A Beginner's Guide to Cruising With a Disability or Illness

As an experienced cruiser who suffers from a chronic illness, I've got tons of tips to make your next cruise comfortable and stress-free.

With the right planning, cruising can be one of the most accessible ways to travel. Find out how to customize your cruise and make your vacation as relaxing as possible.

With the right planning, cruising can be one of the most accessible ways to travel. Find out how to customize your cruise and make your vacation as relaxing as possible.

Traveling with a disability can be a tiring and somewhat painful ordeal. Having developed a chronic illness myself, I have become aware of this fact on a fair few occasions. I'm always wondering if an accessible option is going to be available; is that building going to have a lift? Will it be a functioning lift? Am I going to be able to get in and out of that car, bus or tram easily? I think that is part of why I love going on cruises so much.

Cruising gives me options. If my energy levels drop or I have had a particularly bad night, I can always just take it easy till I get some wind back in my sails. When you choose a cruise, you give yourself a chance to minimize some of the concerns that you might have with a different kind of vacation. Goodbye stress, hello relaxation.

15 Tips for Cruising With a Disability or Chronic Illness

A cruise can be a rewarding and enjoyable vacation for travelers with disabilities, but it's imperative to do your research and planning before setting sail. Here are my tips to make the most of your vacation at sea.

1. Pick Your Ship Wisely. (The Newer, the Better!)

Accessible options can vary dramatically between cruise companies, and even ships of the same class or generation can be fitted out in very different ways. That's why it's important to take care when choosing which ship to travel on. I find that larger ships are generally better, especially those in the newer classes.

Many cruise lines with older ships will take the time to make their older ships more accessible when they undertake any major renovation—upgrading rooms and shared facilities to allow access to a wide variety of people with differing degrees of abilities—but until those renovations happen, the ships remain relatively inaccessible.

2. Opt for an Ocean Cruise.

Some of my friends have had experiences with other forms of cruising, such as river cruises, and found that ocean-based vessels offer more accessible options. River cruise boats are limited in size and capacity to allow them to access narrow channels, and they have different requirements for mobility and embarkation.

For many customers, these boats are still large enough to be comfortable, but if you have limited mobility, you may struggle to find a river cruise that can accommodate you.

3. Do Your Research Ahead of Time.

Most cruise lines take special care to assist clients that have disability and mobility concerns; many even have departments that are specifically put in place to help meet their clients' needs and assist them with their journey.

These departments will do their best to work with their clients to give them necessary information like the size and accessibility of your stateroom, whether a wheelchair or other mobility aids will be obstructed by objects in the room, etc. They will also work with you to ensure that you are aware of what ship options may not be accessible to you and which spaces may not be accessible to you on the ship. They will also work with you in finding out if it is possible to travel with an assistance dog.

4. Book Your Trip Well in Advance.

Planning ahead and being patient is absolutely key to building an enjoyable cruise holiday when you have accessibility issues. In addition to limitations on the number of wheelchairs or scooters that can be onboard for each sailing, your average ship will only have a limited number of cabins that are fully accessible, which makes booking early even more important. Seriously, don't wait until the last minute to book your trip!

Stay ahead of the crowd by getting your trip plans together sooner rather than later. (As a bonus, having your vacation planned out well ahead of time will also help reduce stress!)

Putting in the work ahead of time will ensure that you end up on a cruise liner that suits your needs, giving you more time to rest and relax once you're onboard.

Putting in the work ahead of time will ensure that you end up on a cruise liner that suits your needs, giving you more time to rest and relax once you're onboard.

5. Go With an American or Australian Cruise Liner.

Thanks to their respective Disability Acts, Australian and American cruise ships are obliged to follow strict regulations that protect those with disabilities by providing them with options and access. Unfortunately, these kinds of laws don’t exist everywhere, so be sure to do your research when cruising from ports outside of these regions.

These kinds of laws ensure that those of us who may need accessible staterooms and public facilities like special theater seating spaces or more accessible areas in restaurants can have access to them and don’t have to miss out on everything. As people become more aware and accepting of accessibility issues, you will find that ships are being either retrofitted or built to consider issues like limited mobility and other less-visible disabilities.

6. Let Your Cruise Liner Know If You Have an Assistance Dog.

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 your dog.

Note: Cruise lines do not recognize emotional support animals and will not allow pets to board cruise ships.

7. Notify Your Cruise Liner of Everything That You Will Need.

Once you book your trip, you will get a call from the cruise company's accessibility support team. They will ask you to complete a form that will help them to understand the requirements that you have to be able to be comfortable and enjoy your time on the ship. Information is key when completing this form—the more details you supply them with, the better they will be able to support you throughout your journey.

Fill the form out as soon as you get it. Some companies require more notice than others to be able to properly consider and try to meet your specific needs. For example, Royal Caribbean needs to be notified at least 60 days before embarkation day for those requiring sign language services and at least 30 days to be able to arrange modified commode seats, etc.

In addition to taking up less space in your cabin, a collapsible wheelchair or scooter may help you move around the ship more easily.

