If you have a disability, then it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the experience of vacationing on a cruise ship. In fact, cruising is a great way to get out and see the world, especially since the cruise lines are extremely conscious about making the accommodations needed for passengers with disabilities.
What may surprise you is that according to Royal Caribbean, about 10% of the U.S. population has taken a cruise in the past three years, but 12% of Americans with disabilities have taken a cruise in the past five years.
That statistic is a little confusing, but it means that for cruisers with disabilities, cruising is a popular vacation, perhaps more so than with the general public.
However, we know that having a disability means you have to consider how you’ll perform day-to-day activities that most people take for granted — especially when going into an unfamiliar place like a cruise ship. To help you out, we’ve researched the major cruise lines to bring you everything we can about accessibility issues.
Fortunately, cruising is among the most accommodating ways to travel. If a cruise ship docks in a US port, then it is required to comply with the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This rule has gone a long way to making cruising more comfortable for passengers. Still, to help answer your questions, we’ve covered some of the most frequent special needs areas below.
Keep in mind that the information below is usually general. If you have specific questions not answered, it’s best to contact the cruise line directly. We’ve included contact information at the end of the article.
Getting Around the Ship
As we mentioned above, cruise lines have come a long way in making their ships accessible. Whether it be modified elevators to a lowered guest services desks, there has been a lot of effort put into making the ships more friendly for passengers with disabilities.
You’ll find that many cruise liners have automatic doorways when accessing public decks — especially in the high-traffic corridors. Ships are also equipped with banks of elevators to get you from deck to deck.
If mobility issues are extremely important to you, then you’ll appreciate Carnival’s page on the topic. This page includes 27 different deck plans that identify all of the accessible routes through the ship, along with cabins and restrooms that are accessible. Here’s an example of the Carnival Magic.
Keep in mind that public areas are also made to accommodate those with disabilities. Royal Caribbean (who in our research seems to be the most accommodating to disabled cruisers) offers lifts for at least one pool and one hot tub on board. The cruise line also offers lowered playing tables and slot machines in the casino.
Of course, even on the biggest cruise ships space can sometimes be tight. However, in general ships (especially newer ones) are made with mobility issues in mind.
Wheelchairs and Scooters on a Cruise Ship
If you have trouble walking long distances, you may want a wheelchair. The major cruise lines (specifically Royal Caribbean and Carnival) are happy to provide you a chair during boarding and deboarding, however, you must bring your own chair or scooter if you’d like one during your entire cruise.
Note: If you’d like a chair or scooter during the cruise but don’t already own one, you can rent one from the following companies:
One important rule about chairs and scooters is that they should ideally be (or fold) to less than 21″ wide. That limit is so that they can fit within your cabin. Cruise lines don’t allow the devices to be stored in hallways as they impede the walkway, creating a danger in case of emergency.
Disabled-accessible cabins onboard cruise ships — while still small by hotel standards — are significantly larger than most standard rooms.
The cruise lines have designed these cabins to be accessible, even in a small space. For example, here are all the features on Royal Caribbean’s ships in its accessible staterooms:
• Available on all ships in a variety of categories
• Stateroom and bathroom door width: at least 32 inches
• Automatic stateroom doors on Radiance-class ships
• No stateroom doorway threshold
• Lowered closet rods and safes
• Lowered sink and vanity
• Ramped bathroom doorway thresholds
• Roll-in showers with grab bars
• Fold-down shower seat and hand-held shower head
• Raised toilet seats – most are between 17 to 19 inches high
• 5-foot turning radius in sleeping, sitting and bathroom areas
• Accessible balconies
• Most located near elevators
One thing to keep in mind that the accessible staterooms are limited. For reference, Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas (one of its largest ships) has roughly 35 handicapped-accessible cabins. Therefore, if you know you’ll need one of these rooms and aren’t flexible with dates, be sure to book your cruise early for the best selection.
Part of the fun of going on a cruise is getting off the ship in port and going on excursions. Of course, not every excursion is going to be able to cater to disabled guests, but the wide mix of activities mean there is something for everyone.
When looking for excursions, all the cruise lines will have descriptions of the tour and some notes about how strenuous it is for guests. Often they will include a handicap symbol if an excursion is accessible. If not, don’t simply take that to mean it isn’t appropriate for someone in a wheelchair. We’d suggest going to talk with the excursion booking staff once on the ship. They will know firsthand what is available, depending on your mobility.
If you are sailing on Royal Caribbean, we’d further suggest sending an email to [email protected] about a month before your cruise. With a few simple questions they can help you find accessible excursions for your cruise.
Service Animals on a Cruise
In most cases, passengers can bring service animals on board the ship, but keep in mind there are a number of restrictions.
First and foremost, a service animal is defined as an animal that is specially trained to help with the needs of a disability-related need. The cruise lines go out of their way to clarify that service animals are not pets, nor are they “therapy animals” or even service dogs in training.
