Negotiating the Waters of Cruising Page Banner
 without getting your wheels wet…..
by Debbie Fogle

Accessible cruising has been around for quite a few years now - it didn't take the cruise industry long to realize that if they build accessible cabins that they wouldn't have any trouble filling them! While the cruise industry deserves a lot of credit for the number of accessible staterooms now available, there is still much work to be done in the shore excursion department. This month Access-Able will help you negotiate the waters of accessible cruising by introducing you to the newest ships and suggesting the most accessible ports of call.

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Picture of accessible cabinTo get the most out of your accessible cruise you should contact a travel agent. While just about any travel agent can book a cruise, there are some that specialize in accessible cruises. We can't think of a single reason why not to make use of their knowledge and experience (their services are free as their commissions come from the cruise lines just like all travel agents). The big difference is that they can provide you with a seamless travel experience by arranging everything from accessible ground transportation to accessible shore excursions. Many of these travel agents offer you the option of booking an individual cruise or group cruise. On a group cruise the travel agent blocks a certain number of accessible rooms and then puts together an itinerary that removes all worries about what activities and locations will be accessible. Group cruises are usually a mixed bag of chair users and able bodied folk that all have a great time. Taking a group verses individual cruise is a great idea for first-time cruisers who may enjoy the ease of mind that hands-on resources and support offered.

Travel Agents who specialize in accessible cruises really shine when it comes to shore excursions. In many instances the cruise line will not offer accessible tours but these travel agents may have local resources that will enable you to get the most out of your cruise experience. Joan Diamond with Nautilus Tours and Cruises  has developed her own resources from years of experience. Joan tells us one of her latest 'finds' is an accessible van in Acapulco. When asked further about shore excursions she told us "I try hard to utilize the shore excursions that the ship offers. There are two good reasons for this 1) your activities will be covered by the cruise lines insurance and 2) if you end up running late they will hold the ship for you - not so if you venture off on your own". Joan continues by saying "I try to work with the cruise lines to provide accessible shore excursions where possible and have found that they really try to do their best". Joan feels that Princess Cruise Lines  is one of the best companies to work with and has a group cruise scheduled out of Galveston, TX aboard the Grand Princess  in January. One of the ports they will be visiting is Belize City and Joan tells us that Princess is working with her to provide accessible shore excursions.

Easy Access Travel is a travel company that specializes in accessible cruising.  Debra Brisco-Kerper is a cruise expert having achieved the rank of Accredited Cruise Counselor through CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) and will soon be awarded her Master Cruise Counselor accreditation. She has personally sailed on over 50 cruises and has inspected numerous cruise ships allowing her to make knowledgeable and informed recommendations to her clients.  Debra travels extensively with a wheelchair and electric scooter and has learned how to minimize the frustrations while maximizing the enjoyment of visiting new and exciting destinations. She is able to share her knowledge and expertise with other disabled persons as well as those who simply want to travel at a more leisurely pace.  For additional information you can email Debra at ezaccess@comcast.net

Check out the Access-Able Travel Agents Database  for more travel agents and group cruise options.

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A good thing to keep in mind when choosing an accessible cruise is what ports the ship will visit. You have a better chance of accessible shore excursions at U.S. ports and at those where the ship can dock instead of tender - which means they drop anchor off shore and use smaller boats to transport passengers to shore. Most major cruise ships now have tendering devices which allow people traveling in wheelchairs to tender without the embarrassment of being manually lifted into the boat. Be sure to discuss this with your travel agent or cruise line so you will know what to expect and what factors could possibly preclude you from tendering.

Composit picture of ships.The Royal Caribbean International website has lots of information about cruising and their commitment to providing access for everyone.  The RCI site is easy to navigate (ouch!) and has a good selection of tours and shore excursions that makes for a great vacation.  If you are interested in more than a cruise try a CruiseTour.  Royal Caribbean has both land and sea packages.  Alaska and Europe is two of the most popular with many options to choose from.  On board cabins range from economy to luxurious state rooms with balconeys to suit whatever your desires.

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Hawaii is one of the hottest new markets in the cruise industry. On Independence Day this year, Norwegian Cruise Lines  announced the addition of a third U.S. Flagged ship to Hawaii to be delivered in the summer of 2006. The Pride of Hawaii is the second ship in the original Project America program and the third ship of the brand's U.S.-Flagged fleet, joining Pride of Aloha and Pride of America. The Pride of Aloha (formerly the Norwegian Sky) features NCL's signature Freestyle Cruising, offering a diverse choice of six restaurants without fixed dining times, resort casual dress code and relaxed disembarkation. She also has 13 bars and lounges, two swimming pools, a spa and fitness center and conference facilities among her many amenities. In addition, the ship features a Hawaii museum called the Kumu Cultural Center (Kumu is Hawaiian for source of learning). Accessibility aboard the Pride of Aloha is good, there are 5 accessible staterooms that are 187 square feet (not including bathroom space) and have 34 ½" doorways. Other features include a roll in shower with hand held shower head, bench and grab bars. Taking a seven day inter-island cruise is a great way to experience Hawaii. Michelle Muller with the NCL's shore excursion department said that there are several opportunities to go ashore and tour the islands. While there are some excursions that are inaccessible due to steps and rough terrain, most of the National Parks and Island Tours can be accessible if arranged in advance (they do have access to lift equipped vehicles but share them with other ships). A couple of other accessible destinations worth looking into include; Alaska, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the eastern Caribbean.

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The year 2004 brings a record number of new ships to the market. According to Nautilus Tours & Cruises, 26,000 new berths will become available this year which means there will be many bargains to be found. Most of the major cruise lines are introducing new ships including Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2  which will be the largest ship at sea and boast 30 accessible staterooms with 36" wide doorways. Princess will add the Caribbean Princess  and Sapphire Princess  each with 24 accessible staterooms that have 34" doorways. In the spring of 2004 Holland America  introduced the Vista-Class Westerdam with 28 accessible cabins with 32.5" doorways. The Westerdam is the third Vista-Class vessel fashioned after the Oosterdam and the Zuiderdam. The addition of these ships will help saturate the market with a record number of staterooms - truly making it a buyers market!

Most of the major cruise lines have information about accessibility on their web sites. On Princess's site look under their Policy's Page. Royal Caribbean has the most comprehensive information of all the cruise lines and can easily be found under Accessibility Onboard. Norwegian  has information peppered throughout, mainly on the deck layout pages and with the shore excursion information. In addition to the information on the web most cruise lines have some sort of special services department who will work with you (or your travel agent) to ensure a barrier-free experience.

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One of the many resources you can find at Access-Able's Cruise Ship Database chocked full of detailed information about the accessibility aboard all of the major cruise ships. Currently there are 10 different cruise lines representing over 99 ships. In many instances you can get insider information through the comments left by users. Some of the Travel Tales provided by our visitors tell are inspiring and some are downright horrifying. In some cases you have both positive and negative feedback about the same ship - testimony that everyone's needs and experiences are different. Learning about these ships through other people's experiences could be the most valuable resource of all.

About the author: Debbie Fogle is a staff writer for Access-Able and enjoys researching and writing abut travel. Debbie works out of her home in Arizona where she lives with her husband and two-year old son and trains Quarter Horses. 

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