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Shipping Luggage to Your Cruise: Is a Valet Service for You?

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luggage-valet Think luggage valet, and no doubt a white-gloved butler with a snappy hat comes to mind. In your vision, he's a tuxedo-wearing strong man who deftly whisks your luggage from place to place effortlessly, as if by magic. Your travel ally, he gives you the gift of freedom -- freedom from schlepping your bags down narrow halls, through maddening airport throngs, in long lines and to post-cruise destinations where your ship wardrobe is obsolete.

In truth, a luggage valet is more a service than a person. Increasingly popular, luggage shipping is offered by most companies to simplify the travel process before and after your cruise experience. As a cruise streamlines your vacation once you've left port, the luggage delivery service reduces the stress and anxieties of just getting to your point of embarkation. Via a variety of companies, the cruise lines will pick up your bags at home before you depart and -- if ordered -- return them the same way. This means you travel hands-free through airports, taxis, check-in lines, security and the like. Ideally, you board the ship to find your bags dutifully dropped off in your room.

Sounds perfect, right? But how does it work, and is there a catch? We'll give you the rundown so you can decide if shipping luggage to your cruise via a valet service is for you.

How Shipping Luggage Works

The cruise lines partner with a variety of established luggage delivery services, companies well versed in getting golf clubs, skis or wedding attire to far-flung destinations. Princess, which once organized its service in-house, now uses DHL and FedEx -- companies that veteran do-it-yourself cruisers have used successfully to send their own bags. Seabourn, like Princess, has retired its in-house luggage valet service, now collaborating exclusively with Luggage Forward. Crystal Cruises has joined forces with Luggage Concierge, and Regent Seven Seas works with Luggage Free.

So how does it work? You can sign up for luggage valet through your cruise line when you book your sailing -- or contact a company like Luggage Forward and organize it yourself. Most cruise lines require at least 30 days' notice to organize the service, while the independent luggage delivery companies tend to be able to set up delivery and retrieval on shorter notice. Most companies will need to pick up your luggage two weeks before your departure to ensure prompt delivery at your embarkation port. That means you'll travel hands-free through the airport, skip the interminable wait at baggage claim and find your suitcases neatly ensconced in your cabin when you arrive. Coming home, the process is reversed. Bags are picked up at the ship and usually arrive home within a few days. In the odd event that bags are delayed, most companies will refund the delivery fees and offer a daily sum for traveler essentials.

Please note that, in the case of international shipments, all luggage must go through customs. There have been reports that these bags attract a closer scrutiny, which can result in delays. The delivery companies do intervene, but they cannot guarantee speedy results, and therefore refuse to be liable for delays caused by customs inspections.

Pricing for Valet Service

Shipping luggage is a pricey proposition. But, in times when airlines are charging nominal prices for the first bag and down right outrageous tariffs for the second -- let alone for overweight bags -- the difference in price you pay for valet service may be worth the ease of travel it affords.

Pricewise, all of these delivery services are competitive (with Princess' DHL being just a bit cheaper) at around $5 a pound -- which includes insurance and a customs clearance option for international shipments.

It's difficult to compare the cost of a luggage valet service to the price of checking bags. The variables are many -- which itinerary, which port of embarkation, what time of year, as well as how many bags and what price you're willing to pay for convenience. Always, as in every aspect of travel, set rules are subject to change. On average, the price for a 50-pound suitcase sent from the U.S. to an embarkation point in Europe comes out to be close to the same price for every company -- around $250. That's more than an overweight bag on most airlines.

Alternatives to Shipping Luggage

Some cruise lines don't bother with luggage shipping: Oceania and Holland America are two examples. But others have tweaked the concept to offer their own version of a luggage delivery service, with more affordable rates. Royal Caribbean offers an onboard service that enables passengers to bypass traditional airport check-in on the way home. Passengers check in onboard the ship and receive their airline boarding pass, luggage tags and baggage claim checks. Only available at certain ports and in conjunction with certain airlines, the program costs $20 per guest and offers convenience on the journey home. Arrangements also vary by ship, and specific port qualifications can be found onboard at the Guest Relations Desk during your cruise, though the service needs to be booked before the day of departure.

Similarly, Disney offers cruise travelers who are staying pre-cruise at any of the Walt Disney World properties (serviced by Disney Cruise Line) and those driving to Port Canaveral an option to have their bags delivered from the hotel to their cabin on embarkation day. The cost is $25 for up to 6 bags. The line also has an onboard airline check-in service, exclusively for those who have purchased Disney Cruise Line air or transportation. It allows passengers to check in for their flights and receive boarding passes on the ship -- though passengers are still in charge of schlepping their luggage.

Should You or Shouldn't You Ship Your Bags?

In the end, the luggage valet choice boils down to you. If you are the person who likes to plan ahead and can stand to pack far in advance in order to breeze through the airport muddle, then these programs are for you -- especially if you have the means and desire to pay more for convenience. If you're like me, a last-minute maven, then you will want to save your money. Of course, you'll be dragging your bag though all those travel barriers. And those folks who signed up with the metaphorical luggage butler? Yeah, they'll be whizzing along, hands-free, sipping lattes.

--by Becca Hensley, Cruise Critic Contributor

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