Wheelchair Cruising

Just because your partner's mobility is no longer what it used to be, doesn't mean you both have to miss the boat.

In January, 15 days before my husband's long-scheduled spinal surgery, he and I sailed from Port Everglades on a 10-day inaugural cruise aboard the beautiful new Coral Princess. Walking was extremely painful for Mort, and had been for several years. I knew the ship's 964-foot length would be too challenging for him to negotiate on his own.

ver the last year, as his battle with spinal stenosis and a couple of other problems progressed, we learned to deal with airport and cruise ship wheelchairs. It was a learning process for both of us. And we heeded those lessons, because neither of us wanted to stay home. Among our recent cruises were a weekend aboard the Disney Wonder last summer with two of our grandsons, and a trip on the new Carnival Legend. Each time, a wheelchair helped make the cruise possible -- and pleasant -- instead of a kind of death march from our cabin to the dining room, or from the dining room across the ship to the show room.

In spite of his mobility problems, Mort could still walk around a cabin and tend to his own personal needs. But he needed the wheelchair to navigate the length of these wonderful large vessels. I had learned early on that for the smoothest ride, I had to back into elevators (easier to get off, of course) and also back over raised lips on the carpeting where two aisles meet or intersect.

We do not have our own wheelchair, although we knew one could be rented for a week or two at a time at any medical supply house. Instead, I contacted the cruise line several weeks in advance to arrange for the use of a wheelchair. As the taxi pulled up to the pier, I asked a luggage handler to call a porter with the chair. In minutes, we were cleared to board and a lovely young man pushed the chair all the way to our cabin. Ship officers and crew are always eager to help, and regularly volunteer to lend a hand, whether at the pool or into a show or dining room.

Neither Mort nor I have ever taken part in a ship's dance classes, so I can't say we missed dancing during the cruise. But we did partake of enrichment classes through Coral Princess's new Scholarship at Sea program (Mort took photography and computer courses, I sat in on a couple of cooking courses). In addition to the classes, movies in our cabin, evening entertainment, the casino, and some laid-back days at the pool made our 10 days extremely pleasant. Neither of us felt we'd missed much because Mort used a wheelchair.

The ship also offered ceramics classes, and when we saw some of the beautiful objets d'art our shipmates created, we were sorry we didn't take part in that offering.

Today's state of the art cruise ships comfortably accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, and are designed to provide smooth sailing for everyone. The Coral Princess, for example, has 20 wheelchair-accessible cabins with larger doorways and bathrooms and lowered storage and desk/dressing table areas. Sixteen cabins are outside and four inside, but if the passenger has some mobility, a standard cabin can also work. (In our case it worked quite well.)

In addition, the vessel's elevators accommodate both regular and motorized wheelchairs or scooters. All public rooms are equally accessible. Cruise lines are aware of passengers' needs in the 21st century - and that awareness notes that not everyone can walk with ease. Older vessels, and some of the smaller ships - notably Windstar Cruises - don't have wheelchair-accessible cabins, so do your research before booking a cruise with a passenger who needs help getting around.

I found I needed little help. Still, it was offered regularly and because Mort has the ability to walk short distances, the chair was stored in the dining room, show room or casino as Mort negotiated to a seat. Showrooms offer reserved seating for mobility-impaired guests.

Some guidelines for traveling with a passenger in a wheelchair might prove helpful:

  • Hand-carry medical records and let the cruise line know your specific medical situation.
  • Once on board, notify Passenger Services (formerly known as the Purser's Desk) soon after boarding to inform them help may be needed in an emergency.
  • If you don't plan a shore excursion -- and some are actually quite appropriate for wheelchair guests -- find out if a port is user-friendly. With the crew's assistance in getting the chair down to the ground, consider the possibility of pushing your mate around the port area, to a market, telephone or cafe. In Cozumel, for example, we were able to enjoy a great lunch and a lot of fun at Carlos 'N' Charlie's at the Punta Langosta Pier, do some shopping, then head back to the ship.
  • Request a table near the doorway in the main dining room to avoid negotiating long distances.
  • Carry single dollar bills for tips.
  • Cruising might be easier if you don't have to fly to the port city. Consider the large number of alternate ports now in play: These include four ports in Florida, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston on the East Coast; New Orleans, Galveston and Houston on the Gulf of Mexico; several California cities; Seattle; and Vancouver in Canada.
  • Make up your mind to have a good time and you probably will.

Mort is now in rehab, working with a physical therapist. We'll soon be planning our next cruise.

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