Robert S. & Susan M. Hay
2070 SW 90th Loop
Dunnellon, Fl 34431-5758
Dear Mr. Todd Behan,
I would like to preface this letter with some background about myself so that you might have a better understanding of the experiences my husband and I encountered during our recent Holland America cruise and tour to Alaska.
I am a 58 year old polio survivor who requires a power wheelchair for ambulation as well as various types of equipment to aid and assist me in conducting ordinary daily functions.
Relying on your company representative's statements that your ship and land tour facilities were accessible for wheelchair users, we booked our tour on the Veendam leaving Vancouver on August 28th. Instead of a fun, relaxing vacation, we encountered a series of stressful incidents.
Upon arriving in our cabin #389, it was obvious that your organization is not familiar with what wheelchair accessible means. It means enough room to get from one side of the room to the other. It means easy transfer from wheelchair to toilet and bed.
First, there was a king size bed in the room which prevented wheelchair access from the bedroom to the bathroom. My husband had to move the bed and platform to make more space between the bed and the dresser so that I could get to the bathroom.
Once I reached the bathroom, the toilet's height was much lower than the proper dimensions for wheelchair access. A raised toilet seat was requested, but it was too unbalanced to be useful. I had brought my own shower seat and used it as a raised toilet seat. This prevented me from being able to reach the sink. It was a good thing that I did bring my own shower seat as the pull down seat in the shower was filthy and moldy. Additionally, the bathroom lacked adequate room to easily maneuver my electric wheelchair.
My next adventure was attempting to get on to the bed. The mattress was so high that it was almost impossible to transfer from the wheelchair to the bed. Luckily, I was able to stand up to transfer when the ship was not rocking. However, the first morning we were on the ship, it was rocking so my husband had to drag me up onto the bed. The resulting aches and pains stayed with me for days.
The next issue has to do with communication between the Holland America land offices and the Veendam and its land tour staff. I spoke with representatives in the Access & Compliance office several times before our vacation. We discussed many issues related to my physical limitations including tendering, notifying excursion staff, notifying motor coach staff and notifying hotel staff. I was told that every one involved with my cruise, excursions, and land tour were informed of my needs and wheelchair accessible equipment would be waiting for me. Well, this did not happen.
After getting settled in our cabin, I spoke to the excursion staff on the ship to CONFIRM that motor coaches with wheelchair lifts would be waiting for me in Juneau, Skagway and Seward. I was told that they would TRY to have these motor coaches available. Since I was told that all the arrangements were to be made before we sailed, I was upset to find out that no arrangements had been made. I had to check back several times before the coaches were confirmed.
Next, after reading the material sent to me before sailing, I was made aware of the possibility of tendering from the ship in Ketchikan. I was told by the Access & Compliance staff that 99% of the time that does not happen, but if it did, arrangements could be made to get me ashore. The morning we arrived in Ketchikan, we were notified that tendering was required. At 6:00 AM my husband called the front desk and informed the representative that I use a power wheelchair and needed to get to shore. My husband was told we only had to go to the area where passengers were being tendered and I would be able to get off the ship. As the seaplane excursions provided by Holland America were not wheelchair accessible, I made arrangements for my own sea plane excursion. I arrived at the disembarkment area more than an hour before my appointment on shore. I was then told that I could not get off the ship. Since the sea plane flight was the most important part of MY trip, I became extremely upset. Eventually, one of the ship officers, Bart, came and spoke with me. He said if the CREW HAD BEEN INFORMED the wheelchair lift could have been prepared for me. MY HUSBAND HAD INFORMED A CREW MEMBER, BUT NOTHING WAS DONE!!
Additionally, Bart informed us that port reservations for ship docking are made months, if not, years ahead. Why don't your representatives know this information and pass it on to clients or at least travel agents? After over a very stressful hour and after several telephone calls to the sea plane pilot, the lift was readied, the pilot delayed the flight and I was able to take the most exciting ride of my life.