In addition to taking up less space in your cabin, a collapsible wheelchair or scooter may help you move around the ship more easily.

8. Make Sure That Wheelchairs and Scooters Comply With Guidelines.

Make sure you are familiar with the respective cruise line guidelines regarding the width and weight of mobility aids, including the types of batteries and chargers they require. You don't want to run into any issues whilst on board.

The average and heavy-duty wheelchairs/scooters utilized by most will fit through a regular stateroom door. If a passenger requires the use of a bariatric scooter, this requires an accessible stateroom door to accommodate the larger footprint of the device.

9. Consider Buying a Collapsible Wheelchair or Scooter for the Trip.

It might also be worth considering a collapsible wheelchair or scooter, which is easier to store and for getting around onboard and when ashore, although Garnett advises that some collapsible motorized equipment may not be as sturdy.

One of the downsides to being on a cruise ship is that storage space is at a premium, which means that if you have any kind of wheelchair, scooters or other similar-sized equipment, it will have to be situated in your stateroom for the entirety of the cruise. Safety regulations forbid storing these items in public spaces or hallways.

10. Research Your Cruise Liners' Tender Policies.

Newer cruise ships are usually designed with accessibility in mind; unfortunately, I have found that the same is not true for ports, excursions and, for that matter, the actual tender boats from the ship. Even if the ship's tenders are accessible, some people may find that accessing the ship via gangway can be difficult, especially if the tide has the ship riding a little higher than normal when you disembark or embark, making the angle of the gangway steeper.

When a ship is coming into port, there may not always be a suitable place to dock. Or the ship might too large or sit too low in the water for it to come into the ports. This means that they have to pull up in a decent spot and ferry people ashore using tender boats.

The best thing you can do is talk to the cruise line about its tender policies and procedures regarding getting people with mobility issues off the ship at different ports; if you are going through a travel agent, they may also be able to help in this regard.

11. Trust Your Crew.

Keep in mind that when you are traveling across oceans, the seas are bound to be rough at one port or another. When it comes to that kind of situation, please be patient with the team as they look into whether it is safe for you to disembark. If it is deemed too dangerous, please keep in mind that they are making these choices with your safety in mind.

Do your research before signing up for a shore excursion. From unpaved walking surfaces to strenuous physical demands, some activities simply aren't accessible for everyone.

Do your research before signing up for a shore excursion. From unpaved walking surfaces to strenuous physical demands, some activities simply aren't accessible for everyone.

12. Choose Shore Excursions Wisely.

Cruise lines offer shore excursions in every port. These onshore opportunities for fun and sightseeing vary from a day of swimming to absorbing the culture of the port through its people and their town, city or village, as well as enjoying their food and wine.

When it comes to port days, there is always going to be a chance that you will run into some situations that make accessibility less than perfect. Walking surfaces might be uneven or even non-existent, with things like roots and vines and the odd coconut on the ground all within one misstep of making for a very bad day. Accessible tours will either be based on ensuring ease of access or will be the same as average tours but with alternatives like ramps or flatter paths.

If you are planning to make the most of a port by yourself without the support of ship-arranged port experiences, then make sure you do your research and make contact with local organisations to make sure that you can access support when and if you need it.

13. Ask a Crew Member for Advice When Planning Port Days.

All of the cruise lines I know of have done everything they can to provide accessible options when it comes to excursions on port days, including making a number of options available for people of varying abilities. Be sure to make sure that you have researched as much as possible through access to cruise line accessibility support teams and via online resources if you are stressed or concerned about your ability or leave of access to cruise experiences.

Cruise staff are pretty well versed in accessibility concerns and are able to advise on which tours and locations to avoid based on your particular needs. The shore excursion crew should also be able to support you should you need to find alternate activities that you can do. It costs you nothing to ask them for their assistance, and you will find they are often happy to help.

14. Don't Overextend Yourself.

I know from experience the feeling of taking part in an onshore activity and realising that I was not able to enjoy the experience fully because my illness limited my ability to swim as far and as fast as those on the tour with me. Don't make the same mistake.

15. If You Need Something, Don't Hesitate to Ask!

Once onboard, don't hesitate to ask for what you need. The cruise lines are happy to help, but you have to be specific about what will make your cruise more enjoyable.

Happy Cruising!

With the proper planning, I believe a cruise can truly be the perfect holiday, regardless of your particular needs. Enjoy your trip!

Get the Most Out of Your Next Cruise

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Paddy Michelson


Paddy Michelson (author) from Australia on June 29, 2020:

Hi Liz Westwood. I believe it will be a while before things return to some sort of normal. A few things will have to change after Coronavirus, like the way food is served and I'm guessing temperature checks at the very least when boarding the ships

Liz Westwood from UK on June 29, 2020:

This is a very helpful article for anyone with accessibility issues who is considering a cruise option. Although I fear that it might be a while yet before cruising gets going again. Unfortunately the industry got a lot of adverse publicity in the early days of the pandemic.

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