cruising with a disability

Royal Caribbean's ship Navigator of the Seas

My apologies from the offset, this may end up being a lengthy review of cruising with a disability.  In all fairness, would you want it any other way? Most holiday reviews in my opinion, or holiday tips, are always about flying, airports, assistance etc.?  Is this the only type of transport one can go on holiday with?  What about, river boats, caravaning, camping and of course cruising??  Do these no longer exist?  Well I’m going to show you they do!!

I have been very lucky to have been able to do two previous cruises and thoroughly enjoyed both.  In this review though, I am going to talk about our next cruise, which will have already happened by the time I publish this.  I hope this review will help anyone thinking of taking a cruise holiday.

It was April 2017 when I actually booked our holiday.  Yes I know that’s very early but for those of you who have booked holidays yourself, you will know how disabled rooms/facilities get booked up very quickly indeed.  As cruising is becoming ever more popular, I put nothing to chance as previous experience has shown me that the accessible cabins go like hot cakes.

We decided to go with Royal Caribbean as they had been recommended to me by a friend who is also a wheelchair user.  She said she had a great time and found them very good for wheelchair users.  So we looked online, found a cruise we liked and booked up.  We booked a 2 week Mediterranean cruise on the Navigator of the Seas, (picture above), inside cabin with virtual balcony and my time dining.

I have supplied a video of our accessible room at the bottom of this review, for you to see for yourself.

Royal Caribbean Website

Unfortunately, their website designer should be sacked immediately.  RC website is one of the most confusing websites I’ve ever had the misfortune of browsing.  It is practically impossible to find the information disabled passengers would/may require and if you do manage it, don’t expect to find it again.  Bits of information on their site seems to appear, disappear and reappear again……Very confusing indeed!!

To initially book your cruise, everything seemed to go according to plan but once we booked and wanted to find more information at our leisure, this is where things became a bit twilight zone!!  Forget finding out how accessible the ports are, there’s no information regarding that whatsoever.  I have supplied links at the end of this review, taking you to different sites that help with this type of information.

In my experience, their site seems to contradict itself in many places.  Especially where excursions are concerned, see Accessible Excursions section.

Why book a cruise?

So the first thing you should obviously do, is decide if cruising is for you, after all, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

  • If your cruise starts from a port in your country, then boarding the ship should be pretty simple and easy.
  • You arrive at the port, your car is parked for you (Not all car parks offer this).
  • Your luggage is taken away and boarded for you and delivered to your cabin.
  • You’re on a floating hotel and the world comes to you.
  • You get to see more than one destination (depending on length of cruise)
  • Many different bars/clubs to keep you entertained, all in one place
  • Wheelchair accessible cabins

To name a few…

Front of cruise ship with blue interior lights

Once you’ve decided a cruise is the way forward, you then have the wonderful experience of choosing where to cruise.  Mediterranean cruise?  Caribbean cruise?  Or even a Fiords cruise?  So many to chose from, how do you decide?  Well, there are a couple of factors to bear in mind.

  • Do you want to have to fly to get out to the ship you are cruising on and get another flight to come home?  Do you want to sail from Southampton (Or a port in your country) and return to Southampton (or port in your country)?
  • What countries would you like to visit?
  • Do you want to cruise on a large ship (up to 3000 Passengers) or would you prefer a smaller ship?
  • How long do you want to cruise for?  Length of cruise can determine what destinations you can visit.

I think the biggest factor to keep in mind is if you want a fly-cruise holiday, or not.  Let me explain:  Some cruises, regardless of company, will sail from Southampton docks and at the end of the cruise, return back to Southampton.  On a fly-cruise holiday, you must first fly out to where your ship is docked.  Let’s say we’re doing a Caribbean cruise holiday.  This would entail you flying out to let’s say Jamaica, you then get on your ship, do your Caribbean cruise and then sail back to Jamaica or neighbouring country to then fly home again.  (Just remember, not all cruises will require you to fly home from the same place you flew out to.  Sometimes you will fly home from the last port of call your cruise ship makes).  So you need to decide if you want to fly and cruise, or just cruise.  Many cruise operators like P&O and Royal Caribbean (links at bottom of page) will offer cruises that sail from and back to Southampton, so no flying is needed.

