Essential for cruising: planning, flexibility, persistence, insurance

by Ned Levi on August 29, 2011

Celebrity's Summit docked in Juneau, Alaska, by NSL Photography

Sunday a week ago, 145 passengers missed their cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas when it left San Juan, Puerto Rico early, to avoid Hurricane Irene.

The ship had been scheduled to depart at 8:30 p.m., but according to Royal Caribbean, port officials required the ship to leave three hours early, leaving the 145 passengers behind. That evening the hurricane hit the island, knocking out power to 800,000 homes.

A passenger, Nicole Washington, who arrived at the dock at 5:30 p.m, from Baltimore, only to find the ship had sailed, wanted to know why she hadn’t been called or emailed. Unfortunately, by the time Royal Caribbean knew they would have to leave early, about 12:30 p.m., a call or email, even to her cell phone, wouldn’t have helped. Being in Baltimore, she couldn’t have made it in time.

Unfortunately, Ms. Washington, and many others, didn’t plan flexibility into their vacation schedule.

Ms. Washington’s experience isn’t unique for cruise passengers. There are many instances of cruise lines changing sailing times, itineraries, and even canceling ports of call and adding others. Excursions off the ship are often canceled. Sometimes entire cruises are canceled at the last minute.

There are many reasons cruise lines make major cruise changes. Weather is but one.

I took a Mediterranean cruise a number of years ago on Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium. Just a couple of years later, the ship had to be dry-docked in the middle of July to fix one of its Mermaid propulsion pods, causing its next Mediterranean cruise to be canceled.

During a two-week Caribbean cruise a few years back, one of my cruise’s port destinations, Cartagena, Columbia, was abruptly canceled while we were on the cruise. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at that time, Cartagena was deemed too dangerous a destination.

During a Baltic cruise last year, our day-long air excursion to Moscow was canceled due to the fires which ringed the city, and the smoke choking it.

On an upcoming cruise through the Middle East, the cruise itinerary has changed four times so far. Once because a port was considered no longer safe, once due to scheduling problems of off ship excursions by the cruise line, and twice for reasons not articulated.

Weather problems, mechanical difficulties, port crime, wild fires, and changing political situations are among the many reasons cruisers must plan well, be flexible, have persistence, and purchase insurance.

While some may fault Royal Caribbean for its handling of the Serenade of the Seas early departure, due to Hurricane Irene, Ms. Washington could have rendered the problem moot, had she planned better.

At any time of the year, flights can be canceled. Travelers can have difficulties getting to their port of embarkation. Luggage can be temporarily lost. This particular cruise, was scheduled in the middle of hurricane season in the Atlantic and Caribbean, which begins in June, and lasts though November.

To schedule a flight to one’s port of embarkation, in the Caribbean, for a cruise during hurricane season, to come in on the day of the cruise, and arrive just a few hours before the ship is scheduled to sail, makes no sense to me.

For any cruise, I recommend arriving at the port of embarkation at least a day before the cruise starts. If you encounter problems getting to the port, that will give you the flexibility to still get to the ship before it sails. If your luggage is delayed (Has that ever happened to you? It has to me.) it will give a day or two for it to be recovered. For a cruise leaving from a port outside your home country, I recommend arriving even earlier, if possible, two or three days before embarkation.

Flexibility should be a watchword for any traveler, but especially for cruisers. This past week, several Caribbean cruises had their itineraries reversed. Some cruises skipped some ports of call, and went to others. Sometimes ports are skipped altogether.

For cruisers who make excursion plans on their own, such changes can play havoc. Even for cruisers who make their excursion plans via the cruise line, they can cause chaos aboard the ship, as passengers try to reschedule.

Cruisers need to be flexible and prepared for changes.

As noted above, Middle East cruise itinerary has changed four times. While the cruise line has been good about notifying passengers about the changes, by being persistent and monitoring the cruise regularly, via the Internet, I was able to get a jump on scheduling new excursions as necessary. Often, cruisers, who don’t monitor their cruise end up on excursion waiting lists.

I can’t stress enough, the need to insure one’s cruises. With the potential for in-transit problems, possible missed sailings, cancellations, and other problems, coupled with the substantial cost of cruises when you include airfare, and possible precruise and postcruise expenses, along with the potential costs of catching up with your cruise, after “missing the boat,” there is significant financial risk in cruising without insuring your trip.

When you purchase a cruise, plan flexibility into your itinerary, and buy insurance. Then persistently monitor the cruise and modify your plans, if and as needed.

