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Everything Wheelchair and Scooter Users Need to Know About River Cruises

River cruises offer some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Popular on several continents, the ships are small, intimate, and often quite luxurious. The bad news is that river cruises are almost completely off-limits for full-time and power wheelchair users. However, people with some mobility can make a river cruise work with some flexibility, assistance and advance planning. The great news is that there are fully accessible charter cruise options for Holland and Germany for wheelchair users willing to forgo some luxury options in favor of the amazing opportunity to cruise Europe’s stunning rivers. Read below to find out if river cruising is right for you and your mobility needs.

General Considerations

Most companies only allow wheelchairs that are collapsible. Some do not allow motorized wheelchairs. Solo travel is generally not an option. You will be required to travel with another passenger who can assist you. When your boat docks at each new port, there may be times when you will not be able to leave the ship if you are unable to walk and must be carried on and off the boat in a wheelchair. If the cruise line staff is unable to assist and determines it’s unsafe, you will be required to stay on the ship at that port. Some of the tours, particularly in Europe, require a lot of walking across cobblestone streets, up stairs and hills, and through narrow passageways both inside and outside buildings. However, you may be able to book an accessible tour independently, depending on the port of call.

Even though some companies have designated cabins for accessible travel, there are a limited number available on each ship. Each cruise company also varies with the level of assistance they will provide with regard to airport transfers, getting on and off the ship, making special accommodations for tours and excursions, and other things not mentioned. Many river ship cabins can only accommodate two people, and the cruises cater to a much older crowd. As such, there are no kids’ programs, and some river cruises are adults-only. However, more river cruise lines understand that cruising has become a multi-generational endeavor, and are providing more suites that either can accommodate more people or connect to each other.

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Embarkation/Debarkation

River ships all share docking ports in Europe. Throughout your cruise it is likely the ship will be docked next to one or two other river ships. During this time, your view from your stateroom may temporarily be obscured by a neighboring ship. It is important to note that in these cases, disembarkation and/or embarkation may include walking through the adjacent ship(s) lobby or upper deck to reach the shore. Most lines specify that wheelchair users have to be accompanied by someone who can assist them and be responsible for their embarkation and disembarkation. Despite this official line, crewmembers will often lend a hand — but this can never be guaranteed as river vessels have a relatively small number of staff, and nobody will be assigned to help disabled passengers.

Staterooms

Riverboat cabins are much smaller than hotel rooms, and not every river ship offers accessible staterooms. Several lines offer a small number of accessible or modified staterooms with wide doors, but these might not be available on each of their ships. You’ll want to know if it’s easy to open the door and go inside with a wheelchair, and if there is enough space to store a wheelchair and other mobility aids. (Equipment cannot be stored in the corridors due to safety regulations, and most lines stipulate that passengers have to bring collapsible wheelchairs.) Some shower stalls have fixed doors with limited access, while others have handy doors that fold right back to create one large area of bathroom space. You’ll need to inquire about bathroom configuration — especially if you’re not booking a special accessible room.

River Cruise Ship Layouts

River cruise ships are much smaller than ocean vessels, particularly in Europe, where they are restricted in width and length to fit into locks and sail beneath low bridges, and parts of Asia where they have to navigate shallow waters. Most have a maximum capacity of 250 passengers or less, and typically only have three or four decks. Many river cruise ships have several dining options, several bars and lounges, a swimming pool, and even a cinema and salon.

There is generally an open-seating policy for dining, so you can sit where you want. Meals can be fairly regimented due to the small size of the galley, so one sitting for breakfast, lunch and dinner is the norm (although some lines are more flexible with timings than others). Lighter meals can be enjoyed in the lounge, or outside on the deck, and some vessels have additional specialty restaurants. Entertainment is low-key — with the major attraction being the passing scenery.

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Itineraries and Ports of Call

European river cruises travel along the Rhine, Danube, and Seine Rivers as well as other major waterways.  A great deal of effort is made to ensure guests enjoy food and wine of the specific region being traveled.  International cruises vary in length from a week to three weeks with a select few longer in duration. In many river cruise ports of call, museums, churches, shops, restaurants and other attractions are usually very close by, with no need for bus transfers. Viking, in particular, has prime central mooring spots as it owns its own docks. However, this isn’t the case in many European cities. Sometimes bridges are too low for river cruise ships to make it into the heart of town. Other factors that can influence where a ship docks include its size — the Viking Longships are too big to dock in central Paris, for example — and the agreement that the line has (or doesn’t have) with the local harbor authorities.

