Many wheelchair users assume that luxury travel, such as cruises and travel to exotic destinations are too complicated and difficult. Not true says Andrew Garnett, CEO of Special Needs Group. I asked Andrew for some more information about the reality and challenges of taking a cruise for people who use mobility equipment such as wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
Gene: Is it easy for a wheelchair or mobility scooter user to take a cruise these days? What are wheelchair cruises like these days?
Andrew: Compared to almost any other vacation or leisure choice, taking a cruise is exceptionally easy---now more than ever, with the cruise lines working to include more accessibility features on each new build or refurbishment. As ships get bigger, doorways can be wider; there are usually more and bigger elevators and more wheelchair accessible tables in the dining venues. There are even more wheelchair level game tables and slot machines in the Casino. The cruise industry focuses substantial effort on providing for the growing special needs travel market.
For families with a special needs child, cruising provides a safe environment. Children are placed in activities according to ability level and parents can enjoy time off.
I would say, there has never been a better time for a wheelchair user to take a cruise----and it is going to continue getter easier and better each year.
Gene: Are most cruise ships wheelchair accessible and wheelchair user friendly (toilets, showers, etc)?
Andrew: Almost all cruise lines do an excellent job of making sure their ships are accessible and wheelchair friendly. The rule of thumb is, the newer the ship, the more accessible it is. There are variations, but you can assume that at least one percent of the staterooms onboard a ship are purpose-designed for accessibility with roll-in showers, grab bars, accessible sinks and other accessibility features. On some ships, the number of accessible staterooms is as high as four percent, and these staterooms are in all cabin categories including the most deluxe suites. In addition, today’s ships have wide doorways, ramps and automatic doors. Theatres, Casinos, dining rooms and other entertainment areas accommodate not only wheelchair and scooter users, but a range of special needs. As a general rule the newer and bigger the vessel, the more accessible features onboard, including more and bigger elevators, portable lifts for swimming pools and Jacuzzis, Braille markers on doors and stairways and other features that make it easier to enjoy more of the shipboard amenities.
We suggest that prior to booking, travelers or their travel agents call the cruise lines in advance to inquire about specific features on the ships they are considering.
Gene: What about boarding and disembarking with a wheelchair? How does that work? Are there lifts? Ramps?
Andrew: All cruise lines have accessible wheelchair ramps for boarding and disembarking the vessel in port. These ramps are used by all passengers. To avoid long lines, contact the cruise staff in advance to request early or expedited boarding. During the cruise, if the ship is not able to dock portside and has to anchor out, at a small island for example, then there are lifts to help wheelchair users in and out of the tenders used to take passengers ashore. In those instances, getting to the port may not be accessible. Also severe tidal shifts can be problematic.
Gene: Are people with disabilities, such as wheelchair users well accepted on all cruises?
Andrew: There are so many people with disabilities traveling today, that it’s no longer unusual or unexpected. The cruise lines welcome travelers with all types of special needs, from wheelchair users to those requiring oxygen or dialysis. Other passengers hardly pay notice and you are likely to encounter quite a few people with special needs similar to yours on almost any voyage.
Gene: What are the major challenges someone with a disability, such as a spinal cord injury, etc will face on a cruise?
Andrew: Challenges can include getting in and out of bed without help and getting in and out of pools or Jacuzzis. Special Needs Group has patient lifts and other equipment, including hospital beds, to make these activities easier. Most of the newer vessels have pool lifts. Transferring from the ship to a tender to go ashore can be challenging, but cruise staff are experienced in handling this. Travelers should check with the cruise line Access Department about what their ships specifically provide or don’t provide.
Gene: Would it be easy for a person with a disability to travel alone on a cruise? Do many do it?
Andrew: Depending on the severity of a person’s disability, we strongly suggest that a person with special needs travel with a companion, and most cruise lines strongly recommend this as well. Should someone choose to cruise alone and receive the cruise line’s approval for this, we advise taking a thorough inventory of all the equipment that might be needed during every moment of the cruise, even if that equipment is not used at home. For example, a slow walker traveling alone should order a wheelchair or scooter. The right equipment and advance preparation can help make the trip easier. Do people with special needs cruise alone? Yes, but it is rare. Most people, whether or not they have a special need, prefer to travel with a companion. It’s more fun.
Gene: What is the most important advice would you give to a person with a disability who is considering their first cruise?
Andrew: Work with travel professionals who have experience booking special needs travel. A specialized agent can help you anticipate and prepare for challenges. Don’t assume anything, especially about ports of call, and be realistic in your expectations.
Look for and request itineraries that show the ship docking pier side rather than anchoring out. Anchoring out requires the use of tenders to take passengers ashore. You might want to avoid that on a first cruise. Ask the right questions about accessibility ashore, not all countries have the same standards as the U.S. Will museums and restaurants have ramps and accessible bathrooms? Are the walkways wheelchair friendly? Will my service animal be allowed ashore? Are there places for me to rest? Don’t be shy about asking or answering questions relating to your need. You will find many answers on the accessibility pages of the cruise line’s website, and you can always call the cruise line’s accessibility department for specific requests.
Book early for the best choice of accessible staterooms and location, and arrive at the port of embarkation a day early to relax and avoid any last minute glitches. Finally, ask the cruise line for priority boarding, to avoid waiting in line at the pier.
Andrew Garnett, is CEO of Special Needs Group. Special Needs Group is the leading global provider for special needs travel around the world. They offer a broad range of special needs equipment for purchase and rental including wheelchairs, scooters and power chairs, oxygen, specialized mobility equipment, hearing impaired equipment, and more. Recommended by all the world’s major cruise lines, Special Needs Group also services guests visiting hotels, resorts and convention centers. Andrew has over ten years of leadership within the Special Needs industry, as an advocate, educator, consultant and service provider. Known worldwide for his expertise, Andrew helps shape industry policy vessel design for the cruise industry. An advocate for the disabled and with a vision to “dissolve travel barriers”, Andrew founded Special Needs Group / Special Needs at Sea in 2007, creating a company that quickly became the category leader.
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