December 2022 was an unusual one for my Mum and I. My Dad passed away from terminal illness earlier in the year, meaning that it would be our first Christmas just the two of us… and only a few weeks before the big day, we decided to do something very different. My Dad always loved to travel, so instead of sitting at home and pretending everything was the same, we booked onto P&O Azura for a 7-night cruise around the Canary Islands. We’d fly out to Tenerife and set sail from there, making stops in Madeira, La Palma, and Fuerteventura alongside a few days at sea.
This was quite a big deal for me. The last time I flew was January 2018, and this would be only my second time flying with my wheelchair. I’ve been on a couple of cruises before, and my most recent cruise in 2014 happened right as my health was taking its biggest nosedive. I remember being so poorly during that trip, but as I’ve become much stronger since then, I felt confident that I’d get on much better this time. I may have been slightly over-confident…
Holidays and travel with a chronic illness are always going to be tough. No matter how much you prepare or how many adjustments you have in place, being in a new environment that you have less control over is never going to be a walk in the park. I don’t mind telling you that there were several days on this trip where I was very unwell (including Christmas Day) and not the happiest bunny in the world, but overall I’m so glad I got to go and grateful for the experience, and there was much I took away from it for similar trips in the future.
Ever since I got back and shared some snaps from our holiday on social media, I’ve had many questions about how I found cruising with a chronic illness. I vlogged the trip for YouTube and talked through many of the elements more thoroughly in that video (including food allergies, accessibility, mobility aids and Covid measures), but I thought I’d take this opportunity to condense some of that down into five key tips for anybody considering cruising with a chronic illness for themselves…
1. Do as much as you can while the ship is docked, and rest more than usual when you’re at sea
My biggest challenge on this trip was that when the ship was sailing, the motion had an adverse effect on my chronic illness symptoms. It wasn’t seasickness as such, but the motion of being at sea made my autonomic dysfunction much worse, meaning that I’d often find myself dizzy and disorientated – especially when I was trying to move around.
After a couple of days of learning this the hard way, I found that the trick was to get organised as much as possible in advance while you weren’t at sea. By tidying the cabin, packing bags, and organising outfits while the ship was stationary, there was much less I had to do while we were in motion, and I could stay as still as I needed to in order to manage my symptoms.
I wouldn’t say my fatigue or energy impairment was any worse than usual, but I did find that I needed to lay down and elevate my feet much more when we were sailing. If you’re in a similar boat (no pun intended), pay attention to how much you need to walk up and down your cabin or the ship while you’re at sea, and make sure you have all your essentials close by if you find yourself needing to lie down more.
2. Take an empty water bottle to keep hydrated
Many of us chronically ill folk have to drink more water than the average person, either due to condition management or because of medication. Personally, I tank through a *lot* of water on any given day, so being somewhere you can’t simply refill your bottle from the tap is always a challenge. Many cruise liners have a drinks station near the buffet or in communal areas where you can grab yourself a cup and help yourself to water (and you’re welcome to take these down to the room), but sometimes this just isn’t enough.
There is the option to buy a water ‘package’ on board where bottled water is delivered to your cabin every day, but this can be pricey. Instead, my advice is to take your own empty bottle on board – I believe this has to be clear for security purposes, so for the first time in forever I used a plastic one. For hygiene reasons you obviously can’t fill your personal water bottle from the communal dispensers, but you can fill the cups on offer and decant this into the bottle so that you can collect more at once. That way, you can make sure you have enough to hydrate you through the day or night in your cabin without having to make as many return trips to the communal dispensers.
3. Consider choosing your cabin rather than relying on random allocation
As a rule, I don’t like advocating for adjustments that come at an extra cost, but knowing what I know now, this one feels important. When you book a cruise and choose the type of cabin you would like (such as inside cabins, those with balconies, suites etc. which are all priced differently), you’re usually allocated one of those rooms at random. However, it’s usually the case that you can pay an additional fee and select the cabin you would like – the same type of room, but you can choose the deck and the location based on what’s still available.
