A woman in a wheelchair and an enormous floppy hat sits on the dock of a cruise ship with a big smile on her face.

Cruising and MS

Vacation travel can present challenges for anyone. Life with MS also has its own challenges. Combine MS and vacation and you can get an entirely new set of challenges. When the community managers at MultipleSclerosis.net asked me to write about taking vacation cruises while living with MS, I jumped at the chance. Actually, the truth is I can’t jump anymore, but I am more than happy to share several tips I have learned of how to make the most of cruising. Not everyone will ever take a cruise, or even be interested in doing so. But in case you are traveling by big boat, this is the first in a series of articles where I share some personal tips and tricks to make the most of your vacation.

Attitude is everything

I don’t do well with large crowds, and it would be heavenly if we could cruise on a small ship with only a handful of passengers and a very attentive crew. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to a private yacht and instead cruise on the big liners, along with thousands of other vacationers. The good news is, there is still an attentive crew to attend to your needs and ways to avoid the crowd.

A mix of different types of travelers

Our most recent trip was on the Norwegian Cruise Line ship Escape, and we were onboard with 5,000+ strangers. The mix of cruisers range from the young crowd able to party all day and night, to the more sedentary travelers like my husband and me who are content to just do very little and looking to relax.

You can (mostly) avoid the crowd

Fortunately, on most ships, you only encounter the massive crowd during embarkations/disembarkation (boarding on and off the ship) and can find places that are less crowded and chaotic if that is your choice. You can mingle with others at shows, bingo, and other activities on board following a schedule that runs from sunrise to well after midnight each day. For us, quiet time sitting on the balcony of our cabin is more our style.

Coffee pot and mug on table with view of ocean from window

Morning coffee on the balcony

Realistic expectations

The glossy cruise ship brochures highlight the good life of sitting poolside but the reality is with 5,000 people on board, and a pool with a capacity limit of about 100, getting a spot in the water is a tough if not impossible challenge. Often even finding a chair on the deck to catch some sun is difficult.

Finding quiet places on the ship

Alcohol tends to flow morning, noon and night, and can affect the social manners of many people who otherwise would be more considerate. Don’t be surprised if in busy places on board you feel like you are in Times Square in New York City as the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Elbow to elbow crowds are not unusual during peak times, but it is also easy to find the quiet places on the ship where you can be out of the flow.

Cruise ships are small floating cities, and you can expect to walk a lot so pack good hiking shoes. Getting on and off the ship at the various ports usually involves navigating lengthy piers. Some piers have transportation while others require the passengers to travel by their own means.

View of docked cruise ship

NCL’s Escape docked at Harvest Caye, Belize

State your needs clearly

It is absolutely essential that you know if you will need any special accommodations before departing for a cruise, and you must state them clearly when you make the reservation.

Call the cruise line’s office of accessibility needs

This is where the cruise line’s office of accessibility needs comes into the picture. On each cruise line site, search for their special phone number and make the call, in advance of making your reservation. Once you connect with an accessibility assistant, be totally honest about your needs. The cruise industry offers great last minute specials to fill their ships, so there will be few empty cabins to make any adjustments if you find yourself in a cabin that doesn’t work.

People with MS each have different needs

People with MS come with varying degrees of ambulatory needs. Many of you reading this don’t need anything to help keep you steady. I use a cane to walk, some people might need a walker or the use of a wheelchair or scooter. Each of these needs puts us into a different type of cabin accommodation.

Cruise ship cabins are known to be small

My husband and I recently sailed on Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship Escape, and I upgraded our cabin to a ‘mini-suite.’ The operative word is ‘mini’ because cruise ship cabins are notoriously small. The entry to our cabin was somewhat narrow and there is no way a walker or wheelchair could have been used inside our room. Handicapped accessible rooms are available on ships, and it is critical to book one of these if needed.

Mobility devices

If you don’t have your own or want to travel without it to the port, and a wheelchair or mobility scooter would help make your trip easier to navigate, you can rent these through vendors suggested by the cruise line. Please keep in mind if you rent this equipment it must be stored in your cabin - for safety reasons, you may not leave it in the hall or any other public space. This mandates you have an accessible stateroom with wider doorways and passage space.

Assistance

You must be able to take care of yourself, or bring a caregiver with you, for the duration of the cruise. The cruise line employees cannot help with personal care, so keep that in mind. The one exception to this is they will provide wheelchair assistance on and off the boat at the port where you begin and end your cruise. If walking is an issue for you, by all means, request wheelchair assistance when you make your reservation. The boarding process is slow, and always involves a long walk up lengthy winding ramps.

Make your needs known in advance

This most recent trip had us coming on board the ship at Deck 7, which was three floors above the docks where we checked in. The staff of the cruise ship is more than willing to assist but you should make your needs known in advance. Much like wheelchair assistance at the airport, you will get access to a special entrance line, and this makes a big difference in the amount of energy you expend just getting on and off the boat.

Planning is key

Cruising with MS can be enjoyable and a great way to travel, but it requires a little extra thought, planning, and sharing your needs and expectations with the people helping you make your reservations. With some advanced planning and communication, you can be off on your dream cruise vacation, despite having MS.

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