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Cruising expert, Kristin Secor shares helpful tips

A woman in a wheelchair on the deck of a ship, bundled up in a lilac puffer jacket and wearing sunglasses. Behind her, the vast, tranquil sea stretches out to the horizon, meeting a sky partially veiled with soft clouds. To her right, the deck railing provides a clear view of a rugged, snow-covered mountain peak in the distance, evoking a sense of adventure and the serene beauty of a cold, maritime landscape.
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Kristin Secor, who lives in upstate New York, was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy which affects her strength, balance, endurance and breathing. She is a full-time ventilator user. 

Travelling is a huge part of Kristin’s life. “It’s a way for me to keep life in perspective because I think it’s so easy to get wrapped up in your own circumstances. Travelling abroad allows me to see that there is a much bigger picture out there so it helps me keep my circumstances in perspective to the bigger picture. It’s like my reset button. When I feel stressed, I travel. I love it. It’s a great educational tool. I’ve gained so much self-confidence from travel and I just love being exposed to new cultures, new places and all of that.”

What is your definition of a luxury vacation?

My definition is going to be a little more skewed, not necessarily monetarily. It’s the luxury of having accessibility. I think the world can be accessible, but there’s a long way to go. So finding your dream destination that is accessible and can meet your needs, that is luxury because it doesn’t exist everywhere. 

When I got back from my trip to Antarctica, I went to Iguazu Falls on the Argentina/Brazil border and stayed at the Gran Meliá Iguazú which was more expensive than what I usually spend on a hotel. But it was perfect because it overlooked the falls. Every room had a balcony and the view was beautiful, the falls, wildlife all around, monkeys climbing on your balcony, and most importantly, it was accessible. The room I stayed in had two bathrooms. One was a traditional bathroom and one was a fully accessible bathroom. Most of my hotel stays are really nice but at this resort, there were many little touches that I’m not used to. The environment, the views and staff were wonderful. I would say that’s probably my most luxurious experience thus far. Plus, the food was delicious.

Love for cruising

I’ve done at least one cruise a year for the past couple years and I have future trips planned for the next few years. For someone like me who doesn’t always have a lot of energy, it’s a great way of balancing relaxation with activity and just doing as much as I want. 

Do you travel solo?

No. I always have a companion with me because my disability affects my strength so I can’t lift most things. I travel with my respiratory equipment, luggage etc., so I absolutely must travel with someone.

What’s most important for you on a cruise?

An accessible cabin. You have to book early to get those. They are very limited, so they sell out very quickly. I usually book as soon as the itineraries are released and I always plan way ahead. For example, I know that in 2026 I want to go to Asia. Some cruise lines have already released their Asian itineraries so I’m already looking at booking that cruise to make sure I get an accessible cabin. Of course, everyone doesn’t have to book two years in advance, but I would say at least a year in advance especially on popular itineraries like Alaska. Those cabins will sell very quickly. Some of the newer ships are adding more accessible cabins but I would say on a ship that can hold 3,000 to 4,000 people, you may have 20 accessible cabins. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a limited amount.

Tips for navigating the ship 

There are deck plans online, so even before you travel you can get a sense of where things are on the ship. I find the routes are very accessible. If you have visual impairments, the day you get on the ship, ask the crew to give you a guided tour so you can get an idea of the layout, based on first-hand experience rather than trying to navigate it yourself. There is Braille on the ship, but it can be hard to find, so a crew member can guide you to where the Braille messages are. Definitely, I would advise you to talk to the crew the first day you get onboard. 

Some ships have pool lifts and some don’t. Ask how far in advance you have to request one, whether you have access to the hot tubs and again these amenities can vary by cruise line and by ship.

By asking these questions in advance, you will have a good idea of what’s in store and set yourself up to have a good vacation.  

How do you communicate your accessibility needs to the crew?

