CRUISING WITH THE NELSONS
This summer, we took our very first cruise! To Alaska! It was amazing! It was a ton of work, but it was amazing! In this post, we will discuss planning, packing, special needs forms/paperwork, accessible shore excursions, and much more!
So, let's get started!
Frist, let me say, I was very hesitant to take a cruise, period - let alone with a medically fragile loved one! But, how may times do you get to take a trip like this? So, just jump in and do it!! (I'm glad we did)
We decided to go with Royal Caribbean, Ovation of the Seas, and started planning our Alaskan Cruise eighteen months in advance. Why so early? Well, we wanted to make sure we got the rooms and accessibility we needed for our family, and our extended family traveling with us. We also used a local accessible travel agent, Debra Kerper, with Easy Access Travel, to help us book our rooms. She has many years of accessible travel experience, is an expert in her field, and also a wheelchair user - she understands what it's all about!
Having a balcony was key to us to be able to see and really experience a true Alaskan cruise. Because we booked early, we were able to secure an ADA accessible stateroom and an adjoining stateroom so we could spread out and have our own spaces, but still be able to have access to both rooms. The balconies also adjoined, which made it super nice! Book as early as possible to make sure you get the accommodations you need.
Booking the cruise was the easy part, now it was time to think about "how do we get all the equipment on board?? how do we get off the boat for excursions?? will the boat be accessible? will there be accessible activities??" - this is all going through your head too, right? But first - DON'T FORGET TO GET YOUR PASSPORTS!! For info on how to apply for a U.S. Passport Click Here! Don't delay - according to the State Department, passports can take up to 13 weeks!
Note: The information given is our experience with Royal Caribbean, however other cruise lines offer accessibility and have similar departments.
SPECIAL NEEDS DEPARTMENT AND FORMS:
Whether you are traveling with a wheelchair, medical equipment, or have a food allergy, you need to fill out a Guest Special Needs Request Form. This form must be filled out at least 30 days prior to sailing, however earlier is always better! Royal Caribbean's form can be found here: Royal Caribbean Guest Special Needs Form . The form is a bit limited, so we suggest emailing any additional information, such as a list of medical supplies, enteral supplies, oxygen, etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org AND call 866-592-7225. Be as specific as possible when describing your needs and what sort of equipment will be brought on board - list everything from a bath chair to oxygen to powerchair charger. Make sure to also request anything you may need, such as a refrigerator for medication, sharps container, extension cord, etc.
A word of advice: Obtain a "Fit to Sail" letter from your doctor. This should state diagnosis and a statement from your physician that you are "fit to sail", this does not have to be an in-depth letter, just simply states the doc agrees you are good to go on an amazing adventure!! Remember - complete the Special Needs Form early, but also call and email as you get closer as a reminder and to make sure the ship and crew are fully prepared.
We were very pleased with the excursions we booked and had a great time. Not EVERY excursion is accessible, however you can request a list of accessible excursions from Royal Caribbean's Shorex Access. Email Shorex Access: email@example.com A member of their excursion team will begin working with you. Complete the Shore Excursion Accessibility Questionnaire and email it along with pictures of your wheelchair.
Book excursions as early as you can and pick non-tendered excursions. Having to tender from the cruise ship may make it difficult for the wheelchair to maneuver. We picked all non-tendered excursions so we wouldn't have any issues getting on and off the ship. In fact, when we booked our trip, our travel agent ensured none of our ports required the boat to tender. This may not be an option on all cruises, but it certainly made our life easy!
Royal Caribbean has two levels of accessible shore excursions:
Level 1 or "Panoramic" tours are designed for guests that are able to walk short distances, can negotiate the steps of a motor coach and/or travel with a standard size manual collapsible wheelchair that can fit in the motor coach luggage compartment. Be advised that most tours are conducted on motor coach. Please note that most motor coach steps are approximately 8- 12 inches high; the first step being as high as 18 inches from the ground.
Level 2 or "Easy" tours are designed for guests unable to negotiate motor coach steps or full time wheelchair users. The vehicle used on this type of excursion is adapted with an access ramp (or lift where available) to accommodate a limited number of wheelchairs. In order to use the ramp and/or lift, guests must be seated on a wheelchair or scooter. Due to liability issues, participants cannot stand on the ramp to be lifted into the vehicle. These tours are conducted on specialized vehicles therefore there are a limited number of seats available. Therefore, space is reserved for guests unable to negotiate steps and who are in need of an accessible vehicle traveling with no more than one able bodied companion.
