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Should I Book a River Cruise if I have Limited Mobility?

Is river cruising a suitable holiday for someone who can’t walk quickly or particularly far?

Is river cruising suitable for someone who finds walking a struggle?

Is river cruising a good holiday choice for a person who needs assistance with walking?

If I can’t walk well, will I enjoy a river cruise?

If stairs are a struggle will a river cruise be right for me?

These are questions we get asked frequently and the short answer is it can be, as long as you pick the right river cruise for you and your requirements. We assist customers every week with making these choices and we promise you that if a river cruise isn’t the right choice we are honest and we will tell you.

When a river cruise will not be for you

I am sorry to say that if you are a permanent wheelchair user, our experience through countless attempts to try, is that it isn’t usually possible.  There are issues of use on board and space requirements but the bottom line is that ships can often be moored side by side.  In this instance, it means that customers may have to go up and over other ships to get off to the quayside.

Ocean cruising ships are much better at providing a holiday you will enjoy if you are a permanent wheelchair user.

So, let’s look at the options available.

For this comparison, the type of river cruise available in Europe falls into two categories.  I’ll also follow this up with some actual examples of our customers who are not great walkers who have enjoyed river cruising.  Hopefully, this will give you a good insight into what can be done and what can’t.

Option 1: The first grouping is river cruises with included excursions in the price. 

Viking River Cruises are a company who offer river cruises with daily included excursions which you may have heard of.  With a company like Viking their brochure will show the included excursions they provide so you can have a good look at the itinerary and it will usually, but not always,  give you enough information to show you how each excursion will work.  Things you need to consider are:

If it is a walking tour with a local guide, then check if it is a half day or a full day.

Are you walking from the quayside into the town or are you being taken by coach?

Is there free time included in the excursion?

Is the excursion a visit to a museum or monument?  How much walking will be involved?  Are there steps involved?

Is there a walking tour in the morning and then another in the afternoon?

Is there time on board ship to relax after a tour in the morning?

Are there any days free to get your breath back?

Would I be able to take a walking aid if required on these excursions?

Does the brochure state that there is a slow walkers option available?

The must-see sights on the river or on the tours – are they up a hill?

How would you feel if you were unable to get to the highlight of the trip for you?

Are there evening excursions included that might feature concerts which will allow you to see the inside of beautiful buildings rather than having to just walk or drive past them?

If you are the sort of person that is going on a river cruise to see lots of places and to visit them through an organised excursion – a faster paced river cruise holiday – then you need to think very carefully about your walking abilities and your ability to get on and off coaches.

Your river cruise ship will moor at a stopping off point, rather than right next to an attraction.  That day’s visit maybe even an hour or more away from where the ship stops.

Tourists at the holocaust memorial in Regensburg, germany Regensburg, Germany – tour group at the holocaust memorial[/caption]

How fast would you ideally like to walk?

How long can you walk for?

Would you be able to keep up with a large group or would a smaller group be better?

Would you walk for 10 minutes and then want to rest?

Could you walk about for up to 2 hours on day one, but not on day two?

Does the idea of walking around cobbled streets sound appealing or potentially hazardous?

Do you have a walking frame that you would like to use?  Can it be carried on a coach?

Have you heard of “Slow walkers groups”? These are offered by some river cruise operators such as Amawaterways as part of a river cruise with excursions.  They are not offered on every tour.  Some tours are not designed for slow or short walking tours.  If you feel you may need slow walking tours, then you need to check how many are offered on each itinerary.

There are no river cruises that offer every tour with a slow walking option.  Your Tour Manager on your ship will do their best to accommodate less able passengers but on this style of river cruise it maybe that you will need to stay on board the ship on a particular day if the walking tour is not for you.

Tour can even be organised with the little land trains to take you to the museum/excursion rather than a coach.  I’ve seen this done by Uniworld on their Castles of the Rhine itinerary to the Siegfried Mechanical Museum.  And also by other operators on French cruises.

Do however remember that there will be others like you on board your river cruise, so you will not be alone and you certainly won’t stand out.  So, if you and your companion/partner/spouse are just being a bit slow it should certainly not put you off visiting some of the world’s great rivers.

I think at this point it would be helpful to share a real life example of one of our less able walking customers who go on river cruises who can vouch for them being a fantastic holiday for them on board a floating hotel.

The customer in question is in her eighties and still has a strong desire to travel. We know what sort of river cruise she and her husband and her sister in law like – France or Portugal for a more relaxed pace and the warm weather. We organise their airport assistance and make sure that she is taken to the gate of the airplane and sat at the front of the cabin for ease of embarking and disembarking.  Once on board the ship she enjoys relaxing in the public areas and the dining room or she chooses to stay on the veranda of her stateroom.  The ship has a lift and a cabin near the front of the middle deck means less distance to walk to the restaurant or to get off the ship.

