Greg H sent me an e-mail asking how to ensure that his 85-year-old father has a great time (and can participate in activities) on a cruise they’re taking this summer.

enjoying an ocean cruise with your parent

Spring 2010: Mom in her element on the Royal Princess cruising through the Caribbean.

I’m really excited for you, Greg, and I think the cruise will be a perfect vacation for you both (though it will probably be a bit different from what you’ve experienced when traveling with friends or other family members).

The key to enjoying a vacation with an octogenarian parent (or anyone, really) is to relax and take it slow. How many times have we gone on an action-packed vacation only to return home just as exhausted (or more) than when we left? And of course there’s the need to slow things down a bit (or even a lot) when traveling with an aging parent. Whether your dad usually uses a wheelchair or not, you may also want to explore possibilities for using a wheelchair during some of your trip, just to give him more options for taking it easy and conserving his energy for fun activities.

Here are some of my top tips for enjoying an ocean cruise with your parent:

  1. Call the cruise line and ask specifically for an accessible room that has grab bars in the shower/toilet area. Also ask for a room closest to the dining and common areas. There’s no reason to tire Dad out with long walks down lengthy hallways—let him save his energy for the dancing!
  1. Ask in advance if the cruise company has wheelchairs for rent for the duration of the trip. Also ask if you can take the wheelchair off the boat for excursions or to just look around the port. When Mom and I cruise together, I typically take her in a wheelchair to the area just around the pier, where plenty of shops and restaurants can usually be found. Those mini-excursions are sometimes enough for Mom, who’s then ready to go take a nap (while I’ll go out in the afternoon on a more adventurous tour).
  1. Some cruise companies offer programs specifically designed for seniors, including travelers in wheelchairs. If your company is one of them and you don’t plan to rent or bring a wheelchair for the duration of the trip, be sure to ask if the company provides the wheelchair for the excursion or if you need to rent one for that day.
  1. Many cruise companies offer their own excursion programs, but I’ve often just hired local guides to take Mom and me around and show us the sites. This sort of arrangement works great even when passengers aren’t allowed to take their boat-provided wheelchairs onshore, because then you just have to walk down the gangplank and to the waiting tour taxis. Hiring a local guide almost always costs less than signing on for the cruise company’s program. And making your own arrangements gives you the flexibility to call it a day when your parent gets tired. This is really a great option if the tours are too much for your dad, because they let him go sightseeing while being able to control when he wants to return to the ship.
  1. If you take a tour on your own while your dad stays behind, try to schedule it so that you’re still available to eat meals with him. My mom and I both love eating (it’s one of our favorite pastimes!), so I really try not to miss a meal with her when we travel together. (Also, she can be unwilling to eat on her own—though I’m slowly helping her overcome this reluctance). I find that we have a lot of our best conversations over a great meal (and cocktail), so I definitely don’t want to miss this time together if I can avoid it!
  1. If you’re going to skip a meal with your dad, try to make it one that won’t throw him off too much. When I do this, I’ll typically make it breakfast and arrange for room service and a newspaper to be brought to Mom’s room. That way she can enjoy a leisurely meal and morning while I’m out on an aggressive tour (one that she couldn’t do with me). I really try to be back before lunch so we can go to the dining room together for a proper sit-down meal.

That said, while we were in Australia, I spent a day diving at the Great Barrier Reef. I left Mom with a menu by the hotel pool after extracting a promise from the hotel staff that they’d take great care of her while I was gone (and they did!). Her poolside stay cost me more than the dive trip, but we both had a fabulous time!

  1. Bring books (in print, electronic, or audio format—whichever works best for you) that your dad can read during those times when he is relaxing and not on the go. Cruise ships often have a lending library where passengers can either check books out for the duration of the cruise or (in the case of “take a book, leave a book” libraries) keep them for good by exchanging them for something they’ve finished.

My mom always underestimates the number of books she’ll go through on vacation and starts to get a little restless when she runs out of reading material. So at the start of our trip I like to surprise her with two books that I know she’ll enjoy. I couch them as “bon voyage” gifts, knowing full well she’ll need (and read!) them before the trip is through.

  1. Depending on the passenger demographic for a particular trip, cruise ships often offer priority boarding for those folks who need extra time moving around and getting settled. They don’t always do this, but it doesn’t hurt to inquire with your travel agency or cruise company. (Anything to get a jump on the crowds!)
  1. Get a fanny pack for your dad to use during the trip. In addition to your room key, make sure it includes a map of the ship (I review this with my mom every morning) and a slip of paper with your room number on it. Yes, it’s somewhat risky to have the key and room information together. But I’ve found that Mom is much more likely to get lost than to lose her purse. When lost, she gets incredibly frustrated and frightened—and that’s something worth avoiding completely.
  1. Hang something fun on the outside of your door. That way, if your dad makes it to your hallway, he’ll know that he’s in the right neighborhood. (Conversely, not seeing your door decoration will let him know that’s in the wrong place.) Ship hallways all look alike, and anything that helps your dad find his way when you’re not with him is a good thing.
  1. This probably doesn’t apply to your particular case, Gregg, but here’s a tip for anyone who’s traveling with his or her mother: consider bringing an extra cover-up to help her feel comfortable about sunbathing and swimming. My mom hates wearing a bathing suit (don’t we all!) and balks at spending time at the pool (which is something I love to do). So I’ve started bringing along a fun, semi-sexy, animal-print cover-up for her. It’s amazing (and a little scary!) to see how her attitude changes once she puts on some leopard spots!
  1. Ultimately, Gregg, if you want your dad to have fun, you have to have fun yourself. So figure out a rhythm that works best for the two of you and helps you make the most of each other’s company.

I hope these suggestions are helpful, Greg! As you plan your trip, you may find several other posts on this blog useful, too, including these:

I expect this trip will be a magical time to reconnect with your dad, and I would love to hear a full report when you’re back! Bon voyage!

(Coming soon, I’ll address a similar question from Jill, who is traveling with her mother on a river cruise.)