Wheelchair Nightmare - Holland America Line

This story is in the nature of a warning for wheelchair bound persons who would like to cruise and are not sure of which cruise line is the best for handicapped people. My wife and I have cruised for the last eleven years, 23 times on four different cruise lines, but mostly on Princess because they are the best at handling people in wheelchairs, at least certainly in our experience. We take her electric scooter for use on the ship and a manual wheelchair for bus touring. She can walk (barely, and very slowly and with no balance at all) needing support from two people, one on either side to do so. On most cruise lines this is not a problem at all, as they will usually cheerfully provide staff to carry her up and down the gangway in her wheelchair (not in the scooter, of course!) This preamble is to set the scene for our travel difficulties.

In 1999, We flew to Auckland, New Zealand to enjoy a cruise around New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore. This was a double cruise, totaling 31 days on board the Nieuw Amsterdam of Holland America Lines. I find no fault with the ship's staff at all. We were well looked after in the dining room and all about the ship in the public rooms. The tours we booked and thoroughly enjoyed were well organized and ran smoothly. HOWEVER, AND HERE IS THE PROBLEM WITH HOLLAND AMERICA: They absolutely refused to carry my wife up and down the gangway, and in order to get off and back on the ship, she was forced to struggle down and up a 38 step gangway, sometimes slanted at a 45 degree angle due to the high tides in the Pacific Rim area. Each time she had to do this, it took the better part of ten minutes to do so, as her almost paralyzed legs move very slowly indeed. There was always the fatigue factor to all of this as well - it is very tiring. I have no idea what this company would do if faced with a totally paralyzed paraplegic who in fact could not walk if they wanted to. I can only assume they would either never get on the ship to begin with, or once on would never get off again until the end of the voyage.

There are some ports where a wheelchair or scooter can in fact ride right on the ship when you first board, and then it would be a total shock to a paraplegic to find that they were a virtual prisoner on board. I don't know what they would do at the end of a voyage, if such a person were on board, and there was no level, stepless gangway! I guess they would be forced to carry them then if they wanted to get rid of them! Imagine, though, if you arrived at the port of embarkation and they refused to carry you on board, and forced you to go back home instead!

This sad situation went on for every port day where we wanted to get off and tour. The staff at the gangway were totally sympathetic and some were quite embarrassed at the company's hard hearted attitude, but they could do nothing for us on pain of getting into trouble with their bosses if they tried to help by carrying her. The Captain of the ship even stood one day and watched her struggle up the gangway, and when I pushed her by him in the wheelchair had the nerve to congratulate her on a "job well done". I felt like punching him in the nose!!!

Post cruise, I wrote a letter of complaint and inquiry to the CEO of Holland America Lines in Seattle, Mr. A. K. Lanterman. I just wanted to know why they would even accept a wheelchair bound passenger, providing a perfectly adequately equipped cabin, and serve us well while aboard ship, then spoil the whole thing by refusing the final service needed to assist my wife off and on the ship. I don't know if he even took the time to read my letter, but I never even had the courtesy of a personal reply from Mr. Lanterman, even to say, thanks for your letter, someone else will get in touch with you. Instead, someone in the Office of the President responded with, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!! She did address some other comments I made about conditions on the ship which have nothing to do with the gangway thing and sent a CABIN CREDIT for use on a future cruise, as if we would ever consider another cruise on Holland America!! About the question on assisting my wife to embark and disembark, by carrying her, TOTAL STONEWALL, ABSOLUTELY SEAMLESS!!! They totally ignored that part of my letter and when I wrote backing asking again, they once again responded with NOTHING! All I really wanted was their reasoning behind this deplorable attitude to wheelchair people, but they would not even discuss it.

This story then, is to warn all wheelchair people not to book cruises on Holland America ships, unless they are sufficiently ambulatory to be able to walk up and down the gangways. If you cannot walk and manage to get aboard in the port of embarkation, I am afraid you will be in for a very bad shock when you first try to get off the ship.

Alternatively, if you are wheelchair bound, our experiences with Princess Cruises are absolutely top-notch. Two other lines, Norwegian and RCL, also provided very adequate handling. From what I hear from other cruisers, there are many cruise lines who do handle wheelchair people very well, just make sure before you go. And NEVER, NEVER book Holland America if you are wheelchair bound.

NOTE: This Travel Tale was submitted to Access-Able by Ken, a visitor on 6/00. Access-Able has sent a copy to Holland America for their response. If and when we receive a reply we will post it.