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Thread: Review: my cruise in the Baltic

  1. #1
    Senior Member Clipper's Avatar
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    Review: my cruise in the Baltic

    I recently returned from a 10-day cruise in the Baltic Sea (14-day trip overall), with stops in six countries. Although I've traveled a lot, this was the first time in 13 years of disability that I returned to Europe. I had an absolutely fantastic trip. Below is my review, which I hope everyone finds helpful. Special thanks to KLD for putting the idea into my head and providing great tips on this and other boards. I'm am C5-6 complete, by the way.

    Planning: There are many travel agents out there who are skilled in arranging travel for someone with a disability, but I chose to make my own arrangements. I enjoy planning and am knowledgeable about traveling, so for me this was half the fun. I contacted the cruise line directly and made all other arrangements. Doing it myself gave me control over every aspect of my trip. The Internet is a great resource -- use it. If you are unfamiliar with trip planning, however, I recommend using a travel agent.

    Flying: I flew SAS, a foreign airline that offered direct flights from my home city to Copenhagen, Denmark. I purchased my tickets on Expedia, which I never do, but I was able to get a much lower fare this way. Always follow up with the airline via telephone, though, to tell them about your disability. Simply noting it on the Internet is not enough. I was surprised to learn that SAS has some very "different" policies concerning disabled passengers. They could not "guarantee" that my chair would be brought to the gate in Copenhagen. (My manual chair does not fit onboard.) I have never had a problem getting a "gate claim" before, so this was a little strange to me. Since I knew of this possibility, I made sure that the lead flight attendant knew of my concern. My chair was brought to the gate. Always call the airline 48 hours before your flight to double-check the departure time and flight number, and to remind them of your needs. Do so again at the ticket counter when you check your bags, and again at the gate. SAS also does not permit disabled passengers to sit in any row on the wing (not just the exit row), or in a window seat. I thought my seat assignments had been changed for some othe reason but found out the truth on my return flight. I argued for a window seat and won, but gave up my right to assistance in an emergency. Other foreign airlines may have the same rules. Beware. I purchased a low-profile ROHO cushion to sit on during the flights, since my high-profile cushion places me too high. Remember to put something under your feet if you sit on an extra cushion, or your circulation could be affected. Also loosen your shoes -- your feet are gonna swell. Bring a warm pullover shirt in your carry-on if you get cold easily. Other great items to bring: a Camelbak drinking pouch and tube (mine holds 50 ounces of warm water); straws and a hat. BTW, the Camelbak straps to the back of any chair and is great for hands-free drinking.

    Packing: I have a Quantum shower chair that assembles easily and fits into a special bag. There is room in the bag for extra pillows, which in addition to being useful, also pad the chair. I can't say enough good things about this chair -- it has revolutionized the way I travel. Make sure to mark the outside of the bag "medical equipment" and to tell the airline when you check in. Medical equipment is not counted toward your baggage limitations. I also brought an enormous duffle bag that contained a four-inch eggcrate mattress overlay. Eggcrates don't do much for pressure relief, but they make sleeping on a hard bed very tolerable -- and even comfortable. Better yet, I left the eggcrate behind and used the duffle bag for my puchases. Also carry your medications in a carry-on bag, and make sure you have enough to last beyond your vacation -- just in case you get stuck. Also, carry essential items in a carry-on. (I brought a spare foley catheter and kit in my carry-on, for example.) As for clothes, I packed for layering -- always a good choice if you get cold easily and will be traveling someplace where the temperatures will vary. Other good stuff to pack: plastic garbage sacks (good for bowel program activities, if you know what I mean), voltage converters, extension cord, duct tape, cushion repair kit, adustable wrench and screwdriver.

    Wheelchair: I always choose to travel with my manual chair and leave the electric behind. There are just too many issues with the electric, particularly if you are going somewhere that does not have public transportation that can accommodate your chair easily. I travel with my best friend, who lift me and does the pushing. Again, this is a trade-off. If you do take an electric, make sure that you plan for your transportation needs in advance and recognize the limitations in other countries. I will talk more about this later. I put KIK foam-injected airless tires on my manual chair for this trip. I didn't have to worry about flats this way, since I knew the terrain would be rough. The ride wasn't as smooth but, again, this was a trade-off. As mentioned above, take with you simple repair tools. For example, my handrims loosened during my trip. The wrench I brought came in handy. Do some light maintenance on your chair before leaving -- tighten stuff, oil the squeaks, clean it. Minimize the risk.

    Cruise ship: I booked a wheelchair accessible cabin. This is an absolute neccessity. Some cruise lines require you to submit a doctor's letter saying that you need such a cabin. Do your homework. Ask questions. Find out EXACT dimensions of the cabin, and ask about the bathroom. I frequented a cruise message board and, by luck, found someone who was going to cruise in my exact cabin three months before I left. He was able to tell me even more. My ship was older -- built in 1984 -- and thus retrofitted to be accessible. My cabin was very adequate, and my bathroom was great -- roll-in shower, hand-held shower head. There are cruise books available that desribe, to some degree, the accessibility of evey ship. Also, cruise lines have special offices that handle accessibility issues. Newer ships are obviously more accessible, and they have more accessible cabins. But it's all about personal choice. Bottom line: check out the ship thoroughly before you book. If I did NOT have such a helpful roommate, and if I had not chosen to forfeit some independence, this particular ship would have been hell. So do your homework.

    Health issues: My biggest concern was my foley coming out. I was pleased to know that cruise ships have a doctor and RNs on board. I quickly sought out the infirmary and made pals with a nurse. I told her about my concerns, and she put my mind at ease. Be sure to bring your own supplies. Also, you you do use the infirmary, they will usually charge your ship account and give you a form to send to your insurance company for reimbursement. I brought with me a filled prescription for just-in-case antibiotics (for potential UTIs), as well as written prescriptions for all my meds -- in case my others were lost. Make sure you consider time differences when you plan your B&B activities. This wasn't an issue for me, but it can be for others whose bodies are more time-sensitive. Also remember to drink plenty of fluids and continue to do things as you do them at home. I took a small kit containing antacids, Pepto, aspirin, thermometer, bandaids, etc. It's a pain in the ass to go searching for such a simple thing, particularly in a forein land. I forgot to bring cold medication. I needed it.

    Shore excursions: This was the big question mark -- should we tour each city on our own, go on a ship-sponsored excursion or go with a private agency? Cruise lines hire agents to conduct the ship's shore excursions. Most of these excursions involve the use of a motorcoach bus. The cruise line could not make certain in every instance that a wheelchair lift would be available. Also, a day-long excursion could include stops at places that would be impossible for me to enter -- such as castles with 5,000 stairs. I don't particularly like bus tours (personal preference) and I didn't want to waste time by waiting outside while the rest of the group went inside. So ... I decided to make my own arrangements for each city. Again, this does not mean that ship excursions are not possible for disabled folks. Many are accessible. Just do your homework and decide what works best for you. Below are my thoughts on each place visited, from an accessible point of view only:

    COPENHAGEN, DENMARK: Taxis with wheelchair lifts are readily available at the airport, but don't count on them being where you need them to be without prior notice. Copenhagen is fairly small and easy to walk around. There are tons of bikes, so the city is kinda designed for them. Don't wheel in the bike lanes, though. Stay on the sidewalk. There aren't any real curb cuts, but the curbs are lower where they meet the street. Every bus I saw had a wheelchair symbol, though I didn't ride one to confirm accessibility. The trains are accessible throughout Scandinavia, but sometimes that means getting the conductor to extend a ramp or use a separate lift. (The trains are not always level with the platforms.) Getting into some places is sometimes difficult, with several stairs. The only disappointment was a water taxi that would not let me on board, even though I could have rolled right on. Overall, Denmark is very wheelchair-friendly, but keep in mind the age of such cities when visiting. We toured on our own and saw everything we wanted to see.

    TALLINN, ESTONIA: No lift-equipped taxis were available (no surprise), so we walked 15 minutes into town. The Old City is preserved, so don't expect any curb cuts. Streets are cobblestone, as are the narrow sidewalks. All stores had steps. None of this was a surprise, of course. Again, we toured on our own.

    ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: I did not see one other person in a wheelchair during our entire two-day visit. I pre-arranged a private tour guide (with a VW mini-van) in advance. Nothing was available with a wheelchair lift. Everywhere we went had major steps (as expected) and some things were impossible to see, expect from the outside. This is the major reason why I hired a private guide. I saw what I wanted to see (sometimes being carried up several flights of stairs) and spent less time at places that, to me, were not worth the effort. You need a visa to tour Russia on your own, BTW. Strangely, people were not willing to lend a hand -- even as I was behind bumped up 20 steps. I'm very glad we had a private guide. It amazes me that someplace that is conducting cure research is so lacking in access.

    HELSINKI, FINLAND: Similar to Copenhagen in terms of buses being accessible and so forth. Ramps were abundant. People were very friendly and helpful. Helsinki is relatively small, so we toured on our own again and had a nice time.

    STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN: I screwed up here by not doing a ship-sponsored excursion. The city is just too big to try to see on your own. We walked into the Old Town since, again, the water taxi was off-limit to people in chairs. We wanted to go cross-town to a famous museum, but we found this to be quite a challenge. The subway, though extensive, didn't go near there. Buses, though accessible, were confusing to dumb tourists (us). Taxis (lift-equipped and regular) were hard to find, since it was Saturday. Overall accessibility was similar to Copenhagen and Helsinki.

    KALMAR, SWEDEN: I mention this city for one reason only. To go ashore, you had to take a tender (small boat) from the ship. I had planned to rest on this day, and not go ashore. If you are planning a cruise, be sure to look into which ports require use of a tender. Sometimes, due to tides and weather conditions, it is impossible for wheelchair users to go ashore using tenders. Please keep this in mind.

    BERLIN, GERMANY: We bought our own train tickets (the ship docked in Warnemunde, a three-hour trip) and pre-aranged a private guide. Good move! With such a limited amount of time, seeing the city indepedently is not possible. The German rail system is very efficient, and the trains and stations are accessible -- for the most part. As in Denmark, some trains are higher or lower than the platform and require a ramp or lift. Tell the conductor of your needs when he/she checks your ticket. Though none of the conductors on own trains spoke English, I was able to communicate my needs. When we missed our connection, FIVE rail officials met my train and helped me onto another. This was very impressive. I did not walk around Berlin too much, so I cannot comment on acessibility. But overall I found people very willing to help.

    Language: English is spoken readily in Denmark, Finland and Sweden. Younger Estonians speak English, but it is not common. In Russia, you'd be hard-pressed to find an English-speaker. I find Russian to be an interesting language, so I learned a bit before my trip. It wasn't enough to be useful, but it was enough to be able to read a few signs. Many, if not most, Germans speak English, but English is not spoken as readily in what used to be East Germany. Still, it was easy to get around.

    Currency: Most Russian and Estonian merchants prefer U.S. dollars, but local currency is needed for smaller purchases and public transportation. Finland vand Germany are on the Euro. Local currency is needed in Demark and Sweden. You can get cash from ATMs, but remember that the instructions are not in English. Ships also have currency exchange, and banks are common. We took Euros with us, to save time. Credit cards are readily accepted, although many places didn't take American Express due to its higher fees. Visa was most widely accepted.

    Well, that's it. The best tip I can give you is to be prepared, and to plan. Set reasonable expectations, and don't get angry if other countries are not as accessible as the U.S. Plan according to YOUR needs. Use the Internet to do research. Ask questions. And, most importantly, have fun!

    Please feel free to ask questions.

  2. #2

    Ship

    Clipper, please post the name of the ship here too.

    (KLD)

  3. #3
    Senior Member Clipper's Avatar
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    Oh, like that's important. Oops.

    We cruised on the ms Noordam, Holland America Line, Cabin 103.

    The four accessible cabins are located all the way in the front of the ship, on Boat Deck (one deck below the bridge). There is one forward elevator (somewhat slow), four main elevators in the middle (fairly fast) and one aft elevator (mediocre). We rarely had to wait for another elevator due to crowds, and the overall speed was good. To reach the wraparound Upper Promenade Deck, you had to go through a door and down a short service passageway to a ramp. Otherwise, there were large lips. This was a bit of a pain, but not an issue for me. The door to the Sun Deck had a small ramp, as did the door to the aft Lido.

    This ship is small and old, but it never felt crowded (except in the area near the ship shop). There weren't obstacles in the way, but the Admiral's Lounge (for shows) was awful -- too small and bad for someone in a chair. I had three people with me to help lift, push, move, etc., so accessibility had a different meaning for me. There was a para onboard who seemed to get around quite well -- even in ports on the cobblestone streets. The staff was very attentive to my special needs. Our dining room steward even cut up my food -- without being asked -- after seeing my friend do it on the first night.

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    Super Moderator Sue Pendleton's Avatar
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    Great review Clipper! And we still need to get together for dinner when Pat is out this way next. But hey, sounds like a cool trip. Did you check how that ship compares to newer ones on that line as far as the HP rooms? I know many of the newer ships don't have the lips that can be a pain for those in chairs also. Other than Russians being their normal "I see nothing" selves people were generally helpful when needed?

    We hate the idea of flying to just catch the ship so when Carnival decided to start running out of Baltimore a bunch of friends got together and we're heading to Bermuda the end of October. We know it's a lot more of a younger, casual crowd than last year's cruise on Norwegian to Canada but it's so much cheaper that it'll be fun just for the goof. I agree so much with what you said about packing. Well, except for the eggcrate. I normally find mattresses to be much softer than mine at home but I don't normally use an overlay. I do pack lots of garbage bags, my kit of Tums, Immodium, bandaids, etc too.

