Far-off destinations, the expansiveness of the ocean, a touch of luxury aboard the vessel – cruise vacations are hugely popular. People with disabilities are also increasingly drawn to big cruise ships, which typically promise a worry-free vacation. But how accessible are the vessels, the staterooms, and shore excursions? Three veteran cruise travelers share their experiences.
Whether on deck or in the stateroom – on cruise ships it is more and more common to also think of guests with disabilities. Accessibility therefore plays an increasingly important role.
It all started with a Mediterranean tour: Volker and Iris Westermann were instantly smitten and booked their next trip while they were still onboard. "Dubai, Brazil, Southeast Asia – cruises have allowed us to see the world. We have to go on a cruise at least once a year," gushes Volker Westermann.
Over the past ten years, the couple has been on nearly 20 cruises - all of them facilitated by AIDA Cruises. Right from the start, these two globetrotters have been excited about the services the AIDA team offers guests with disabilities. The cruise ships feature wheelchair accessible balcony and veranda staterooms. The accessible inside cabins have a separate twin bed option – in case guests travel with a personal care assistant for example. "The ships also provide Braille signage in public areas, including restaurants, staircases, deck numbers on staircase handrails and elevators," says Westermann. The cruise line also offers accessible features for guests with deaf or hard of hearing disability, including induction loops and the option of converting telephone and alarm bells into a visual-tactile alert system with flashing lights and vibration pads.
What’s more, the accessibility team is available to answer any guest questions before and during the cruise – whether it pertains to questions about reservations during the booking phase or inquiries during the voyage about shore excursions or public restrooms on the ship.
Iris and Volker Westermann are particularly fond of Southeast Asia. In March 2019 they were there on a cruise again.
Choosing a cruise line based on your needs
Like the Westermann family, Jenny Bießmann has been an avid cruise traveler for several years. Her first cruise in 2016 with Costa Cruises took her to the Orient. The following year she went on a trip to the Caribbean with Mein Schiff 5 by TUI Cruises. In 2018, Bießmann embarked on Celebrity Cruises to travel from Japan to Alaska. In March 2019, she once again took Costa Cruises to journey from Singapore to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Oman and through the Suez Canal to Greece and Italy.
She doesn’t recommend or prefer one provider over the other because she has been happy and satisfied with all three so far. "Having said that, it should be noted that Costa Cruises lets personal care assistants share the same cabin with a guest with a Class 2 disability ID card free of charge," says Bießmann. "Needless to say, this is a big advantage – especially for people like me who need assistance and support services."
That’s why travelers should always select the cruise line and services based on their individual needs and requirements. For example, thanks to her mobility impairment, Kathy Schwack is unable to walk long distances without help. Meanwhile, she doesn’t necessarily need an accessible cabin but still has to investigate the conditions and options pertaining to shore excursions. That’s why the AIDA guest consults the company’s accessibility team prior to her voyage to find out about available assistance and support options. "Apart from that, I find Google Maps and Street View to be very helpful tools when I plan my shore excursions," says Schwack, who also likes to embrace experiences by bloggers to organize interesting excursions that are less crowded.
Jenny Bießmann has already travelled with several cruise lines. Measured by her personal needs she was satisfied with all of them.
Whether it comes to travel, transfers or shore excursions – Volker Westermann and Jenny Bießmann know that you shouldn’t necessarily only rely on the cruise line. So far, the Westermanns have rarely participated in official AIDA shore excursions. They prefer to organize their own day trips and explore the area on their own. "In doing so, we had many amazing experiences and unique chance encounters with the locals – that’s something you could never plan or book anywhere," Westermann raves.
Jenny Bießmann also prefers to be independent and do things on her own. "I generally don’t use the transfer options provided by the cruise line since they tend to not be accessible or are likely very expensive if they are indeed accessible." She has come to realize that most countries have great public transport options that will get her from A to B. She takes advantage of this for her shore excursions. "Surprisingly, many countries are far more accessible to people with disabilities than Germany. When I traveled the Caribbean, nearly every port had accessible taxis and sightseeing tours."
Kathy Schwack always has to clarify well in advance what conditions she will encounter on site, especially during shore excursions, as she needs support for longer distances.
Informed and relaxed travel
Bießmann, the Westermanns and Schwack appreciate the benefits of visiting interesting places in a short amount of time, while lodging in the same accommodations. Schwack also welcomes the consistent quality of the ship, food, and service. After her first cruise, Schwack traveled and stayed in hotels. "I always notice that hotels are generally not well prepared to accommodate people with disabilities."
And although none of the providers are perfect when it comes to accessibility, travelers typically tend to find the cruise line that best meets their personal needs. Jenny Bießmann points out that assessments and ratings of accessible travel options are usually based on someone’s personal needs and thus merely a reflection as such.
Schwack adds that it is generally better to travel on a modern cruise ship because they tend to be more accessible than older models. "In addition to the helpful guest services of the cruise line, interested parties should also obtain information about the ship, the destinations and the available options on location. Travel agencies and the Internet are useful resources," says Schwack, who shares her experiences on her travel blog.
The other two cruise fans also share their experiences online. Jenny Bießmann reports on her website www.jenny-unterwegs.de, while Volker Westermann isn’t just active on social networks, but also documents his encounters on his YouTube Channel.
Based on his experience from nearly 20 AIDA cruises, Westermann suggests that travelers should always work closely with the cruise line right from the start. "The accessibility team is the central hub where everything comes together." Needless to say, your other option is to travel on your own and take matters into your own hands – whatever best suits your needs and works for you.
That's why Jenny Bießmann tells travelers to be open-minded, interested and curious about what’s in store. "Don’t be afraid. Most people you will meet along the way are not afraid to meet you." That’s something Volker Westermann can also attest to and suggests to leave your inner worrywart at home. "Before you get onboard, throw your worries about trip organization overboard." Once you do that, there is nothing that can get in the way of a relaxing cruise.