A choice of excursions each day helps her choose the area she hasn’t been to before and also the type of travel.  A wine excursion to a vineyard means a short coach journey and then the ability to sit down whilst a wine tasting is done.  She’ll miss out the walking tour of Arles and simply find a cafe near the bus drop off point.  She very much enjoys meeting the other people on the cruise and she and her husband have made many new friends from across the world this way.

The higher end luxury cruises offer that bit more luxury on board if she decides to stay on the sundeck rather than do a long excursion and she feels that she deserves it.  They also offer smaller touring groups so less people per group and therefore are more likely to go at the pace of the slowest member.  There are also more staff around to help with any questions and special requirements.  It makes the holiday simple and pleasurable and relaxing.

We do have a few customers with motorised, collapsible scooters who are able to take them on a river cruise. We organise the carriage with the airline and make sure that the scooter can fit in the river cruise cabin folded.  Some cabins on river ships have been adapted to have wider doors and hand rails.  Word of warning though, the scooter can’t be used on board and you will need to manage it yourselves.

Collapsible wheelchair users. If a customer has a carer with them who is able to push the wheelchair on excursions then this can be a solution but cannot be guaranteed. River cruise lines cannot commit to having staff to help push a wheelchair.  One river cruise line actually keeps wheelchairs on board for customers to use on excursions on some ships.

However, they can’t commit to you being able to use it in case there are more potential users than wheelchairs available.  The general rule of thumb is that a customer does need to be able to get on and off coaches but could use an agreed portable wheelchair where walking any distance is not possible on certain river cruise companies and ships.

Option 2: My second grouping is “European river cruises without pre-bought excursions”. 

Yes – you can get river cruises which don’t include excursions and in a lot of ways these are my favourite.  It allows customers to travel the same stretch of river but not need to go back to the same church or town they saw last time or it even allows them to do something different in that place.  Or it allows you to travel a river without having to see said church or town at all.

If you’d rather go shopping in Budapest than go to the Parliament building, then why not?  If you’d rather just find a cafe and people watch, then why not?  This style of river cruising is more akin to more mainstream ocean cruising as it is flexible and less hectic.  If you’d rather not or are not able to do a city walking tour, why not get the front desk to book you a private taxi and let the taxi driver take you on a tour instead?  Find a friend and split the cost between you.  You don’t have to go on the coach with the 150 others on board, you can do your own thing.

But if that all sounds a bit too much for your first river cruise, then there are excursions provided and these can be bought on the ship itself, but you can make that choice dependent on how you feel on the day.  Did enough walking yesterday?  Then stay on board today and relax by the pool or read a book.  That way you don’t feel you have to go as “you’ve paid for it”.  It feels more of a relaxed holiday than some of the river cruises on offer.  Do remember that a lot of the English speaking river cruise companies in Europe are intended as a quick way for North American and Australian tourists to see as much of Europe as possible in a short space of time.  If you are from the UK, the chances are you may have already seen some of the sights or you can come again at a later date and do a city break perhaps.

This second grouping is how the Europeans do river cruising.  They will use the stop on the river to explore on their own. They will choose from a menu of excursions in different places and then buy one by one, the ones they are most interested in.  You have a floating hotel with all the usual amenities but you also may have all your drinks included in the package, so you can relax on board all day without working up a tab.  And you still get to socialise at meal times.

So, back to the walking side of things.  If you are able to choose your excursions, you only then buy the ones you know work for you and your partner/friends.  You don’t all need to go on the same excursion.  You can plan your free time, maybe visit a museum or restaurant.  Or you can go with everyone else on the excursion.  You choose.  This will sound a more familiar way of doing things to some ocean cruisers.

So who does this type of cruise suit?  Well, you wouldn’t be out of place if you decided to stay most days on board enjoying the view.  You still have meals on the ship so plenty of time to socialise and meet fellow passengers when everyone is back together.  Cruise companies such as Croisi Europe and Amadeus have ships on all the major rivers so you can still choose to see all the places you wanted to visit.  And if this style of cruising suits you, you can do it again next time.

So, in summary, there are lots of different river cruise experiences to choose from so don’t be put off trying it if walking or climbing stairs is an issue.  Just be wise to how much you can and want to do and we will be able to advise you further as we cover them all.

About Alex Leete

Who is Alex Leete? A passion for travel and over 15 years' experience in the industry encouraged me to set up Global River Cruising, our own family run company. Over the last few years we have been on as many river cruises, ships and seen as many destinations as we possibly can so we can rightfully call ourselves "experts". As independent specialists we work hard to find the perfect river cruise for our clients - at the very best prices too!