Booking your Cruise

Once you’ve decided you want to cruise and you know where you want to go, the next question you need to ask yourself is do you go to the travel agents, or do you book directly with the cruise company? This really boils down to personal choice. Our previous cruises, we booked via a travel agent, this time we booked directly with the cruise company. The table below shows the pros and cons for both routes, please bear in mind everything I’ve mentioned is from my own experiences, so I can’t cover every aspect, plus this is only my opinion.  It is meant to be a helpful guide, not a rule book.

As I mentioned before, we booked directly with Royal Caribbean cruises via the telephone rather than online via their website, as I had a few questions before going ahead.  I found them to be very friendly and willing to do their best to answer my questions.  So we went ahead and paid our deposit.  One thing to remember….RC did not offer any child prices.  We had to pay full price for our daughter, (aged 14 at the time of travelling).

When making your initial booking, there are a couple of bits of information you will be given

  • your cabin number – now you can take a look on your cruise companies website and see where you’re cabin is situated on the ship
  • dining option you have chosen – most cruise companies will require you to book your dining option at the time of booking your cruise.  Royal Caribbean offer traditional dining and my time dining (this was our choice) – Explanation given below

Traditional Dining

Main dining hall - Big glass chandelier above table and chairs with white table cloths

As the name implies, traditional dining is the classic means of experiencing dinner on your Royal Caribbean cruise.  There are two seatings, first and second seating.  First seating is usually around 6:00pm and second seating is usually around 8:00pm. Exact times will vary.

When you book your cruise, you can choose which seating you like. Typically families choose first seating because it’s harder to keep kids up later for the second seating.  You will still see kids in second seating, but there tends to be more families in the first seating.  You will be assigned a table in the main dining room that can be as small as two people or as large as 16 or even larger.  Royal Caribbean can also place you at a table with other guests on-board your ship.  Who you sit with (if anyone else) depends on a few factors but it’s usually the norm to be seated with others.    You can change your seating if you prefer not to sit with others or are unhappy with whom you are seated with.  Speak to the head waiter to arrange a change, although changes are subject to availability.  Source:  Royal Caribbean website

My Time Dining

My Time Dining is a lot like traditional dining with one big exception: you do not have a set time that is the same every night of your cruise.  You will still dine in the main dining room, but you can choose between making reservations or showing up and waiting for a table.

My Time Dining advertises its benefit as being you do not have a set time to eat each night.  So if one night you feel like dinner at 6pm but another night you want to stay at the pool later, you can come eat at 8:30pm.

Like the main dining room, you may be seated with other people at your table.  Where you sit is subject to availability.  Unlike the main dining room, you may not have the same wait staff each night.  You can request certain waiters but you may have to wait to be seated at a table they serve.

The my time dining experience once seated is nearly identical to traditional dining.  You order off of the same menu as traditional dining and can order as much food as you like from that menu.  Source:  Royal Caribbean website

Once you have booked your holiday and paid the deposit, you then receive a few emails with all your holiday details, deposit/payment confirmation and a special needs form that you MUST fill in.  If my memory serves me right, I done mine via email.  Once you receive these, you will have the ability to sign into your holiday account on RC website where you can:

  • Pay any remaining balance.
  • Print your Set Sail tickets – Time dependant – normally 90 days before your sail date.
  • Book excursions
  • Buy drinks packages
  • Purchase WIFI packages
  • Special event packages

You should receive emails leading up to your holiday informing you of any procedures or forms you may need to fill in along the way, so don’t worry.

Now we get all excited as our holiday is now booked….Very exciting indeed.