If you’ve never been on a cruise before, it’s worth saying that the ships are even bigger than you probably expect. Even though there are usually lifts at each end and in the middle of each deck, it can still be a long walk between your cabin and the lift to access other areas. If you struggle with mobility but don’t use mobility aids, you might want to choose a room closer to the lifts to cut down on walking distance. However, if you’re noise sensitive, you might want to choose one further away from the lifts where there’s less foot traffic from people walking past at all hours and the environment is more peaceful.
This time it cost us £200 to choose our own cabin (which made me flinch), but I’m so glad we did. Once we were on board, we saw that the room we were originally allocated was in a very noisy spot next to many communal areas, whereas the one we chose was much more peaceful. My Mum is a seasoned cruiser, and her top tip for anybody cruising with a chronic illness is to choose a cabin on a deck that’s below other cabins, rather than below one of the communal or entertainment spaces where the noise can travel downwards. The cabin we chose was still a significant walk to the nearest lifts and I ended up using my wheelchair much more than I expected to on board, but it was still the best choice for us. Consider your access needs in advance and look at the layout of the ship online, so that you can make the best choice for you too.
4. Plan your time in each port in advance
You’ll likely be visiting some amazing destinations over the course of your cruise, and when you have only a short amount of time to explore, it can be tricky to figure out how to make the most of it. This becomes especially apparent if you use mobility aids. Because I took my transit wheelchair rather than my powerchair, I was banking on having more flexibility than usual and didn’t do as much research into our destinations as I ordinarily would. This meant there were a fair few occasions where we set off unprepared – we’d head off for a wander and find ourselves confronted by steps, cobbles, uneven surfaces and all kinds of challenges that quickly drained our energy and left us feeling deflated.
One way around this is to investigate shore excursions. These can be arranged through the cruise line, who usually offer a range of diverse experiences per destination. Something I really liked about the way P&O did this is that they offered a detailed description and also an ‘activity level’ per experience. We were originally interested in booking an open top 4×4 tour in La Palma, but thanks to the thorough info I could see that the level of activity and the itinerary wouldn’t be suitable for me. However, it’s always worth looking into what’s available. I will say that excursions booked through the cruise line can be expensive and become another cost on top of what you’ve already paid, so I’d also consider doing your wider research and organising your own activities – especially if you have specific access needs or don’t feel up to a full day of plans.
5. Choose your mobility aids carefully
Obviously not everybody with a chronic illness uses visible mobility aids (and we saw a fair few people wearing Sunflower Lanyards on board), but if you do, make sure you do your research. Initially I was gutted that I couldn’t take my powerchair this time as all the accessible cabins were booked and it wouldn’t have fit through the doorway of a standard cabin. However, knowing what I know now about the embarkation and disembarkation process on this ship, I think my transit wheelchair might have been the right option for me after all. Even with assistance, ramps can be steep – make sure you look into this when deciding which aids would be most suitable for you.
If you feel you would only need mobility aids on board (and not for travelling to and from your destination), or you might require more than one option, since coming home I’ve discovered Mobility At Sea. Through their service you can hire mobility scooters, wheelchairs, rollators, hoists, and all other kinds of adaptive equipment to use on board with any of their partner cruise lines. It’s not a free service and there are no prices online, but it does say that you can take any mobility aids you rent on land. If you’re worried about travelling or disembarking with your own, this could be a potential solution for you, and it’s something I’d likely look into next time for me too.
And there we have it! You can find much more information in my cruise vlog, but I really hope these tips are helpful. It wasn’t the easiest of holidays for many reasons, but I still really enjoyed the experience and I’m definitely open to trying something similar in the future… albeit with more research from my end and hopefully much less time in choppy waters!
Have you ever been on a cruise before? If you have any tips or experiences of your own, I’d love to hear them!
Where To Next?