My sister Jenni has cerebral palsy. A couple of years ago someone asked her if there was anything she hadn't done that she would want to do. Jenni said, “Well, I've never been on a cruise.” So we started planning Jenni’s cruise. We recently got back from a Royal Caribbean five-day Mexican cruise from Galveston, Texas.
Our ship was called the Independence of the Seas; the family members that went were myself and my husband, Sean, my parents, my sister Sara, and my sister Michelle and her husband, Steve. So there were eight of us altogether on this amazing cruise.
In case you yourself need some accommodations on a cruise, or if you go with someone who does, you’ll know a lot more after reading about my experience. First of all, every ship has accessible staterooms, also known as cabins. These accessible rooms only accommodate two people. You cannot put three or four people in the cabin, I believe because of space. We had reserved our ship quite awhile ago, but the ship and our cabin type changed between the time we booked and when we sailed. The original type of cabin that we had was an inside cabin with a virtual balcony. Our new ship didn't have virtual balconies, so we had panoramic ocean view cabins on deck 12, which is the highest deck where cabins are located on the Independence. These were amazing rooms. I am so glad that we didn't have the virtual balcony rooms because these were better in a lot of ways than what we originally had booked.
Before our cruise, I checked on shore excursions with Royal Caribbean’s accessibility team. There are different types of shore excursions, for all types of accessibility needs. You may be able to transfer yourself, you may need a wheelchair, or you may be able to walk with a cane or walker. Jenni is in a wheelchair and she can’t transfer herself. Her accessibility needs are a little more than what some others’ might be.
I also talked to the accessibility team regarding our transfers from the airport to the ship and from the ship to the airport. We were flying in the night before, so I booked an accessible hotel room for her. The hotel had an airport shuttle, and I had contacted them to see if it would be accessible or not, and what the procedures would be. Although it was more work than what I normally would need to do if we didn't have the accessibility needs, it was helpful to have all of the legwork done and know what to expect before we even set off on our trip.
There are some pre-cruise preparations that everyone needs to do these days. First, you are required to check in online. You need to create an online account for your check in, and you also will be asked to download the cruise line app. No matter which cruise line you're cruising with, they have an app. You'll be asked to download a selfie so that they can recognize who you are, and your boarding documents like your passport and your vaccination card.
On the app or online, you can prebook your excursions and your specialty dining, which is any dining that you want to do for the surcharged restaurants. You can also add WiFi and drink packages.
Second, you are required to take a COVID test within 48 hours of boarding your cruise; you'll have to have that negative result before you can board. Third, 24 hours before your cruise, you will be asked to complete a pre-cruise health questionnaire. All of those things are just standard as pre-cruise check-in procedures for everyone, no matter your cruise line.
I would suggest that you arrive plenty early, especially if you are traveling with someone who has accessible needs. You can request wheelchair assistance, and they do a wonderful job of helping you with whatever you might need. Airlines have a wheelchair that fits in the center aisle of the plane. We were able to transfer Jenni from her regular wheelchair to that airplane wheelchair and get her right to her seat. Of course, if you are able to walk down the aisle, you wouldn't need that accommodation, but handicapped passengers are allowed to board prior to other passengers, and then they wait until everyone deplanes for the staff to assist them off the flight. Our airport handicap experience was wonderful. There was not one glitch with our boarding process at all.
Arrival in Houston: transportation and hotel
After arriving in Houston, we caught the hotel shuttle. In contacting them ahead of time, I discovered that the hotel did not have access to vans with lifts. The van they sent worked for us, because it had a running board which helped us in transferring Jenni into the seat.
That evening we stayed at a hotel, and then the following morning took the hotel shuttle back to the airport to meet the Royal Caribbean transportation to the ship in Galveston.
As I mentioned, I had previously called the accessibility team at Royal Caribbean to make sure that they knew that we would need accessible transportation for Jenni. Upon arriving at the airport and checking in with the transportation team, I discovered that although they did know we were coming, they do not own the buses in Galveston, and they have no control over which type of transportation will be sent on any given day. As it turned out, the bus we were getting was not wheelchair accessible but was a regular motorcoach. However, they offered to bring a taxi for Jenni and a couple of companions, if that would suit her needs. Since we could not have transferred her into the motorcoach, we accepted the taxi. It arrived at the same time as our motorcoach, and Jenni and my parents traveled comfortably to the port in a Chevy Suburban.
Boarding the ship
The boarding process was very smooth. When boarding, you need to have your vaccination card ready, and your passport or documents. As you go through the boarding process for vaccinated passengers, Royal Caribbean gives you an additional green wristband so that you can go to certain “vaccinated only” areas onboard.
