Cruising with a disabled partner

Date published: 20 Jan 20

35 people found this feature helpful

Life on board Fred.Olsen’s Boudicca

How do you holiday as a couple when your partner is disabled and prefers to fly and flop whereas you’re hungry for adventure and new experiences, (and lucky enough to be fit and active)?

A cruise can help solve this dilemma. Unlike a land-based tour, there’s no hopping on and off coaches/minibuses, planes and taxis as you travel between each new destination. Once installed aboard your floating hotel, you unpack just the once and your partner can relax on deck or in the lounge and work their way through a stack of books, listen to podcasts or join in various activities whilst you can jump ashore and explore new places. Additionally, some of the less active organised shore excursions might be suitable for people with limited mobility so your partner can join in if they so choose.

Fred. Olsen's BoudiccaMy partner John is not a full wheelchair user but is a blue badge holder and requires assistance at airports. His disability means he cannot walk far and cannot stand unaided for more than a few seconds. We have already discovered the joys of river cruising through Europe and along the Nile and we recently embarked upon our first ocean cruise.

We chose Fred.Olsen Cruise lines for our first ocean cruise because of their strong reputation for meeting the needs of older travellers, and their exciting variety of itineraries and excursions. Their smaller, traditional looking fleet appealed as we really didn’t like the thought of being on a floating resort with thousands of other guests.  The MS Boudicca, which holds just 804 passengers, proved to be a great choice as most of its main facilities were within reasonable walking distance from our cabin and there were lifts between decks.

Joining Boudicca for part of her Grand Voyage

Fred. Olzsen Cruise Lines Grand VoyageWe flew out to join Boudicca in The Seychelles and sailed on to the Maldives, Sri Lanka, the Andaman Islands and Phuket before flying back from Thailand two weeks later. This cruise was part of Boudicca’s 168-night Grand Voyage from October 2019 to March 2020 visiting Africa, Asia and Australia, before returning via the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Around 60 lucky passengers had booked for the entire trip whilst others joined the ship for a variety of 7, 14 and 28-day legs.

Getting through Heathrow with a disabled partner

Flying out to join the Boudicca was the most stressful part of our experience. A shortage of flights caused by the Thomas Cook crisis meant we had to travel from our home in the North of England to Heathrow and stay overnight in an airport hotel before catching the Emirates flight to Dubai for a brief stopover before travelling on to the Seychelles. We had requested wheelchair assistance in advance when booking our holiday – you are required to request this from your airline at least 48 hours in advance so always double-check this has been done if booking your flight through a third party. There are various levels of assistance available depending on mobility levels. We always request wheelchair assistance to the aircraft’s door which can involve a bumpy ride in an ambi-lift vehicle if the plane is parked away from the terminal.

Since being rated ‘poor’ in 2017 by the CAA for its services to disabled passengers, Heathrow Airport improved to ‘good’ in 2019. However, the CAA noted a recent ‘dip in performance levels’ and in our experience it still has a long way to go to meet the needs of disabled people. On arrival at Terminal 3 we found the Emirates check-in desk at one end of the terminal and the accessibility point at the other. Airport accessibilityAs both people need to be present at check in and John is unable to stand in a queue, we headed straight to the accessibility point to get wheelchair assistance. Fortunately, we had arrived with more than 3 hours to spare as we had a long wait for a wheelchair. The Heathrow accessibility team told us we should have checked in first, showing a worrying lack of understanding as to why people need wheelchair assistance.

After finally helping us check in, we were then returned to the accessibility point for an even longer wait for another wheelchair to take us through security.  As time was ticking away myself and a fellow passenger decide to grab spare wheelchairs and set off with our respective partners, struggling through, and zig-zagging around, the absurdly narrow, poorly laid out 'Fast track/accessible' aisle. There were further delays as John’s walking stick was forced to make its own journey through security belts and promptly went into hiding.

