Accessibility on the High Seas

Back to basics with some accessible cruising tips to help plan an adventure that meets your needs

Article Highlights:
  • In this article, accessible travel experts — Barbara and Jim Twardowski — offer tips for planning a trip on the high seas.
  • Barbara, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth, used a manual wheelchair during the cruise.
by Barbara and Jim Twardowski, R.N. on April 1, 2014 - 9:15am

Quest Spring 2014

For years, I have been told by accessible travel professionals that cruising is a terrific option for wheelchair users. My husband, Jim, is not particularly fond of water and had a long list of preconceived notions regarding nautical travel. After a great deal of coaxing, we sailed on Holland America Line’s Veendam, a mid-size ship carrying 1,350 passengers and 560 employees. The seven-day trip began in Quebec City, Quebec, with stops in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Sydney, Nova Scotia; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Bar Harbor, Maine; and Boston, Mass.

The Twardowskis called the Lanai Stateroom home for a week on Holland America Line's Veendam. The room had a sliding door leading to the Promenade deck.
Activities on the ship vary each day. The art of flower arranging is demonstrated during this class.
Afternoon tea on the ship.
Nearly 300 people learn the jive at this cruise-sponsored activity.

When we first began looking at cruises, it was a bit overwhelming. There are dozens of cruise lines and hundreds of cruises from which to choose. If you are new to cruising, consider hiring a travel agent who specializes in clients with mobility issues. Debra Kerper, the owner of Easy Access Travel, has been arranging accessible trips for the past two decades.   

As a below-the-knee amputee, Kerper understands the unique challenges of slow walkers and wheelchair users: “Cruises really have proven to be the vacation of choice for people with mobility problems. You know you are going to have the right kind of accommodations on the ship. There is the built-in safety factor of knowing there is a medical staff onboard. All of this has to be tempered with the fact that not all cruise lines are equal and not all ships are equal, plus you need to choose the right itinerary.”

Hiring a travel pro can save you hours of research time. In addition, she can arrange for medical equipment rental, coordinate accessible transportation to and from the ship, orchestrate accessible shore excursions, and reserve accessible accommodations pre- and post-cruise.

Another alternative is to book directly with the cruise line — just be sure to ask detailed questions regarding access before making a deposit. For example, when reviewing the accommodations aboard the Veendam, I initially thought the only choice was a “Modified Accessible Stateroom,” where door widths vary from 19.5 inches to 23.5 inches and the shower has a step. My manual wheelchair measures 25 inches wide, and I do not walk. After talking with the Access and Compliance Department, they explained I needed a “Wheelchair Accessible Stateroom,” with doors that measure 32.5 inches and a roll-in shower. 

After completing a short form that described my special needs, the Access and Compliance Department sent me a three-page document explaining everything from door widths to tenders. Carefully review a cruise line’s rules regarding mobility equipment. For example, Holland America Line allows “electric mobility equipment (scooters) that weighs a maximum of 100 pounds without the battery.”

We booked a Lanai Stateroom located on the lower promenade deck. The room had plenty of space to maneuver my wheelchair on either side of the king-size bed. The large bathroom had ample turning space and a well-designed roll-in shower with a sturdy built-in bench. A long desk with a mirror on the wall served as the vanity. The attached lighted makeup mirror, with five times magnification and a long extendable arm, was an ideal arrangement for a wheelchair user. Additional accessible friendly amenities included bedside reading lamps controlled by touch, tons of storage space with drawers and a low hanging closet rod, and complimentary 24-hour room service.

My favorite feature of the room was a full-size sliding glass door (controlled by a button) leading to the outside deck. During the day, our draperies remained open so we could enjoy the view and watch the other passengers stroll the promenade that encircled the entire ship. I also appreciated the ramped threshold that made entering and exiting our stateroom a snap.

All the public areas onboard — theater, casino, restaurants — were accessible, except for the self-serve laundry room. The only difficulty I had navigating the ship was maneuvering an extremely steep ramp located at the interior hallway exit to the promenade deck, and the outdoor swimming pool was surrounded by a large deck with steps. The staff told us a chairlift was available and would be assembled — if a guest made the request. At each port, the configuration of ramps connecting the ship to land varies, depending upon the water level. Each time we disembarked, a crew member took charge of my wheelchair and helped me exit.

Port destination decisions

The most important aspect to cruising for those with reduced mobility is selecting the ports they wish to visit. Every ship has an itinerary that indicates whether the ship will dock at the port or use a tender (a small boat that shuttles passengers to the shore). 

If there’s inclement weather or the tide level is too high, the tender may be deemed unsafe, and wheelchair users who don’t walk will not be able to disembark.

Transferring from a cruise ship to the tender is difficult and differs from ship to ship. In addition, the access of ports around the world greatly varies. To avoid disappointment, it is best for wheelchair users to assume they can’t disembark at ports that require a tender. For example, of the six stops our ship made, only one was tendered. Due to fog and rough seas, the accessible wheelchair lift was not assembled, and we spent the day onboard. 

A shore excursion is an optional fee-based activity arranged by the cruise line. The selection of wheelchair-accessible excursions may be limited or nonexistent. Our cruise offered one excursion to hear local music in Sydney, as well as several accessible excursions on a wheelchair-accessible coach in Bar Harbor. But, Bar Harbor was the one destination where disembarking was done with a tender, and I was unable to leave the ship.

Wheelchair users have three choices when it comes to exploring a port city:

  • hire an accessible travel professional to coordinate a shore excursion;
  • independently arrange for a private tour and vehicle to see the sights; or
  • explore attractions that are within walking distance of the cruise terminal. 

To research a destination, begin with the local Convention and Visitors Bureau. While in Halifax, Nova Scotia, we saw the paintings of a beloved Canadian folk artist, toured a maritime museum, admired a basilica, strolled through a public garden and dined on fresh lobster at a local restaurant. Everything we saw was within a 20-minute walk of the cruise terminal.

Sea days and ship activities

Every evening, we received a bulletin outlining the ship’s activities for the following day. The choices ranged from afternoon teas and digital camera workshops to cooking demonstrations and a festival of arts as we passed the coastline of Quebec City.  Passengers could book a spa appointment, take in a little retail therapy, try their luck at the casino or simply read a good book, which they could borrow from the ship’s impressive library. Evening entertainment could be as mellow as classical music in a small bar to comedians who’ve been featured on HBO.

The highlight of our cruise was “Dancing with the Stars: At Sea,” featuring dancing professionals and stars from the hit television program. The dancers conducted dance competitions and performed a spectacular show.

Like any vacation, the cruise you choose will be determined by where you wish to travel, your budget, and the amount of time you can be away. Some people enjoy cruising because they can relax and do absolutely nothing, while others enjoy cruising because there is so much to do. After only one cruise, we’re hooked and debating where to go for our next adventure on the high seas.

Barbara and Jim Twardowski are freelance writers who live in Mandeville, La. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease and uses a power wheelchair full time.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (12 votes)
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy