By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 1/7/2008 3:27:33 PM ET 2008-01-07T20:27:33

Q: My husband uses a wheelchair and I'd like to find out about cruise ships that have accessible cabins and public rooms for disabled passengers. Can you tell me what ships are best?
— Enid Horowitz, Chicago

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A: Cruise lines have come a long way in recent years to make their ships more accessible to disabled travelers. It's not uncommon for the newest large ships to feature two dozen or more wheelchair-accessible staterooms with such accommodations as wider door frames, handrails, accessible furniture and closets, low sinks and wheel-in showers.

In the past, cruising could be a struggle for wheelchair users. Unfortunately this is still true on many smaller and older ships, where disabled passengers can encounter corridors and doorways that are too narrow, bathrooms that have lips at the threshold to prevent flooding, public rooms with thresholds that make them inaccessible, and elevator buttons that are too high to reach.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the act was not extended to foreign-flagged cruise ships until 2005, following a class-action lawsuit filed against Norwegian Cruise Line that went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that cruise lines whose ships carry passengers to and from U.S. ports must provide features like grab bars, handrails and wheelchair-accessible water fountains; however, the court also held that cruise lines were not required to make major structural changes to their in-service vessels, such as widening doorways and adding new elevators.

Fortunately, many cruise lines are upgrading their older vessels simply because there is demand for fully accessible cruising. In fact, cruising has become the preferred style of vacation for many travelers with limited mobility because ships have become so user-friendly and offer a convenient platform from which to explore the world's exotic destinations.

What to expect on the newest ships
Most cruise lines now offer public areas and staterooms large enough for wheelchair use; these typically include an accessible bathroom with handrails and emergency call buttons. Braille-coded elevator buttons, room numbers and restaurant menus are also in place on most ships for those with vision disabilities, and guide dogs are also now widely welcomed. Many cruise lines provide TTY, a text-messaging system that allows easier communication for folks with hearing and speech disabilities. Some cruise lines also offer "dippers" to lower handicapped swimmers into the pools, and many cruise lines make an effort to include shore excursions that can accommodate travelers with special needs. Crew members are available on almost every ship to assist disabled passengers with buffet service and with embarkation and disembarkation.

Here are some things to consider before booking your cruise:

  • There are no additional fees for handicapped-accessible staterooms but, like all cabins, they are offered at different price points depending on size, location and amenities. There are a limited number of these accommodations on board each ship, so book early to avoid disappointment.
  • When booking a cruise, ask to see the ship's deck plans or view them online. That way you can see where the handicapped-accessible staterooms are and can reserve the one that works best for your individual interests and needs; you might, for example, wish to be near the elevators, lounge or weight room.
  • Contact a knowledgeable travel agent or call the cruise line's special services desk to better understand all the ship's requirements and limitations. For example, some lines require travelers with disabilities to be accompanied by an able-bodied companion.
  • Make sure all public rooms are accessible, and make sure the ship offers a good number of elevator banks.
  • Find out the accessibility of ports of call, and try to choose an itinerary that does not include tenders, small boats used to bring passengers to shore from the ship's anchor point. These boats are usually not equipped to handle wheelchairs.
  • Review shore excursions carefully since many are not appropriate for travelers with limited mobility. Read the brochure descriptions and avoid those excursions identified as requiring heavy exertion. Most cruise lines identify wheelchair-accessible tours in their brochures.
  • Let the cruise line know you are using a wheelchair so staff can make an appropriate table assignment in the dining room. You'll want to have easy access to bathrooms and elevators.
  • Be sure to request a wheelchair, or assistance with your own wheelchair, if you will need one for embarkation and disembarkation. There may be a short wait for the chair, but you will receive priority boarding.
  • Check with the cruise line if you are interested in bringing an electric scooter or renting one in port; policies vary.

Find the best ships for your needs
The Web site for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) offers a "Special Interest Guide for Wheelchair Travelers" that details ship information for disabled passengers. The guide includes such information as the number of wheelchair-accessible staterooms on a ship, the number of decks with ramps, whether the elevators accommodate full-size wheelchairs, and whether the disabled traveler must be accompanied by an able-bodied companion. The guide is a bit out of date and does not include a number of newer ships; if you don't find the ship you are interested in, you can make inquiries at CLIA's toll-free help number: 800-327-9501, extension 70025.

The Horowitzes can also consider the advice of Mary Wilson, of Coraopolis, Pa., who travels with her disabled daughter on several cruises a year. Wilson says that each cruise ship and cruise line is unique, and that each cruise will have its own advantages and disadvantages for wheelchair users. Look for ships with lots of hard flooring, she suggests, as carpeting can make it difficult to wheel around the ship. Also, do a safety check the last night of the cruise, when passengers are asked to place their luggage in the hallways for disembarkation; if the luggage blocks wheelchair access, ask the purser to have it removed early.

"We've never had a problem cruising, and if we find issues all we do is ask for help," Wilson says. "In our experience, cruise lines are very accommodating towards disabled passengers."

Don't let a physical disability keep you from enjoying a cruise vacation. All it takes is a bit of preparation, planning and a willingness to ask for.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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