5 tips for going on a cruise as a wheelchair user
Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
Traveling in a wheelchair undoubtedly comes with its challenges, but almost any wheelchair user will probably agree that cruising comes with far fewer challenges than air travel and most other modes of transportation. On a cruise, there is no need to worry about finding an accessible taxi or calling in advance to check accessibility when going to dinner.
Instead, you can hop in an elevator and in less than five minutes, you’ll be ready for dinner in a nice cruise ship restaurant. Life on board a cruise ship is easy for wheelchair users because it’s like an entire city is right there on the ship. Whether you want to lounge by the pool and drink pina coladas all day, see a Broadway-style show or even gamble in the onboard casino, nearly anything is possible within the confines of a cruise ship.
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While cruising is one of the easier ways to travel with a disability, wheelchair users should keep a few things in mind when planning a cruise vacation. By using the tips and tricks below the next time you’re sailing the high seas, you are sure to have an enjoyable, and accessible, cruise vacation. Here are five tips for cruising as a wheelchair user.
Book as early as possible
Some of the larger cruise ships can hold more than 5,000 people, but even with that much space, wheelchair-accessible cabins can be limited. Typically, a cruise ship only offers a few dozen accessible rooms, and they get booked quickly.
If you are thinking about going on a cruise, it’s incredibly important to do the proper research and reserve your accessible cabin as early as possible. Even a year or more in advance is great, especially for cruises to Alaska. Alaska cruises are notorious for selling out of accessible staterooms in record time, so keep an eye out for on-sale dates if there’s a specific cruise you'd like to book.
Related: 6 ways to get a deal on a cruise
Choose a cruise line that works for you
The bigger the ship, the more accessible it usually is. For example, cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney have at least a few thousand passengers on every cruise, so you can expect them to be more accommodating for wheelchair users. Holland America and Celebrity Cruises cater to older travelers, so you can also expect good access on their ships. However, smaller ships (and especially river cruises) are not usually wheelchair-friendly.
Newer ships are also much more accessible than older ones. If you see that a brand-new ship is coming out from one of the big cruise lines, you can almost guarantee that accessibility will be fantastic.
To determine whether a ship is the right one for you, look up the layout of the ship online and read reviews from other wheelchair users by doing a quick Google search for “(cruise ship name) wheelchair access review.” Nothing beats that firsthand perspective from a fellow wheelchair user.
Related: A beginner's guide to picking a cruise line
Research if ports of call are docked or tendered
Being able to roll around the cruise ship as a wheelchair user is spectacular, but what about exploring the various ports of call? Yes, you could have fun staying on the ship, but everybody ought to get out and see the sights for at least a little while.
Wheelchair users should choose cruise itineraries where ships dock at the ports of call. Once the ship is tied up to the pier, wheelchair users can simply roll down a ramp to disembark the ship.
The alternative is that the ship anchors offshore and uses smaller, typically inaccessible, boats called tenders to take passengers ashore. It's difficult, and sometimes impossible, for wheelchair users to board these boats and transfer to shore.
You can find out if a port is docked or tendered by calling the cruise line or looking it up online.
Related: The most wheelchair-accessible beach destinations in the US
Rent mobility equipment
For many wheelchair users, one of the most difficult parts of traveling is taking medical and mobility equipment along. As someone who travels with a motorized wheelchair, a shower/commode wheelchair, a patient lift, wheelchair chargers and other medical equipment, I know firsthand how challenging it is to haul everything around once you reach a destination.
To make the process easier, companies such as Special Needs at Sea and Scootaround will allow you to rent mobility equipment that will be waiting in your cabin when you board the ship. Cruise travelers can rent wheelchairs, hospital beds, patient lifts, oxygen concentrators and more.
Related: These are the most accessible cities around the world
Reserve shore excursions with accessibility-focused companies
If cruise lines are lacking in one department, it’s the availability of wheelchair-accessible shore excursions. Some cruise lines do offer accessible shore excursions in certain destinations, but the choices are usually extremely limited.
If you want to get off the ship and truly experience each destination, look into doing a shore excursion with an external company. In most ports of call, especially in the Caribbean and Europe, you can find local companies that have adapted transportation. It may take a bit of a Google search to find them, but they are out there.
For example, Sage Traveling offers wheelchair-friendly shore excursions in dozens of popular cruise destinations. Even better, the company is managed by a wheelchair user, so you can rest assured that accessibility will be top-notch.
Related: These are the credit cards to use to maximize your next cruise vacation