View all posts by Alex Leete

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  1. I have been searching high and low for an answer to my conundrum, I’m 60 years of age, healthy, and love to walk! My husband is 9 years older with medical conditions that limit his walking ability. I have dreamed of river cruise for a long time and feel we need to do it before we run out of time. While I love to travel with my husband, we are at two very different places in our life. I want to attend every tour included and possibly add some others. My husband can walk, but he is slow and can’t handle hilly terrain or long walks which makes it difficult to keep up with the group. If I stay behind with him, I miss so much. I have already taken vacations that have turned into disaster because we can’t find a restaurant, or parking place, close enough for him to walk. Or the hotel at a historic area doesn’t have an elevator. It’s a lot of work trying to plan and meet all his requirements. I try to plan hop on hop off trolley tours or I have to take a taxi, which I hate. For New Orleans, I made him call and request a first floor room, which they did do, but who knew to ask if the external courtyard, next to our room, was the “smoking” area? I didn’t know to ask that! Smoke is just as bad for his breathing as walking. In the end, I have to give up and I’m the one that loses out. I’m getting old too and need to see things while I still can, but I just don’t know how to coordinate this with my husband. If he can’t go with me, then I have to always go alone, which is sometimes scary and I feel bad leaving him. When I do this, I usually rush through someplace and hurry back, I don’t get to take my time and really enjoy it. I would like to see how other handle this kind of situation.

    1. Hi Laurie

      I thought I’d just pass on a few thoughts for you that may be of interest and perhaps help you with deciding whether a river cruise could be something that could work for you both.

      Firstly in terms of smoking, most of the European river cruise ships are non smoking, excluding a small area to the rear of the upper sun deck. I would not imagine that this should impact your cabin choice.

      It seems clear from your comment that you and your husband would like to enjoy the experiences and adventures of a holiday together; however your differing capabilities can make this difficult. You want to engage in all that is on offer, whilst your husband is unable to do so much due to his limited mobility. I can see how this could be a real challenge for you both.

      The Vessels
      The river cruise ships themselves are relatively small and shouldn’t present too many problems moving around them. Most of the public facilities are towards the front of the ships, so I would recommend trying to get a cabin closer to the front to reduce the walking. Most now have elevators serving the accommodation decks, however these don’t allow access to the sun deck. As Lorraine mentioned in her previous response, some of the ships do have chair lifts to reach the sun deck, although these are not common. Many now have an outside terrace area off the lounge which provides for level access to the outside.

      One point about embarking and disembarking is probably worth mentioning here. This would be via a gangplank to the quayside. These are pretty substantial and have handrails so should not present too many problems. You may however find yourselves moored to another ship at the quayside. If the design of the ships, and protocol, allows you can generally pass through the reception areas to disembark, however sometimes you may need to pass over the sundecks. If your husband were unable to get up and down the sun deck steps there may be ports where he would be unable to disembark the ship.

      It is certainly worth saying that we have a good number of clients whose mobility makes it difficult, if not impossible, to join in the excursions. In this case they are just as happy to remain on board the ship, maybe take a stroll around the dock, or even a taxi into the centre of the town.

      Some operators do also offer their tours for different mobility grades, from easy walker to more active tours. This way they can cater for different levels of mobility without making anyone uncomfortable. Whilst you wouldn’t not necessarily see all the same sites, this should allow for some shared experience and help both your husband and you to get the most out of the tours and the holiday.

      It is worth noting however than many of the sites visited may not be accessible, even at a slower pace.

      Mobility Aids
      Whilst not suitable for use onboard ships portable mobility aids can make those with mobility difficulties much more independent on shore and allow them to join in more of the excursions. We have clients that take collapsible wheelchairs or even ultra-lightweight folding scooters. As mentioned above there isn’t really enough room to use these on board ship but it does mean that those with limited mobility may be able to see more. Just bear in mind that any mobility aids would need to be stored in your cabin so should fold up so you can stow them under the bed.

      You clearly have a challenge on your hands, but if you did decide to give it a go, I do think both you and your husband should have an enjoyable holiday. Many of our clients have mobility difficulties which limit their ability to partake in all the activities. It is not uncommon for this to be just one member of the party, as with you and your husband. They certainly seem to enjoy themselves!

      As a specialist river cruise agent we have a lot of experience about the ships and te operators and would be delighted to assist you with booking a suitable river cruise should you wish.

