As of November 3, 2010 the US finally has some meaningful access regulations for cruise ships that call on US ports. Although we’re still a long way from having any architectural guidelines for these ships; the Department of Transportation’s Passenger Vessel Operators Non-Discrimination Rule goes into effect on that date. What’s that all mean? In simplest terms the new regulations outline booking procedures for accessible cabins, require the cruise lines to provide some basic access information and prevent them from charging more for accessible services. And although it’s a good first step, it’s far from an inclusive law. So here’s the skinny on what the regulations say, the loopholes that exist and some strategies to make your next cruise more accessible.
Although the new regulations prohibit the cruise lines from obtaining any type of medical certification from disabled passengers; they do allow them to have passengers self-certify and attest to the fact that need an accessible cabin because of a disability. Furthermore, the new regulations require cruise lines to withhold accessible cabins from the general reservation pool until all other cabins in that category are booked. In other words, able-bodied passengers won’t be able to secure these cabins unless there are no non-accessible cabins left in that category.
Loophole: On the surface it sounds good, and at least it’s a good start, but I’m wondering how or if the cruise lines will really adhere to these procedures. And if they don’t, who is to know? The only thing that most disabled passengers will know is that there are no cabins available when they call in to make their reservations. They won’t be privy to what is happening behind the scenes, so they can’t really lodge a complaint. I expect if someone brags about it on Cruise Critic, then you can file a complaint, but who is really going to go to all that trouble?
Strategy: If you find that an accessible cabin is unavailable for your sailing date, call the access department and ask if any accessible cabins are being held in group space without a reservation. Sometimes travel agents hold these cabins anticipating they will be able to sell them to their group; and although the cruise lines don’t usually have problems releasing them, you have to know to ask.
The new regulations also require cruise lines to investigate the potential misuse of accessible cabins; and give them the power to deny passage to passengers who falsely represent that they have a disability, just to get a larger cabin.
Loophole: Unfortunately the regulations fall short of requiring the cruise lines to deny passage to able-bodied passengers who procure accessible cabins under false pretenses. Basically it’s up to cruise line – the law allows them but doesn’t require them to do so. Will they do it? Well, in this day and age of a struggling travel industry, I find it highly unlikely that any cruise line will turn away a paying passenger. This is especially true if they are frequent cruisers. But it will only take a few denied boardings before the word gets around, so in that respect I’m hopeful.
Strategy: If you see someone bragging about “stretching the truth” just to get an accessible cabin, report them to the cruise line. Once you file a report they are required to investigate. And like I said, it will only take a few denied boardings before the word gets around.
Providing Access Information
The new regulations also require cruise lines to provide some basic access information about their ships, facilities and services. This includes information about access limitations on ships as well as access limitations during boarding and disembarkation. Additionally, the cruise lines must now provide information about any access limitations on ancillary transportation and ship sponsored shore excursions.
Loophole: Unfortunately there’s no time frame for when this information must be provided by the cruise lines. As it stands now, many cruise lines don’t provide access information on their shore excursions until well after passengers have booked, and in many cases even after the final payment is due. And that’s not a good time to find out that there are no wheelchair-accessible shore excursions at your ports of call. You can’t cancel and you can’t get off the ship. Although it just makes sense to provide prospective passengers with all of this information before they book, the new regulations overlooked that important detail.
Strategy: Don’t put your money down until after all of this information is provided. Don’t fall for false promises of “we’ll get that information to you soon.” The reality is that most ship-sponsored shore excursions are not truly wheelchair-accessible, so you will have to contract with a local provider on your own. Additionally, accessible shore excursion providers are in short supply, so if you wait too long, they may already be booked. You could end up on a cruise without any access to port activities. If you have problems with this, be sure and drop the DOT a note and let them know this is an issue. Perhaps they will close this loophole with a future amendment.
Fairer Cruise Pricing
Last but not least, the new regulations promise fairer cruise pricing for disabled passengers. The DOT realizes that some ships only have a limited supply of accessible cabins in a few classes, and the new regulations prohibit cruise lines from charging passengers more for this oversight. In other words, if a ship has no accessible cabins in their cheapest category, then the cruise line cannot charge disabled passengers more for booking the next higher class of accessible cabin. So if there are no accessible cabins available in a category, they must upgrade you to the next higher category for the same price.
Loophole: On the surface this sounds like a great policy, but the reality is, most people are unaware of it. And if you’re unaware of it, you don’t know to ask for it. In short, you have to rely on the cruise lines to offer this discount when there are no accessible cabins in a certain category. On the plus side, it is already standard procedure on some cruise lines.
Strategy: Pass the word about the new regulations so more passengers will know to ask for this discount if it isn’t freely offered. It’s also hoped that this will encourage cruise lines to offer accessible cabins in all categories, which in the end will make cruising a more accessible experience.