Don't Miss the Boat: New Check-In Rules

February 3, 2009
Oh heavens! I'm missing the cruise ship!

Back in the good ol' days, a would-be cruise traveler could waltz up to the pier shortly before sailing and purchase a ticket for a cruise vacation. Fast forward a few decades, and even a booked passenger who shows up an hour and 15 minutes prior to sailaway can be denied boarding. Why the change? Since July 2008, government regulations have required guests to check in no later than 90 minutes prior to departure.

An anecdote recently reported in industry publication Cruise Week demonstrates just how frustrating the new policy can be. Two couples were flying from Chicago to Miami to board a Norwegian Cruise Line voyage. Because the flight was delayed due to weather, the travelers did not arrive at the pier until 75 minutes prior to sailaway -- just 15 minutes late. Not only were the couples denied boarding, but they also had to make arrangements to fly to the next port, where the ship wouldn't arrive for two days, as well as book a hotel stay at the last minute. Plus, they missed two days of time onboard the ship.

The 90-minute cutoff was instituted so cruise ships could send U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection (CBP) the ship's manifest (a list of all passengers onboard), and the CBP could take an hour to review it before clearing the ship for departure. It's quite reasonable to expect you would get to the port 90 minutes early, but as evidenced above -- sometimes things just go wrong.

How can you prevent this from happening to you? Here are a few tips:

Fly to your departure city the night before. Airlines have been cutting flights and flying planes at a higher capacity than ever before. If your flight is delayed or canceled, it's less likely you can get a seat on a flight departing just an hour or two later -- you could wait hours or even days for an empty seat. So the more wiggle room you leave in your schedule, the more likely it is you'll make the ship. If you simply can't afford a hotel stay the night before, then book the first flight out the next morning -- early morning flights are more likely to be on time, and you can always nap in the sun once you're onboard.

Book the cruise line's air/sea package. It's not a fail-proof guarantee, but if the cruise line is handling your flights, it is more likely to help you out in the event of a delay or cancelation. Plus, the cruise line will be aware of your flight status, and can take action to hold the ship for a late-arriving flight. You might have to pay a slightly higher fare than if you booked flights on your own, but you can consider that extra cost as insurance.

Buy travel insurance. Travel insurance won't force your flight to take off on time, but it will make a bad situation a bit brighter if you do miss the ship. A good travel insurance policy will cover costs for "trip delay" -- such as that extra hotel room or flight you need before you catch up to the ship.

If you do find yourself running late, head to the port as fast as you can. While you don't want to count on them, there are some exceptions to the 90-minute rule where ship staff can update the manifest after it's sent -- especially if a large number of travelers arrive late. However, to ensure peace of mind and to get the most out of your time onboard, do what you can to arrive at your departure city as early as possible.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor

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