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Cruising for the Physically Challenged
by Vincent and Mary Finelli

It is only recently, during the last five years, that we have needed wheelchair assistance. First, Mary had surgery on both knees, and then I had my fourth back surgery, which left me with nerve damage resulting in a walking impairment. Before these surgeries, we were both extremely active university faculty who traveled extensively. In the last few years we have learned several lessons in traveling for the physically challenged.

Enjoyable cruising can be done on most cruise lines with a bit of preparation and planning. First, provide your travel agent with medical proof of limitations (this can be placed on file and only done once). Second, book your cruise as early as possible since there are a limited number of wheelchair-accessible staterooms. Older ships have fewer of these special needs cabins: for example, Regal Princess, like other ships of its vintage, has only six inside and four with obstructed view (10 total), while newer and much larger ships have 20 or more, like Grand Princess with six inside, four outside with obstructed view, and 12 with balcony (22 total). This holds true for Royal Caribbean International (RCI), as well. On its Voyager Class ships, there are a total of 25 wheelchair-accessible cabins available in most categories. Thus, across the lines, there is an average of between 14 and 25 special needs cabins on each ship. These larger cabins provide special baths with safety rails, ramps to balconies and, only on RCI, automatic door openers. Among all cruise lines, we have found that Royal Caribbean and Princess cater more to cruisers with limited mobility.

Embarkation for all the lines that we have used (Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean International) has been assisted. Upon request, ships will provide wheelchairs for embarkation and debarkation procedures. There may be a slight wait for the chair; however, priority boarding will be given. We bring our own companion chair, and electric scooters can be rented in ports. Recently, a passenger rented a scooter in Vancouver, Canada, for $300 per week, left it on board when he disembarked in Anchorage, Alaska, and Princess returned it to the rental company in Vancouver. Even though passenger assistance is given at embarkation, tendering and debarkation, during the cruise passengers are expected to be on their own.

While cruising, choose the appropriate dining times to avoid crowds. Speak with the Maitre D' about being seated at a table near the entrance to avoid having to thread a path between the tables. He can also assist with special dietary needs such as the following: sugar free, lactose free, vegetarian, Kosher, etc.; however, to avoid surprises, be sure to make special dietary requests at the time of booking. At the buffets, there are crewmembers who will help with both serving and carrying trays. At the theater, either arrive early for seats down front, or utilize the reserved seats at the rear. In the solariums of Princess and RCI, "Oxford Dippers" are available for lowering handicapped swimmers into the pools.

Shore excursions should be reviewed carefully since there may be some that are not appropriate for those with limited mobility. Read the brochure descriptions and avoid those excursions identified as requiring stair climbing or with an emphasis on walking. Ask at the Tour Desk about the feasibility of specific tours but, in the final analysis, each person knows his/her capabilities.

Each cruise will be unique, but depending on individual taste, one ship may be preferred over another. The cuisine, the amount of carpeting (which makes it difficult to wheel around the ship), the ship size or the proximity of wheelchair-accessible cabins to elevators, and placement of restaurants and theaters are all important to people with limited mobility. We have observed that some cruise lines, like Costa, have more marble and tile flooring in public areas making wheelchair maneuverability easier.

When booking a cruise, ask for the ship deck plans, so that the proper cabin can be reserved. Choose accommodations near the elevators and near the venues accessed daily. We have traveled from Alaska to the Caribbean; we have cruised the Mediterranean and the Baltic seas and taken our dream cruise to South America around Cape Horn, through the Magellan Strait. We believe most physically-challenged passengers will have a wonderful experience when sailing. Cruising is our preferred style of vacation, because it is user-friendly for those with limited mobility. The ship can be a destination in itself, or it can be a platform to view exotic destinations.

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