      Kind regards

      Simeon​ Leete

  2. Dear Alex
    Thank you for the article it doesn’t apply to me just yet but who knows what the future may bring. I’m sure that there are people that will find it useful and will be pleased to know that help is on hand.
    But what does it show is your desire to help and and give advice where needed a service not always given by the larger tour groups. So many thanks for the help that you have given to me in the past.

  3. Good article which will help people make informed decisions. The key to a successful river cruise is to choose your vessel carefully and make sure it has every facility you need.

    I wish more ships would install a chair lift from reception to the sun deck, – as we had on our first river cruise on the Serenade 2. It is the only one I have seen before or since, and well used by passengers who found steep steps too much of a challenge. Without this facility, it would have been difficult for some to access the sun deck at all. IF that is important to you, you need to find out if you can sit outside anywhere else on your selected vessel.

    The chair lift was positioned on one staircase, so the other was always free for more agile passengers and crew. However, when the chair was not in use and positioned in its start position, the staircase was still accessible to all.

    So often on other ships since, I have witnessed people who don’t manage stairs well struggling to climb up and down. It is a miracle more don’t fall or break bones.

    Some are unable to go on excursions because they are too challenging, but are content to wile away their time on the sun deck reading, snoozing or just watching the world go by when the weather is fine – and why not – there is nothing more enjoyable…..Because someone is not as agile as they were, should not mean they have to stay inside.

    More ships have full size balconies now with a table and 2 chairs, but some are much smaller with only one stool to sit on, so do your homework. If you see the words French Balcony it is not a balcony at all – it just means you can slide your full length windows open and there is a rail to stop you falling into the river! As ships are often moored side by side, particularly at peak holiday times, your view can be obliterated anyway, so a balcony of any description does not provide a fool proof alternative to the sun deck. Some of the newer ships now have an outside seating area at the front of the ship on the bar deck which is great, but a lot don’t, so again, do your homework to avoid disappointment.

    I hope that when travel companies meet with ships’ owners and operators, they will discuss the possibility of more chair lifts to the sun deck or more outside accessible seating areas. The cost of holidays on the newer ships is prohibitive to some people, so the older ships which are often very good need to step up and do an even better job.

    Our stairlift cost around £3k. We won’t need to move home now and my husband (and at some point me) has a safe method of getting up and down stairs. Given the financial, physical and emotional cost of moving, that investment was a bargain.

    If I apply the same thought process to ships, it may well encourage mature passengers to keep travelling. One of the biggest deterrents is uncertainty about the facilities, particularly if they have any form of disability or impairment. Passengers need to feel confident they can make the necessary arrangements to travel to the ship in comfort, without feeling wrecked when they arrive, and be able to access all the public areas in safety once on board to enjoy their holiday. For the less sprightly (and there are a considerable number on most river cruises), stairs can be a hazard, so the more that risk is reduced, the better.

    If you travel by coach, it can often include multiple time consuming stops to pick up other passengers, possibly an overnight stay and a channel crossing before you get to the ship. The tunnel is quicker if you can find an operator who uses it. Eurostar is good but there will normally be a coach trip of varying duration before you arrive at the ship. Make sure you check these journeys are right for you. You don’t want to be so tired you waste two days of your cruise recovering from the journey.. We have seen people arriving after some of these journeys and many were unaware how long it would take. Do your homework.

    For those planning to go on a river cruise, we recommend Global River Cruising to organise your trip. They will deal with everything from pick up at home to the time you reach your cabin. If you don’t like travelling in large groups, as we don’t, they will arrange that too. If you have a mobility problem, don’t hesitate to talk to Alex or Simeon. If there is an answer they will find it. Wonderful.

    As people are living longer and want to keep travelling, ships’ owners and operators really need to address offering a chair lift facility, which would not involve a huge financial outlay. It is great the newer ships now offer lifts between floors, but if you can’t get to the sun deck because you can’t climb the steep steps you must stay inside, unless there is a forward open seating area on the bar deck. The lounge areas are usually excellent and some people prefer to be inside, and some lounges have a door to step outside, although the area may not be large or have seating. Ask questions if you like being in the fresh air as to what is available for you.

    Have a wonderful river cruise – it is a joyful and relaxing way to travel.

    1. Hi Lorraine.

      This is great stuff. Hearing it from someone who has actually done it and offering advice makes such a difference. It also makes sure that we are on the ball for our customers and keeps us on our toes.

    2. Just to add to Alex’s comments, you’re right Lorraine, chair-lifts to the sun deck are not common on the river ships.

      The Serenade 2 and her sister ships do have them installed, as do some of the top-end ships such as the luxurious SS Catherine on the Rhône & Saône. We can probably find at least one ship on every river with this facility, but not necessarily for every budget!

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