    Any problems with getting off the ship at a dock due to tides? I found that to be a surprise in 2 ports last year and waiting to see a great place is NOT my strong suit. But overall, I love the cruise vacation thing. Sure beats packing and unpacking all the time. And many of the lines no longer have fixed seating times for dinners so living on "quad time"(continually late) is no biggie. Is there anything you wouldn't do/pack again? Or something you would/wouldn't do on your next cruise (assuming you do cruise again)?

  5. #5
    clipper, thanks for the review. It got me to thinking about taking one of the short cruises out of Galveston which to to Cozumel and come back. I can't find much information on the carnival website about accessibility on the two ships which leave here. What bulletin board was it that had information about your ship? And where did you get the book that you used?

    I don't see how I could make it in a manual chair, so I am curious if you could foresee any problems for a power chair (besides charging the battery)?

  6. #6
    Senior Member Clipper's Avatar
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    Sue,

    One of the most rewarding parts of the trip was seeing my parents have a good time. I planned everything for us, so having things go smoothly was extra special. Now to answer your questions...


    Originally posted by Sue Pendleton:

    Did you check how that ship compares to newer ones on that line as far as the HP rooms? I know many of the newer ships don't have the lips that can be a pain for those in chairs also.
    I'm certain that the other HAL ships are much better in terms of accessibility. I picked this cruise entirely for the itinerary, so I was "stuck" with the ship. We are checking out Alaska cruises for next year, and there seems to be several additional tiers of HAL ships. The Statendam and her sister ships have a few more accessible cabins than the Noordam and were built in the early 1990s. These are the ships doing the one-way sailings. Unfortunately, I really want a verandah suite for the Alaska trip, but these ships don't appear to have any. I might end up doing the standard Inside Passage roundtrip on another ship just to get my verandah. HAL has about four ships with tons of accessible cabins, all built within the past five years Also, HAL ships are installing a special wheelchair lift for tenders.

    Other than Russians being their normal "I see nothing" selves people were generally helpful when needed?
    A perfect description! The Finns were particularly helpful, as were all the Scandinavians. Germans, too. The shuttle bus was accessible in Helsinki, which was a nice surprise.

    Any problems with getting off the ship at a dock due to tides? I found that to be a surprise in 2 ports last year and waiting to see a great place is NOT my strong suit.
    None whatsoever. The gangway was a tad steep in a couple places, but the crew was very helpful and offered to push. I used the same gangway as other passengers in all ports, which was not the case when we cruised Carnival. I did note that the Radisson ship docked in front of us in St. Petersburg had a perfectly level and much wider gangway.

    But overall, I love the cruise vacation thing. Sure beats packing and unpacking all the time. And many of the lines no longer have fixed seating times for dinners so living on "quad time"(continually late) is no biggie.
    Agreed. Our cruise was so port intensive, with early wake-ups every day. I thought for sure I'd be dead tired. We woke up at 5 a.m. some days for an 8 a.m. docking. To my surprise, though, I had plenty of energy. May have been adrenaline. We also had two so-so ports that I used as sleep-in days. Plus we had a day at sea.

    Is there anything you wouldn't do/pack again? Or something you would/wouldn't do on your next cruise (assuming you do cruise again)?
    1. Pack cold medicine. I packed everything else, but ended up needing this the most.

    2. Don't pack as many clothes. We bought the unlimited laundry package ($70), which for us was a great deal. We had stuff laundered every day and probably could have saved a suitcase or two.

    3. Buy a wine package, when traveling with the folks. Another money-saver.

    4. Arrange transfers through HAL, or be more well-prepared. We figured that since getting a lift-equipped cab at the Copenhagen airport was so easy, it would be no problem the day we sailed. We were wrong.

    5. Investigate ways to obtain shipboard credit, like booking your cruise with a particular credit card.

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    Senior Member Clipper's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Carl R:

    clipper, thanks for the review. It got me to thinking about taking one of the short cruises out of Galveston which to to Cozumel and come back. I can't find much information on the carnival website about accessibility on the two ships which leave here. What bulletin board was it that had information about your ship? And where did you get the book that you used? I don't see how I could make it in a manual chair, so I am curious if you could foresee any problems for a power chair (besides charging the battery)?
    From what I can see, the Jubilee and Celebration are the two leaving from Galveston. These ships are NOT listed by Carnival as being equipped with "special need amenities." But this does NOT mean that they are not accessible. The Ecstasy isn't listed either, but I sailed on that ship a few years ago. You're right -- the Carnival Web site doesn't provide very good deck plans. Here's what the Berlitz "Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2002" has to say about the Jubilee and Celebration.

