River cruises are extremely popular with the over 50s. In fact, the average age of a River Voyages customer is 75!

The leisurely pace, relaxing atmosphere and culture-rich itineraries make river cruising very appealing to the senior age group. Given this target audience, you would hope that river cruises would be accessible for passengers with disabilities. Sadly, that is not the case.

For those people who are dependent on a wheelchair all of the time, river cruising is simply not suitable. They should instead look into ocean cruising, where they will be very well catered for. However, for those who have some difficulty walking and may use a wheelchair or other mobility aid for assistance, a river cruise is entirely possible, just be sure to plan your trip carefully and beware of the pitfalls. This article will help you to do just that.

The pitfalls of river cruising for people with limited mobility


If you can climb a flight of 12-15 steps (even with help and a rest at the top), then you should manage just fine on a river cruise. The reason why this is so important is that on-board the vast majority of ships, the elevator only serves some floors.

River cruise ships have to be fairly low in order to pass under bridges, and for this reason, the sun deck is usually only accessible by stairs. On a few vessels, such as the newer Uniworld ships, there is a chair lift to take passengers up to the top deck, but this is very rare.


The walkway on to a river ship is nothing like the walkway on to an ocean cruise ship. The gangplank is very narrow and often doesn’t have a sturdy handrail – more often than not it’s just a rope.

Depending on the water level, you may board the ship on different decks. This can mean that the gangplank is sloping up or down towards the ship. Sometimes, two or three ships are moored alongside each other. Passengers on the outermost ships, therefore, have to negotiate the gangplanks that link the ships together, which are often located on the top deck.

Cabin size

Panorama Suite - Avalon WaterwaysDue to the small size of river cruise ships, the cabins are generally small as well – certainly much smaller than a hotel room. Accessible cabins with wider doors are sometimes available, but these are few and far between and sell out very quickly. If you require an accessible stateroom, you’d be wise to research carefully and book as far in advance as possible.

Storage for mobility aids

With most river cruise ship cabins too small to store a wheelchair, and equipment not being allowed to be left in the corridor for health and safety reasons, the storing of mobility aids can cause an issue. It is for that reason that most river cruise lines have stated that any wheelchairs brought on board have to be collapsible so that they can be stored under the bed when not in use.


Most river cruise lines also specify that wheelchair users are required to have a travel companion who is able to assist them. Despite this official line, you’ll probably find that crew members are willing to lend a hand with embarkation and disembarkation. However, at certain times, like when you need to fold your wheelchair to store in under the bed and get it back out again in the morning, you’ll need someone with you who is able to do this.


Saga river cruises

Most river cruise excursions are walking tours and require a good level of fitness. You will find that some river cruise lines categorise their excursions and that slower-pace tours are available.

For any tours that involve coach travel, passengers will need to be able to store any mobility aids beneath the coach and climb the four or so steps on to the coach.

As excursions are generally included in the price of a river cruise, you’ll be wasting money if you can’t join them. A good option for someone who doesn’t want to take any excursions is an Amadeus or CriosiEurope river cruise, as these don’t include excursions.


Portugal - The Douro river

The good news for disabled travellers is that many important towns and cities are located on the banks of Europe’s waterways, meaning that attractions are usually very close by, with no need for a bus or taxi.

The bad news, however, is that many of Europe’s historic towns have cobbled streets. European kerbs can also be much higher than those in the UK. If you’d like to explore independently, your cruise director will be able to suggest the best routes to take.


One of the highlights of any river cruise holiday, as admiring the scenery pass you by from the ship. If you’d like this to be the focus of your holiday, it would be wise to choose an itinerary that has lots of sailing time and fewer days in port.

Popular options are the Danube and the Rhine. These long stretches of river have stunning, UNESCO-listed scenery and are also ideal for first-time river cruisers.

Book your river cruise with RiverVoyages.com

If you’d like any more information on accessible river cruising for disabled passengers, or want to check if your needs can be met, here at River Voyages we have a team of expert concierge who would be delighted to help. Just give us a call on 0800 197 0854.

Not for you, try our sister brands!

If, however, you have decided that river cruising is not for you at the moment, and want to consider an ocean cruise instead, we would like to introduce you to our sister companies: SixStarCruises.co.uk who specialise in luxury cruises, and Cruise118.com who offer mainstream cruise holidays.

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About Emma Smith

Emma has more than seven years' experience as a writer and has been in the travel industry for nearly five years. She loves learning about new places and cruise ships coming to market, as well as discovering fun and exciting activities to do while you sail. She has cruised with Princess Cruises, Cunard, Celebrity Cruises, Virgin Voyages, Avalon Waterways and Royal Caribbean and is looking to get something in her diary for 2024! Her favourite things to see on a ship include excellent entertainment, a delicious cocktail menu and extraordinary dining venues.