Last year, we had the opportunity to take (another) trip of a lifetime.    Since becoming wheelchair dependent I have been able to continue traveling with the help of careful planning, a supportive family and having good “assistive devices”.  In addition to that we all have the help of strong legal protection (ADA and ACA) and generally caring airline, hotel, cruise ship and other personnel.

Many friends and colleagues have told us that cruising is the best option for folks with “physical challenges” So when we saw the ads for a cruise from Miami through the Panama Canal into the Pacific and up to San Francisco we were intrigued.  The timing, ports of call and overall cost appeared to match our needs. We took a deep breath and signed up!

We had only ever taken one cruise before and had been unimpressed with that one.  But this promised to be a much different experience – exciting itinerary with foreign lands, historic sites and a roomy balcony cabin on a “better” cruise line than our first.

Cruise ships can be very accessible and, once on board the ship, travelers don’t have to move suitcases, check in and out of hotels, find the right kinds of rental vehicles or make any of those other arrangements that are more difficult and expensive for people with disabilities.  Those pluses certainly are true.  But, we again found that some minuses can weigh heavily against that “plus list”.

COVID Cruise?

After all of the horror stories we heard at the start of the Covid pandemic, going on a cruise ship had not been a choice we considered for some time. But as friends ventured out to sea again, several returned safely and reported that cruise ships had become a good vacation option again. Although, as we discovered, the reality was not quite so.

Here’s what the CDC says about health risks on these ships.

Cruise ships are densely populated congregate settings where respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), can spread easily among travelers (passengers and crew) on board.

Because the cruise line for this trip required proof of Covid vaccination and a negative Covid test result before allowing passengers on board we assumed we’d be fairly safe. On board though, only the staff was required to wear masks and most passengers opted not to do so.  From the first port of call forward, passengers could still be exposed to Covid and bring it back to other passengers.  And that is what we believe happened to us. 

Since we were fully vaccinated and boosted, the severity of our illness was not life-threatening.  But it certainly cost us several days of enjoyment and the ability to take some shore excursions. Unfortunately, the medical staff worked hard to “prove” that we didn’t have Covid, even though the tests we’d brought from home said otherwise.  The lessons we learned from that experience were to bring along some basic medical supplies (medical care is very expensive onboard a cruise ship), have a good trip insurance policy with medical coverage (Ours from Generali paid us back everything we were charged by the cruise line), and anticipate that getting sick is a real possibility.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Of course, there are a variety of different cruise formats that are positioned to match the interests and budgets of many different groups. The cruise we took last year (2022) was a 21 day trip in April and May.  Because of its length and time of year, the majority of passengers were older (retired or self-employed) and without children in tow.  This did seem to keep the tone of activities a bit on the quieter side.  We appreciated that. But even on a ship of older passengers that was only half-full, it still felt a bit crowded and sometimes overly “busy”.

We love nature and had hoped for some peaceful chances to just watch the ocean, seabirds and shorelines of foreign lands. Or to just relax with a quiet book.   But we were reminded was that for many cruisers these trips are more about listening to exciting music, eating often, drinking abundantly, gambling, shopping, watching shows and playing games.  Being wheelchair dependent did not prevent me from participating in any of these.  But because we don’t like to do many of them it certainly colored our view of the whole experience.

I have been told that this is the nature of most (moderately priced) cruises, although the higher priced ones can be quieter and more customized.  The lesson for me is to just to accept these facts if we cruise again.

Disability Access

There are so many positive aspects of disability access on cruise ships that I must apologize up front for complaining about what was wrong.   But then again…. If we don’t talk about flaws, how can they be made even better.

