But there certainly are ways to reduce stress and hassles when traveling to and from a cruise. Here, we offer tips and advice.
Rule #1: The time has come -- get a passport.
Because of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, American cruise travelers heading to places that previously only required a birth certificate and/or photo ID -- one-way cruises, sailings into or out of Canada -- will have to have a passport. While passengers on closed-loop sailings, which depart from and return to the same U.S. homeport, don't technically need a passport, it's safer to carry one in case an unexpected emergency leaves you in a foreign port and you need to fly home. For up-to-date information on current documentation requirements and options, check out Travel Rules and Regulations. Non-U.S. citizens should check with their home countries about passport requirements.
Rule #2: Build extra time into your flight schedules.
In the early years of passenger air travel, prudent 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. Anyone who has traveled by air recently may feel they have been thrown back into aviation's dark ages, given the frequency of significant delays in our air transport system.
Whether you blame it on increased security concerns, deteriorating weather, crumbling air traffic infrastructure or understaffing of the air traffic control system, the causes matter not. The results do. Currently, on-time performance figures hover around 75 percent. In other words, for every two cruises you take the odds are that one of your flights will be delayed. Given those figures, the prudent traveler allows 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.
Roll-aboards are 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 prudent traveler 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 generally more for each piece subsequent to the first one checked -- a large enough suitcase or duffel to keep your checked bag tally to an absolute minimum is highly prudent. The same caveat for carry-on applies here as well; 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.
If your checked bags are locked you need to wait for them to be either searched or scanned before you can leave the check-in area. If TSA can't get into your bags to inspect them they will cut off the locks. There are now TSA-compliant locks available at most stores that sell luggage. These can either be opened by key or combination by the owner or by a special master key carried by TSA personnel. Another solution is plastic cable ties, available at hardware and electronics stores such as Radio Shack. If your bags are sealed with cable ties you can proceed as soon as they are left with TSA personnel.
Additional tip: Buy unusually colored cable ties to discourage unauthorized opening of your bags. Potential thieves may have a supply of normal white ones, but they are unlikely to have Day-Glo orange cable ties.
Rule #5. Whenever possible use curbside check-in.
At many airports you need to wait in two lines if you check in at the counters inside: once with the ticket agent and once in the TSA checked bag-screening line. If you use curbside check-in, you need only to wait in one.
Rule #6: Spring 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 specters 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 adjunct, buy travel insurance now, even if your trip is months downstream, 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.
The past couple of years have seen a bumper crop of airline failures and mergers. There's no consistent yardstick on how well all those miles you've earned will be protected. So it's prudent to get some benefits from the programs 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 a coach ticket to business or first class.
Rule #8: Approach travel like a CPA 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 -- end of story. Nowadays the cost factors are far more complex. Previously, cruise travelers living just far enough from a port found the cost of gasoline, food and lodging 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.
Need more details on today's changing airline, government and cruise industry regulations? Check out Travel Rules and Regulations for an update.
--by Steve Faber, Cruise Critic Contributor