Exploring Boudicca

The Emirates flight was lovely and comfortable and wheelchair support was more readily available for our short stopover at Dubai airport – much needed as the distance between disembarking our flight and making our way to the next departure gates to the Seychelles was well over one kilometre.  Support was a bit more haphazard on our arrival at Mahé where a fellow passenger found his own wheelchair had not survived the flight and needed a quick repair before our disabled group could move together through to customs.

Chocolates in Bookmark cafeBy now, we had been travelling for nearly two days, and with little sleep on the overnight flight it was a relief to be able to access our cabin immediately on arrival. John quickly went to sleep for several hours whilst I unpacked before setting off to explore Boudicca’s decks. I found the gym, spa, Doctor, restaurants and bars, sunbathing areas and pools, and staked out potential places for John to sit and read in peace whilst I was out on shore excursions. The Bookmark Cafe by the ship’s impressive library proved an ideal place for John to relax - not too far to walk from the cabin and toilets, and with a supply of fresh coffee and cakes available from the lovely Phawita and her team (as well as some tempting chocolates)!  The coffees were quite expensive but cost us half price as we had an all-inclusive drinks package. Free coffee dispensing machines in other lounges on the ship might explain why the Bookmark Cafe seemed generally quieter.

Shore excursions

We had already booked our shore excursions weeks before travelling. Early booking is essential as the most popular ones fill up quickly and less popular ones can be cancelled. Fred.Olsen take great care to describe in detail the amount of walking, number of steps, and nature of climbing on and off of boats and coaches involved in each organised excursion. Check the cruise itinerary to see when the ship is using an anchor port as this means you can only go on shore via a ’tender’ boat that comes up alongside the ship. Compared to using the gangway when the ship is in harbour, a tender can be difficult to access, especially when pitching about in rough seas. Sadly we had to cancel a couple of John’s excursions as the exhaustion from his outward journey was compounded by his first excursion that involved using the tender and rather too much standing during the tour. We noted another disabled passenger using a walking stick with a built-in seat that gave him somewhere to perch during these lengthy tour talks. One of these is on our shopping list for our next cruise.

Daily activities on board during sail days

I have written about my excursions and adventures on shore elsewhere in my review of our cruise. As 7 of our 14 days were sail days, I was excited by the prospect of using this time to keep fit and learn new skills. The Daily Times delivered to our cabin each evening contained the programme of activities for the following day in a handy tear-off slip. Many of the facilities and classes would be suitable for a disabled partner to enjoy.

Ukulele fun with Tony - Ukulele teacherDetermined not to gain weight with all the lovely food on board ship, I went to Pilates (£5 a session) and free yoga or legs, bums and tums, run by super fit Per. I made regular use of the reasonably well-quipped gym and monitored my weight on the scales until a cheeky guest stole them away to her cabin for her private use!  I also enjoyed a soothing back massage in the ship’s Spa followed by a relaxing session in the steam room and sauna.

From all the classes on offer I chose line dancing, Ukulele Fun, and watercolour painting. Equipment/instruments are available to hire or purchase on board ship. I had to give up line dancing and water colours as I was becoming too stressed running between classes to arrive on time. The most fun I had was singing and strumming along in the ukulele band, ably taught by teacher Tony, and playing the kazoo whilst surpressing giggles at the wild swooping notes from a fellow band member who played the Swanee whistle with gay abandon. There is something very cathartic about collective music making.

Dining on board Boudicca

There were two sittings for dinner on board Boudicca: 6.15 pm and 8.30 pm. After some deliberation we chose the first sitting - much earlier than our normal dining time but as we were near the Equator it was fully dark by 6 pm, limiting our ability to enjoy the early evening sun on deck. We were also keen to avoid spending the hours before the 8.30 pm getting squiffy on pre-dinner drinks and ruining our appetites by nibbling nuts and twiglets. We had been lucky enough to secure a table for two in the Four Seasons Restaurant throughout our cruise, where we were ably waited on by Elmer and Ryan.Formal dinner Four Seasons Restaurant Although I’m generally a sociable person, it was close to the 2019 General Election and I was keen to avoid the inevitable political debates over a dinner table shared with up to six other guests.