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  • Anonymous

    early arrival, early arrival, early arrival.  passport, passport, passport.  insurance, insurance, insurance.  simply can’t say it enough…….

    some of the CCL passengers who missed the ship at SJU were offered a flight to the  next port – Barbados, but if they didn’t have a Passport…….

  • Lindajoyce2

    come on, arriving 3 days early is a bit of a stretch for most people who are on a limited budget…most of us try to arrive when the airline dictates and don’t have the means to stay extra nights.

  • Nigel

    If we book air through the cruise line we’ll sometimes arrive on departure day, but if we book our own we try to arrive at least a day in advance. We did blow it one time on an European cruise and whne we did our planning I forgot it was an overnight flight! So we arrived on departure day instead of the day before. No problem.
    We also have an anuual policy for up to 30 days per trip, as many trips in the year as we like. It includes excess medical, trip cancellation and interuption and several other coverages. It is arranged with our house insurance and paid with it. So easy.
    Plus passports always are always in force. So when we book a trip, we can relax, just like next month when we are departing on a cruise from Venice and will arrive 2 days early, yes with the help of our travel agent I allowed for the overnight flight.

  • Anonymous

    First, LJ2, I said, “For any cruise, I recommend arriving at the port of embarkation at least a day before the cruise starts.”

    I followed up by saying, “For a cruise leaving from a port outside your home country, I recommend arriving even earlier, if possible, two or three days before embarkation.”

    Note the words, “if possible.” I clearly recognize that not everyone can add extra nights to their trip, some due to budget, and some due to time constraints.

    That being said, I hold to the recommendation, because it makes sense. Time in a port of embarkation to ensure you don’t miss the sailing, and while you’re at it to tour what could be an amazing location, should be part of every cruiser’s budget. It should be planned into the trip, in my opinion.

    If you’re from the US and taking a European cruise, for example, with all the things which can happen when you fly to your port of embarkation, flying in on the day of departure, makes no sense to me. I know too many who, had they done that, would have missed the sailing. And yes, I know that many people get away with coming in at the last minute, but for those who do it, making the sailing is often a crapshoot.

    If you miss the sailing, you’re talking big bucks for a last minute flight to the next port, if you can get there on time, plus you’re missing part of the cruise. You’ll doubtless need a hotel room too, and those meals you planned eating in the ship will also be extra, plus don’t forget the transfers.

    If you have insurance, you’ll likely be reimbursed for much of it, but you’ll still miss part of the cruise. If it’s just a week’s cruise, that would mean you’d likely miss at least 14% of the cruise, if the ship goes to a port the next day, but if it’s a day at sea, then you’ll miss almost 30% of the cruise. That sounds very costly to me.

    If you can’t be there that far in advance, then at least come in the day before and spend the night in the port of embarkation.

    As to “most of us try to arrive when the airline dictates,” it’s just not true that the airline dictates anything, nor does the cruise line dictate when you arrive. That’s a decision each cruiser makes. Cruise line often have precruise packages, especially when they know their passengers are coming to a “foreign country” to cruise, because they recognize that many cruisers wish to come in early to assure themselves being in port on the day of embarkation, and sample the port city. The precruise package often includes discounted hotel stays to keep the trip within budget.

    For my upcoming cruise I told the travel agent when I wanted to arrive. Since I was purchasing the airfare via the cruise line, our travel agent then worked out the air arrangements with them for the dates I wanted. Neither the airline nor the cruise line dictated our arrival date. Our travel agent also alerted us to the precruise package being offered as an enticement to take the cruise (Many cruise lines are currently offering discounts and freebies.) where we got all transfers and a totally free night night at the hotel in the port of embarkation.

    It takes planning, and I always use a travel agent for all cruises. A great travel agent is invaluable. I’ve never had a travel agent cost me a dime. On the contrary, the upgrades they’ve gotten for me, discounts, freebies, and good advice has saved me money over and over again. I’m not talking about those online travel sites who call themselves agents either. I’m talking about real brick and mortar agents. Real people you can meet and sit down with.

  • Anonymous

    First, LJ2, I said, “For any cruise, I recommend arriving at the port of embarkation at least a day before the cruise starts.”

    I followed up by saying, “For a cruise leaving from a port outside your home country, I recommend arriving even earlier, if possible, two or three days before embarkation.”

    Note the words, “if possible.” I clearly recognize that not everyone can add extra nights to their trip, some due to budget, and some due to time constraints.

    That being said, I hold to the recommendation, because it makes sense. Time in a port of embarkation to ensure you don’t miss the sailing, and while you’re at it to tour what could be an amazing location, should be part of every cruiser’s budget. It should be planned into the trip, in my opinion.

