Cruising to Suit Special Needs - Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Cruising to Suit Special Needs

Cruising for those with physical special needs offers one of the most hassle-free vacations possible. But it’s important to choose the right ship and to prepare in advance.

If you are mobility-limited or otherwise physically challenged (this includes sight or hearing impairments), do tell the cruise line (or your travel agent) at the time you book; otherwise, you may legally be denied boarding by the cruise line.

Anyone in a wheelchair but considering a cruise may be nervous at the thought of getting around. However, you’ll find that crew members aboard most ships are extremely helpful. Indeed, cruise ships have become much more accessible for people with most types of disabilities. Ships built in the past five to 10 years will have the most up-to-date suites, cabins, and accessible shipboard facilities for those with special needs. Many new ships also have text telephones and listening device kits for the hearing-impaired (including showlounges aboard some ships). Special dietary needs can often be met, and many cabins have refrigerators - useful for those with diabetes who need to keep supplies of insulin cool.

Special cruises cater for dialysis patients (check out and and for those who need oxygen regularly. Some cruise lines publish a special-needs brochure.

If you use a wheelchair, take it with you, as ships carry only a limited number for emergency hospital use only. An alternative is to rent an electric wheelchair, which can be delivered to the ship on your sailing date.

Arguably the weakest point of cruising for the mobility-limited is any shore tender operation. Ship tenders simply aren’t designed properly for the wheelchair-bound. Also, when you reach the shore, you may find facilities very limited.


Wheelchair users should check in advance what help is available.

Ayako Ward

Why doors can present a problem for wheelchair users

The design of cruise ships has traditionally worked against the mobility-limited. To keep water out or to prevent water escaping from a flooded area, raised edges (lips) - unfriendly to wheelchairs - are often placed in doorways and across exit pathways. Also, cabin doorways, at a standard 24in (60cm) wide, are often not wide enough for wheelchairs - about 30in (76cm) is needed.

Bathroom doors, whether they open outward or inward, similarly hinder maneuverability. An electrically operated sliding door would be better. Bathrooms in many older ships are small and full of plumbing fixtures, often at odd angles, which is awkward when moving about in a wheelchair. Those aboard new ships are more accessible, but the plumbing may be located beneath the complete prefabricated module, making the floor higher than that in the cabin, which means a ramp is needed. Some cruise lines will, if given advance notice, remove a bathroom door and hang a fabric curtain in its place. Many lines will provide ramps for the bathroom doorway if needed.

Access to outside decks may be through doors that must be opened manually rather than via automatic electric-eye doors.

Little problems to consider

Unless cabins and bathrooms are specifically designed, problem areas include the entrance, furniture configuration, closet hanging rails, beds, grab bars, height of toiletries cabinet, and wheel-in shower stall. The elevators may present the biggest obstacle, and you may get frustrated at the waiting time involved. In older ships, controls often can’t be reached from a wheelchair.


Douglas Ward tests accessibility around a ship.

Douglas Ward

A few ships have access-help hoists installed at swimming pools. These include Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Reflection and Celebrity Silhouette, the pool in ‘The Haven’ aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Getaway, and Norwegian Gem, and P&O Cruises’ Britannia, Oriana and Aurora.

It can be hard to access areas including self-serve buffets, and many large resort ships provide only oval plates (no trays) in their casual eateries. So you may need to ask for help.

Some insurance companies may prohibit smaller ships from accepting passengers with severe disabilities. Some cruise lines will send you a form requesting the dimensions and weight of the wheelchair, stating that it had to fold to take inside the cabin.

Note that wheelchairs, mobility scooters, and walking aids must be stored in your cabin - they cannot be left in the corridor outside your cabin.

Only five cruise ships have direct access ramps to lifeboats: Amadea, Asuka II, Crystal Serenity, Crystal Symphony, and Europa.

Tips to avoid pitfalls

Start by planning an itinerary and date, and find a travel agent who knows your needs. But follow up on all aspects of the booking yourself to avoid slip-ups; many cruise lines have a department or person to handle requests from disabled passengers.

Choose a cruise line that lets you select a specific cabin, not just a price category.

If the ship doesn’t have any specially equipped cabins, book the best outside cabin in your price range, or choose another ship.

Check whether your wheelchair will fit through your cabin’s bathroom door or into the shower area and whether there is a ‘lip’ at the door. Don’t accept ‘I think so’ as an answer. Get specific measurements.

Choose a cabin close to an elevator. Not all elevators go to all decks, so check the deck plan. Smaller and older vessels may not even have elevators, making access to even the dining room difficult.

Questions to ask before you book

Are any public rooms or public decks inaccessible to wheelchairs?

Will crew members be on hand to help?

Will you be guaranteed a good viewing place in the main showlounge if seated in a wheelchair?

Can the ship supply a raised toilet seat?

Will special transportation be provided to transfer you from airport to ship?

If you need a collapsible wheelchair, can this be provided by the cruise line?

