Cruising is a very popular vacation choice for people who use a wheelchair or a scooter, and even for folks who just don't get around like they used to.
According to one survey, 12 percent of disabled adults had taken a cruise in the previous five years, compared to 8 percent of the able-bodied population. And with the aging of the baby boomers, more and more physically challenged people are taking cruises today.
Although most cruise lines have done a good job in making their shipboard facilities wheelchair accessible, the same can't be said of their shore excursions. The plain truth is that many shore excursions are just not doable for full-time wheelchair users, or for anyone who cannot walk up the bus steps and stow her wheelchair below. This is especially true overseas, where lift-equipped transportation is less common.
The good news is that many cruise lines have become smarter about how to accommodate people with disabilities, offering the use of wheelchairs and other assistance for getting around. You'll also find many ships now offering specially outfitted staterooms with wider entryways. Be sure to request one when booking — they don't usually cost extra.
Everyone has stories about cruise ships that are accommodating to the disabled — or about cruise lines that are not so clueful. Once on a cruise with my mom on a very large ship, we had to get her a wheelchair, but the foyer was so small we had to stow it outside the door in the hallway.
Getting around on an ‘Easy’ city tour
Some handicap-accessible shore excursions include "Easy" city tours, which are conducted in ramped or lift-equipped vehicles. These are not private tours, but because of the vehicles used, the groups are smaller than those on the standard bus tours.
If you use a wheelchair full time, you'll find "Easy" tours at a host of overseas ports, including Easy Tenerife, Easy Lanzarote, Easy La Palma (all in the Canary Islands), Easy Athens (in Athens), Easy Malaga (in the port city of Málaga on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol), Easy Barcelona (in Barcelona), Easy Palma (in Mallorca), Easy Istanbul (in Istanbul) and Easy Ephesus (in Kusadasi/Ephesus). These tours are available on a first-come basis, and they can only be purchased on board at the ship's shore excursion desk.
Holland America’s Signature Tours
Holland America Line offers a few fully accessible shore excursions in select ports. They are called a Signature Collection private tours, and they include a van plus a guide for the day. Only a few of these tours are available with a ramped of lift-equipped van, so contact the shore excursion manager to see if they are available in your ports. I’ve had good reports from readers who have taken these tours in Tallinn and Helsinki.
Currently Holland America is looking to expand their offerings, but growth is slow due to the limited availability of accessible vehicles in many ports. Although these tours are limited in number, and subject to availability, it's a great start.
In the future, I hope other cruise lines will follow suit. For the time being, if you want to be assured of a truly accessible shore excursion, you need to do your own research and book the tour directly with the local operator. Remember to plan ahead and book early, because right now these tours are few and far between -- and in great demand. With the cruise lines now also booking them, it pays to be the first one in line.
The logistics of planning accessible travel
Some final tips. Candy B. Harrington, editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of several best-selling books for disabled travelers, has a terrific book out titled Barrier Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers (third edition). It features detailed information about the logistics of planning accessible travel by plane, train, bus and ship, and it includes information about 45 local tour operators that provide wheelchair-accessible shore excursions.
Harrington offers this advice: "Although there's a high level of accessibility in the cruise industry today, you can still end up on a very inaccessible ship if you don't do your homework. Don't assume all cruises are equally accessible. Just like any other mode of travel, you need to research all of your options before you make a cruise decision. If you work with a travel agent, work with one who is well versed in accessible travel.
How about you? Have you taken any tours geared to physically challenged people?
- Handicapped Accessible Cruise Room — Princess Sapphire (YouTube)
- Accessible Caribbean Vacations
- Beginner's guide to accessible cruising (Cruise Critic)
- Best ships for cruisers with disabilities (Cruise Critic)