Cruise lines accommodate wheelchair travelers with specially designed cabins


Q: My wife is confined to a wheelchair. We would like to take a cruise in the Caribbean. Which lines can accommodate us?

A: A score of ships that will be calling at Caribbean and the Bahamian ports this season have cabins especially designed for the wheelchair user. But just how equipped can vary markedly from ship to ship, and even vessels with such cabins have only a handful of them.

It's a good idea to check with your local travel agency or a cruise line to be sure that your needs can be met. Cabins known in the industry as "dedicated," meaning they are specially designed, are best suited for wheelchair users. Generally, in such cabins, the user can roll right into the bathroom and the shower without encountering a lip, or threshold. On some vessels, there's enough room in the cabin to make a 360-degree turn in a wheelchair.

The industry practice, incidentally, is to charge no more for these cabins than for similar ones in the same class; that explains why getting such a cabin may require a certificate of medical need. You should also be aware that most ships require that wheelchair users be accompanied.

The Cruise Lines International Association compiles a listing known as the Cruise Guide for the Wheelchair Traveler, which details the extent to which a passenger in a wheelchair can get around. The member lines are asked to indicate whether, for example, cabins have wide doors, low or no sills and whether all public areas are accessible. But conversations with several lines found some ships less promising -- and others more promising -- than the industry association chart suggests.

A public relations representative for Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, said each of the company's ships in the Caribbean has 14 to 20 cabins that are "handicapped accessible"; the CLIA chart shows Carnival's ships having low or no sills. But, as the representative for Carnival confirmed, these cabins have a lip, or threshold, of 6 1/4 inches between the main cabin area and its bath on the Celebration and Holiday and of 2 inches on the Ecstasy and Fantasy. The Carnival official said ramps were available to ease access.

To gauge if a sill is low, consider that the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1992 requires a ramp for a change of grade of more than half an inch. According to John L. Wodatch, chief of the public access section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the act applies to all cruise ships that do business in the United States. The ships, he said, are required to make "readily achievable" changes so that people with disabilities can take part in activities and have access to public areas.

HTC Here is a sampling of Caribbean-and Bahamas-bound ships and how many dedicated cabins they have for wheelchair users:

* Celebrity Cruises: Horizon (four), Meridian (two), Zenith (four).

* Costa Cruise Lines: Costa Allegra (eight), Costa Classica (six), Costa Romantica, to be launched Nov. 21 (six).

* Cunard Crown Cruises: Crown Dynasty (four), Crown Jewel (four), Crown Monarch (five).

* Diamond Cruise Inc.: Radisson Diamond (two).

* Holland America Line: Nieuw Amsterdam (four), Noordam (four), Westerdam (six), Maasdam, to be launched Dec. 3 (six).

* Norwegian Cruise Line: Seaward (four), Windward (six), Dreamward (six).

* Regency Cruises: Regent Sun (two).

Q: My husband and I would like to rent a car and drive from Juneau to the Haines-Skagway area, Whitehorse, Denali National Park and then Anchorage. Do you know of any companies that have one-way rentals without high fees?

A: Because Juneau is an isolated strip not linked by highway to Alaska's major cities, getting anywhere from Juneau means taking a ferry. That helps explain high drop-off charges. A check with six rental companies shows there isn't much choice: only Hertz, (800) 654-3131, and Avis, (800) 331-1212, will let you rent a car in Juneau and return it to Anchorage. If the 1994 rate is unchanged, you can expect the drop-off charges to be $800 for (( Hertz, $300 for Avis.

Between October and mid-May, the choice narrows even more: Hertz does not permit one-way rentals between Juneau and Anchorage, Avis' Skagway branch is closed and access to Denali is curtailed. However, if you travel between mid-May and September you can proceed this way:

Rent a car in Juneau for a day and then take a 4 1/2 -hour ferry ride to Haines on the Alaska Marine Highway System. The current fare is $18.36 a passenger. Sometimes the layover in Haines may be several hours, allowing you enough time to see Haines and then continue on the same ferry to Skagway ($12). For a schedule, call (800) 382-9229.

Once in Skagway, where Avis has a location, you can stay with a rented car all the way to Anchorage. A mid-sized car is $738 for two weeks, with 1,400 free miles and 35 cents for each additional mile, plus a $250 drop-off fee.

More information: Alaska Tourism Marketing Council, P.O. Box 110801 Juneau, Alaska 99811-0801; (907) 465-2110, fax (907) 465-2287.

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