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Cruise may be the answer if you have special needs

Published Oct. 8, 2005

(ran PT, HT, TP, CTI)

If you have a bad knee, a daunting medication schedule, and a back that tends to "go out" at odd times, you might have given up hope of doing any more serious traveling. Don't despair _ the right cruise ship might go a long way in overcoming these obstacles.

The advantages of cruises for the senior who loves to travel but has some physical problems are many: a permanent "home away from home" where you have to unpack only once, a fixed routine that makes it easier to take care of special medication or therapy needs, the same kitchen where you can make one set of arrangements about any unusual food requirements you might have, and a comfortable, varied and beautiful environment in which to travel, with wonderful food and exciting, built-in entertainment.

All of the above apply to most big conventional cruise ships. However, older people need to check out a few special things before deciding which cruise line is going to get their business, in order to ensure a safe, comfortable and fun time. Some of these suggestions might seem obvious to those who have done a lot of cruising but are easy to overlook for the first-timer.

Big cruise ships are just that _ big _ and the bigger they are, the more important it is for older passengers to have a cabin close to an elevator/stairwell. Especially in any rough weather or if that knee starts acting up, the shorter the walk to and from the cabin, the better the trip.

Also, double-check that your smoking/non-smoking choice is given and honored for all aspects of the trip, from airline seat assignments to the point of embarkation to cabin locations and dining room reservations. One of our cruises involved a nine-hour plane trip back from Europe, and we were given seats in a smoking section. The flight was full, and there was no chance to swap. Pure misery, as well as a good case of bronchitis when we got home. And, if we had been smokers, nine hours without a cigarette would have been just as unacceptable.

Dealing with the problem of shore excursions needs some savvy. Trying to decide which ones, if any, you want to take of those offered can be like Russian roulette. Most cruise lines seem so eager to sell these that they can often make them sound much more substantive than they are. The spots to be visited, the exact ratio between sightseeing and shopping, and any physically challenging aspects should be thoroughly discussed with the passengers before they sign up for these tours.

For example, a shore trip we went on took us to one of the world's most famous and spectacular Roman ruins where we spent less than 30 minutes, only to be piled back on the bus and hustled to a medina where our guide kept us more than an hour in a rug shop. Passengers should be allowed more input into how much time they want to spend on which activities.

The physically challenging aspects of any given tour should be clearly described so that passengers can decide for themselves whether it will be worth their time and money. On one of our shore excursions, we piled on the bus at the dock, only to be driven two blocks up a hill, put out, and told we were taking an hour-and-a-half walking tour. Some of the passengers, obviously not in any shape for such an exercise, simply revolted, demanded to be taken back to the ship and petitioned to have their money refunded.

In many cases, you will need to know the questions to ask. Go to the briefing prepared with specific questions that concern you about the shore-time under discussion. The ship has usually subcontracted these trips to a local concern and sometimes might not have been given accurate information, but be sure you have an escape clause that gets your money back if the tour does not match the description.

Also, the cruise line should not be so dependent on revenue from these trips that it is unwilling to lay out some alternatives passengers might undertake on their own. Many times, two or three couples can go together to rent a limo or a van with a driver and see much more of a given location than the tour bus passengers, and usually for less money. To do this, the passenger needs to know how far the docking area is from the interesting sights as well as the general availability of independent transportation and what the going rate for car/driver hire is. All this should come under the heading of "Service to the Passenger."

Cruise lines have separate personalities _ some cater to the young swinging crowd, others to young families with children, and others to the more sedate groups. So do some comparison shopping for different styles as well as different prices before you pay your money. If possible, talk to travelers who have been on the line you are considering. Your travel agent can probably put you in touch with someone in your area who can answer your questions from the point of view of someone who has been there.

All this said, if you can find the right cruise line for your needs, you'll never have a better vacation in your life. It's the real wave of the future (pun fully intended) in the travel world.