  • Booking a trip as a person with a disability –  From the start it was nice to see that the cruise line had systems in place to provide an accessible stateroom option. What we discovered was that our accessible cabin was larger than a non-accessible one at the same price would have been.  This allowed for the space I needed to navigate my powerchair safely throughout the room, bathroom and balcony.  It was very well designed, including the accessible shower and toilet. And the entrance door even had an automatic function and sound / light clues for folks with vision or hearing impairments. We did learn that other passengers were able to book much cheaper “space available” rooms on this ship. Unfortunately, because there are a limited number of accessible staterooms, waiting to book, hoping to see prices come down would likely make those rooms unavailable.
  • Getting around on-board the ship –  Actually, lets start with getting ON the ship.  Check-in at the cruise terminal was quite chaotic with (unnecessarily) long lines and untrained ticket agents.  Several agents could barely understand English. And the ramp set-up to board was very long and difficult to anyone with mobility challenges. The design of the big ships makes accessibility quite smooth throughout. Interestingly though, my experience as a wheelchair dependent person was better than that of my ambulatory but “severe back-pain challenged” husband.  These big ships are big!! And for anyone who has difficulty walking great distances it is recommended that they also rent an electric scooter or other mobility aid.  Occasionally we encountered scooter traffic jams at the entrances to restaurants because enough other passengers had rented scooters.  Rentable mobility aids are available to anyone who feels they might need one. Although, it is very important that these arrangements be made in advance. Once at sea, there are no “extra” devices available for rent.
  • Restaurants and other on-board facilities – We had excellent experiences at the buffet restaurants where there were staff members available to help serve and deliver our plates to a table. There were some decks and hallways that were unreachable, but these were few.
  • Shore excursions –   Here is where accessibility falls apart. Both in terms of knowledge for planning and support for smooth delivery. Cruise lines have individuals assigned to be accessibility coordinators and others who are shore excursion coordinators. Our experience was that individuals in both of these positions were not good. They could recite the same information that we could read from the cruise brochures, but very little else. They repeatedly gave us wrong information and made planning our shore excursions very difficult. The actual shore excursions are provided by outside companies, not the cruise lines themselves, which makes quality control more of a challenge. At US ports, theoretically, excursion operators should follow ADA regulations.  But, at non-US ports, all bets are off.   At most ports, shore excursions may be possible using a walker or manual wheelchair if the traveler can climb up a few bus steps (even if it is on your butt!), but powerchairs are generally not accepted. Even if all you want to do is to disembark from the ship to explore at the dock area, the process for leaving and reentering the cruise ship is not for the faint of heart. Ramps are often jury rigged and the young able bodied workers charged with guiding passengers on and off a ship are almost always untrained about the needs of passengers with disabilities. So, is the answer to just stay on board for the whole trip?  We were not willing to accept that so we made some special arrangements, dealt with “imperfect” set-ups and just took our chances. I will write more about our specific shore excursion experiences in a follow-up blog.  The lessons we learned for a successful shore excursion were to
    • Ask other (disabled) travelers about their prior experiences. Their practical advice has been invaluable.
    • Plan well in advance and
    • Re-check plans repeatedly.
  • Exercise– While cruise ships have pools and gyms, I found that the setup for a non-ambulatory person was not optimal. At home I’m able to use a local gym with a recumbent cross-trainer that allows more “challenged” individuals to work out and  swim in a lap pool that even has a lift.  The gym on our ship was basic and the pool was set up for lounging and drinking.  Oh well!

Just a few more things –

 Food– Cruise ships are known for their abundant and delicious food offerings.   Which is why almost everyone we spoke with said that they gained weight on cruises.  The ship we were on was no exception. There was no time of day when some food was not available and everything was tasty and beautifully presented.  Fortunately, there were wonderful offerings of healthy foods including fresh fruits and vegetables available at each buffet and restaurant meal.  By choosing these as much as possible, we ate well while gaining no weight.  Technically, this issue is no different for people with disabilities, but I know that for many of us, staying healthy is critical to improved functioning despite a disability.

Communication – Good WIFI connections probably have little to do with abilities or disabilities, but are very valuable for me personally.  These are expensive and not great on many ships.  Just good to remember if we plan another cruise.

Basic “Supplies” –  Because of disability or basic aging, we count on having basic “drugstore supplies” (Over-the-counter medications, incontinence pads, etc) available. We packed a lot of these, but could not have predicted needing everything that we did.  I kept wishing that the ship had an on-board Walmart or Target.  If we cruise again we may just need to pack even more “stuff”.

looking up at colorful flags in Mexico

Our Conclusions?

Will we ever cruise again?  The best answer I can give is “Maybe.”  For the sites we saw on our latest cruise, we would not have never been able to see them any other way. So, yes, we might choose to travel on a big ship again if the right itinerary appears.  But in any future trips I think we have learned enough to modify our expectations.   

Would my opinion be different if I didn’t have a disability?  Possibly.  Our onboard ship experience would probably be very much the same. But because our interests are much more focused on the ports of call, if I did not have a disability, we would have had more shore excursions available to us and more ability to explore on our own.

What would I do differently? Every experience we have teaches us how to do better the next time. If we cruise again, we will continue to ask many questions up front and plan, plan, plan!  Even if we aren’t regular “Cruise People” we can find much to enjoy back at sea.