Accessible Excursions

RC’s website leaves a lot to be desired and trying to find the information you want can be like trying to get blood out of a stone!  We’re looking for accessible excursions via our holiday account.  To say this was difficult would be an understatement I’m sorry to say.  Hubby was getting completely different info to what I was getting when we each logged into our account, to find the excursions.  Also, most of what RC advertise as “accessible” excursions are very miss-leading to say the least.  For example, we looked at one supposed “accessible” excursion but when you then read the description, it says you must be able to navigate the steps of the coach??  So how is this accessible for full time wheelchair users or people unable to climb steps???  Very confusing!!  Then, when we view our online cruise planner, at the available excursions, we’re told there are 14 available but we can only see a handful of them.  RC don’t make it clear as to what excursions are for full-time wheelchair users like myself.

I was then forced to phone RC, beware…..they charge 7p a minute and whatever connection charge your provider charges!!  I explained my issue and was told he would put me through to the excursion department, where I could be helped better.  Only to find I’d been put trough to the private excursion line??  He then told me I needed to speak to RC??  Oh my god, pulling my hair out much?  He gave me an email address so I could contact the department needed as they don’t do phone calls.  (If anyone needs this email address, drop me a line and I’ll give you the address).  So for now I’m taking a break and will email them tomorrow.

I emailed them the following day explaining I am a full-time wheelchair user and can they tell me if the following excursions are suitable?  I supplied the names of the excursions we were interested in.  Oh boy, the response I got made me want to punch my monitor!!!!  They gave me NO information regarding the “Accessible Excursions” I asked about but instead another form to fill in about my wheelchair.  This was their reply:  Read reply here

You will see the amount of questions that they ask and what measurements they want about me and my wheelchair, which I might add were already supplied in their “Special Needs” form I had to fill in months ago.  RC mentions the two types of excursion levels.  You are not given this info via their website.  There is no mention whatsoever that excursions come in two levels……Again, very misleading!!

Putting all the trials and tribulations to one side, being unable to take the planned excursions is not the end of your holiday. Most ports of call will have a town close by. For example when we arrived in Rome we were unable to take either RC’s own excursion or any other means of getting into Rome but you had Civitavecchia’s old town by the bus station you were drop off at via the shuttle bus. So you should still be able to get off the ship and visit a town to do some shopping if you wish.

Warning! Your ship pass is your entry back onto the ship if you get off the ship at any of the ports.  If you lose your ship card, don’t expect to get back on the ship. Your card is not only for purchasing stuff on the ship, it is your room key and your pass to get on and off the ship.

Your Holiday is Booked, Now What?

One word of warning, we found RC excursions to be astronomically overpriced.  So please, exhaust every option before you decide what to book.  I feel it’s vital to look into what you can visit without having to book an excursion, before booking your holiday.  After all, you don’t want to book a holiday where you can only take in the sights via an excursion.  That would be very disappointing and expensive.  Our last 2 cruises, we were able to see what we wanted to see by ourselves.  At one port, we did have to catch a bus but it was wheelchair accessible and free, as it was supplied by the cruise company to take passengers into the local town.

I wanted to know if RC knew anything about accessibility, like disabled toilets while at the different ports.  RC was unable to answer this question.

So I took it upon myself to do my own research. I have listed below two websites that I have found to be extremely helpful.  These websites seem to have a mountain of information regarding ports, where most cruise ships will dock on their journey.  One even sorts out excursions for you.  As I mentioned, excursions can be very expensive indeed.  For example, we would love to do an excursion that takes us to Pisa, this is costing £169 per person through RC.  So for 4 people that’s a whopping £676.  When you have already paid over 6 grand for your family holiday, do you really want to pay this on top??  To take their excursion to Rome, they wanted £285 that’s £1,140 for a family of 4.  So for two excursions for a family of 4, you are forking out £1,816, really??  (Prices correct at time of writing this).

Cruise Countdown

Log in page for cruise countdown

Most cruise companies will have their own type of countdown to your holiday.  It will inform you of things like when you are able to print off your set sail tickets, luggage tags and info on drinks packages, excursions and special events bookings like birthday, anniversaries etc.

