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Saturday, March 8, 2014

What I Wish Someone Had Told Me

If you’re like me, more than a few times after an unpleasant surprise, you’ve thought: why didn’t someone warn me?

Well, today I’m going to share some cruise planning tips that we found out the hard way. So you don’t have to.
Like to gamble? Cruise during hurricane season. When you cruise the Caribbean, sun and warmth is a given. But go during hurricane season and you’ve just shot the dice. Getting stuck on a cruise ship in strong winds and rain isn’t much fun. So, know that Atlantic hurricane season is June 1 through November 30, with the peak in early September.
Just a word or two about the peak: that only means the odds of a hurricane go way up. It’s still a gamble going the other vulnerable months. One year, we thought we were safe going the first week in November, but just missed a hurricane by a few days. And though the weather was fine, the seas were still rough. The cost? The captain bypassed our stop at the cruise line’s  Bahamas private island, a highlight of the trip.
Build in time for coming and going. Then, add some more. You can never build in enough time for getting to the pier and getting out of it. This is not the time to cut it close. Flights get cancelled. Luggage gets lost. Cars break down. The cab gets lost. Customs takes forever. The port is under construction. There’s going to be a hard rain. Or fog. You get the idea.

It helps to find out as much as you can ahead of time about what to expect:
  • Read the forums such as cruisecritic.com
  • Go into port websites to find your way around in advance. Is there going to be construction to slow down traffic? Where’s your ship going to be docked? Closer to the port entrance or at its furthest point? If you visit Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades’ website (see “Ship Schedule”) two weeks or less before your cruise, you can find out your ship’s pier and how many other ships will be in port. This could impact your parking options
Is that itinerary stop open for business? This one still pains me. One time, I chose a particular cruise because it was going to Martinique. What I didn’t notice was that it was pulling in on a Sunday. The port was closed up tight. Another trip, St. Maarten was celebrating a national holiday and most of Philipsburg took the day off.

Some itineraries have you getting into a port very late in the day. By the time you get off the ship, it’s even later. If everything closes at 5, what are you going to be able to see?
And some get you into port when the sun rises and leave just a few hours later.
Tendering to Philipsburg, St. Maarten. The ships dock,
but you still need a tender to get into town.
My advice? If the ports are important to you, study the itinerary carefully. Call the cruise line with questions. And read the forums.

Tendering adds time. It helps to know in each port whether you’re going to be sitting in the middle  of all the action or in the middle of the harbor. Tendering can easily add an hour or more to the process of getting on and off the ship. You also want to know what pier you’re arriving at. In St. Thomas, for example, there’s a big difference between the piers at Havensight and Crown Bay in terms of proximity to Charlotte Amalie.
Choose your excursions wisely. We made the mistake of picking a tour of the Bacardi factory on our first trip to San Juan. The whole process of busing there and back, and waiting around with the huge crowd for our turn to tour took hours. When we finally got back into the city, everything was closing.

I hope this helped a bit. And if you had your own wish-someone-had-told-me moments, don’t make us suffer—please let us know!