Once you have booked your excursions, email the confirmation to the Shorex Access Department to ensure your reservation was received and they are aware of needed accommodations. If you don't receive a follow up email in a week or so, email again. It is very important to book early and request accessible transportation on EACH excursion booked. Don't assume anything!
Here is a list of the excursions we chose on Ovation of the Seas:
Juneau - Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest: Transportation was ready when we got
off the ship, a large coach (bus) with a UVL wheelchair lift and tiedowns. The driver allowed use to board first and get situated. The whale watching boat was prepared and even reserved seats up front so Mary could have the best view! We were able to see sea lions and whales before returning to the dock. Great experience!
Skagway - White Pass Scenic Railway: This is a MUST DO! It was absolutely gorgeous and completely accessible! The scenery was just outstanding! After the train ride, we departed at the stop leading into town for lunch and shopping! Just an all around great day!
`Sitka - Native Cultural, Historical & Rapture Experience: Great tour and demonstration on Eagles and birds of prey, followed by a visit to Sitka National Historical Park and much more! After the tour we were able to walk around town, shop, eat, visit St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Chapel and more.
There is an accessible shuttle bus to and from the port running every 30 minutes, which was easy, convenient and timely!
Victoria - Knight Limousine Private Tour:` We opted for a private tour in Victoria so we didn't have to be in the crowds and could make our own schedule. We worked with Knight Limousine who helped us customize our tour and provided a very nice accessible bus. The price was reasonable and the service was outstanding! We opted to go to Butchart Gardens first and had a fabulous time taking in the majestic gardens! This is another must do, in our opinion. We ended up spending more time at the gardens then planned, so we decided to have our next stop be downtown to shop, take in the historic sights and have some fun! Knight Limousine took us wherever we wanted to go and waited patiently as we perused around. We definitely recommend them!
You are all booked - now what???
What do I pack? How do I pack all the medical supplies? What clothes will we need? What is the weather like? All these things were racing around our heads as we got closer and closer to the trip! Don't fret, it's not as bad as it may seem........
If you're anything like us, you have a TON to pack - clothing, medical supplies, bath chair, medical equipment, teddy bear (ok, that's me), and much more!
We thought long and hard on how to get all our needed items onto the ship with as little baggage as possible. We sort of succeeded.....
Let's start with ALL the equipment, enteral supplies, chargers, batteries, you name it, that are a MUST. We carry a lot of equipment on the power chair, however we also like to have a back up of everything as well - so where does it all go? We bought a huge rolling tote. And, I mean huge - my family could have
smuggled me on to the ship in it! Ryan went on the hunt and found a 45 gallon tote with wheels and it fit everything perfectly - I was skeptical, and he proved me wrong - for the first time ;)
This allowed us to carry an extra ventilator, cough assist, vest system, IPV, suction, circuits, meds,
various supplies and more! As you can see it was packed full! It was huge and awkward, but the wheels made it easy to maneuver. Remember to pack extra supplies just in case you need them while onboard.
Enteral Supplies: We packed a separate rolling bag with enteral supplies and also made as much food as we could prior to boarding so we didn't have to worry about it on the cruise. This worked out great! NOTE: most ships will not allow you to bring a full size blender on board. A small "bullet" blender may be allowed. If you require a blender to make enteral supplies, speak with the Special Needs Department to obtain approval for certain items.
Oxygen: Oxygen tanks and concentrators are permitted onboard, just make sure to fill out the specifics on your special needs form.
Medical Beds: We brought our own foam mattress that rolled up easily for transport, however, some may require a medical bed. Medical beds can be rented for a cruise - there are several companies who work closely with cruise lines to provide rental equipment. Reach out to the Special Needs Department and they should help guide you.
Power cords: There are very few outlets in cruise ship cabins. If I remember correctly, we had two outlets per cabin. That isn't always enough when you have many pieces of medical equipment. It is best to request an extension cord from the cruise ship (on the special needs form) and bring your own power strips. We purchased cruise ship approved power strips. Always check with your cruise line to make sure what is approved!