Look for cruise lines that grade their guided walking tours according to fitness levels; slower walks that don’t involve any steps are usually suitable for people in wheelchairs and with restricted mobility. The bad news is that many of Europe’s old towns have cobbled streets, which can present problems. The cruise director will be able to advise which tours are suitable for different individuals, based on their mobility. He or she will also be able to suggest places where disabled passengers can rest, or see an alternative attraction with wheelchair access, if parts of the trip (such as castle visits) involve long walks and uneven steps. For longer trips involving bus travel, coaches are not adapted for wheelchair use, so passengers need to be able to lift wheelchairs and mobility aids onto the bus and be able to climb the steps onto the vehicle.

For passengers who are full-time wheelchair users, or have very limited mobility, it is best to choose itineraries that cover longer distances with plenty of cruising time. This means they will be able to spend more time aboard with fellow passengers. Top options — and also an excellent choice for first-time cruisers — are sailings on the Rhine and Danube, the most popular rivers in Europe.

Water Level Considerations

Most cruises sail ahead with no interruptions on the river. However, Mother Nature occasionally presents river cruises with unexpectedly high or low water levels outside of the line’s control. They are always prepared to make any necessary modifications during these unforeseen events to provide passengers with a memorable experience. Modifications may include temporary hotel accommodations and additional bus rides to cities in which the ship cannot sail.

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Accessibility Information by Cruise Line

AmaWaterways

AmaWaterways does allow mobility scooters onboard; the cruise line prefers foldable scooters, and they must be notified in advance of any arrangement made with a third-party supplier. 

Europe: Wheelchair accessibility is very limited on our European ships. We do have an elevator between the two main decks, however it does not reach the Sun deck or Piano deck. They would be able to move around the dining room and lounge in their chair, however the rooms are not able to accommodate a wheelchair, so while in their stateroom they would need to be able to move around on their own. Their chair would also need to be stored in their stateroom, due to limited storage on board. Getting on and off the ship, could be a challenge, as the planks are narrow and cannot accommodate a wheelchair or scooter’s width. They would have to be able to get on and off the ship without their wheelchair and the wheelchair would have to be light enough to be lifted off and on the ramps. It is common to tie up to other river ships in port. When this happens we would sometimes need to travel through another ship to disembark, with many ships requiring we do so from the Sun deck, where there is only stair access. There are no medical facilities on board. However medical services can easily be called from shore if required.

Vietnam & Cambodia: These itineraries require a person to be able bodied. There are many unpaved roads and the ships do not have elevators. We do not employ doctors or nurses on board the ships. In the event medical assistance is needed, appropriate medical facilities will be contacted. Note that response time can vary.

Africa: The Zambezi Queen cruising the Chobe River does not feature an elevator. They do not employ doctors or nurses on board the Zambezi Queen. In the event medical assistance is needed, appropriate medical facilities will be contacted. Note that response time can vary.

Viking River Cruises

Viking welcomes disabled guests, but points out challenges that exist onboard and during shore excursions. Viking does not have any designated wheelchair accessible cabins. Most ships have elevators; some ships have split-level decks and/or significant thresholds that could make movement difficult. Shore excursions often include walking over cobblestones, or up and down stairs. Physically challenged guests require the services of a travelling companion who can help with all their needs since crew availability is limited in most circumstances. Collapsible wheelchairs are allowed, but motorized scooters cannot be accommodated. Viking Cruise Line does not allow mobility scooters on their international river cruise sailings. Viking allows collapsible wheelchairs and canes which must be kept in the individual’s stateroom.

Emerald Waterways

Emerald Sky and Emerald Star each have one wheelchair accessible cabin, located next to reception so passengers have easy access to and from their rooms. The elevators on Emerald ships service three out of four decks, with access to the sun deck only possible using stairs. Sightseeing in many historic towns and cities can only be undertaken by walking tours of up to 5 km (3.2 miles), often on uneven surfaces. Some tours include mountain excursions involving high altitudes. Consequently, a reasonably adequate (and sometimes high) level of fitness is required for many of their tours. Please consult with your doctor to ensure that you have an adequate level of fitness and are in good health before participating in these included excursions. Emerald will not provide any refunds if you are not able to participate in any portion of the tour. Most transportation services are not equipped with elevators or wheelchair ramps, and cabin doors and rest rooms may not be wide enough to provide access for standard wheelchairs.

