Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Cruise Travel: "Timing is Everything"

You've planned, prepared, and packed. All that's left to do is get to the pier—either from the airport or your pre-cruise hotel—and you're anxious to get your cruise vacation underway.

No one wants to "miss the boat" and, due to U.S. federal security regulations, cruise lines are required to submit certain passenger information to authorities at least one hour prior to every ship's departure. That means you must be at the pier and complete the check-in process well in advance of the scheduled sailing time. Holland America Line advises, "To meet this requirement, we must have the necessary information in our records at least 90 minutes before departure. If we do not have your information by this deadline, you will be unable to sail."

Happily, you can provide the required information by completing pre-boarding "paperwork" online for most cruise lines. However, that doesn't mean you should arrive at the pier hours in advance of the earliest published check-in time listed on your cruise documents. If you do, you may simply have to wait.

Many veteran cruisers will advise you to get to the port as early as you can. That might work, or maybe not. You could find yourself standing outside until the terminal is ready. Carnival Cruise Lines' documents state, "For your comfort and convenience, we strongly encourage you NOT to arrive at the cruise terminal more than 30 minutes prior to the scheduled check-in start time for your cruise. Due to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, early arriving guests may not be permitted to enter the cruise terminal upon arrival. Early arrivals may have a prolonged wait time in potentially warm or inclement weather conditions."

When you fly to your embarkation port city on sailing day, your options are fairly limited by your flight arrival time—and I do suggest you book the earliest flight possible. Bear in mind, though, that when your flight touches down mid-morning and your cruise check-in time is noon or later, there may be no alternative other than to head for the pier. In reality, with a cruise line transfer you might have to wait at the airport for the bus to fill and, when arriving at the terminal, you may be held on the bus until porters are ready to unload the luggage compartment. Whether you take a bus transfer or taxi, you may get there before the cruise line is ready to begin processing arrivals. In some cases, porters may still be busy with departing passengers' luggage. It's no fun to mill around outside with other early arrivals, or get in a long line to enter the building, but sometimes it's unavoidable.

A better option is to arrive a day early and spend the night in a nearby hotel. Awaken refreshed and ready to go. But hold on a second! Don't get overly anxious or you'll end up in line with those early arrivals from the airport. Most hotels don't require you to check out before 11:00am and some don't pressure you to leave before noon. Better yet, ask for a late check-out and relax at the pool until later. Leave yourself enough time, but take a taxi or shuttle at your leisure and arrive at the port when things are less hectic. Depending on your ship's departure time, you'll find few lines in mid-afternoon and check-in will be a breeze. Plus, you'll be able to go straight to your stateroom once you're on board.

On Board
Does that mean you might not be able to go straight to your stateroom? And why not? Many cruise lines have adopted the policy that embarking passengers are not allowed into accommodations until a specific time, which allows stewards adequate time to complete their duties and insures your privacy as well as the security of your belongings. That means you may not be able to drop off carry-on bags in your cabin before proceeding to lunch. In the case of Holland America Line, cabins were accessible at 1:00pm on a recent sailing. By arriving early, you may be among the first to board the ship, but that might mean you have to tote your stuff around until the passageway doors are open to the accommodations decks. No matter how far you've schlepped them, by the time you embark, the items you carry on will begin feeling heavy and cumbersome. Thankfully, Holland America has a "bag check" area where you can leave your carry-ons until accommodations are ready for you, but many cruise lines do not offer this convenience.

By arriving at the published check-in time, or a bit later, staterooms are more likely to be available for immediate occupancy. Plus, stewards often line up to assist with carry-on luggage and show you the way to your cabin on certain premium and luxury cruise lines. It's a lot simpler to navigate the welcome aboard buffet unencumbered by a massive tote bag or rollaboard ... and the food won't run out, so there's no rush. Inquire beforehand and you may be pleased to discover that your ship offers a relaxed luncheon in the dining room.

Avoid any unpleasant surprises both at the cruise terminal and aboard the ship by reading your cruise documents carefully and completing your paperwork before leaving home. To smooth the way even further, use a passport.

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