A Primer on Accessible Vacations at Sea

by Andy Vladimir on February 1, 2001 - 3:20pm

More than 6 million people are going to take a cruise this year. Believe it or not, about 80 percent of them will start planning their next cruises as soon as they get off the ship. I confess to being one of those addicts.

As a travel writer with muscular dystrophy I use an Amigo scooter to get around. I've roamed the streets of Paris and Berlin, visited the grizzly bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska and even gone riding at a dude ranch in Colorado. But my best vacations have been aboard cruise ships.

I've become such an enthusiast that I developed and taught a course on cruise line management at Florida International University's School of Hospitality Management where I was an associate professor. I've also co-authored one of the first books ever written about the business side of cruising. It's called Selling the Sea: An Inside Look at the Cruise Industry (with Bob Dickinson, John Wiley & Sons, 1996). I really believe that, for people with disabilities, cruises are the best way to travel.

In this article, the first in a two-part series, I'm going to tell you why a cruise is such a good vacation, how to select one and how to book your cruise at the lowest price. In the second article we're actually going to take a cruise together from the moment we arrive at the terminal to the moment we disembark at the end of the cruise.

So come along with me and visit the world of cruising.

Why I like cruising

To begin with, cruises pamper you. This is most evident in your cabin and in the dining room.

Your cabin steward is usually quick to learn your name and help you with special needs. Stewards generally visit your cabin twice daily — in the morning to make it up and in the evening to turn the bed down and clean up any sand you may have tracked in from a beach visit. They're often available in between as well to deliver room service.

On my last Holland America cruise aboard the Amsterdam, as soon as I saw my cabin I knew the bed and the toilet weren't high enough for me. It took my cabin steward less than 30 minutes to remake my bed with a double mattress and supply a portable raised toilet seat.

Some ships even have butler service for their suites and minisuites. On Seabourn cruises your butler will serve you champagne and beluga caviar on your veranda before dinner. In the dining room your waiter is equally accommodating. By the second evening of a Grand Princess cruise our waiter and busboy knew our names and that I liked to have a decaf cappuccino with my dessert. It's doubtful that you could have the same experience at most resorts.

Next, I like being able to visit several destinations on one trip without the hassle of airports and taxis. Imagine going through the Panama Canal from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to San Diego, stopping en route to visit Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Aruba; Cartagena, Colombia; Costa Rica; and Huatulco, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — without ever having to pack, change hotel rooms or go through a single airport. Such a flying trip is hard enough for able-bodied persons. For many of us it consumes more energy than we're prepared to expend.

I like cruising because you get good value for your money. I won't go through the math here but it's easy enough to do yourself. Price the cost of taking a plane from New York to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Then add to it the cost of staying for seven nights at one of the best hotels on the island. Now add to that the cost of three gourmet meals a day and a couple of piña coladas by the pool.

Compare the total with the cost of a seven-day cruise and you'll see immediately that the cruise is a better deal. Now price the same trip stopping at St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Martin and Puerto Rico, and the cruise is hundreds of dollars cheaper than the land-based vacation.

I like cruising because there's a lot of action if I'm looking for it. First of all there are all of those spectator sports I can't participate in but I can watch. There's skeet shooting, golf simulations, mini golf, ice skating, rock climbing, pingpong and more, depending on the ship I'm on.

Then there are all the things I can do — shopping, gambling, watching the shows; playing bridge and other games, listening to enrichment lectures, reading books from the ship's library; and getting a massage, facial, haircut or even a seaweed wrap at the spa. At the same time I don't have to do anything. No matter how big the ship, there are always plenty of places where I can just relax by myself and watch the ocean.

Finally, I like cruising because I feel secure and safe. All ships today have doctors and nurses aboard so I'm never far from a medical professional. Modern cruise ships are virtually completely safe because of new safety at sea regulations. On the big new ships the stabilizers, for the most part, minimize and even eliminate seasickness, and the ships themselves move fast enough to stay out of the way of any serious storms.

Finding the best cruise for you

OK, so I've convinced you that a cruise vacation is a good choice. Now it gets a little more complicated. There are more than a dozen cruise lines with more than 100 ships to choose from. How do you pick the right one for you?

Let's start with the question of accessibility. The newer and the bigger the ship, the more accessible it is. It's just within recent years that the cruise lines have really thought about accessibility. And since none of them except the American-flagged lines are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, only a few have really designed their ships with people with disabilities in mind. While they may have a few accessible cabins, the rest of the ship may be difficult to get around or inaccessible in some places.

Let's start with the lines that really want people like you and me and go out of their way to get them. There are only three that I know of: Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean. Even among those, their newest ships are more accessible than their older ones.

For instance, Holland America has equipped the Statendam with a new $100,000 system to transport guests down a gangway and onto the tender (the boat that carries people from the cruise ship to shore) while still in their wheelchairs. They've also equipped tenders with special ramps and lifts. These features will soon be available fleetwide, the company says. Princess has a comparable system in place.

Royal Caribbean's newer vessels have a wide range of accessible cabins in all classes, ranging in size from 197 to 298 square feet. The deluxe ones have 74-foot verandas. Bathrooms have lowered sinks and vanities, raised toilet seats and roll-in showers with built-in shower stools.

Princess and Royal Caribbean have both issued special brochures you can get from the cruise line or from your travel agent — Princess's is called "Making Your Cruise Vacation Accessible," and Royal Caribbean's is "Accessible Seas."

Now that isn't to say that other lines don't have some accessible ships: Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Disney, Delta Steamship, Norwegian and Seabourn all come to mind. I recently took a trip down the Mississippi aboard Delta's American Queen and in many ways it was the most accessible ship I've ever been on.