    CELEBRATION:
    Entered service: 1987
    WC accessible cabins: 14
    Elevators: 8
    Cabin current: 110-volt
    Accessibility rating: D

    JUBILEE:
    Entered service: 1986
    WC accessible cabins: 14
    Elevators: 8
    Cabin current: 110-volt
    Accessibility rating: D

    For comparison, the ship I recently cruised on received a "C" rating for accessibility in this book. It doesn't specify why Celebration and Jubilee are rated so low, but the newer Carnival ships are given a "B" rating. The Ecstasy was given a "C" as well. I found that ship to be very difficult to get around, mostly because of the crowds. TONS of deck chairs prevented me from getting to where I wanted to go, and the elevators were slow and constantly crowded.

    Taking a power chair can be tricky. There should be no problem charging your chair in your cabin. Bring a power strip, because outlets are few. As for other mobility issues concerning a power chair, these are the key points:

    - Getting on and off the ship. (Width of gangway should be okay, but the incline/steepness at some ports can be challenging. Tendering would definitely be an issue.)

    - Getting around the ship. (No problems here, except for crowds.)

    - Going ashore. (Consider the distance from pier to town, availability of lift-equipped transportation.)

    We went to Cozumel on Ecstasy and walked into town. Cozumel shouldn't be a problem in a power chair, UNLESS your ship anchors and uses a tender. Sometimes there is no way to know this in advance -- it's all about availability.

    Carnival has a Guest Services division that should be able to answer your questions. The message board I visit is www.cruisecritic.com. It has sections for individual cruise lines, ports of call and people with disabilities. Another one is www.cruisemates.com. This one, in my opinion, is not as good.

    BTW, I bought the book mentioned above at Barnes & Noble.

  8. #8
    Nice review Clipper, very thorough, thanks for sharing this with us.

  9. #9
    Super Moderator Sue Pendleton's Avatar
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    I am keeping a sharp eye on any ships that start from the mid-Atlantic area with balcony rooms or suites. Jay refuses to move without one he likes them so much. Have you checked out Norwegian Cruise Lines for your Alaska trip? They aren't as good at putting together two or more cruises as HAL for a round trip but I'm sure with your experience or a decent travel agent that can be arranged. The newer NCL ships though are great as far as access goes. No lips, few elevator waits, little to no crowding. Ship board credit seems to be difficult if you reserve HP cabins or suites. Like NCL will upgrade you two or more cabin grades depending on when you book. But we booked the exact cabin we wanted with the biggest balcony for our Canada trip and didn't realize we could have really gotten a nice credit last year since we didn't let the change of departing/returning port after 9-11 stop us as did many others it appeared. That trip we booked through a "disabled traveler" travel specialist. But that ship is normally booked solid early so... This year I was able to go through Carnival's special needs office to answer my questions and then we and our friends all headed for another friend who is a travel agent. Better deals all around than the supposed specialist who should have alerted us to the credits.

    I found the samething you did with packing fewer clothes and using onboard laundry service. Even by the piece it was very reasonable. We are looking at wine packages now. Carnival is really bad on booze prices compared to many of the other lines. They even charge for soft drinks and sell a card for unlimited sodas for $30.

    Travel agents can also get you cheaper trip insurance both for health and cancellation. Ours is half the cost of what Carnival sells. For the two of us that's $100. off right there and with better coverage.

    Anyway..we are hoping that Celebrity Lines will have a balcony equipped ship next year out of Baltimore for their Belize trip. We both want to head for that one but this year both ships are window only.

    Carl, It's a bit of a drive but have you checked all the lines leaving from New Orleans?

    Good to hear your folks enjoyed the trip. It gets to be a drag if you feel like you're making work for them just by being there. I'm trying to pack with that in mind plus Bermuda has a Disabled Persons Association that has a lot of good information so our land time should go much smoother than some of our Canadian ports. Oh, speaking of surprises, Corner Brook, Newfoundland had a paratransit bus at the dock to ferry ALL passengers into town not just the wheelers. Nice touch Newfies!

  10. #10
    Senior Member Max's Avatar
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    Thanks Clipper

    Very interesting & informative

    ==============================
    "It has been said that for the truth to exist, it takes two people - one to speak it...and another to hear it. Mankind will be forever doomed to destruction if we continue to ask for the truth...but then refuse to listen.." Outer Limits( To Tell The Truth )



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