As an accessible travel agent and frequent cruiser, one of the questions I get asked the most is, What is the most accessible cruise ship out there? The great news is that wheelchair users have more and more options for great accessibility on cruise ships every year. While I haven’t been on every single cruise ship sailing the oceans today, I have a really good idea of what wheelchair users should look for and ask about when trying to determine the accessibility of a cruise ship they would like to sail on.
Age Before Beauty
There are some absolutely stunning cruise ships out there right now, and they can rival any five-star hotel on land. But just because the ship is luxurious and beautiful doesn’t mean that it is wheelchair friendly. One of the better indicators of wheelchair accessibility on a cruise ship is its age. It is incredibly difficult to retrofit an older cruise ship to include accessibility features. However, with almost two dozen brand-new cruise ships launching every year, it’s becoming easier for ship architects and designers to incorporate accessibility features from the start. To find out the age of the ship, you can either Google the ship’s name or find its fact sheet on the cruise line website. You also be able to find out when the ship had its most recent dry-dock renovation or retrofit.
Staterooms: Bigger is Always Better
Many people who have never cruised before are shocked at how small cruise ship cabins can be. Fortunately, accessible cabins are bigger by necessity because wheelchair users need enough space to maneuver around beds, and into and out of the bathroom. That being said, the actual size of a cruise ship accessible cabin can vary widely between cruise lines, and even ships in the same class within a cruise line. An interior stateroom will be the smallest category, and you shouldn’t accept anything smaller than 200 ft.² for an accessible cabin that can accommodate two people, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Take note that some cruise lines offer different types of accessible staterooms. “Fully accessible” means that you can access both sides of the bed. “Single-side approach” means that the bed is pushed up against the wall, so you can only get into it from one side. These rooms will still have accessible bathrooms with roll-in showers.
Here is a video tour of my accessible verandah stateroom on the Celebrity Edge:
All Ship Showers are Not Created Equal
One of the biggest problems I have with roll-in showers on cruise ships is that many of them have itty-bitty fold down seats with vinyl straps. I am a very thin person, and even I find these small square seats to be uncomfortable and not particularly safe. I much prefer cruise ships with roll-in showers that have wide laminated wood fold-down benches. They may be a little more uncomfortable to sit on, but it gives me much more room to transfer and maneuver. They also tend to be less slippery. Sometimes it can be hard to find out what type of seating is available in accessible cabin showers, but a quick Google search for your cruise ship and the phrase “accessible cabin” should turn up at least one photo or video. Worse comes to worst, you can call the cruise line’s accessibility department and ask.
Asking for a Lift
Fortunately for wheelchair users, the newest and largest cruise ships have lifts that allow wheelchair users to get in the ships pool. Most of them are portable, and sometimes cruise lines will ask you to provide several hours notice before going to the pool so that the crew can install it for you. This was the case on the Disney Dream when I sailed on it in July 2018. However, both the Harmony of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas (Royal Caribbean) had pool lifts that were permanently installed. If the ability to swim in the ship’s pool is very important to you, your travel agent and find out if your ship has a lift, or you can call the cruise line’s accessibility department. Special Needs at Sea also maintains a list of cruise ship accessibility features that indicates if pool lifts are available.
I tell all of my clients interested in cruises that every cruise line has its own personality and targeted demographic. For example, Carnival is great for families and people traveling on a small budget. Holland America is great for seniors and retirees looking for a more luxurious and quiet cruising experience. NCL is the party boat. Cunard is heaven’s waiting room. While most major cruise lines have expressed a commitment to provide the best accessibility possible for all guests, there are some cruise lines who cater towards demographics that are more likely to have special travel needs. Many wheelchair users who love to cruise are in wheelchairs simply because they are older, and not because they have a chronic illness or have been in an accident. Cruise lines that cater towards the senior population tend to have really great accessibility because so many of their passengers are wheelchair users. Disney Cruise Lines is also known for creating a first-class experience for every member of the family, and their commitment to accessibility is really unparalleled. If you are a younger wheelchair traveler like me, sometimes it can be a bit of a sacrifice to choose a cruise ship where 95% of the population is above the age of 70 in exchange for better accessibility, but that’s a choice we all have to make.
Shore Excursion Options
I am extremely excited to see that with every cruise I take, more and more cruise lines are offering accessible shore excursions. The options are generally not many, and they aren’t always exciting. However, they are much less expensive than independently booking a private accessible tour with a local supplier. I have gone on accessible shore excursions booked through Princess and Royal Caribbean, and I have two accessible shore excursions booked through MSC for late September. I am cruising in the Mediterranean on Celebrity in November, and saw that there are several accessible shore excursion options on that cruise as well. You can do a search online within a ship’s itinerary to see what shore excursions are available, and filter them to see if any are accessible. Please keep in mind that sometimes accessible shore excursion options pop up closer to the cruise departure date, and sometimes after you depart.
Out in Public
Determining the wheelchair accessibility of public areas on a specific cruise ship can be difficult prior to embarkation. However, more and more people are creating video tours of cruise ships and posting them on YouTube. This has been really helpful for me when trying to determine if I will be cramped for space in a dining room or poolside or in a lounge. Almost all modern cruise ships have reserved seating into their primary theater for wheelchair users, but it’s not always great. On older ships, sometimes the view is obstructed by a huge pole, or because the reserved seats are at the top of the lower level, sometimes the top half of the stage background is cut off by the edge of the balcony above. Some main dining rooms have more space than others, but the crew are generally really good about moving chairs out of your way so you can reach your table, and removing any chairs you might need in order to sit at the table. For these sorts of things, it can be helpful to join a social media group for wheelchair travelers and ask members if they have cruised on that specific ship.
Cruise Line Resources
Because I’m a travel agent, I will always recommend that you book your cruise through someone who specializes in accessible travel. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, and you have an advocate on your side who knows how to navigate the booking system to your advantage. However, if you want to contact a cruise line directly while doing your research in order to ask about a ship’s accessibility features, here is the contact information for the special needs or accessibility departments of some of the major cruise lines:
- Carnival – email@example.com / 800-438-6744 ext. 70025
- Celebrity – firstname.lastname@example.org / 866-592-7225
- Cunard – email@example.com
- Disney – firstname.lastname@example.org / 407-566-3602
- Holland America – email@example.com / 800-547-8493
- NCL – 866-584-9756
- Princess – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Royal Caribbean – email@example.com / 866-592-7225
Are you ready to book an amazing and accessible cruise adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!