Family Travel Series: Cruising - Anchors Aweigh
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Danielle, TPG Director of Operations, has resurfaced after her family cruise to share a few anecdotes about her (mis)adventures boarding the Carnival Destiny. Other posts in the Family Travel Series on Choosing a Cruise include: Choosing a Cruise While Maximizing Points, Is the Disney Credit Card Worth It For A Cruise?, How to Choose a Cruise Based on Points, Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Cruise Flights, How to Get a Passport for Your Child.
As wonderful and helpful as all the comments, suggestions, and advice we garnered from TPG’s sage readership were – it seems as through cruising is its own type of adventure, with novelties very unique to it that you really have to go through yourself to really know what to expect . We quickly learned that despite our research and prep, there’s still a level of unknown – even when just boarding the ship! So we thought it might be helpful to sketch out a few of the general procedures when it comes to embarkment, mostly by relaying what NOT to do, and also share some tips we learned along the way.
The Flight Strategy
The trip was finally upon us and we anxiously boarded our AA award flight (for only 15,000 Avios each thanks to last year's 100k sign-up bonus) to Miami late in the evening on the Friday before departure. We ended up having to pay a premium to make sure that we had seats together, but AA's fees are one the cheaper side for this - only $14 a seat for the two window seats we wanted, so the it was worth the extra $28 to have the peace of mind that our repeat offender seat-kicker would only have a family member as the unlucky passenger sitting in front of him. We sat two-by-two, in back-to-back rows, kids near the windows, my husband and I sitting in the middle seat to shelter the aisle dweller. We hate being nickel-and-dimed, and we were disappointed to learn that although we were characterized as PriorityAAccess (presumably because we booked through BA), we were still charged for our checked baggage at $25 a pop. I had anticipated this, and after a little research devised a plan that allowed us to at least save one checked baggage fee for the way home. Note: If you have an American Express Platinum card, all of these fees are reimbursed for your preferred airline up to $200 a year.
Since one of our toddlers was not quite potty-trained and the other requires a special type of food, one of the main packing concerns was the amount of baby “supplies” that we’d need to cover us over the week we’d be at sea. All the cruise forums warned that diapers and other necessities would be scarce and overpriced, so we packed a bag with enough calculated kids' items to just get us through the 5 nights on the ship. Although we did have to check the “supply bag” on the way down, afterwards it was empty and we just folded it up inside a carry-on for the flight home. Every little bit helps when trying to save on family travel!
Our flight was delayed on the tarmac and in the air – not much we could do about that. But thankfully we experienced very few issues on the flight itself (note: ALWAYS bring a tablet/laptop stocked with Angry Birds and fresh SpongeBob episodes and special plane-only "gifts" to distract the little ones) and before we knew it we had boarded a shuttle bus and were headed to our hotel for the night.
We choose the newer Comfort Suites because it was located at the airport, very inexpensive, and had gotten great reviews on Expedia. It certainly lived up to its reputation. For $89 a night our hotel was clean, spacious, contemporary, offered a free shuttle from the airport, complimentary WiFi, and our suite-style accommodations had a fridge and microwave and the price included a hot breakfast the next morning – I almost wish we had more time to spend there and weren’t just passing through! We were also very pleased to learn that they offer a complimentary shuttle to the Port in the morning. We’d planned on arranging a lift with either the Carnival or Sunshine shuttle companies for around $75, but it wasn’t necessary – the front desk was very much used to dealing with cruises and were very kind in answering our questions and providing transport. An overall excellent experience and we were so glad to have followed the advice of seasoned cruisers and stayed over the night before departure versus flying in the morning of departure.
Crisis #1: Staying over on Friday night was very fortunate since the next morning was a bit of a disaster. After securing a 2 bottles of wine at the store across from the hotel to put in our ship carry-ons (note: most cruise lines allow you to bring one regular sized “bon voyage” bottle per adult when boarding the ship), we piled our luggage in the lobby to await our transportation. Mistake #1: no luggage tags. This is where a travel agent would really have come in handy. We completely forgot to print our luggage tags with our room numbers. Fortunately everyone was nice about it and we just had to have a porter hand-make tags for us once we were at the Port itself. Still very nerve-wracking and we tipped him well in a last-ditch attempt to make sure our bags boarded the ship with us. First crisis averted and we were on to the next!
Crisis #2: We left our ship boarding passes behind and a very unfriendly gate-check agent would not allow us in the VIP line (a perk that came with booking a ocean suite) without the passes. The general boarding line was monstrous, the kids were hungry, and mom and dad were frustrated - how did we let this happen? Finally the agent told us if we could produce something/anything that indicated we were "VIP" she would let us in. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to get service on my iPhone so I could pull up our reservation on the Carnival website. No luck - my phone might as well have been a paperweight for all the reception I had near the water. Finally the shift changed and a new agent came out. We explained our situation anew and she asked us our room number - once she learned we were on a suite level she ushered us through the line - where it took approximately 10 minutes to check our passports and walk through security. We were watching the general line this whole time and it greatly reaffirmed our choice to book a class of cabin that included express check-in - it's no wonder that the cruise website recommends you arrive 90 minutes to two hours before departure to allow for embarkment procedures!
Crisis #3: This one occurred directly after our boarding pass issue was resolved. Security insisted on prying the much-loved teddy bear from my 4-year-old's arms so it could go on the x-ray conveyor, and an all out tantrum ensured. Note to self, remove such objects before you're in a situation where a security guard is lecturing you and you have a line of anxious cruisers behind you! Apologies to any readers out there who may have been present for this meltdown - I think my daughter cried as if I'd removed her hand along with the offending stuffed animal. From there I carried a sobbing child into the main check-in room, where we thankfully also enjoyed the priority line and within 15 minutes had our "Sign & Sail" cards (your pass and cash for everything on the ship) and were being directed to our suite. We met our steward, Manuel, in the hallway and practically collapsed into our room - just happy to finally be onboard. A process that could have taken 20 minutes with our "VIP" status had stretched to the usual 90 minutes! Next time I'll be better prepared with all our documentation, but at least we were well and on the ship and about to leave Miami for the Caribbean - life was good.
Stay tuned for more tip, tricks, and travesties while on the high seas from this newbie family of four!
Final tidbit: Perhaps this is a given, but it was news to us - if you think you'll want to get changed once you’re onboard the ship, you should certainly make sure to bring everything you’ll need in your carry-on. The process for x-raying the checked luggage can take hours, so yours bags (and belongings) may not be in your possession in time for your afternoon/evening activities and the good-bye party on the deck. If I'd known that, perhaps I could have avoided being in jeans and long-sleeved shirt while exploring the deck in the ultra-muggy 90 degree weather .
Do any readers have embarkment tips or mishaps? Close calls when flying in the morning of? Please share!