WHY DIDN"T THE PERSON AT THE FRONT DESK DO HER JOB PROPERLY???? WHY DID I HAVE TO GET SO STRESSED THAT MY TRIP WAS SPOILED???? And finally, why would the staff believe a bottle of wine is an appropriate gift of apology for a disabled person?
The remainder of the cruise concluded without incident. Then came the land tour!!
We left the ship in Seward and went directly to the Kenai Fjords cruise. The bus that was used had a wheelchair lift that had a broken ramp part requiring my husband to physically step on it to get it to work. When we arrived, the tour members were being directed to a boat for a 6 hour tour. Having been told by the Holland America Access & Compliance office that all parts of the tour were informed of my needs, I casually asked the Kenai Fjords cruise guide if we were going to the wheelchair accessible boat. She said no, and she also said she was not informed that it was needed for our tour. My husband and I were then escorted to another boat, waited for the ramp to be placed at the entrance (it was cold and raining while we waited), and had to tour apart from our group. When the boat returned, we found that our group had already left and we were to be shuttled to the hotel in a separate accessible van. The lift on the shuttle van was broken. After waiting several minutes, the driver was finally able to Gerri rig the lift so that it was useable.
After arriving at the Windsong Lodge, I was introduced to the Holland America tour guide. I asked her to please confirm that all the motor coaches had lifts and that all the hotel rooms had roll-in showers (where possible). Her response was that since the requests were on my manifest, there was no need to confirm these requests. The following night we stayed at the Westmark Anchorage Hotel. The room did not have a roll-in shower. I contacted the Holland America desk in the Anchorage Westmark who called the McKinley Chalets in Denali and the Westmark Fairbanks to confirm rooms with roll-in showers. The Westmark Fairbanks had to change our room. WHY DID I HAVE TO CONTACT A REPRESENTATIVE FROM HOLLAND AMERICA TO DO SOMETHING THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ACCOMPLISHED MONTHS BEFORE ??????
The morning we left Anchorage, a motor coach with a wheelchair lift was to be provided. A coach arrived, but not one with a wheelchair lift. My husband and I had to wait a half-hour for another motor coach. The McKinley Explorer was delayed waiting for us to arrive.
That night we checked into the McKinley Chalets in Denali. The toilet was too low and the bathroom door had a self-closing hinge which made it extremely difficult for a wheelchair user to get into the bathroom. Additionally, if the door was wedged to keep it open, no one could get to the sink. In addition, the electric heating unit made it difficult to get the wheelchair close to the sink.
While at the McKinley Chalets, I had two occasions to request a shuttle with a wheelchair lift. The first incident, I was told the Chalets did not have shuttles with lifts and they are not required to do so. After a heated discussion with the Chalets representative, I was advised to speak to the Holland America representative. He begged off the problem with the bureaucratic line, "It was their problem, not Holland America's," sending me back to the Chalets. I then asked to speak with the manager. I explained the problem to her. She responsed "what time to you want the shuttle?' Arrangements were easily made for the following morning. WHY DIDN'T THE CHALET REPRESENTATIVE AND THE HOLLAND AMERICA REPRESENTATIVE KNOW THAT SHUTTLES WERE AVAILABLE??? A similar incident occurred the following afternoon with different representatives. Again the manager had to be called and the shuttle was again made available. But this time the lift was not working properly and the driver had to manually crank the lift up and down. Even worse, when we were picked up to return to the Chalets, the driver didn't know how to use the manual crank so my husband had to show her.
I think you get the idea that cruising/touring with Holland America Lines is much more than a vacation - IT'S AN ADVENTURE! A very unwelcome adventure.
Our only other experience with a cruising has been with another cruise line. They had a truly accessible room and when we toured, arrangements were made for an accessible van to take us to and from our excursion destination.
Finally, our experience with this Holland America cruise/tour taught us that this is not the cruise line equipped for the wheelchair user. A wheelchair user surely would have to think twice (three or more times) before using your company's services. Regretfully, people with disabilities should be warned to stay away from Holland America, at least until documented improvements are put in place. Your company has shown it has great difficulty communicating the needs of the people taking their vacations through the whole chain of command.
Hoping to hear from you soon,
Robert & Susan Hay