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Accessible Cruises

A new resource helps travelers with disabilities find the right cruise

A spacious cabin -- complete with sizeable shower, convenient closet space and ample electrical outlets -- greeted Chicago resident Eric Lipp when he boarded the new Norwegian Pearl for a cruise of the Western Caribbean. Lipp, who occasionally uses a motorized scooter for better mobility, found the ship's public areas inviting, too, with plenty of room to move among restaurants and other onboard amenities.

As executive director of the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group that teaches businesses how to reach and serve people with disabilities, Lipp knows that vacations are not always this easy for travelers with special needs. "It can be really spotty, and it really varies upon your type of disability," he says.

Lipp could easily charge the scooter's battery in his cabin aboard the Pearl. Decks, restrooms and public areas were large enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and special lifts had been installed for swimming pool and Jacuzzi access.

"And the service is impeccable. You can't pass a doorway without someone asking you if you need anything," Lipp says.

Now, with the launch of Vacations To Go's new Web site for travelers with special needs, www.VacationsToGo.com/SpecialNeeds, people with disabilities can tap into a complete source of information for planning and booking accessible cruise vacations. Vacations To Go is the world's largest seller of cruises, best known for its last-minute bargains.

"After more than a year of research, Vacations To Go created a new department of dedicated agents to assist travelers with special needs. We developed the first comprehensive, ship-by-ship guide to facilities, services and amenities geared to travelers with special needs," says Kari Lee, manager of the company's special needs department.

"We've put the information on our Web site, with search tools that not only show guests the ships that will meet their needs but help them find a great bargain as well," she says.

At www.VacationsToGo.com/SpecialNeeds, you'll find specialized services, facilities and accessibility options detailed for more than 90 ships at nine major cruise lines. A search tool allows site visitors to select the features they need, along with their preferred travel dates, departure ports and cruising region.

Travelers with limited mobility, for instance, can use the search function to find ships with wheelchair-accessible cabins and public areas, lowered closet bars, grab bars in bathrooms, and lifts in pools and Jacuzzis. Those who have a low level of vision or are blind can ask for ships that accept service animals, provide audible elevator alerts or offer menus, service directories and public signage in large print or Braille.

Travelers who are hard of hearing or deaf can seek ships that carry closed-captioned televisions, TTY phones, "shake awake" alarm clocks and, in some cases, the services of an American Sign Language interpreter.

Cruise lines also can accommodate travelers who have diabetes, providing sugar-free desserts and containers for needle disposal when requested in advance. Travelers who need supplemental oxygen can arrange to have oxygen tanks delivered to the cruise ship at most ports worldwide, or Vacations To Go can recommend a supplier that rents equipment and transports it to the ship.

But travelers should discuss all their specific needs with their Vacations To Go travel counselor before booking a trip, says Lee, and verify that all their needs can be met on the ship they have selected.

After choosing the features that are important to them, site users will see a complete list of appropriate ships and itineraries -- all at a discount. Vacations To Go can secure the best rates in the travel industry, and the search tool will locate the lowest possible price for the desired cabin.

"I think the site is unique, and it's something people really need to use. It's a great tool," Lipp says. "I don't know of any other industry that has a tool like that."

The major cruise lines have made great strides in providing easily accessible ships, says Tiffany Bergman, manager of access and compliance for Holland America Line. Vacations To Go's newest Web portal will allow travelers with special needs to see these improvements for themselves and decide which ones to sample on a cruise.

"It's great that agencies such as Vacations To Go are starting to really focus on getting the word out -- that individuals with disabilities really can travel. This Web site is a big step in that direction," Bergman says. "Many individuals who never thought they could travel before, or thought it may be too difficult to deal with, are learning that they absolutely can see the wonders of the world."

Cabins on today's newer ships are larger and easier to navigate. Public areas, too, are becoming more accessible, with special seating in theaters and restaurants and wheelchair-accessible equipment added to spas and fitness centers.

"For a long time, travelers with special needs felt they were unable to cruise due to a lack of information about ship accessibility," says Kay Strawderman, director of the guest-access services department at Carnival Cruise Lines. "In the past 10 years, this has changed, and there has been a yearly increase in travelers with special needs sailing. It can only continue to grow."

Cruise ships sailing from U.S. ports are required to comply with at least some of the stipulations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. When choosing a cruise, travelers with special needs should opt for newer vessels. "New ships are going to be the most accessible ships," Lee says.

She also recommends departing from U.S. ports. Not only are they easier and cheaper to reach, but they are more accessible because pier facilities comply with the ADA. Transfers between the airport and the ship, if purchased through the cruise line, also will adhere to ADA regulations.

Unfortunately, international ports of call lag behind the accessibility trend. Some ports are without wheelchair-accessible transportation; others, due to stringent quarantine rules, might bar service animals from leaving cruise ships. In some cases, rough seas and dangerous conditions might prevent cruise lines from tendering travelers who use wheelchairs or scooters from ship to port.

"We don't know the extent of the foreign ports' accessibility. This is something that we want to become more knowledgeable about as this project progresses," Lee says.

In the meantime, if travelers with special needs are faced with an inaccessible port and are unable to leave their cruise ship, they might choose to spend the day taking full advantage of onboard services. They can enjoy the spa, pool, library and lounges, and have these features almost to themselves.

"The cruise lines' newest ships, as well as the ships being built now for a new season of travel, will be much more accessible and make cruise vacations so much more enjoyable for travelers with special needs," Lee says.

By Jennifer Davoren

The Vacations To Go Special Needs Department is open Monday through Friday, 8am to 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 6pm, Central Time.