The accessible travel/special needs market spends $13.6 billion a year on vacations and travelers with special needs take 32 million vacations a year, according to Special Needs Group (SNG), which rents medical equipment to clients requiring it on a cruise.
But while cruising is an easy vacation choice for many Americans eager to head off to tropical isles or bucket list destinations, those with mobility challenges or a family with an autistic child may think a cruise simply wouldn't be doable.
Not so fast, say trade experts who work to assist clients with special needs and suppliers who assist in providing services for these travelers. To them, cruising can be the perfect choice.
Late last year, Dana Salem-McCarthy, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Novelty, OH, sailed on Carnival Cruise Line’s newest ship, Carnival Vista. She made it a point to speak to many physically challenged or disabled guests she met onboard about their experience.
Overall, she said they liked the ship and most felt it was easy to negotiate. She believes that cruise lines have done much in recent years to cater to those with special needs, particularly as they design new ships.
“The industry is really making sure a cruise vacation is for everyone,” says Salem-McCarthy. New ships often have pools with lifts, some accessible staterooms, ramps to most levels and doors to prime public spaces that may open with a button touch.
When it comes to accommodating special needs and mobility challenged clients, “it’s just a matter of doing things in a bit different way," emphasizes Debra Kerper of Easy Access Travel, Carrollton, TX. She's a Cruise Planners franchise owner.
Her clients range from stroke survivors to amputees and those living with MS. Others have breathing or joint issues or are paraplegics and quadriplegics. Some are simply slower walkers.
Easy Access Travel is offering an accessible Alaska cruise on Norwegian Bliss, departing August 2, 2018. Those who book early can secure a fully accessible stateroom with roll-in shower.
“We welcome all with physical challenges, your families and friends,” the agency says on its website.
In addition, Kerper has an “Accessible Southern Seas” voyage planned on Royal Caribbean International’s Navigator of the Seas on February 2, 2018.
Her top tip for consumers: “Be honest about any mobility challenges or special needs when talking to your travel agent.”
In turn, she recommends agents ask the client whether they use a scooter to shop in a grocery or department store? If they do, she says it’s advantageous they rent one while on a cruise as it will enhance their independence and make the vacation more enjoyable.
The reality? Many clients don’t realize the sizable distances between Point A and Point B on big ships. On a mega-ship, simply getting from the stateroom to the dining room can involve more steps than the client may ever walk in a week or two at home.
More Tips for Assisting Clients
Start early in planning, as accessible staterooms tend to book up quickly. Plus, agents need to have time to arrange for equipment rentals.
For questions, many cruise lines have dedicated phone desks to answer any pre-cruise special needs questions. Their “accessibility policy” is often listed on their website.
Pick the ship and itinerary carefully. Check the accessible facilities for the specific ship operating the client's desired itinerary.
Compare ships – both big and small – based on the individual client’s needs. Small ships may not have elevators or accessible staterooms (some do, some don’t). Big ships typically have many accessibility features like pool lifts or accessible staterooms.
But slow walkers may find a small ship easier to navigate, as distances are less. Small ships also typically dock in the heart of a city center, without the need for a long walk down a pier or through a terminal. Some river lines also have designed shore excursions for “slow walkers."
Look for a cruise itinerary with few, if any, tender ports. That means clients won’t need to get in and out of a tender, a small motorized boat that takes guests to shore in ports where the ship is unable to dock. Sometimes, even those who can walk may not be able to step down or climb out of a swaying tender.
In addition, cruise lines often prohibit power chairs or scooters in tenders. Even if they are accepted, crew members typically have sizable discretion to prohibit those if they feel the water is too rough.
Keep in mind that many foreign ports and ancient sites aren’t ADA-accessible. So Kerper is among agents who arrange accessible shore excursions. Her shore trips cover all the "accessible" bases from the transport method to the specific route involved and use of accessible restrooms.
Medical Equipment Rental
When cruisers head to sea, they may need to rent such equipment as a mobility scooter, power wheelchair, oxygen, nebulizers, hospital-type bed, power lift and more. Agents can assist clients in booking that equipment, and at the same time, earn commission in working with some providers including Special Needs Group (SNG).
SNG says all its equipment is cleaned and tested pre-rental, and in many cases – such as for a scooter – is delivered directly to the client’s stateroom.
A 24-hour emergency hotline provides “peace of mind” to clients if any issue develops; in some cities worldwide, SNG's equipment can be swapped out or repaired on the spot, should an issue occur.
Salem-McCarthy's most recent booking with SNG was for a 2018 Carnival cruise visiting Hawaii. "My client is 6'7" tall and weighs 280 pounds, and needed a scooter for the cruise," she says, noting that SNG was so easy to work with on the equipment rental.
Scootaround also provides equipment rental services on cruise ships. Delivering scooters, wheelchairs, power chairs and oxygen concentrators, it works with more than 25 cruise lines at several dozen major ports throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
Families with an autistic child or adult family member also may wonder if a cruise is the right vacation choice for them. Celebrity Cruises and other lines say they're autism friendly.
Royal Caribbean International is among the lines that says it will, upon request, make every reasonable effort to accommodate guests with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.
Another resource? Autism on the Seas (AotS) organizes and staffs cruise and resort vacations for families with an autistic child or adult family member.
Its Travel Agent Commission Sharing Program will allow travel agencies to obtain the company’s staffed cruise services for their clients and earn a bit of commission as well. Agents can sign up at the AotS website and there are several different ways AotS will work with agents.
AotS plans dozens of autism/special needs group cruises this year on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and others. Among those is Norwegian Dawn’s June 30 roundtrip from Boston to Bermuda.
Onboard, AotS’ professional staff will arrange specialized respite and private activities so guests can use entertainment venues in an accommodated/assisted manner. Separately, AotS offers a cruise assistance package designed for independent travelers.
Clearly, mobility and special needs cruising is a growth opportunity for the trade. On its website, SNG says that more than 24 million Americans with disabilities would travel more frequently if their special needs were better met.