Every cruise line has an accessibility department. When you book an accessible cabin, you will need to complete a mobility or disability form that will allow them to prepare for your needs. Some of the information I provide includes the dimensions of my wheelchair, that I walk with a cane and have visual impairments, some dietary needs and that I need an ASL interpreter. If you’re flying in, they can have accessible transportation available for you and help recommend excursions and things like that. This is available for all cruise liners. Each form may look a little different but yes, you will need to do that across the board. If you book an accessible cabin and do not fill out that form, they may remove you from the accessible room assuming that you don’t need the special features of that cabin. So, make sure to fill out the form.

Accessible cabin features

If you haven’t cruised before, know that accessible cabins have standard features. They have a roll in shower, fold down shower bench, grab rails by the commode, an emergency pull cord, a roll under sink and more space within the room to navigate in your wheelchair. If you need more specialized equipment, such as a commode chair, a hospital bed or patient lift, you will need to rent them and they will be delivered to your cabin. This has to be arranged outside of the cruise line with companies like Mobility at Sea. If you book an accessible cabin, you’re guaranteed an accessible cabin when you fill out that form, which is nice because with hotels you don’t always get that guaranteed. With cruise ships you do. So that’s one of the reasons I enjoy cruising. 

What challenges, if any, have you encountered while cruising?

Sometimes the gangway to get on and off the ship can be steep. Depending on what your level of comfort is with inclines, sometimes crew will assist, especially if you’re in a manual wheelchair, they’ll have someone behind you and in front of you to assist you on and off the ship. But that doesn’t always happen—it varies by cruise line. I had an issue when I cruised to Antarctica. There were quite a few tender ports and generally, they are not accessible. But I chose this specific cruise line because they said they have an accessible tender system. I asked them—is it accessible, can I roll right on the tender in my wheelchair? I was told yes but when I got there, there was an elevator that went down to the tender and this is what they deemed accessible. And there was a gap so I couldn’t just roll right on. They then told me I probably couldn’t go ashore as they’re not allowed to lift me. How disappointing! I pushed back and advocated for myself because I was obviously given misinformation when I booked. Thankfully I was travelling with someone and her plan was to lift part of the wheelchair onto that tender to get me on regardless. A crew member saw what she was doing and came over to help although they initially said they couldn’t lift me.

Information can be very inconsistent so as a general rule, I recommend people assume that tenders are not accessible. I think having the correct expectations can really make or break a trip. If you were promised one thing, and it turns out that’s not entirely true, you can be really disappointed. 

Unless a cruise ship is sailing in U.S. waters, they don’t have to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you take a European cruise, for example, your accessibility experience may be very different. Be aware that your experience can vastly vary depending on where you’re sailing.

This June, I’m going to be cruising to Norway. The cruise line did not offer any accessible excursions in Norway. However, I was able to contact private companies that did have accessible transportation so I’ll still be able to do excursions and have a wonderful trip, I’m hoping. One of the reasons I wanted to cruise to Norway is that there is very little information online about how accessible it is as a country and especially cruising there. But I’m going to change that. I’ll be the guinea pig. I’ll go. I really want to put that information on the internet so it’s easier for people to find when they’re planning their trip. 

Are there any particular cruise lines or ships that you found to be exceptionally accommodating for a person with a disability?

I personally like Princess Cruises. They have always done very well by me. When I cruised with them in September, 2022 on a round trip from Southampton, U.K., they had wheelchair accessible transportation for me to get to and from the ship. The lift broke on the bus and they didn’t know that until the morning as we were getting off the ship. They quickly hired a private company with an accessible van to transport me to the airport. The staff has always been really wonderful in helping me get on and off the ship. Gateways sometimes can be steep and staff is always there just making sure my needs are being met. 

I sailed to Antarctica with Holland America but I was disappointed. They are generally good with accessibility because they tend to have an older demographic on board. Although my experience that one time was poor, they did make it up to me. They offered reimbursements and tried to make things right and helped me get refunds for my private excursions.