Boudicca offers an excellent menu of fine dining each night with a choice of starters, salad, mains and dessert. In addition, there was always one traditional “British” option and a vegetarian mains. The same food was served in the Tintagel - the other formal restaurant - while less formal buffet restaurants were also available. After dinner, we’d retire to the Morning Light pub for gentle easy-listening music from talented Jon Kelly - singer and guitarist - before moving on to the Neptune Lounge for the main show. Here it was good to see several of the more accessible seats and tables reserved for disabled guests.

Communications on board ship

We soon realised that reading The Daily Times delivered to our cabin each night is vital. In addition to providing information about time changes as the ship sails through different time zones, meeting times and places for excursions, and the daily programme of activities, it also contains a note about the dress code each night for the formal restaurants. Overlooking this on our first formal night saw me rushing from the bar to our cabin to fetch John’s smart shoes along with his jacket and tie! What a bizarre sight – me hoiking up in my long evening gown (I always dress up for dinner) and running along, clutching a pair of men’s shoes whilst John sat at the bar with a beer in his stockinged feet!

You also need to pay attention to loudspeaker announcements from the Captain. You can turn down the volume inside your cabin but it’s a good idea to keep it loud enough to hear as they tend to contain important updates.

End of cruise

On the final night of your cruise, expect to leave your suitcases outside your cabin to be collected by crew in the middle of the night, even if your flight isn’t until the evening. Make sure you pack a day bag containing medicines, toiletries, change of clothes and other essentials as you may be unable to access your cases until departure. You’re usually given a colour-coded ribbon to tie to your case to ensure it reunites with you on your transfer vehicle. With so many cases looking the same, I recommend a brightly coloured luggage strap to help you identify your luggage.

On arrival at Phuket and at Bangkok airports, it was a huge relief to find we had a designated assistant with a wheelchair who helped us every step of the way from the moment we left the taxi to boarding the flight.

Back at Heathrow many hours later, we had a long wait on the plane after all able-bodied guests had disembarked. We were finally asked if we could walk 100 metres from the plane to get on board the buggy that was awaiting us and the other 12 disabled people on board our flight. Otherwise, they said, they only had one wheelchair that they would use to ferry each disabled person to the buggy in turn! Having got John to the buggy I was told to make my own way through the terminal to customs. I set off at a trot as it was quite a long way. Once again, Heathrow displayed a worrying lack of understanding of the needs of disabled people and the anxiety that can arise from being separated from their traveling companion. I was advised that partners should have booked assisted support for themselves if they also expected a ride - so be warned! I should add that at every other airport we have visited around the world, the assistance team has accommodated accompanying partners on airport buggies. Once through customs and in bag collection, a kind member of the Heathrow assistance team saw us struggling, grabbed a wheelchair and took us and our bags through the airport to a taxi. From a supervisor’s frown, I got the impression this was not normal practice.

In summary, a cruise is a good way for a couple to continue to enjoy holidays together when one has limited mobility and would rather relax whilst the other is keen to go off exploring. You can tour new destinations knowing your loved one is in safe hands back on ship and able to enjoy the facilities and the view from the deck. Depending upon their level of mobility, your partner might also be able to join in some of the shore excursions. However, you do need to check directly with your cruise line whether the cruise is suitable for your partner’s level of mobility and may need to fill out a mobility questionnaire before they will accept your booking. For example, the disabled person may need to be able to walk up and down the ship’s gangway unaided, use stairs if there is no lift on board, and some smaller ships are unable to take personal wheelchairs on board.

If you can avoid the stress of flying by joining the cruise from a UK port, so much the better. Some cruise lines provide home to port transport and our partner Driving Miss Daisy can offer assisted transfers from more than 30 locations across the UK.

Carole and John’s experience of ocean cruising were based on their cruise with Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines. You can read Carole’s article here.

If you are seeking an active holiday for disabled people. Our partners Limitless Travel and Enable Holidays have a super collection of assisted tours and hotels. If your partner is living with dementia, our partner Dementia Adventure offers a range of dementia-friendly holidays. Revitalise offer respite holidays for disabled people and their carers.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

See also

Island hopping with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines


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