European River Boats with Wheelchair-accessible Cabins:
From the queries we see and from our own personal experience, it’s clear that finding information on European river cruises that cater to travellers with mobility problems was not an easy task in the past. In 2005 when we took my 89 year-old mother-in-law (Barbara) on the Amsterdam to Budapest river cruise, none of the river boats (including the fairly new ones at that time) had elevators and the only access from deck to deck was via the stairs.
Although Barbara was not wheelchair-bound, she could only walk slowly and climbing steps was difficult for her. We overcame the problem as best we could by booking her a stateroom that was on the same level as the restaurant. Her stateroom also had French windows so if she didn’t feel like going on the sundeck, she was still able to enjoy all the views along the river and the sunshine from the comfort of her room. To get up to the sundeck or down to the reception, we helped her along, taking things quite slowly so she felt comfortable making those trips.
Many ocean cruisers have cabins that are equipped with facilities for wheelchair-bound travellers, but river boats generally do not have them. Understandably, river boats are much smaller vessels than the ocean-going ships and space is an issue.
That was in 2005, and it’s good to see that many of the modern river boats now have elevators, however this still does not solve the problem for travellers who are wheelchair-bound as the cabins are not “wheelchair-accessible”.
One river cruise operator, I checked with (Scenic Tours) confirmed that all of their ships feature elevators and have wheelchair-accessible cabins. Note that Scenic Tours have one of the most advanced fleet of river boats which they call “space-ships”. The MS Scenic Ruby, Scenic Diamond, Scenic Emerald and Scenic all feature outside balconies, whereas many of the other river boats would only have French windows, if at all.
Scenic Tours say that they will “strive to the extent feasible, to accommodate guests with disabilities and mobility challenges”. This is the advice I received from a representative of Scenic Tours:
- Scenic has a beautiful Junior Suite (Suite 302 on the Sapphire, Emerald, Diamond, Ruby) with a balcony which has wheelchair facilities for wheelchair- bound passengers. This suite is close to the reception and near the lift.
- The doors have been widened to allow access by a standard size wheelchair. The space in the room allows for easy manoeuvring of a wheelchair and there is a power point next to the bed. You can enjoy the view from your private balcony although there is a small lip onto the balcony level.
- There is a wheel-in shower and a stool provided for showering as well as a rail on the wall for further assistance.
- Lifts – Unlike a lot of river cruising ships the lifts on Scenic’s ships have access to the two main decks and this provides full access on these two decks which have reception, restaurants, shop, bar and lounge. Only the top outside deck, the Moselle deck and the Wellness Centre (including the hairdresser) are not accessible by the lift.
- Wheelchairs – Passengers confined to their wheelchairs must provide their own collapsible chair. It should be noted that only standard size wheelchairs can be accommodated on board.
Apart from the specific wheelchair-accessible cabins, all other cabins cannot be accessed by a wheelchair.
Other River Cruise Operators
Uniworld does not have handicapped or wheelchair-accessible cabins. There are elevators on the River Princess, River Queen, River Empress, River Duchess and River Countess. On the River Queen, the elevator does not reach all decks. Although these boats have elevators, we noticed on our 2013 trip on the River Princess that the elevator is hidden away and used for movement of baggage and supplies only.
AMA Waterways do not have wheelchair-accessible cabins. There are elevators on the MS Amacello, MS Amadagio, MS Amadante, MS Amadolce, MS Amadouro, MS Amalegro, MS Amalyra
Avalon/Globus do not have wheelchair-accessible cabins. There are elevators on the Avalon Affinity, Creativity and Scenery only.
Viking does not have wheelchair-accessible cabins. Of their huge fleet, only the Viking Danube and Viking Sky have elevators.
So if you’re looking for a European river boat with wheelchair-accessible cabins, Scenic Tours are the best equipped to cater for passengers with disabilities and mobility challenges. At least there is now one European river cruise operator who provides for travellers who use wheelchairs.
Things to be Aware of
But before you rush off to make your river cruise booking, there are certain things that you need to be aware of:
- river cruising involves a fair amount of shore excursions and in the old towns of Europe, most of these walks are along cobbled streets. If participation in the shore excursions is important to you, make sure that you discuss your personal circumstances with the river cruise operator to make sure that there will be no issues with your travel.
- in the early days of river cruising when there were less boats plying the rivers of Europe, our riverboat was mostly moored close to the towns that we stopped at. In 2013, when we travelled from Vienna to Paris, our boat was more often than not moored a distance from the historic centres. In Bamberg and Wurzburg, we were moored at the industrial port. There was quite a walk into town at Deggendorf and Wurzburg and at other destinations where it was too far to walk, we were transported in by coach. The moorings close to the centre are still there, but it may be that they are more costly now. If sightseeing is important to you, check with your cruise operator how accessible the towns are to the moorings they will be using.
- you need to make sure that the person you are travelling with is able to help you with all your physical needs like lifting your wheelchair, etc. River cruises generally operate with a smaller crew than the ocean cruises and they do not have staff available to personally attend to passengers with mobility problems. Even though Scenic Cruises told me that they have a suite equipped for physically challenged passengers, when one of our readers rang them, he was told that none of their cruises are suitable for wheelchair dependent travellers because of the limited access on the gang planks.
- be aware that river cruising is now a very popular form of travel and when there is more than one boat in port, the boats could be moored alongside each other. If your boat happens to be the one that is moored away from the landing pier, then passengers are required to walk across gang planks through the lobby of the other ship before getting to the landing pier. At one of the ports that we arrived at in July 2013, the ship closest to shore did not allow passengers to walk through their lobby. Instead we had to climb to the top deck and then climb down the other side to get to shore. Be aware that this could happen to you.
Again, as people have different degrees of disability, it is worthwhile having a chat with the river cruise operator to discuss your personal situation. The good thing about cruising down the Rhine, Danube or any of the European rivers is that the scenery is spectacular and you actually see a lot from the river boat. So even if you can’t do many shore excursions, river cruising in Europe is still very enjoyable and worthwhile doing.