    If you’re from the US and taking a European cruise, for example, with all the things which can happen when you fly to your port of embarkation, flying in on the day of departure, makes no sense to me. I know too many who, had they done that, would have missed the sailing. And yes, I know that many people get away with coming in at the last minute, but for those who do it, making the sailing is often a crapshoot.

    If you miss the sailing, you’re talking big bucks for a last minute flight to the next port, if you can get there on time, plus you’re missing part of the cruise. You’ll doubtless need a hotel room too, and those meals you planned eating in the ship will also be extra, plus don’t forget the transfers.

    If you have insurance, you’ll likely be reimbursed for much of it, but you’ll still miss part of the cruise. If it’s just a week’s cruise, that would mean you’d likely miss at least 14% of the cruise, if the ship goes to a port the next day, but if it’s a day at sea, then you’ll miss almost 30% of the cruise. That sounds very costly to me.

    If you can’t be there that far in advance, then at least come in the day before and spend the night in the port of embarkation.

    As to “most of us try to arrive when the airline dictates,” it’s just not true that the airline dictates anything, nor does the cruise line dictate when you arrive. That’s a decision each cruiser makes. Cruise line often have precruise packages, especially when they know their passengers are coming to a “foreign country” to cruise, because they recognize that many cruisers wish to come in early to assure themselves being in port on the day of embarkation, and sample the port city. The precruise package often includes discounted hotel stays to keep the trip within budget.

    For my upcoming cruise I told the travel agent when I wanted to arrive. Since I was purchasing the airfare via the cruise line, our travel agent then worked out the air arrangements with them for the dates I wanted. Neither the airline nor the cruise line dictated our arrival date. Our travel agent also alerted us to the precruise package being offered as an enticement to take the cruise (Many cruise lines are currently offering discounts and freebies.) where we got all transfers and a totally free night night at the hotel in the port of embarkation.

    It takes planning, and I always use a travel agent for all cruises. A great travel agent is invaluable. I’ve never had a travel agent cost me a dime. On the contrary, the upgrades they’ve gotten for me, discounts, freebies, and good advice has saved me money over and over again. I’m not talking about those online travel sites who call themselves agents either. I’m talking about real brick and mortar agents. Real people you can meet and sit down with.

  • Anonymous

    Nigel, as I mentioned to LJ2 in my reply to her, I always use a travel agent. They are professionals who can keep you out of trouble, and the really cost nothing.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, yes and yes DCTA.

    I keep recommending to cruisers to get a passport, not a passport card, and never leave home without. You never know it there will be an emergency of any kind and you can’t fly on a passport card!

  • Bodega

    Not sure what you mean by what the airline dictates but the airline isn’t taking the cruise, you are, so plan ahead and get there a day prior.  If you can’t afford that, you shouldn’t be taking the cruise….especially if you miss the cruise as you will have higher expenses with waiting to get home and a nonrefundable cruise cost.

  • Lindajoyce2

    I am a bit surprised that you feel we are not vulnerable to airlines’ schedules.. we have cruised to Europe over 10 times and we have but a handful of choices with respect to the arrival time to our city of embarkation. We must book with regards to flights from our town (Cleveland) to an airport which offers flights, meaning we do need to watch layover times especially with weather being an unknown factor.   Unless, as a travel writer, you are privy to private planes I do beg to differ that we are not subject to the airlines supply/demand.
    We never travel without carefully researching insurance coverages and have had but only 2 instances where we actually had to call regarding a possible change of plans.  Maybe we have been extremely lucky, but we do plan ahead, do our homework and allow ample time to arrive to the airport, as well as any possible snafus which could deter us from getting to our ship.  Of course there are extenuating circumstances, but we still try to save the money for the ship/excursions/souvenirs rather than sleep in a bed at a hotel, which also requires money for food/taxi to and from the hotel as well as back to the port..
    I also wonder how many travellers do, in the techologically advanced age, go to a travel agent..we have done it, but now are quite versed at internet booking, either through a web travel site or through the cruiseline itself..  With each trip we receive  ample assistance, but truly would suggest for first time travelers to go to a professional until they get their feet wet!
    Also,we have found that booking using a major credit card oftentimes covers some of the trip as added insurance.. We actually were told by USAIrways to call the credit card issuer first if anything were to stymie our airline departures ..the insurance coverage was “seconday”..something I was not aware of, but think it is valuable information to pass  along.

