countries without ADA protections. Setting up excursions for people with disabilities in these ports can be time-consuming and very expensive. On my initial cruise to Bermuda, one vendor quoted me almost four times the cruise line’s posted price for an excursion using an accessible van. Another charged me three times the listed price for a van tour of St. Martin/St. Marteen. I was unable to even visit the private island Great Stirrup Cay because a tender is required to transfer from ship to shore and it doesn’t accommodate wheelchairs weighing more than 100 pounds.
One bit of relatively good news: I recently returned to Bermuda on the same ship I was on a couple years earlier and was pleasantly surprised. On my previous cruise, the ship\’s excursion staff was of limited or no help finding me accessible transportation on the island. This time, they quickly contacted two vendors who offered accessible vans at more-reasonable prices than I had been quoted on my earlier cruise. The vendor I selected was knowledgeable, took me wherever I wanted to go and even found me an accessible bathroom in an otherwise inaccessible area of Bermuda.
The bottom line is you should read about the available excursions thoroughly and ask the cruise line and your agent plenty of access-related questions about ones that interest you before booking. All the back and forth Q&A can take time, so plan early, put everything in writing, book what you can in advance and reconfirm every detail with customer service or excursion staff on board early in the cruise.
You should now be set to go. On board, be sure your cabin steward, maitre de and other service personnel fully understand your special needs. On shore, always take precautions and be aware of your surroundings, but don’t be afraid to be adventurous, flexible and to have fun. Be willing to accept that there will probably be some things you may not be able to experience but, because you’ve done your homework and planned well, I can pretty much promise cruising will offer some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of your life.
Typical Letter (Sent in-advance to Cruise Line)
To whom it may concern:
I am booked for a cruise on XXXX for X/XX/XX. My reservation ID is XXXXX.
The ship’s port-of-calls are Bermuda, St. Maarten, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. I am interested in booking an excursion while in these ports but, because I use a power wheelchair, am concerned about access to transportation and accessibility in general.
I need to know if I’ll be able to board any type of accessible transportation with my power chair at each port and, assuming i can, the accessibility of each of the excursion destinations. Walking tours shouldn’t be a problem for me, assuming i can get to the walking location. I can transfer with crutches but would be unable to get around if my chair wasn’t with me.
I also need to be sure I can still get back to the ship should a tour end at a destination and not be returning to the ship. I would appreciate your assistance so i know, in advance, what tours may be accessible, what each of the port access is like, and what equipment I may need to bring with me.
I have interest in the following tours:__________. I will probably select one at each port, depending on your suggestions and thoughts. For obvious reasons, i do not want to book a tour in advance and then find i can not join that tour. Thank you,
An excerpt of a letter excerpt from one cruise line’s Shore Access Department
“Please kindly note that in the United States under the ADA requirements, Accessible transportation (bus/ van with a ramp or lift) is offered upon request. However, not all tour operators outside of the United States are able to offer accessible transportation to accommodate our full-time wheelchair user guests. Most of the tour operators have to outsource the accessible vehicle and not all of them are able to do so. ADA regulations and guidelines do not apply outside of the United States; therefore, you might experience some differences with transportation, venue access, etc., throughout any of the selected tours at ports of call outside of the United States. Kindly note that due to the historical nature of the sites most venues included in our shore excursions are not wheelchair accessible. All full-time wheelchair user guests must be accompanied by an able-bodied guest on the tour. Private transportation will always carry an additional cost.”
We look forward to your response,
Shore Excursions & Explorations Department
Wheelchair Accessible Van Operators in Bermuda
Vince Minors – 1-441-236-3089 or 1-441-337-2438
Keith Simmons, Access Bermuda – 1-441-295-9106 or firstname.lastname@example.org