Taking a Cruise with Mobility Issues

Watching the sun setting over the palm trees of St. John. Spotting whales surfacing off the coast of Hawaii. Gaping at the towering snow-capped mountains reflected in the waters of Glacier Bay, Alaska. These moments can belong to you even if you have mobility issues, thanks to the abundance of accessible and affordable cruises. In fact, cruises make ideal vacations for people with arthritis and their families. The key to a hassle-free and enjoyable trip is to plan as much as you can ahead of time.

Why a cruise?

Why is a cruise a good choice for people with arthritis? First of all, many cruise lines know how to accommodate people with disabilities, especially mobility problems. Second, cruise ships are self-contained — accommodations, dining, activities, and entertainment are all close by. Third, all cruise ships are equipped with a medical facility and staff that can meet your arthritis-related medical needs. Fourth, since cruises are package deals, they require considerably less planning than other types of vacations. And in general, they offer a relatively affordable way to travel to far-off destinations.

Often, cruises offer a wide variety of activities, for adults and children alike, so the whole family can find something fun to do. Cruise ships usually have pools, stage shows, dance clubs, piano bars, casinos, libraries, theaters, and jazz clubs. Typically there is a fitness area that has strength and aerobic exercise equipment and offers classes in aerobics, yoga, and Pilates. When the cruise ships dock, the shore excursions are optional. This means that people with arthritis can opt out of excursions that are not suitable for them. Excursions can be adventurous activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and fishing trips. Or they can be less rigorous activities, such as harbor cruises, whale watch cruises, and bus trips to take you sightseeing or to a museum.

Getting your ducks in a row

The first step in planning a cruise, of course, is choosing a destination. Some of the most popular destinations include Alaska, Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, and Mexico. Some people like to take a break from the winter by heading south, while Alaska is a popular destination in the summer. If you decide to take a cruise, choose a climate you enjoy — preferably one that doesn’t seem to make your arthritis symptoms worse.

Another issue to consider is the port of departure. There are two distinct advantages to choosing a port of departure in the United States. One is that you may be able to save money by driving to a U.S. port rather than flying. Also, U.S. ports must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and must be wheelchair-accessible. If the departure port is in another country, there is no guarantee as to how accessible it will be.

The biggest mistake you can make in planning a cruise is to automatically assume that your needs will be met by the cruise-ship company. It pays to figure out ahead of time what special adaptations you’ll need and confirm that your cruise ship can provide them. For example, make sure that the ship and your cabin are wheelchair-accessible, if you need that. Make sure your cabin is near an elevator to make getting around easier. If you’re prone to seasickness, request a cabin in the front or middle of the ship or on the upper deck. (See Managing Motion Sickness for more information on preventing and treating seasickness.)

Think of other amenities you might need. Are the elevators wheelchair- or scooter-accessible? Are there ramps to all passenger areas? Do the cabin and bathroom have widened doors? Do the cabin and bathroom have push-button doors? Is there a raised toilet seat or a toilet grab bar? Is there a roll-in shower? Does the shower have a bench or stool for you to sit on? If you take a medicine that must be refrigerated, make sure you’ll have access to a refrigerator, preferably in your room. If possible, try in advance to reserve a table that is close to the dining room entrance, so you won’t have to travel too far.

It may also be prudent to look into travel insurance, especially if you’re sailing in international waters. Find out whether the travel insurance covers preexisting conditions such as arthritis. You may need to contact your regular health-insurance carrier to find out how you would be covered in an emergency and what you should do if there is one.

Find out about shore excursions ahead of time. You need to consider not only the level of activity involved in an excursion, but also the accommodations for going ashore and traveling on shore. For example, some destination cruise ports don’t have enough pier space to accommodate all cruise ships, and some ports have no pier at all, so passengers must be carried to port by small boats. This can make things difficult or impossible for you if you have limited mobility or use a wheelchair.

A good way to hunt for affordable cruises is through websites such as www.travelocity.com, www.expedia.com, www.orbitz.com, www.priceline.com, www.kayak.com, www.cruise.com, or www.bestfares.com. Another site, www.vacationstogo.com, helps people who have special needs (because of vision or hearing loss, lung problems that necessitate supplemental oxygen, diabetes, or limited mobility) find appropriate cruises. From the main www.vacationstogo.com website, click on Special Needs in the left-hand column to get started. The site allows people with limited mobility to search for cruises that meet their own specific needs, such as wheelchair-accessible rooms and shower seats. The company’s travel counselors also work with clients to determine which cruises offer accessible shore excursions. You can also find information on available accommodations for passengers with special needs on the Special Needs section of www.cruise.com.