 

Cashless System

Here’s something you may not know. To my knowledge, ALL cruise ships operate a cashless system while on board. We had to tell RC how we would like to settle our on board account.  Our options were:

  • Credit/debit card –
  • Cash
  • bank transfer

The cashless system works like this, when checking in at the docks, your photo will be taken and attached to your ship account/card, which is then given to you.  Your ship card is then used like a credit card while aboard the ship to pay for anything and everything you purchase.  From drinks, to the shops on board.  At the end of your holiday, the bill must be paid.  Hence the options above.  Our preferred method is cash. Purely because we are terrified of getting an astronomical bill at the end of our holiday and not being able to pay it.  You see, it is very easy to get carried away while on holiday and not really be aware of what you are spending.  14 days is a long time to keep tabs on every penny you and your family are spending.  especially when you’ve got kids.

Also, by choosing the option cash, you have the ability to go to reception every couple of days, ask for an up-to-date bill and pay off what you owe at that point.  Remember though, RC is an American company, so your account will be in dollars.  Bear this in mind with the exchange rate.  Again, at the end of the day it is personal preference.

Tip: RC don’t inform you of this before hand but if you pay your account bay any means other than cash, you are charged a %5 convenience fee in the casino every time you use your ship card to purchase chips at the tables.

Boarding Your Ship

We took RC’s pier assistance which turned out to be the best decision we made, the check-in terminal was so chaotic I doubt very much we would have navigated the system by ourselves. We had a gentleman assist us to the check-in desk, sort out all our documents and then take us in the lift up to what I would call the boarding ramp/gangplank onto the ship. He took us up the ramped zigzag undercover gangplank, right up to the entrance of the ship itself. We were told this was as far as he could take us. We were now left to our own devices. Somewhat confused and unsure of what we should do next.

Accessible Cabins

All accessible cabins will have wider doors, ramped threshold into the wet room.  Sometimes you’ll be supplied with a safe in your room which, as with RC will be lowered and  turning circle space for your wheelchair.

As an example Royal Caribbean advertise their accessible cabins as having;

  • Stateroom door width: 32″-34″ (vessel-dependent)
  • Bathroom door width: 32″-34″ (vessel-dependent)
  • No doorsill to get into the stateroom
  • Ramped bathroom threshold
  • Bathroom grab bars
  • Lowered sink and stateroom vanity
  • Roll-in shower bench
  • Fold-down shower bench
  • Hand-held shower heads
  • Lowered closet rods
  • Refrigerator in stateroom (upon request)
  • Raised toilet seats (most are between 17 to 19 inches high; commode chairs available – please request prior to sailing)
  • Accessible balconies (selected staterooms)
  • Lowered safes for easy access (not including Majesty of the Seas, where safes are located at Guest Relations)

Please note: Accessible suites have roll-in showers, not bathtubs except on Quantum of the Seas.

Source: https://www.royalcaribbean.com/experience/accessible-cruising/accessible-staterooms

I was also able to find information regarding inside cabins on the ship we are sailing on.  I found the following info:

  • Door width – 32 inches wide
  • Wet room door width – 32 inches
  • Toilet height from floor – 18 inches
  • Grab rails when seated – left hand side

As a right-handed person with very weak upper body strength, it would have been beneficial to have known about the grab rails before booking our holiday, as I would have preferred them to be on my right. Hopefully now you know this information, this will benefit you.

Note:  Our room only had ONE 240v plug socket.  It had two 120v plug sockets but I believe they are no good for European electrical equipment.  Video below shows more.

Our bed was so hard it felt like we were sleeping on stone, I suffered two nights in pain before I went to Guest services and asked if there was anything they could do, thankfully they were able to supply a mattress topper.  This helped greatly but still wasn’t perfect. So remember, if you find any kind of issues/problems with your room, it is worth having a word with your state room attendant, reception/Guest services and asking them if there is anything they can do.

One thing to remember about your cabin, the door is a storm door therefore it will be extremely heavy.  So, anyone like myself with weak upper body strength you may find it very difficult to open the door, hold it open and manoeuvre yourself through the doorway.