Emerald will make reasonable attempts to accommodate the special needs of its physically challenged guests, but is not responsible in the event it is unable to do so. Nor is it responsible for any denial of service by vessel operators, air carriers, hotels, restaurants or other Providers.  They cannot provide individual assistance to customers for walking, dining, getting on and off vessels, motorcoaches and other vehicles, or for other personal needs. A qualified and physically able companion must accompany travelers who need assistance and must assume full responsibility for their well being. Please note that motorized scooters are not suitable on international tours, and are may not be permitted in certain countries.

Uniworld

Wheelchair-accessible staterooms are not available; however, all shower stalls are equipped with grab bars. Most ships have an elevator to serve passenger decks, and a chair lift leading to the sun deck. Travel-sized, collapsible wheelchairs can be used onboard, and there is a “gentle walking” shore excursion program offered in select locations. The line asks that all passengers should be able to walk unassisted in order to participate in guided tours and, if a wheelchair is necessary for use ashore, then guests are recommended to explore independently. UNIWORLD will review scooters and wheelchairs on a case-by-case basis and are as flexible as possible. UNIWORLD allows walkers, canes and oxygen concentrators.

Uniworld, at its sole discretion, reserves the right to refuse passage or to require a current passenger to end his or her trip if the passenger’s state of health or physical condition may affect his or her own health, safety and enjoyment, or that of other passengers.

Scenic

Scenic provides “limited mobility suites” situated near the reception desk on all its ships. These feature a wide, wheelchair-accessible door; a bathtub with grab handles; and wheel-in shower with a stool and wall rail. Ships have elevators serving the passenger decks, but not the sun deck. Some excursions are wheelchair accessible. Scenic Cruising does allow mobility scooters, folding is preferred, kept inside a guest’s cabin, but does not allow them to be used on board, only on land.  For safety precautions, the passengers must be able to embark and disembark the vessel without the assistance of the scooter.

Avalon

Most stateroom and bathroom doors as well as restrooms are not wide enough to allow access by standard wheelchairs, and bathrooms and other doorways may be fitted with coamings. Motorized scooters and motorized wheelchairs are not permitted on Avalon cruises. Arrangements cannot be made to carry or use these on tour or cruise and if you bring one, you will be asked to make alternate arrangements for transporting the scooter to your end destination at your expense. Collapsible wheelchairs are permitted on board, but for safety reasons, the number Avalon can accept is limited and wheelchair maximum size must not exceed 1030mm/40.55” length x 555mm/21.85” width. You must notify Avalon at the time of booking of your intention to bring a wheelchair to ensure Avalon can accommodate within safety regulations. Otherwise, you or your wheelchair may not be permitted on board. There is no separate storage for wheelchairs; it must be kept in your stateroom. For safety reasons, passengers in wheelchairs cannot be carried on ramps in ports where the ship is at anchor.

There are elevators on Scenery and Panorama-class ships, excluding access to the sun deck. Members of the crew will provide as much help as they can, but a single crew member cannot be assigned to someone with mobility issues for the duration of the cruise. Anyone with mobility issues is requested to fill out a detailed questionnaire prior to the cruise, so the line can ensure it can accommodate them and fulfil their individual needs. Some local walking tours from the ship are suited to wheelchair users who have an able-bodied companion.

You must report to Avalon any disability requiring special attention while on tour or on cruise at the time the reservation is made. Avalon will make reasonable efforts to accommodate the special needs of disabled passengers, but is not responsible in the event it is unable to do so nor responsible for any denial of services by air carriers, hotels, restaurants, or other independent suppliers. A qualified and physically-able companion should accompany passengers who need such assistance. If Avalon is not notified at time of reservation of any disability requiring special attention, Avalon reserves the right to cancel your booking or terminate your vacation if your special needs or disabilities are not suitable for the vacation, pose a threat to the health and safety of other participants or personnel on board the vessel, are incompatible with other passengers, or if you are not traveling with a companion who provides all the assistance you require. Avalon will not refund or cover any costs or expenses incurred for cancellation, booking, or termination of the vacation. Cancellation penalties, as above, apply.

CroisiEurope

All of CroisiEurope’s premium-rated ships offer accessible cabins with wide doors and equipment for passengers with mobility issues. The three-deck ships have elevators that go to all floors except the sun deck. Disabled passengers need to travel with an adult who can assist them, as crew availability is limited. Passengers are encouraged to contact the line in advance, so it can recommend the most suitable vessel for their specific needs.