Do passengers have to sign a medical release?

Are the ship’s tenders accessible to wheelchairs?

How do you get from your cabin to lifeboats in an emergency if the elevators are out of action?

Do passengers need a doctor’s note to qualify for a cabin for the physically challenged?

Does the cruise line’s travel insurance (with a cancellation or trip interruption) cover you for any injuries while you are aboard ship?

Most disabled cabins have twin beds or one queen-size bed. Anyone with a disabled child should ask whether a suitable portable bed can be moved in.

Avoid, at all costs, a cabin down a little alleyway shared by several other cabins, even if the price is attractive. It’s hard to access a cabin in a wheelchair from such an alleyway. Cabins located amidships are less affected by vessel motion, so choose something in the middle of the ship if you are concerned about possible rough seas. The larger - and therefore more expensive - the cabin, the more room you will have to maneuver in.

The hanging rails in the closets on most ships are positioned too high for someone in a wheelchair to reach - even the latest ships seem to repeat this basic error. Many cruise ships, however, have cabins to suit the mobility-limited. They are typically fitted with roll-in closets and have a pull-down facility to bring your clothes down to any height you want.

Meals in some ships may be served in your cabin, on special request, but few ships have enough space in the cabin for dining tables. If you opt for a dining room with two fixed-time seatings for meals, the second is more leisurely. Alert the restaurant manager in advance that you would like a table that leaves plenty of room for your wheelchair.

Hand-carry your medical information. Once on board, tell the reception desk help may be needed in an emergency.

Make sure that the contract specifically states that if, for any reason, the cabin is not available, that you will get a full refund and transportation back home as well as a refund on any hotel bills incurred.

Advise the cruise line of the need for proper transfer facilities such as buses or vans with wheelchair ramps or hydraulic lifts.

If you live near the port of embarkation, arrange to visit the ship to check its suitability - most cruise lines will be accommodating.

Coping with embarkation

The boarding process can pose problems. If you embark at ground level, the gangway may be level or inclined. It will depend on the embarkation deck of the ship and/or the tide in the port.

Alternatively, you may be required to embark from an upper level of a terminal, in which case the gangway could well be of the floating loading-bridge type, like those used at major airports. Some have flat floors; others may have raised lips at regular intervals.

Ship-to-shore launches

Cruise lines should - but don’t always - provide an anchor emblem in brochures for those ports of call where a ship will be at anchor instead of alongside. If the ship is at anchor, the crew will lower you and your wheelchair into a waiting tender and then, after a short boat ride, lift you out again onto a rigged gangway or integral platform. If the sea is calm, this maneuver proceeds uneventfully; if the sea is choppy, it could vary from exciting to somewhat harrowing.

This type of embarkation is rare except in a busy port with several ships sailing the same day. Holland America Line is one of the few companies to make shore tenders accessible to the disabled, with a special boarding ramp and scissor lift so that wheelchair passengers can see out of the shore tender’s windows.


A pool access hoist installed at one of the swimming pools on Celebrity Reflection.

Douglas Ward

Help for the hearing-impaired

Difficulties for such passengers include hearing announcements on the public address system, using the telephone, and poor acoustics in key areas such as where shore tenders are boarded.

Some cruise lines have special ‘alert kits’. These include ‘visual-tactile’ devices for those unable to hear a knock on the door, a telephone ringing, or the sound of an alarm clock. Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, and TUI Cruises’ Mein Schiff 1, Mein Schiff 2 and Mein Schiff 3 have movie theaters fitted with special headsets for those with hearing difficulties.

Finally, when going ashore, particularly on organized excursions, be aware that some destinations are simply not equipped to handle people with hearing impairment.

Cruising for the blind and sight-impaired

Any totally or almost-blind persons must be accompanied by a fully able-bodied person, occupying the same cabin. A few cruise lines will allow seeing-eye dogs (guide dogs).

All elevators and cabins have Braille text. Some large resort ships (examples include Celebrity Reflection, Celebrity Silhouette, MSC Divina, MSC Fantasia, MSC Preziosa, and MSC Splendida) have Braille pads subtly hidden under each lower section of handrail in the main foyers - very user-friendly, and most welcome.

Recent improvements

Many new ships now provide mobility-limited cabin bathrooms with collapsible shower stools mounted on shower walls, and bathroom toilets have collapsible arm guards and lower washbasin. Other cabin equipment may include a vibrating alarm clock, door beacon (light flashes when someone knock on the door), television with closed-caption decoders, and a flashing light as fire alarm.

Look out, too, for:

Kits for the hearing-impaired, available on request.

Induction systems for the hearing impaired.

Dedicated wheelchair positions in the showlounge.

Electrical hoist to access pool and hot tubs.

Although public rooms do not have special seating areas, most showlounges do - almost always at the back, adjacent to the elevators - for wheelchair passengers.

Wheelchair accessibility

Each cruise ship reviewed in this book is rated in its data listing for wheelchair accessibility.