Entertainment

All cruise companies will have an itinerary of entertainment planned for every night of your cruise. In my experience, P&O cruises supplied much more sophisticated entertainment compared to Royal Caribbean. Again, my opinion, I found Royal Caribbean cruises to be just like Butlins on water. The entertainment supplied aboard Royal Caribbean’s ship seemed no different then what you would expect to see at a holiday park.  One of our first evenings on the ship, we went to the head liner Show-time theatre, there was a comedian, he was standing on stage looking extremely scruffy in an old T-shirt and jeans, in need of a good hair cut and he was telling jokes that had been circulating Facebook for over five years. So not extremely original or funny!  Not really what you want after paying great sums of money for the holiday in the first place.  We were somewhat let down as this seemed to be the theme for their entertainment.  You had plenty of game shows to choose from run by the entertainment team, blockbusters, Mr and Mrs, who wants to feel like a millionaire the list goes on. Prizes? Well these consisted of either Royal Caribbean key ring, cap or equivalent. Even Butlins and the like, give you a mug!

Unfortunately we have something to compare to as we have cruised twice before. Therefore our expectations were set much higher than what we received by Royal Caribbean. I’m not trying to make this review about one company against another but at the end of the day I don’t want people spending out the kind of money we spent on this holiday and be as let down as we have been. Out of the two companies that I have cruised with, I would highly recommend P&O cruises over Royal Caribbean any day.

The Ship

The ship I would say was 95% wheelchair accessible. All venues were level access or ramped.  Some venues were a little cramped, so difficult to find a good spot to park a wheelchair where it you were not blocking the gangway, or in people’s way.

I would say one of the few places I couldn’t get to, was the helipad which is a popular place to visit as it is at the very front of the ship and where a lot of people like to do the Titanic pose. I believe that the sky deck at the very top of the ship was inaccessible also.

There was an area out on deck, where you can look into the captain’s bridge via glass windows; (picture left) you had to go down a couple of steps but there was a wheelchair lift to the side of the steps. I personally didn’t use it as it looked very much in need of TLC and felt rather rickety.

All the doors that lead out onto the decks were automatic. Plenty of lifts to take you to each deck but remember, these become extremely busy on port days when people are making their way to the disembarkation area and at busy times like breakfast and dinner times.

No matter where you are in any of the bars, restaurants, theatres, or promenade, there are always waiters/bar staff wandering around ready to take your drinks order. You never have the need to queue for your drinks. You just hand over your ship pass and when your drinks are brought to you, you sign the receipt. (We had the facility to check our on board accounts via the TV in our room). This came in very handy when we either accidentally chucked our receipts or wanted to know what we had to pay before going down to guest services.

Conclusion

  1. Make a list of the question you want to ask – You don’t want to have to keep phoning the cruise line number as this can get expensive if they don’t supply a free phone number.
  2. Browse the website of your chosen cruise company – Does it answer all your questions?
  3. Research the ports of call on your chosen cruise – Not all ports of call are accessible, some need to use tender boats to get from ship to land.
  4. If booking more than one cabin for your family/party, make sure they are classed as the one booking if that is what you want.  My son & daughter were are in another cabin are treated as a completely separate booking and their cabin is on a different deck of the ship.

***UPDATE***

We, my family bought 3 expensive items while on our cruise:  Two watches and a GoPro.  After getting home, one of the watches and the GoPro had to go and be repaired as they either didn’t work at all, or became faulty after only 2 months.  So please, if you intend on buying anything, please make sure it works before the end of your holiday and you are off the ship!!

Links

Royal Caribbean – Cruise company.

P&O Cruises – Cruise Company

ShoreBee – ShoreBee is an online platform for cruise passengers who want to plan and prepare their cruise shore excursions. ShoreBee provides free comprehensive information for those who want to go on their own as well as a wide range of local excursions at local prices.

Whats in PortYour cruise guide to 1200 ports of call.

Sage Travelling – A great place to get reviews of European ports of call.

About Rome – As the name suggests, all about Rome.