Many wheelchair users already know that cruising is one of the best ways to see the world. It is arguably also the easiest way to visit The Last Frontier in America, also known as Alaska. Having cruised to Alaska in 2016, this is easily one of my favorite destinations in the entire world. The scenery is jaw-dropping, and the people are so friendly and welcoming. However, there are a few things to take into consideration when picking the right cruise ship itinerary for an Alaska visit. Here are some tips for booking a great wheelchair accessible Alaska cruise.
Departure/Arrival Ports. One of the first things you want to decide on is where you want to depart for your Alaska cruise. You will also need to decide if you want your cruise to be round-trip or one-way. The majority of Alaska cruises depart from either Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, British Columbia. These are typically seven night itineraries. There are also a few one-way itineraries that depart from San Francisco and Long Beach, California, and these are either 10-night, 12-night, or 14-night itineraries. The one-way itineraries often arrive in either Seward or Whittier, both of which have connections to Anchorage and often side excursions by train to visit places like Denali National Park. It is often more expensive to fly into the departure port and fly out of the arrival port, so keep this in mind when budgeting.
Itinerary. Many Alaska cruise itineraries are similar from cruise line to cruise line with only minor variations. They usually involve three or four ports of call and cruising through one of the many glacier viewing areas where the sea is like glass. Typical ports of call include Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Victoria, Icy Strait Point, and Sitka. What is crucial for wheelchair travelers to know and understand is that some ports of call in Alaska itineraries are tender only, and many others are either “dock or anchor” (D/A). A tender port means that the cruise ship anchors offshore, and passengers must be brought to shore on smaller boats called tenders. While some travelers who use collapsible wheelchairs and can negotiate a few steps can use tenders, tender boats are generally off-limits to electric scooter and power wheelchair users with very few exceptions. This means that most likely you will be stuck on the ship when you are at a tender report. In places like Juneau or Ketchikan, the ship can either dock or anchor, depending on many factors. Some cruise lines have much better chances of docking on certain days. Cruise Lines of Alaska (CLA) makes this determination each year, and publishes a schedule in roughly late November of which ships will be docking in Alaska ports and which will be anchoring; this is, of course, subject to change. A good travel agent can help you select the a cruise ship and itinerary that will significantly increase your odds of being able to get off the ship at each port of call.
Shore Excursions. While cruise lines are getting better at providing wheelchair accessible options for shore excursions, they are still extremely limited. Sometimes the shore excursion keeps you on a bus for a few hours without the ability to even get off — something known as a windshield tour. However, don’t hesitate to contact for providers to ask specific questions about accessibility. They may surprise you. Again, a good travel agent will either reach out to ship-provided shore excursion operator to determine true accessibility, or an accessible travel agent can find an independent tour operator at each port of call to make sure you can enjoy your time in port. My best friend and I were able to participate in three Princess excursions after making those calls, and we independently arranged a wheelchair accessible helicopter tour in Juneau after doing our own research.
Ship Selection. Most of the bigger cruise lines, like Norwegian, Holland America, and Princess, have fully accessible ships on Alaska itineraries. However, some are newer and better than others. Each cruise line has a special needs department, and I highly recommend either of you contacting them or having your travel agent work with them to find out all the details of their accessible cabins. For example, I booked a balcony cabin on the Star Princess, and the threshold from the room to the balcony was too high for me to negotiate with my scooter. However, on a recent Royal Caribbean cruise in Scandinavia, the threshold was completely flat. These are the kinds of questions you want to ask before selecting a ship and a cabin.
I truly believe that taking an Alaska cruise should be on everyone’s bucket list. It can be quite a haul to get out there, but it is worth absolutely every minute of travel time. I have done it myself, and as an accessible travel agent at Spin the Globe, I would love to help you book your fully wheelchair accessible Alaska cruise!