Service animals must have proof of all current vaccinations for the cruise line, but that’s not all. In addition, passengers must find out on their own which vaccinations for animals are required for each port country. If they fail to have proof of these shots, then it’s likely the animal won’t be allowed to disembark.
For more details on traveling abroad with a service dog, you can check the USDA’s page on the topic: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel
You’ll want to contact your specific cruise line for full details and any particular questions you might have about access to areas of the ship with a service animal. In general, the cruise lines refuse to supply food or provide care to the animal. So if you want to go ashore without the animal, don’t expect them to walk or toilet them in your absence.
If you are traveling with a service dog, you’ll want to get in touch with the cruise line well in advance (30 days) to alert them of the need. They can walk you through any special requirement or specific questions you might have. Most lines can even offer a “relief area” for the animal to use the restroom on the ship.
Prescriptions on a Cruise
Nothing can make a person feel more uncomfortable than bringing loads of medication through a security checkpoint. There is just something about carrying pills that feels like you are asking for trouble. The good news is that cruise lines, which often cater to older crowds, are used to seeing people bringing medications in large quantities.
The best idea is to bring your prescriptions within their original bottles. That way there is no trouble identifying pills and your pharmacy contact information is right on the bottle should anyone question the prescription. In practice, medication rarely causes a problem.
It is smart to always carry your medication in your carry-on luggage. That way if you need access, your prescription will always be right by your side.
Diet Needs & Food Allergies
One of the biggest perks of cruising is the food. Of course, if you have special diet needs, it might also be an area that causes some worry. It shouldn’t. Today’s cruise lines can be extremely accommodative for your diet needs. For example, Carnival boasts that they can “can provide our guests with the following special dietary needs: Vegetarian, Low-Cholesterol, Low-Fat, Low-Carbohydrates, Low-Sugar, Gluten Free, Indian Vegetarian, and Kosher.”
For most diet needs, you don’t even need to alert the cruise line ahead of time. The best thing to do is go to the dining room and let your main dining room waiter know of your needs. They can help answer questions and offer suggestions for meals based on your restrictions. For meals outside of the main dining room, you will have to be vigilant and let the staff know of your needs.
If you have an abnormally restrictive diet (i.e. you have to cook most meals at home to accommodate), then it’s a good idea to let the cruise line know at least two weeks before you sail.
Cruise lines are especially knowledgeable about helping passengers with hearing difficulties. Most cruise lines (including both Carnival and Royal Caribbean) offer room kits that include visual/tactile alerts for telephones, alarm clocks and door knocking.
In addition, a TTY can be placed within your stateroom that connects with the front desk in order to communicate with guest relations.
Royal Caribbean in particular offers a myriad of features for hearing-disabled guests. The cruise line has all of the following features:
- Amplified telephones in the staterooms and public areas.
- Assistive Listening Systems are located in the main theatre on all ships
- Closed-captioned televisions are available in all staterooms across the fleet.
- Sign language interpreting services will be provided upon request for deaf guests who use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication. Sign language interpreting services are provided for main production shows, port and shopping presentations and other major activities on a shared basis for all deaf guests onboard.
Today’s modern cruise ships all come equipped with braille signage throughout the ship. As well, many cruise lines will offer orientation tours of the ship and large-form menus. If you have a service dog to help you with vision impairment, be sure to see our section above on service animals.
Cruising with Children with Disabilities
If you have a child with disabilities, cruises are a great vacation choice. Not only are there plenty of opportunities to have fun as a family, but there are also opportunities for respite while on your trip.
All of the major cruise lines have youth programs where children of all abilities are welcome. The cruise lines usually separate the kids by age (since 5-year-olds want to different things than 14-year-olds), however, if a child has special needs, they will group a child by their ability level.
The rule of thumb is that staff can’t provide specialized attention. That means they can’t help a child take medication, feed them, nor can they offer one-on-one supervision under most circumstances. If this is the case, either the parent or helper can stay with a child.
Cruise lines will give parents pagers to give them piece of mind. If a parent is needed, the pager will alert them aboard the ship.
One nice feature of Carnival is their nightly supervised dinner for children aged 2-11 and supervised lunch during port days. This gives parents the ability to have a meal on their own, providing a respite. Royal Caribbean also offers sitting services within staterooms.
Contacting the Cruise Lines
If you have special needs or a disability that you think requires special consideration, the best thing to do is contact the cruise line well in advance (30 days) of your sail date. By contacting them, not only can they answer any questions, but they can also prepare accommodations to make your cruise more comfortable.
Depending on which cruise line you sail, we recommend the contacts below.
Carnival: [email protected] | 800-764-7419
Disney: (407) 566-3500
The following websites can offer more details about the accommodations for specific cruise lines:
Norwegian Cruise Lines