I’ve not sailed with Celebrity yet but I’ve heard they are really good. Royal Caribbean is known for very large ships, very Broadway-style production shows, lots of eateries and a lot of family crowds. 

Most of the major cruise lines offer accessible services but everyone’s going to have a different experience. 

I would advise, when you’re choosing a cruise line, to look at the experience you want to have onboard and the activities they offer. And be mindful that demographics can change based on where you’re sailing to, for example, the Caribbean destinations may have a younger or a family crowd.

How do you plan excursions to ensure they’re accessible?

I ask specific questions instead of just asking broadly, is this accessible? Because they may just say yes. I literally had this happen to me before. I said, is this bus accessible? The answer was yes, but you can climb stairs, right? While some people can store their mobility device in the storage area and then climb on the bus, not everyone can, therefore, definitions of accessibility, especially when you ask an able-bodied person are going to vary greatly. When I’m asking about excursions, I’m very specific. I’ll ask, does this bus have a lift or a ramp that folds out that allows me to stay in my wheelchair? I then get better answers which leads to better results and a better experience. If you’re too general, you may get false information.

Are there memorable highlights from any of your cruises that you’d like to share?

Sailing through Antarctica. Even though that trip had some letdowns, the experience of sailing there, seeing the wildlife every day: the penguins, whales, killer whales, seals, birds in this really pristine and quiet environment, it was otherworldly and really, really beautiful. I would say the other experience that stands out is that cruising allowed me to visit the country of my ancestors. I was on a Princess cruise and they had a special cultural activity program. One of the stops was Germany and it was September so Oktoberfest was coming up. The music director onboard taught us how to play the glockenspiel. It was a nice way to experience that culture onboard the ship and get that extra bonus experience of playing an instrument that I may not have otherwise had.

What advice would you give to someone with a similar disability who is considering their very first cruise?

Research! That’s going to be what helps to make your experience the best. Cruise lines sometimes have excursions where you just stay on a bus and drive around the town. I like to get off the bus to take pictures so sometimes I’ll choose a private excursion to have more flexibility to do what I want. I look at the type of cabin I want. I know it’s going to be accessible but do I want an inside cabin to save money? Do I want a balcony cabin? And that may change based on where I sail to. When I sailed to Alaska, I chose a balcony because I wanted to see all the scenery, but usually I do an inside because I’d rather spend money on excursions. I always have a budget, so I look at what’s going to fit my interest, budget and needs. Also reading about other people’s experience helps.

How do you manage unexpected medical needs or equipment requirements while you’re onboard?

Because I’m on a ventilator, I bring a lot of medical equipment and medical supplies with me. That’s not something I can necessarily order and have delivered to my room, so in case something unexpected happens I’d rather have more than less. 

I take up a backup ventilator with me. If something happens to the main one I use, I’m not in a crisis situation where I can’t breathe. Once I ordered a commode chair because I wasn’t sure what the toilet height would be and that worked seamlessly. Mobility at Sea is really good at delivering your rented equipment to your room. I always carry on my equipment. I never allow the crew to handle it because I don’t want to worry.

If you’re on the fence about cruising . . . 

Give it a try. Do the seven-day cruise to start with. I tend not to do the three-and four-day cruises because you’re on and off the ship before you get to experience anything. 

There’s a little bit of everything onboard for everyone. There’s entertainment, shows, comedians, a lot of different things. The food is usually excellent. You can gain weight on a cruise very easily, that’s the downside of cruising. But there’s a lot to enjoy. I think a lot of people with disabilities do enjoy it because you only have to unpack once, you get to see different places and the ship can be a destination in and of itself. So, give it a try and see if it fits your needs.

My trips this year:

I’ve got a lot of really cool trips coming up this year. I’ll be in Peru in March and Machu Picchu and Norway and Ireland and then a safari in South Africa.

Kristin is a wealth of travel information. Read her blog at: worldonwheelsblog.com. Follow her on Instagram @worldonwheelsblog

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