Living With Polio

Out to Sea – Accessible Cruising

I love to travel. No, I live to travel, and when I was mobile I did a lot of it, from camping here in the US to sightseeing in Europe.

I can divide my travel history into three phases. Phase 1 – “Almost” able-bodied. I could walk distances, climb, pull my own luggage, hop on and off trains. No need for accessible anything. Phase 2 – Part-time scooter user to cover distances. Many places in Europe aren’t disability-friendly so I toured with accessible travel companies to make sure that transportation and sightseeing would accommodate my scooter. Hotel accessibility was still a minor issue. Phase 3 – Full time scooter user with big-time accessibility needs for just about everything. Enter cruising.

Why is cruising such a joy? Unpack and pack your luggage only once. A stateroom to retire to whenever you need a rest. No cooking. No cleaning. Meet new people. Food always available. Entertainment, lectures, pools, gyms, spas, casinos, game rooms, library, theaters and show lounges – what more could you ask? And all of it accessible if you pick the right ships.

This post is about my experiences cruising on Princess ships. I’m sure there are other cruise lines which have wonderful accessibility but I started withPrincess on a friend’s recommendation and was so pleased that I stayed with them. I’ve taken 6 cruises on 5 different ships and they all had important features in common. The accessible staterooms were so spacious that my large scooter and my friend’s power wheelchair could maneuver around the room easily at the same time, even with twin beds. The entry and bathroom doors were both wide enough and the bathrooms are large enough to roll into, with a slight ramp at the bathroom door. On the Island Princess (two cruises) we had a balcony with a ramp to the sliding glass door.

Bath showers are large enough for a wheelchair and provide a fold-down shower bench and handheld showerhead. Most offer raised toilets and knee space under the sink. Hand rails and grab bars surround the shower and toilet and there are emergency pull-cords by both. Even with a higher toilet, it wasn’t high enough for me on my last cruise as I was recuperating from a knee replacement. I spoke with our very helpful room steward and he provided a commode with arms. Almost all public area restrooms have one large accessible stall which often includes a washbasin and telephone.

On all the ships we had a choice of accessible staterooms, which are inside, outside (some with obstructed view) and balcony. The location of the room is very important. A critical feature is close proximity to an elevator. During the day, the hallways are obstructed with cleaning carts and you have to wait for stewards to move them. Before choosing a stateroom we always checked the deck plans on the Princess website.

The dining rooms are accessible even though a few tables were on raised platforms. The dining room captains are very conscious of passengers with disabilities and always seated us at an accessible table. On my first few cruises, I parked my scooter outside the dining room and walked to the table. However, after my knee replacement, I had to drive my scooter right to the table and have one of the waiters drive it away, which was great fun for them.

Not all ships within a cruise line have identical accessibility, and the width of the hallways where accessible staterooms are located can vary from ship to ship. Features vary depending on the size of the ship and when it was built. TheDiamond Princess, launched in 2004, has two accessible lifts to lower a passenger into a swimming pool or hot tub; the Island Princess, launched in 2001, doesn’t have that feature. If a particular feature is important to you, contact a travel agency which specializes in accessible travel. The cruise line itself is not a good resource for specific knowledge on accessibility details.

The theaters also vary depending on the size of the ship and how recently it was built. Some have dedicated wheelchair areas at the rear. These can accommodate several wheelchair/scooter users who can’t walk and also have moveable seats nearby for a companion. Some ships also have reserved seating in the last few rows for people with limited mobility. Sometimes the entertainment was in a show lounge which was mainly set up with movable tables and chairs: no designated wheelchair seating but lots of open spaces throughout the lounge. Even with older ships it was never difficult to find space for my scooter at show time.

Shore excursions can be tricky. Princess might designate an excursion as wheelchair accessible, but that doesn’t mean the bus has a lift. It might mean that the passenger walks onto the bus and the scooter or wheelchair is stored underneath in the luggage compartment. The destination is accessible but the bus isn’t. Some ports do have excursions with accessible buses that have lifts and tie-downs but this information can be hard to determine in advance. Travel agents and even the Tour Office people on board the ship don’t always know if a particular excursion is partially or wholly accessible. I booked most of my cruises with Accessible Journeys because Kathy and Howard are so knowledgeable about arranging shore excursions that work for everyone who has special needs.

There are two ways off the ship, gangway and tender. When docked at a portPrincess puts out two gangways. Able-bodied passengers use the higher gangway which has steps, passengers with disabilities use a lower gangway which is a more level ramp. When the port is a tender port, the captain may or may not allow scooters and power wheelchairs to be transferred on and off the tender, but usually manual wheelchairs are allowed if the person can transfer easily. I learned to take my manual wheelchair (in addition to the scooter) if the cruise used tenders at some ports.

I also want to mention about electrical outlets for people who must plug in a scooter, wheelchair or breathing device every night. Princess ships have 110 voltage, just like the U.S., so no need for a voltage converter or outlet adapter (this was always an issue when I took my scooter to Europe). The Island Princess had two outlets in the accessible cabins–one by the bed and another across from the beds. The other ships only had one outlet (yes, there’s an outlet in the bathroom but only for shavers). I’ve cruised with three different friends, each with a different situation. One used a manual wheelchair–no problem there. One was able bodied but uses a CPAP, so two outlets were needed. One used a power wheelchair–again two outlets needed. Whenever two devices needed charging we always went prepared with extension cords and a power strip.

On roundtrip cruises from U.S. ports, scooters and some wheelchairs can be rented, delivered to the ship and used while onboard, then dropped off on return. These arrangements need to be made well in advance. The cruise line may be able to recommend a supplier.

I can’t say enough about how warm, friendly, and helpful they all were. For example, in the 24-hour buffet, it was difficult to navigate between the food islands, but when crew members saw me coming they always rushed to grab a tray and help me through the lines. At tender ports that allowed scooters they cheerfully picked up my 168 lb. scooter and lifted it on and off the tender at the ship and the dock – four times in all. The room stewards on all the ships were eager to fulfill just about any request as quickly as possible.

Even though I can’t travel like I used to, cruising is a fulfilling alternative to not traveling. I’m already looking forward to my next cruise–on Princess, of course.

© 2008 Grace R. Young
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark.

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Assistive Devices