As you go through the boarding process, you're asked to stop by your muster station as you board the ship. If you have cruised previously, you know that there typically has been a muster drill at the beginning of your cruise, where you have to meet in a certain place, which would be your emergency disembarking station if anything were to happen and you had to get off the ship suddenly. So everyone onboard is assigned a specific station. In the past you have gone and met with your muster group at your assigned place, and they've gone through the little drill of showing you how to wear the life jacket and how everything will go.
Now they don’t want big groups of people gathering together, so they just ask that you stop by your muster station as you walk onto the ship. Our muster station was right on the way to our staterooms. There were two people standing there with a clipboard, and they checked us off as we got there—super quick and very easy. Our luggage was delivered to the hallway outside our rooms soon after we arrived.
Your room card is in its slot in your door, already printed with your name. Because of your pre-cruise check-in process, you’ve already entered a credit card to be synced with your room card, so all you need to have onboard is your room key for purchases, entering and exiting restaurants, etc. No wallet is needed onboard.
The handicap rooms onboard are very roomy and extremely accommodating. Although all of us had extremely nice panoramic ocean view rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, Jenni and Sara’s room was the largest stateroom I’ve seen on a cruise ship, other than the most expensive suites. The bathroom was large and included hand rails, a shower chair, and a handheld rainfall showerhead.
The ship does an amazing job of accommodating everybody. There are elevators everywhere, which can get anyone pretty much anywhere on the ship. Disembarking in ports was very easy for us; there were ramps going on and off the ship. Royal Caribbean did a great job of accommodating everything we needed or wanted.
Health & safety
On the ship, we were required to mask while inside: in elevators, hallways, walking into restaurants, whether vaccinated or not. There are vaccinated areas in the ship: at the adult pool area, plus one whole level in the theater. Anytime you were in the vaccinated areas, you did not have to wear a mask. As long as you were outside, there was no masking required.
Sanitizing stations were everywhere, all over the ship. And washing stations are set up outside the buffet restaurant.
Reservations were required for the specialty restaurants and the shows, I think partially to keep the numbers at safe levels. Not that that was an issue for our cruise, which was only about 30% full. It was wonderful to travel with so few people onboard, but I know that is changing as more people return to cruising.
What’s the same about cruising?
So much is the same; it felt wonderful to be cruising again! The incredible food, the drink packages, WiFi package, and specialty dining reservations. We attended nightly shows every evening; one night instead of the theater, we watched the ice skating show—yes, they have an ice rink on the Independence of the Seas. The pools are all open. And the dining staff still does a great job of helping you celebrate: they provided a special cake for Jenni’s birthday, and one for our anniversary.
Excursions are also the same. You can either book your excursions through the cruise line, or do your own thing.
Ports & excursions
Our two ports of call were Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico. I mentioned that I had contacted the accessibility team to find out about accessible excursions prior to our cruise. The team had a few choices in each port, for varying degrees of accessibility needs. We actually opted to not do any of Royal Caribbean’s accessible excursions.
In Costa Maya we disembarked to wander, shop, and see the sites. We spent a few hours off the ship and had a great time.
In Cozumel some of our group went on a Royal Caribbean-sponsored snorkeling adventure and had a great time. The others, including Jenni, disembarked and found a driver and guide willing to take them wherever they wanted around the island. This group had a delightful time, visiting a Mayan village, making tamales and chocolate, and then visiting a chocolate factory. The guide even insisted on pushing Jenni’s wheelchair every time they got out of the van. It was a perfect excursion for Jenni and her group.
Back in the day, you always needed to leave your luggage outside your room the night before, and then the crew would take it off the ship for you. That service is still available, or you can opt to take your own bags with you the morning you disembark.
The checkout process is super easy. You’ve previously signed up for a disembarkation time. As you walk off the ship, you just have to swipe your card, which lets them know that you're leaving. Once we disembarked, we went to the shuttle waiting area.
Getting back home
The bus back to the airport did have a lift, so they were able to put Jenni's wheelchair right in the back of that motor coach. We all rode back to the airport together, and everything was seamless getting home.
There’s no reason not to cruise right now. The cruise lines are requiring that 90 to 95% of people are vaccinated. There were several children onboard our ship; they would be part of the unvaccinated numbers, as well as those who can’t vaccinate for medical reasons. It felt very safe, and was so fun! I would highly recommend it—the sooner the better, to avoid the big crowds that will surely return once people realize how amazing cruising is.
It was great to see the cruising perspective through the lens of being handicap accessible. Royal Caribbean and the airlines did a fantastic job of making our vacation really incredible. I didn’t address this, but all cruise lines are great at accommodating dietary restrictions as well: gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, or other dietary needs. Let me know the accommodations ahead of time, and I can make sure your cruise is as wonderful as ours was!