People with special needs or disabilities are becoming an increasingly important market for the cruise industry.  They are already spending more than $13 billion a year on travel, and as the population ages, this number will only increase.

Cruise lines are recognizing this important group, and understanding that for every one person with a disability, there are friends and family who travel with them.  So, the more accessible and inviting your cruise ship and your itineraries, the more you are opening yourself up to a world of new customers.

Having a disability does not need to keep you at home.  A cruise can be the perfect vacation choice for you and your family.

Bigger and Newer are Better

When it comes to picking the perfect cruise, communicate your specific needs clearly to your travel agent or, if you are booking directly, to the cruise line’s reservation agent.  A travel agent that specializes in special needs can be the best person to help you get what you need.

Look for a newer cruise ship, because the newest, largest ships have been designed with the disabled traveler in mind. From wider cabin doors and larger shower access, to accessible closet space, you are more likely to find what you need on a newer ship.

Older ships are being retrofit, and do have rooms that are accessible, but the newer ships have up to 30 rooms that are suitable.  Not to mention, the entire ship has often been designed to keep many special needs in mind.

A number of ships including Carnival’s Dream and Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas have Braille signage on stairwells telling guests where they are.  Many ships provide telecommunications devices for the deaf, including visual or tactile aids to indicate a knock at the door, the phone ringing or the smoke alarm. Most cruise lines have also provide braille signage on several ships. Best to check with your travel agent about your specific ship’s accommodations.

Service dogs are allowed on all cruise ships, although you do need to give them advanced notice, and you may need special documentation, such as vaccination records.

Besides the ship itself, another consideration is the itinerary.

U.S. ports are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so you can rest assured that the pier facilities will comply with accessibility standards, as will your transfers from the airport.

Foreign ports of call are another issue, and sadly, some are not as accessible as they should be.  Some are without wheelchair accessible transportation; some might bar service animals from leaving the ship due to quarantine laws. There are also ports where the ship ferries passengers to shore on smaller boats.  The cruise line will assist travelers in wheelchairs or scooters, but rough seas may present a problem and keep you onboard for the day.

When it comes to shore excursions, cruise lines include accessibility information in shore excursion guides.  Ask your travel agent or the ship’s shore excursion manager when you get on board which are best suited for you.

There are also cruises dedicated to particular special needs groups, which can be a wonderful way to see the world, and meet new people.  One example is Autism on the Seas, which uses Royal Caribbean ships for autism-themed cruises that feature special diets, professional staff and gatherings designed for children with autism and their families. Some others are  for those with hearing disabilities as mentioned above, those who are blind and use service animals, even dialysis patients who needed daily treatment during the cruise (nurses and equipment were all part of the arrangement).

If you have a disability or are traveling with someone who has special needs, the most important step is to be direct about your requirements, ask questions, and make sure you know what services will be available for you.  Many cruise lines now have dedicated managers to oversee accessibility issues and the requirements of guests with special needs.

The travel industry is changing, with a better understanding of the needs and wishes of special needs travelers.  So the world is waiting, and now may be a great time to start to start planning your cruise vacation, and thinking about where you want to go.

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