Finding a cruise with wheelchair accommodations

Question: My husband had a stroke two years ago. He can walk short distances and maneuver some stairs, but we always take a wheelchair. I have just retired and would love to do some traveling, and a riverboat cruise in Europe is at the top of my bucket list. Are there trips that could accommodate this situation? Would shore excursions be a problem, or are we restricted to drive-bys?

Charlotte Lechlak


Answer: River cruising is the hot ticket in 2013, especially if Europe is your destination. A languid turn on the Rhine or Danube in a more intimate setting is worlds apart from the party-till-you-drop colossal cruise.

No matter which kind of ship trip you prefer, you'll be better off if you take this advice: Grill, baby, grill.

Don't be afraid to grill the cruise line's agents. Experts I spoke with suggested all sorts of questions you must ask if you're trying to accommodate a wheelchair — questions that would not have crossed my mind.

You'll need to be calculating when you ask some of those questions, as in taking the dimensions of the wheelchair and finding its turning radius, says Lex Frieden, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the director of the independent living program at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.

Don't just ask whether a vessel can accommodate a chair, he says, because people who don't really understand all the obstacles may give a well-meaning "Yes" answer. Ask about the clearance in doorways, the cabin, the bathroom and in public spaces. Make sure the dining tables are at a comfortable height. Ask about the hallways and the gangway.

Find out how steep that gangway is, says Dr. Lisa Thornton, medical director of pediatric rehab at LaRabida Children's Hospital in Chicago, because the degree of incline can present a problem.

Make sure you know whether there's an elevator between decks, she adds.

Many vessels have a "lip" at the door to the deck to keep water from entering, so find out how high those are and whether that would preclude a wheelchair user, says Andrew Coggins, a clinical professor at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York City who has studied the architecture of ships.

All three emphasized asking about shore excursions. Are there steps to climb to get onto the dock? If you're strolling on your own, is the town center at the dock or will you have to walk long distances to get there? Be aware, too, that you may be dealing with sidewalks, curbs and buildings that are ancient, by California standards.

Press the person on the phone for specific answers to all your questions, they say. (Coggins adds that if you think you're not getting all the information you need, check with the operations manager.)

River cruises are growing in popularity, and new vessels are being introduced that may make such a journey more accessible. But keep in mind that they also tend to be more expensive than ocean-going trips, partly because most are all-inclusive (including shore excursions that can be pricey on some ocean-going lines). You'll want to get everything you paid for on what could be the trip of a lifetime.

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