The old saying that "getting there is half the fun" no longer applies to travelling to and from cruise ports. Faced with strikes and delays, travel -- be it by road, rail or air -- is often more of a hassle and more stressful, and the journey to the cruise ship is nowhere near as much fun and satisfying as being onboard.
But there are certainly ways to reduce stress and hassles when travelling to and from a cruise. Here, we offer some vital tips and advice.
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Rule #1: The time has come -- organise travel documentation
British passengers travelling to the U.S. are now required to carry an ePassport, otherwise you’ll need to apply for a visa to enter the country. If your current passport is not an ePassport, we recommend contacting the passport office to arrange a replacement. Passengers should also have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, known as an ESTA, which should be purchased at least 72 hours before travelling. An ESTA can easily be purchased online at a cost of $14. The same applies when visiting any country outside of the EU. Check the visa requirements for British passengers to your country of travel and leave plenty of time to organise the correct documentation, should you need to.
Rule #2: Build extra time into your flight schedules
In the early years of passenger travel, sensible sea-goers generally opted either to take the train or to travel a day in advance of sailing due to the tenuous dependability of flight schedules. But it's not just air travel. Anyone who has travelled by train recently may feel they have been thrown back into the dark ages, given the frequency of significant delays and even strikes in our transport system.
Whether you blame it on increased security concerns or crumbling transport infrastructure, the causes matter not. The results do. However you travel to your cruise terminal, allow plenty of time and always figure out alternative routes in advance, in case you run into any delays on your first option. If you're flying to your cruise port, allow plenty of time to make connections between flights (I insist on at least two hours) and to get to the ship from the airport. If you can't get a flight that arrives more than four or five hours before your ship departs, opt to fly in the day before.
Rule #3: Invest in the largest permissible carry-on
Wheeled-travel luggage is the most hassle-free. The reason why we recommend the "largest permissible" is that if you happen to be on a flight that insists on limiting the number of personal items you carry onboard, you can always stuff that camera case or purse into your larger bag. Since the imposition of fees for checking bags, the number and size of carry-ons coming aboard has increased. The airlines have pledged to strictly enforce the rules both as to number of bags allowed in the passenger cabin and the maximum size of those bags. The cautious traveller checks with his or her airline to determine the current rules rather than risk having a bag rejected at the gate and gate checked -- at the going per-piece rate for checked luggage.
Similarly, since you will now be charged for every piece of checked luggage -- and more for each piece subsequent to the first one checked -- a large enough suitcase to keep your checked bag tally to an absolute minimum is highly recommended. The same applies for carry-on luggage, too; be proactive in checking on maximum weights and dimensions (length x width x girth) for each piece to avoid oversize penalties greater than the cost of checking an additional bag.
Rule #4: Replace your conventional luggage locks, but only if you're travelling to the U.S.
If you're travelling to the U.S., ensure your luggage lock is a Transport Security Administration-approved lock or leave it unlocked. The reason for this is, since January 2003, the U.S. TSA has been authorised to not only screen all baggage passing through their commercial airports but open it during the checked baggage screening, too. The TSA recommends you leave your bag unlocked to make it easier for officials to search.
Rule #5. Whenever possible check in online in advance
Most airlines now offer online check in and, if they do, you should use it. Online check in typically opens up from 48 hours before a flight and closes two hours before the departure time. Check with your individual airline in advance, however, especially as some now even charge passengers for not checking in online, although this generally only applies to the low-budget carriers. If you're only travelling with carry-on luggage, and if you've already checked in online, it makes arriving at the airport a breeze as you pass the queues and head straight towards security for the departure lounge.
Rule #6: Opt for insurance
Even if you've never bought travel insurance before, now is the time not to be without it. In addition to the threats to smooth flying enumerated in Rule #2, above, you can add the threats of airline bankruptcies and travel agency shutdowns. Shop around for insurance and opt for a policy that compensates you in the case of carrier insolvency. (As an additional note, buy travel insurance now, even if your trip is months ahead, to get the maximum coverage for bankruptcies in addition to weather concerns and pre-existing medical conditions.)
Rule #7: Now's a good time to cash in those frequent flyer miles
What are you waiting for? You've earned them, so cash them in! It makes sense to get some benefits back from the programmes now rather than later. Even if you can't get free seats to your desired destination, you can still use the mileage for other benefits such as airline lounge memberships, deals on partner travel or merchandise offers, or possibly upgrading an economy ticket to business or first class.
Rule #8: Approach travel like an accountant, not a tour guide
If you are the family member who takes charge of travel planning, your mission in the past may have been to find the best way to get to your homeport for the lowest cost. Nowadays, the cost factors are far more complex. Previously, cruise travellers living just far enough from a port found the cost of petrol, food and hotels on a pre-cruise road trip to far exceed roundtrip air tickets. Now the new economics of travel may have turned those ratios upside down. Don't merely assume the old rules of thumb still hold; sharpen your pencil and do a side-by-side comparison of projected costs among all possible ways of transporting your family to the port.
--By Steve Faber, Cruise Critic Contributor; updated by Kerry Spencer, Editor, U.K.