  • Lindajoyce2

    again, as I wrote to Nigel, we can surely afford a night or 2 at a hotel but prefer to use that money to shop/excursions/souvenirs… we cruise to Europe and elect for early morning arrival (night flights).  We buy travel insurance and again, I still believe we are subject to airlines schedules… can’t get around it.. you cannot convince me you can pick/shoose your times of arrival/departure, most esp travelling internationally.

  • Anonymous

    I’m clearly not speaking about the precise time of the day you arrive at your port of embarkation, but the day you choose to arrive, and you do get to choose that.

    Like you, I travel on scheduled commercial aircraft. Moreover crossing the pond when the cruise line is purchasing the air tickets as part of the cruise package includes some meaningful restrictions. Even though I fly out of Philadelphia normally, which has substantial direct, non-stop, service to Europe, for an upcoming cruise, with the tickets purchased by the cruise line, I’m flying out of Newark, NJ for a variety of reasons. The route isn’t ideal, yet I’m arriving in my port of embarkation on the day I wish to arrive, a couple of days prior to my ship sailing, which will give me flexibility and the ability to still make the sailing, even if things go awry, like dealing with a hurricane. I’m arriving then because I told my travel agent to get me there then.

    While sometimes you do have to pay for your hotel on your own prior to a cruise so you can arrive at the port of embarkation in advance of your sailing, as mentioned above, there are often packages available which are heavily discounted and sometimes free which include the hotel and transfers from the airport and to the ship. My upcoming cruise includes such a package. And lest you think I’m getting a special deal because I’m a travel writer, so you know, I’m not.

    If you’re flying to a European cruise from the US that means that for many embarkation ports you may really only have one chance per day to fly to the port for the cruise, or you’ll have to be routed to and fro to get to the port. A few years ago I was flying Delta out of Atlanta to Barcelona to a cruise. First I was flying from Philadelphia to Atlanta by US Air. My flight was coming in from Chicago. Unfortunately, in the Chicago area there were severe thunderstorms and my plane was stuck there. I had a 4 hour layover in Atlanta, so I wasn’t overly concerned. I should have been. The plane from Chicago landed 3 hours late. We quickly boarded, but the plane was stuck on the tarmac due to a storm in Philadelphia. We arrived in Atlanta 15 minutes after our plane had taken off for Barcelona. Fortunately the cruise line had already rebooked us on an Air France flight to Paris, then another flight to Barcelona. Had we not planned to arrive in Barcelona at least a day before our sailing we would not have made the ship until the 2nd or 3rd day of the cruise, as our plane from Paris arrived 3 hours late in Barcelona, and that would have been exactly the time the ship would have sailed, and oh yes, our luggage was still in Atlanta. It took them 2 days to find it. Others with similar problems, but who arrived the night before the cruise, made the sailing, but their luggage didn’t catch up to them until Athens, a week into a 2 week cruise. Not fun!

    A couple on a cruise my wife and I took last year, had plane difficulties and the cruise line did manage to get them booked on alternate flights which got them to the ship on time, but they never did get their luggage until the cruise was over. It got to the port of embarkation a day after they did, but that was the day after we sailed. At the port, the government authorities merely put it in storage and sent a letter to the cruise line it was there. By the time the cruise line got the letter, it was time to go home.

    As far as travelers going to travel agents in the Internet age, according to Forrester Research, a market research company, fewer travelers are using the Web to plan and buy trips. In 2007, about 53% of US leisure travelers enjoyed using the Internet to book travel this year, but in 2009 that number had dropped to 46%. It’s estimated that in 2010, that number dropped again to about 44%. There’s a reason for that. More and more I hear nothing but complaints, and very few stories of a job well done and guarantees fulfilled by online travel companies when problems occur for travelers.

    I always use a travel agent when traveling internationally and more often than not when traveling domestically. The advice is invaluable and when something goes wrong, the assistance is amazing, and if one travels enough, things will go wrong.

    I’m a seasoned traveler, and in particular a seasoned cruiser, yet I would never book a cruise for myself. I leave it and the myriad of details to make sure it’s right to my travel agent. Not all travel agents are fabulous. Some aren’t very good at all, but that’s true in any business, but most are excellent and really know their stuff. And contrary to the myth, they pay for themselves. I’ve never had a trip cost more, including any fees they have received, than I would have paid by booking it on my own.

    Yes many major credit cards have some kind of travel insurance built into them, but the coverage varies all over the map. I recommend never taking a cruise without obtaining quality travel insurance to cover it if there’s trouble.

    Finally, please remember that my columns, like other travel writers are speaking to a wide audience of many economic strata and all walks of life. I try to make the best recommendations I can and attempt to let people understand why I’ve made the recommendations using examples and description. Then it’s up to the reader to decide what’s best for them.

