Can I river cruise if I am confined to a wheelchair?
It is a question that comes up with increasing frequency as river cruising continues its skyward march in popularity.
This is a tough question for more than one reason – and sadly, the short answer is this: European river cruising in general is not well-suited to those confined to a wheelchair.
River cruising through Europe can be surprisingly un-wheelchair friendly. Variances in water levels along the rivers can result in steep gangways, and some docking locations are downright unfriendly when it comes to the mobility-impaired.
For guests coming from North America, this might seem to be unfathomable. The simple fact remains, though, that many cities may not have wheelchair ramps at convenient locations simply due to the structure of the cities themselves, which can be hundreds of years old. While major cities will likely have facilities catering to those confined to a wheelchair, smaller towns and villages are less likely.
Not all ships are wheelchair-friendly, either – though many now have elevators to help those with mobility issues. This isn’t because river cruise lines are not sensitive to the needs of their guests; rather, it’s a reflection of two things: the incredible demands placed on the physical dimensions of the ships, which can only be so long, wide, and tall; and the nature of river cruising itself. Water levels, berthing facilities and transportation are all things that are difficult for cruise lines to predict accurately. Your ship may be wheelchair-friendly – but what if you’re berthed next to one that isn’t? Berthing two and even three abreast isn’t uncommon in Europe, and we’ve personally walked across ships that have required guests to ascend or descend to different levels in order to make it ashore. If there’s an elevator, great. If not? Then there’s a problem.
The same goes for motorized scooters. River cruise ships are just not suited for them, and that goes for quite a few European cities. You can have cobblestones to cross, stairs to ascend or descend, and steep gangplanks – and that might just be to get out of the pier area. If you do a Google search, quite a few nasty comments come up from folks who are annoyed with river cruise lines for not allowing motorized scooters (most lines state that you can’t bring one onboard, period), but this isn’t because they’re discriminating against anyone: It’s simply because motorized scooters and river cruises do not mix.
Whether you can take a river cruise or not will ultimately depend on your level of mobility: If you are confined to a wheelchair and cannot leave it for any reason, river cruising likely will not work for you, and we would not recommend it. However, if you are able to stand for short periods of time – in order to perhaps climb stairs on a motorcoach – then it puts river cruising within the realm of possibility.
Having said that, there are a handful of operators that do offer varying forms of accessible staterooms for guests who have mobility issues:
Seine River – Ships: MS Botticelli and MS France
Rhine & Danube Rivers – Ships: MS Beethoven, MS Gérard Schmitter, MS L’Europe, MS Lafayette, MS Modigliani, MS Vivaldi
Garonne and Dordogne Rivers in France – Ship: MS Cyrano de Bergerac
Guadalquivir and Guadian Rivers in Spain – Ship: MS La Belle de Cadix
MS Alegria cruises on the Rhine River and the Dutch and Belgian Waterways.
- Scenic Cruises has accessible cabins on all of 13 of its ships that cruise the waterways in Europe and Russia.
- European Waterways (barge cruising)
La Nouvelle Etoile cruises in Holland from March through May, Burgundy in June and July, and in Germany and Luxembourg in September and October.
- Barge Charters (barge cruising)
La Reine Pedauque in Burgundy, France
For river cruises throughout the United States, the American Queen Steamboat Company has some accessible travel options. Both the American Queen on the Mississippi River and the American Empress on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have wheelchair accessible cabins.
Before making any booking, though, contact the line you’re thinking of and reconfirm whether the line can accommodate wheelchairs in some fashion. While wheelchairs certainly won’t fit through the cabin doors, if one can collapse and the guest can make it into the room with the assistance of a companion, river cruising is possible.
Most cruise lines outline their policies on their websites, and in their legal disclaimers. It’s absolutely critical that you read these (available on every website and printed in the back of the brochure) before making a firm booking.