Packing

If you’ve found a cruise that meets all your needs, the next step is to pack up and get ready to go. First, a word to the wise: Don’t leave packing until the last minute. Remember, you want to be well rested before you travel so that you can enjoy your vacation to the fullest.

Let’s start with the luggage. The best kind of suitcase to have is one that is lightweight and has wheels and a pull handle. Packing can be a delicate balancing act, as you want to pack lightly but make sure you have everything you need. Be sure to bring some food and drink in case there is a delay getting to the ship. As a general rule of thumb, anything you need at home, you’ll also need on your trip. This includes items such as special large-grip eating utensils, rubber doorknob extenders, a reacher, a folding cane, any special pillows you use, hot and cold packs, night-lights, and all your medicines (including motion sickness pills, if you need them).

Packing medicines

You should take some special precautions when traveling to make sure you’ll have access to your medicines. It’s also a good idea to carry more of each medicine than you expect to use, in case of a delay. Keep all medicines in their original containers, so you won’t get them mixed up. This will also make it easier to carry medicines through airport security checkpoints. When you travel by air, it’s not a bad idea to carry two sets of medicines — one for check-in and one for carry-on, just in case your checked luggage doesn’t make it to its destination. If you want to take liquid medicines on a plane and they’re 3.4 ounces (by volume) or less, you can put them in the 1-quart, resealable, clear plastic bag all passengers are allowed to carry through security. If the meds are more than 3.4 ounces, you must declare them separately to a security officer at the checkpoint, along with any needles, syringes, or auto-injectors you want to take on board. It may be helpful to have copies of the original prescriptions and/or a note from your doctor, though this is not required. You can also fill out a TSA Notification Card, which allows you to discreetly alert security screeners to any medical conditions you have. (Check www.tsa.gov, the website of the Transportation Security Administration, before you leave home to make sure there have been no changes.) Make sure to bring the names and phone numbers of your doctors, as well as your medical insurance information. If you have a MedicAlert bracelet (for example, saying that you’re taking steroids), be sure to bring it as well.

Getting to the cruise port

The most challenging part of your trip may be getting to the city of departure. This generally means driving, if the port is not too far away, or flying.

If you’re driving, try to share the driving with a friend or family member. If you’re driving by yourself, be sure to allow yourself frequent stops at rest areas to give yourself a chance to stretch. If you’re renting a car to your destination, be sure to get a car with any features you might need, including power steering, brakes, windows, and seats; cruise control; and four doors (so you don’t have to climb over a fold-down seat).

If you’re flying to the port, there are a number of measures you can take to make your travel worry-free. For example, you can fly on a weekday, which is apt to be less busy than a weekend, allowing you greater mobility on the plane. Also, see whether the reservations clerk can help you find a flight that is likely to be less crowded. If possible, get a nonstop flight. If none is available, be sure to give yourself ample time between flights. And try to get an aisle or bulkhead seat, which is much easier to climb into than a middle or window seat.

Be sure to arrive early at the airport. If you have difficulty walking, you should request a wheelchair or motorized cart when you make your reservation. Remember to wear shoes that are easy to take off because you may be required to remove them by security personnel. If your arthritis or another condition makes removing your shoes a problem, notify the TSA agent and he may allow you to undergo an alternative form of security screening.

Once aboard

Once aboard the cruise ship, the very first activity you may want to schedule is rest. After all, you’ve probably had a long day of traveling, and you’ll enjoy the cruise a whole lot more if you’re rested. A successful vacation requires not only a balance of activity and rest but also, if you’re traveling with friends or family, a balance of togetherness and solitude. That means, for example, if others want to go on excursions or participate in onboard activities, you should feel free to opt out and take their absence as an opportunity to rest. Dinnertime can offer a regular chance for those in your party to reconnect and share the adventures of their day.

Yet, also try to remain at least as active as you usually do. After all, if exercise makes you feel good, why take a vacation from it? Use the ship’s fitness facilities, and if there are classes in activities such as aerobics, yoga, and Pilates and you’ve never tried them, now’s your chance to see if you like thehttps://www.tsa.gov/sites/default/files/disability_notification_card_508.pdfm.

If you like to walk, there is ample opportunity aboard ship to walk for exercise — some cruise ships are the length of four football fields. If you don’t walk all that far on a regular basis, consider this: Most cruise ships have abundant deck chairs, providing plenty of places to sit down and take a break.

Clearly, having arthritis doesn’t put exotic and affordable travel beyond your reach. Cruises in particular can offer very attractive packages for people with mobility issues and other disabilities. As long as you plan ahead and respect your limitations, you can enjoy your vacation without arthritis getting in the way.

Want to learn more about traveling with chronic pain? Read “Mapping Out Your Next Trip” and “Limited Mobility Traveling Tips: Traveling With Arthritis.”

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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