Any passenger with a physical or mental incapacity, limited capacity of mobility, having an illness requiring treatment or medical care, or pregnant women should inform the travel agent at the time of booking. No reservations can be accepted for passengers whose physical or mental condition is likely to render their participation in the cruise or in the vacation impossible or dangerous for themselves or others, or who require forms of care or assistance impossible to guarantee aboard ship, notably because of unsuitable infrastructure. Some suppliers (hoteliers, airlines and cruise companies, etc) may require a medical certificate confirming that the passenger is fit to travel or they may refuse to accept the booking if they feel that they will be unable to guarantee any assistance or treatment deemed necessary for the health and well-being of the passenger.

Participation in the voyage and in excursions is subject to the condition of the passenger having sufficient mobility. If necessary, the disabled may be accompanied at their own expense to obtain the required assistance. If CroisiEurope considers it strictly necessary for the safety and comfort of the passenger, bookings of persons with disabilities or reduced mobility will be subject to the condition that a companion able to assist the disabled or mobility-impaired passenger be present. This requirement is entirely dependent on CROISIEUROPE’s assessment of the safety related needs of the disabled or mobility-impaired passenger and may vary from one route to another and/or from one boat to another. If the disabled or reduced mobility person requests and requires special assistance (care, supervision), they must be accompanied by a companion who can provide the required assistance at their own expense. All personal accidents, diversions or forced stopover costs disrupting the course of the cruise shall be at the liability of the passenger having concealed his unfitness to travel.

Vantage

Ships are equipped with a hydraulic chair between the top passenger deck and sun deck, and there are elevators serving all the inside decks. Discovery II has an accessible cabin and all ships have an accessible restroom in the public area. Passengers also have access to extra wheelchairs that are carried onboard. The line’s policy is that all disabled passengers must be accompanied by someone who can be fully responsible for helping them on and off the vessel and tour buses.

American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines itineraries include 7, 8, 10 and 14 days of the New England islands, Chesapeake Bay, historic antebellum South, Maine coast and harbors, Mid-Atlantic Inland Passage, Hudson River, Potomac & Delaware Rivers, rivers of Florida; 7-night Columbia and Snake River cruises of 1,000 miles along the Lewis & Clark Route, Oregon Trail, and parts of the Pacific Northwest; Alaska cruises are roundtrip from Juneau and between Juneau and Seattle.

On the American Spirit, lounges, sundecks, and dining salons are accessible by wheelchairs or other walking aid devices. The ship is also equipped with an elevator for ease of movement between decks. One cabin is designated as wheelchair accessible. The Queen of the West has two wheelchair-accessible cabins. All American Cruise Lines’ other ships have elevator service to all decks. American Cruise Lines will work to cater any dietary needs. Please tell your cruise specialist approximately two weeks prior to your cruise so that they may plan accordingly. Refrigeration is available to store insulin or other medications requiring protection. The ships dock in the heart of each town, so shopping, museums and other points of interest are within walking distance.

Accessible Charter River Cruises

The river cruise options with the MS Viola ship consists of two routes; the first through West Germany and the second through the East and South of the Netherlands. The MS Viola is fully accessible for people with physical challenges. The luxurious looking and accessible cabins on this ship are unique and what many have been waiting for. The bathrooms are shared but private; it has two doors to two rooms. When a guest from one room is using the bathroom, it’s automatically locked for the other room.

The ship consists of the Lower deck, the Main deck, the Panorama deck and the Sun deck. The Standard rooms are located on the Lower deck and the Accessible rooms on the Main deck. The Panorama deck is where the salon, bar, reading lounge and dining room are situated, as well as the reception, the hairdresser and adapted toilets. The Sundeck can be reached by a spacious elevator. On the Sundeck you can find a terrace for sun lovers, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and the constantly changing views. The Sundeck is accessible for all by elevator.  Wheelchairs and mobility scooters are allowed on the ship and can be used at all times. Additional mobility equipment is available on the ship, including electric hoists and shower chairs. The spaces are easily accessible with a wheelchair, as there are no steps or stairs towards these rooms. The spacious sundeck is accessible with a large elevator. The entrance of the ship is wide and has a ramp that’s put down at each dock.

For departures of the River Cruises on the Rhine in Germany, click here.

For the departures of the Holland River Cruises, click here. 

Is a river cruise right for you? Are you ready to book an amazing European river cruise adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!

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