But Princess, Royal Caribbean and Holland America try very hard to market to people with disabilities, have given their crews sensitivity training, and are constantly thinking about how they can improve their product to satisfy our needs. It should be noted here that Carnival Corp. owns Cunard, Holland America and Seabourn, and Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity.

One more thing you need to know is that each cruise line has a distinct personality, which all of its ships reflect to some degree. For example, Carnival has the "fun" ships. That translates into bigger casinos, several discos, later hours and glamorous "flesh and feather" shows. Holland America is Carnival's premium product. It has an Indonesian service staff, a Dutch deck and engine crew, rich European furnishings and a policy of no tipping required (most passengers do tip, however).

Princess runs the original "love boats" and has a distinct British flavor. And Royal Caribbean is Scandinavian.

However, you don't sail on a line but on a ship, and some ships are better than others. If you're looking for the ship with the most handicapped cabins, Carnival's Destiny and Triumph, Holland America's Rotterdam IV, Princess's Grand Princess, and Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas all have more than 20 cabins each.

However, itinerary and budget are also important considerations. Let's start with itinerary. The most popular cruise destination, by far, is the Caribbean. There's lots of sun and surf and shopping. I do like the sun, but I haven't figured out a way to enjoy the surf and in some of these places the shopping is inaccessible. However, I'm told the two largest Royal Caribbean ships — the Explorer and the Voyager at 143,000 tons each — have pool lifts, and of course there's excellent duty-free shopping on board.

There's accessible shopping in the Bahamas and St. Thomas, so long as the ships dock and don't use tenders. Not all ships have accessible tenders and, even if they do, when the seas are at all choppy it's dangerous to load and unload wheelchairs into them.

Old San Juan and Bermuda are unfortunately not very accessible, nor are Jamaica and Mexico. In all of these ports, unless you can transfer into a bus, you won't be able to take the regular tours. However, there are accessible vans available — you just need to find them and make arrangements in advance.

Taxi drivers can also help. On a Panama Canal cruise, while in Cartagena, Colombia, we were able to find a taxi driver who folded my scooter in the back of his trunk and took it out at every stop at which I could move around.

My suggestion, if you go to the Caribbean, is to use a travel agent who's experienced in travel for the disabled or take an escorted cruise with one of the companies that specialize in travel for the disabled such as Accessible Journeys, Flying Wheels or Turtle Tours (see Resources).

Alaska is another option. There's an awful lot to see from the ship without getting off — glaciers, whales, porpoises, bald eagles, majestic mountains and even an occasional moose. And if you disembark you're in an American port, which is almost always easier to move around in. The tours in Alaska are more accessible as well. You can even land on a glacier in a special helicopter that has a lift.

If you're interested in history and culture try the Mediterranean. However, remember that European ports, cities and museums haven't been designed with wheelchairs in mind. Again, special arrangements for accessible vans can often be made, depending on the country.

Getting the best deal

Here are a few points to consider when cruise shopping: Some 95 percent of cruises are sold through travel agencies. The reason is that a cruise is a complicated product to sell. The main reason has to do with pricing.

Inside cabins cost less than outside cabins. Cabins on deck 3 cost less than cabins on deck 10, which cost less than cabins on deck 12. Some outside cabins have an obstructed view, others don't. Some cabins are bigger, some have verandas. At certain times of the year cruises have lower prices. Some itineraries are more expensive.

So, it isn't unusual for a cruise to offer as many as 36 prices for the same type of cabin on the same ship. You need a professional to guide you through this process and it takes some time.

Cruise lines pay travel agents an average of about 14 percent commission to sell cruises for them. In order to assist agents in the selling process they print a price in their brochures, which is the recommended retail price. But no one ever pays that — it's like the sticker price on a car. What you do pay is further complicated by the fact that different agencies get different commission rates — depending on factors such as how many cruises they sell each year for a given line and how competitive their particular market is.

On a $2,000 cruise, agency A may be getting a commission of 10 percent or $200, while agency B right down the street may be getting 17 percent or $340. Now here's the rub. Agency B may chose to rebate some of that commission in order to offer really low prices. That means they can sell the same cruise for $140 less and still make the same commission as agency A! So how do you get the best price?

The answer is: Shop around. Ask three travel agencies and you may get three different prices for the same cabin on the same cruise.

At the moment a great many new ships are being introduced so cruise lines have more capacity than demand. That means discounting is widespread, by the lines and by the agents. In order to fill ships the lines are offering deeper discounts for booking early, for sailing on certain dates and for certain itineraries where sales are soft.

It's a buyer's market, but you need to do your homework before making a deposit. Many travel agents market aggressively with Web sites and toll-free numbers. Some of the best deals around are to be found this way. But the tradeoff is that you lose the benefit of the counseling a professional agent can provide.

Taking the first step

Ready to take a cruise yet? If you are, you need some brochures so you can pick your ship and your itinerary. If you're connected to the Internet you're in luck. All of the lines mentioned in this article have Web sites (see Resources, at right). Some Web sites offer virtual tours of the ships, and Princess even has a Web camera on the bridge of each of its ships all over the world!

One final caveat: The lower your expectations the better your cruise experience will be. On a ship that's designed mainly for able-bodied people, not everything will be perfect for the disabled traveler. I'm not satisfied with wheelchair seating in many showrooms. Some accessible cabins and bathrooms don't work very well for me and may not work for you either. If you use a device like a Hoyer lift you need to make certain there's space under the bed.

If you require a special diet, ask for it. If you need special equipment such as a place to refrigerate medicine, or a hypodermic disposal bin, tell the cruise line when you book your trip. In most instances they'll go the extra mile to accommodate you — maybe even more!

Excellent Web site on disabled travel, with detailed information on every cruise ship:

Accessible Journeys
(800) 846-4537

Flying Wheels
(800) 535-6790

Travel Turtle Tours
(800) 453-9195

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