  • Bodega

    Pennywise, pound foolish but it is your dollar.

  • Lindajoyce2

    We are not counting pennies, but surely are aware of where our hard-earned money is best spent.. you are right, it is our dollar and we feel in the past 10 cruises we have taken to Europe, we are able to keep travelling due to our ability to be financially savvy..

  • Lindajoyce2

    thank you for your detailed response.  I sure would like to know what type of package you have found that includes a “free” overnight stay.  I would be more prone to believing (can you tell I am a pessiist) that somewhere in your costs, it hidden.. we have found few freebies within our own travels but sure would appreciate you writing about how/where to obtain such generous allowances!
    I am surprised to know fewer travellers are opting to go to travel agencies.. I do wonder if you are aware if an agency, if booking your cruise, will print out all your documents for you??  We have found this is one of the old nicities that no longer exist..at least for the cruises we have taken.  Several years ago all these docs/luggage tags were sent to you a few week prior to sailing..now?? best have a good printer and lots of pteice to naviage the cruise website.  Helping friends who needed to print their docs yesterday on Carnival…2 hr process with 4 highly educated, user savvy adults!
    I understand you do write for the masses, but did have a problem believing we were in control of any airlines schedules, most esp for overseas flights..as you do agree, they are few and far between ..allowing us to chose the day of arrival, but hardly a particular time!

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome.

    Right now there are plenty of freebies out there, especially for cruisers who are filling out upcoming cruises not selling well for one reason or another.

    We took a Celebrity cruise to Alaska a few years back which gave us free airfare for ourselves and our kids from the East Coast to Vancouver (where the cruise started and ended), plus a few other goodies.

    Last year on a Regent cruise, for example, we got a 2 for 1, plus free economy airfare for a Baltic cruise. While Regent is a luxury line and much more expensive than many other cruise lines that made the cruise not much more than a Celebrity or Princess cruise, and the difference in quality and what you got on board was amazing. For example, on Regent, tips are included as is alchohol (if you want something very special it’s extra), beverages not at meals, and most off ship excursions.

    We find these via our travel agent. It’s as simple as that. We let him do the work.

    Many are surprised by the continued popularity of travel agents in the Internet age. Booking agents like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Travel Advisor, etc., I’d bet thought, they would cause travel agents to disappear from the industry. The problem is for these companies that they are not travel agents. They may book a vacation, but they don’t match the services provided by travel agents.

    Americans in particular have historically been a self-reliant people. We rather do it ourselves. Sometimes, however, the smart thing to do is get expert assistance, not just for the planning and booking, but to help solve the problems that can come up when away from home. I find that booking agents aren’t especially good at planning, but it is when you’re away and have a problem that the booking agents fall down most miserably, and travel agents shine. And when you consider that they really cost nothing extra to use, it’s a no brainer to me, to use a travel agent for any trip that’s more than a single round trip flight, one hotel, and a rental car. I’m a pretty sophisticated and knowledgeable traveler. As a result I book every cruise, all international travel, and most domestic travel through my travel agent. It’s the smart thing to do, in my opinion.

    Our travel agent has always printed out anything needed, if it can be printed. He also sends us, for example, our itinerary information, billing, etc. in pdf form via email, which is great to have as it goes right into my iPhone to have ready during the trip if needed and I don’t have to have the paper stuff. It’s in my laptop too.

    Indeed the cruise lines have cut back and make you do more. That’s made it harder for older cruisers who might not be internet savvy. A good travel agent will assist their client.

    “I understand you do write for the masses, but did have a problem believing we were in control of any airlines schedules, most esp for overseas flights..as you do agree, they are few and far between ..allowing us to chose the day of arrival, but hardly a particular time! ”

    I’m not sure I understand your point here. My point continues to be that there are choices out there to add flexibility to one’s trip and I strongly suggest cruisers, in particular, add flexibility into their intinerary. When traveling to a domestic or  international port of embarkation, weather, mechanical dificulties, delayed luggage, and other factors can play havoc with travel plans, espcially for those cruisers on a tight schedule. Spending a little extra to add flexiblity can be the least expensive solution for cruisers in the long run to prevent the consequences of “missing the ship,” and can add quality experiences for the traveler to boot. While it may not be an option for everyone due to a variety of reasons, it should be seriously considered.

    On any trip, there are all kinds of constraints and restrictions placed on our travel, including the schedules of airlines, however, with forethought and planning, it is still possible to institute flexibility to one’s travels, including cruises. Travelers do it all the time.

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