The week of May 10th, 1998, I sailed on the Carnival Inspiration out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Carnival Fascination was sailing out on Saturday - the day that I was enroute to San Juan.
I was traveling with a friend who departed from Iowa City, Iowa, with myself originating in Boston. We met at the Atlanta airport late afternoon for a 7pm flight. Debbie and I were sharing a beer at an airport bar and we noticed a large group of people with Fascination T-shirts on them walking around waiting for the same flight we were on. After a bit, I overheard some of their tragic travel plans for that day and finally I asked someone what problems they had experienced.
Best I can recall, the group started somewhere in the upper midwest and made a connection in Memphis. They had at least 50 or more people with their group on the flight from Memphis to San Juan, (which was full of Fascination cruisers) when the plane lost hydraulic fluid somewhere over north Georgia. The Captain apprised everyone that he would have to make an emergency landing at Atlanta Hartsfield and they limped in low to the ground and landed safely.
The plane load of cruise passengers were split into several smaller groups and everyone was given passage to San Juan on different airlines. The group going out on our Delta flight was the last to go, and they had been hanging around the airport for over 6 hours (actually, some took MARTA into town to see Underground Atlanta). They were anxious to get to San Juan because their ship was to leave that night at 10pm, and with our plane arriving at 10:15pm, they were led to believe that the ship would wait for them.
We arrived on time in San Juan and the Carnival people were there to take these people directly to the ship - and best I can tell, they made the boat, but, I bet they did not get all their luggage till at least 11:15 and with the 30 minute drive to the ship - the ship waited 2+ hours for them. The moral of the story is to leave a day early. These people were lucky. Ships normally wait for no one.
Ship Tip: Arrive a day early to your port of embarkation. Ships don't wait.
I have been cruising for 20 years and have never had any travel plans in conjunction with a cruise go awry - but even I know that stuff happens!! Heck, you see bumper stickers all around the southeastern United States that remind you of that lesson of life!
When I book a cruise, I start to get excited - as does just about everyone I imagine. Working for a French owned company, many of my European cohorts receive 5-6 weeks vacation per year. I get 3 and try my best to plan my 15 days thoroughly. A lost day or two due to poor planning would upset me for sure - so I tend to do whatever is possible to alleviate any potential threat of stress from my holiday.
Ship Tip: Do whatever is necessary to alleviate any potential stress from your cruise
I live in Boston, and in case your geography map is not handy, that is in the northeastern part of the United States. Winter happens here a lot. It can and does snow in the months of November through April. Weather delays are the most common for flights. If you live somewhere that is affected by bad seasonal weather, plan accordingly.
Ship Tip: If you travel during a poor weather month, plan accordingly
But weather is not the only delay one can incur. Family issues can arise, the aircraft can have mechanical problems, airlines could strike and a host of other issues could crop up. Sometimes we take flying and the airline's schedules for granted. NO airline provides 100% of their flights on time and no one can predict the other aforementioned possible delays.
Ship Tip: Anticipate ALL potential types of delays
Now if you do decide to go a day or two early, you have a few choices. The cruise lines have add-on packages for you or you can go a la carte on your own. I have tried on several occasions to use the cruise lines packages, but it just has not worked out - but some of that is me.
It is my experience that using a line can be too restrictive in terms of available flight schedules. Example: if your cruise leaves Miami on a Sunday afternoon and you wish to go down Saturday, your flight will arrive in Miami more than likely in the late afternoon to early evening. The lines have to get their Saturday passengers on the morning flights, and with 95%+ of ships leaving from Miami leaving full, the Saturday customers will have priority.
I like to not only arrive a day early, but to take advantage of the day and lay in the sun, visit friends or explore the area. Cruise lines will usually not guarantee you a flight time when you book an add-on package. Rather, they reserve you a room and will let you know a few weeks before departure what time your flight leaves. I find this terribly inconvenient to be at the mercy of the lines.
Ship Tip: Add-On packages offered through the cruise lines often do not give you very convenient flight times.
Therefore, I contact the airlines directly on their toll free # or look up their availability on the Internet - and sometimes, just call my travel agent. Normally, with enough notice, one can book a round trip flight from Boston to Miami for $200 with enough advance notice. I always find the flights I need and that get me into my city of Embarkation usually by noon.
Ship Tip: Book your flights on your own, around your schedule
And if you do arrive a day or two early, you will need to book a hotel. If you know the city well enough you can call the hotels directly or, contact a travel agent for help in this area. Something to keep in mind is transportation once you arrive. If you don't need a car, try to find a hotel with airport service or free service from the hotel to the ship. With 2 or more people traveling, this can be a big $$$ saver for you.
Ship Tip: Travel Agents can be very helpful in finding a room to suit your budget and logistical needs
If you have an agenda and plan to see friends or visit the area, than rent a car for a day or two. I just did that last week in Puerto Rico with Debbie. We came in a day early and stayed at the wonderful Hyatt Cerromar Beach and Golf Resort - which is about 25 miles from the airport. Hotel transportation was available for a fee up till 10pm at night, but I used Frequent Flier miles and had to accept a 10:30 pm arrival, at which time the charges shot up to $60 PP each way. So a $39 rental from Hertz and I was all set!! We drove back and forth to the resort and drove the car to the ship Sunday afternoon, checked in and boarded with our luggage, and then I left Debbie there and returned the car to the airport. The cab ride back cost $15.
Ship Tip: If you need transportation, rent a car. And, use the car to drop off your luggage at the ship on day of departure.
Vacations in my mind should be a stress-free adventure. If for any reason you miss your departure, your ship will more than likely leave without you. If you can only try to imagine the logistics of what must occur next to get you and your luggage to meet the ship in the next port, you could receive severe brain damage from the exercise - let alone having to do it in person!!
So if your schedule permits, streeeeeeeeetch your vacation and add another day to the front of your cruise. You will be more relaxed when you board and be able to board the ship a few hours earlier to give yourself a head start on unpacking and or familiarizing yourself with the ship. And, by arriving a day or two early, you will be well rested when you board the ship and actually be able to enjoy the first full afternoon and evening on your floating hotel - versus being exhausted from the plane rides, airports, taxis and stress of whether your all important luggage made the trip.
Doug Terhune is quite the experienced "solo cruiser" and is a regular columnist and reviewer for The SeaLetter.
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