Temperatures are hitting record lows in northern latitudes right now, so it’s no surprise that this is the busiest time of year for cruise bookings. One of the most popular destinations for cruising is the Caribbean, and I always say that taking a cruise is the easiest way for wheelchair users to travel. There are lots of things to know before going on a Caribbean cruise as a wheelchair user, so here are some tips to make the experience as easy as possible.
Prepare for heat and humidity
What travelers love the most about the Caribbean is that temperatures are warm all year round. You won’t see the typical four seasons, but rather two — wet season and dry season. While it is a good idea to carry a poncho or umbrella regardless of the time of year, even more important is wearing sunblock and carrying a way to keep cool if you are sensitive to high temperatures. Look for shade whenever possible, and carry a misting device or fan if possible. Here is a blog post I wrote about ways to keep cool in the Florida heat that you may find helpful on a Caribbean cruise.
Using a mister is a great way to stay cool on hot port days. This mister also works as a portable shower and water bottle. Lunatec Aquabot sport water bottle
You don’t have to exchange currency
With extremely few exceptions (like Martinique, where you need euros), all other ports of call accept US dollars. Just be aware that small local vendors will probably give you cash back in the local currency. You can use your credit card in larger souvenir shops, restaurants, and many bars, but it’s wise to have some cash on you at all times. If you don’t bring it from home, you can usually get cash in US dollars in the casino ATM on board.
Tender ports are very common
One of the biggest challenges in selecting a Caribbean cruise itinerary is finding one with as few tender-only ports of call as possible. With only a few exceptions (based on ship capability), wheelchair users cannot disembark at tender-only ports of call. Even in cases where this is possible, weather or tidal conditions may prevent this. Also, it is always at the discretion of the captain to allow wheelchair users, or anyone else, to disembark at a tender only port. Here is a list of tender-only Caribbean ports of call to (hopefully) avoid:
- Belize City, Belize
- Cap Cana, Dominican Republic
- Cienfuegos, Cuba
- Coco Cay, Bahamas (until March 2019)
- Devil’s Island, French Guiana
- Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
- Gustavia, St Barthelemy
- Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
- Playa del Carmen, Mexico
- Princess Cays, Bahamas
- Saint John, US Virgin Islands
- Samana, Dominican Republic
- Terre-de-Haut, Guadeloupe
- Virgin Gorda, BVI
Always make sure to confirm with your cruise line or check with your accessible travel agent to confirm that your cruise ship will be docking. This is always subject to change based on the number of cruise ships due in at a port of call on a given day.
Don’t overpay for accessible shore excursions
Wheelchair users who travel frequently know very well by now that we often pay two or three times as much to go on the same types of tours as our able-bodied peers. While you will likely pay extra for some accessible shore excursions, you can avoid paying more than you should by doing some research or having the assistance of an accessible travel agent. Some cruise lines have gotten better at offering wheelchair accessible shore excursions, and I have actually had quite a bit of luck with Princess in the Caribbean. I have also paid exactly the same for the wheelchair accessible version as other passengers pay for the regular version. You can actually find what shore excursions are available at each port of call for each cruise line on their websites. However, an accessible travel agent can help you find the local tour providers at each port of call, and if they have offerings for wheelchair users. Booking independently will almost always save you money.
You definitely want to keep your cash safe while you’re cruising! Here is the cross-body anti-theft pouch I use when I travel: Pacsafe Slingsafe 75 GII Anti-Theft Sling Purse & Hip Pouch,
Be prepared for large crowds
Navigating through large crowds of people and small spaces is always tricky for wheelchair users. Busy season for Caribbean cruises includes the summer months when kids are out of school, holidays like spring break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and the coldest winter months. Some cruise ports can have as many as five or six large cruise ships in port on a given day, which means that over 20,000 cruise ship passengers can overwhelm a small port in a matter of hours. If you go on a group tour, be prepared to run into several other group tours from other ships at the same places. If you can afford a private tour, your guide will likely know how to time it so you can arrive either before or after larger groups.
Wheelchair accessibility is generally poor
These days, most Caribbean ports have a modern terminal area with several souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. These are largely wheelchair accessible, as their goal is to maximize income from tourists from all walks of life. However, once you attempt to leave the immediate port area, you will likely be confronted with poor or a complete lack of wheelchair access due to crumbling sidewalks and/or a lack of dropped curbs depending on the location. Whenever possible, try to book an accessible shore excursion, either through the cruise line or independently. This may be difficult or impossible at some Caribbean ports of call, so determine how flexible you are in this regard when picking an itinerary. You can find my reviews of the wheelchair accessibility of several Caribbean ports of call HERE.
Sometimes your biggest obstacle is only one step. Here is a great lightweight ramp you can use at home and when you cruise in less accessible ports of call: Drive Medical Single Fold Portable Wheelchair Scooter Ramp with Carry Handle and Travel Bag, 3 Feet Long, Gun Metal
Be sensitive to exploitative activities
This is a tricky subject to navigate, but I feel it’s important to point some things out. There are some places in the Caribbean where wheelchair users can book accessible dolphin encounters. Generally speaking, dolphin encounters are frowned upon by animal rights advocates because they are difficult and can create stressful conditions for the dolphins. While more stringent regulations exist in the United States for these type of activities, such regulations are enforced more loosely or are sometimes nonexistent in the Caribbean. Just be aware that repeated exposure day after day to people and forced human interaction can have a negative impact on animals.
Also use your best judgment with things like hair braiding. Again, this is complicated because the people who do the hair braiding rely on tourist dollars to make a living. However, in the United States, this is considered cultural appropriation by many groups of people. Obviously the choice to do this is yours, but you should be warned that if you are white and return to the United States with cornrows, you may receive a look or comment or two.
Be wary when consuming alcoholic beverages on shore
Many tours in Caribbean ports of call include rum punch or other rum-infused drinks. Mixed beverages on the tours tend to be very strong, and usually not measured in a more conservative way like they are in the United States. Fortunately, while there have been many reported incidents of alcoholic beverages being spiked with the drugs at Mexican resorts, I haven’t seen any such reports at Caribbean ports of call on tours. However, I have seen many tourists negatively affected by the combination of strong drinks on shore and the excessive heat and humidity. If you do drink while in port, make sure you stay hydrated with water as well.
This is the best backpack I’ve ever had, both for carrying electronics and things like water bottles and extra clothing items: Swiss Gear SA1908 Black TSA Friendly ScanSmart Laptop Backpack
Don’t forget to tip your guide
Tour guides in the Caribbean work really hard every day to make sure that their guests are entertained and enjoying the sights. They don’t make a lot of money, and you will see soon enough once you leave the port area the poor conditions that they probably live in. Unless your experience is really terrible, please have some extra cash on you and provide your guide with at least a small tip to show your gratitude.
Purchase travel insurance, especially during hurricane season
Some people assume that they’re never going to get sick enough to cancel a cruise, or that nothing really bad will happen during their trip. Well, accidents are accidents for a reason. If you have paid for your cruise in full and have to cancel due to illness or an accident, they will not refund your money If you don’t have a trip protection policy. If you break a leg or get appendicitis or something else that causes you to be evacuated or have to visit the emergency room in a foreign country, your medical insurance will not pay for bills or the evacuation. I can give you several examples of tourists who have been stranded in Caribbean countries with tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills and no way to get home because they didn’t purchase travel insurance. Please read my article here about why travel insurance is so important, and the different ways you can obtain it.
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