Other items to pack:
Packing for a week in Alaska, and on a cruise ship, can be daunting. Here are a few items you may want to consider packing:
Formal attire - if you want to participate in the formal nights
Hat, gloves, scarf (if cruising to a colder destination)
Dinner clothing - "smart casual" is what they called it on our cruise
Camera and binoculars
Sunscreen, insect repellant
Backpack with a rain-cover
Passport and travel documents
Label, Label Label: Make sure all your bags are well labeled with your name, room number, phone number and home address. The cruise line will also have their own labels you print ahead of time - but label your bags yourself just in case! You can purchase cruise ship luggage tags, such as these for Royal Caribbean , for the printed tags required.
ALL ABOARD - ARRIVING AT PORT:
Arriving at the port can be a bit overwhelming because you and 93,345 of your soon-to-be best friends are all trying to get on a cruise ship! Don't fret, it was easier than we thought!
At least 30 days ahead of time, contact the Special Needs Department and let them know you will need help getting bags, medical equipment, etc. on board. Call a few days ahead to reiterate your request.
Once you arrive, find a dock porter and ask for help with your bags/luggage. Royal Caribbean was fabulous and had the Cruise Terminal Manager meet us to guide us through the process.
First, we were taken over to a different security bay where we were greeted by a super cute dog who had a very important job! Our equipment was sniffed for explosives and whatever else and then we were on our way! Next, we went up the elevator, through x-ray, and guided right onto the ship. The hardest and longest part was waiting for Ryan as he went to park the car after dropping us off!! We had plenty of help from our porter and family that made for smooth boarding!
Our bags had to be checked, but the medical equipment stayed with us and went straight to our room! Although we had a pleasant experience, a word of caution - boarding day is CRAZY and the elevators take FOREVER! Just have patience and all will be fine! Once we made it up to our room, we were able to settle in a relax before exploring the ship!
Communication with the Special Needs Department is key for a successful and smooth boarding. Line everything up as early as possible and follow up a few weeks out and a few days out! It may still be stressful, but probably easier than you think!
And, once on board explore, have some food, grab a drink or sit on the balcony and relax (though the balcony at port doesn't really overlook anything that pretty)
Once you are unpacked and have learned your way around the ship, we recommend just a few more things to make the trip fabulous:
Meet the Guest Services Manager! Make your way to the Guest Services Desk and ask to meet the manager, if you haven't met him or her already. Our Guest Services Manager, Steven, made sure we had all we needed to make the cruise as pleasant as possible!
Greet your Cabin Steward! We met our Cabin Steward, Suparman, right away and he was fabulous! He asked about our preferences and always made sure our room was stocked and clean. Don't forget to tip at the end of your trip!
Say "hi" to the Main Dining Room! A friend gave us a tip to ask to be seated near the front of the dining room as it can get very crowded for a wheelchair when everyone is seated and chairs pulled out. We met our Main Dining Manager and asked if it was possible for our party to be seated near the front for easy access and it was not a problem at all! Since we had a large group they made sure we had two tables near each other - one for adults and one for kids! Also, when dining, remind your wait staff of any allergies or dietary restrictions, they will make sure you're taken care of very well.
Check in with the Excursions Desk! This is important to make sure they have accessible transportation set up. Yes, it should be since it will be requested through Shore Access, however it's never a bad idea to ask - one of our excursions did not have accessible transportation assigned and they were able to fix it right away.
There are plenty of activities to chose from on sailing days, and on port days! Ovation of the Seas has an arcade, roller skating ring, numerous pools, rock climbing wall, foosball, ping pong, teen hang out, spa, full gym overlooking the sea, dance classes, exercise class, wine tastings, trivia, karaoke, The Northstar, indoor skydiving - you name it, they probably have it! You will not be bored!
Our family was pretty busy on and off the ship! We had two full sailing days on our cruise and chose a few activities to help pass the time! Mary and I took a cupcake decorating class with her cousins, aunt and grandmas while Jackson won the climbing competition!
Overall, we had a great cruise! There is a lot of work that goes into the front end to pull everything off, but it is totally worth it!
We hope these tips are helpful to our readers and please feel free to ask any questions! Happy Cruising!!