The first of a series, this article features the secrets to choosing a port of departure that is best suited to your travels.
This is the first article in a CruiseMates series on "The Best Cruise Secrets," offering tips for both new and experienced cruisers from seasoned cruise writers and travel agents. This series will include 10 articles, each on a different topic, but all suggesting ways to get the best deals and the most value from your cruise dollars. After we've published them all on our site, the articles will be compiled as an e-book available for download on your Kindle or other reader.
1. Selecting a Cruise Port
When budgeting your cruise, be sure to figure in the cost of getting to the ship. Airfare is not cheap. And for domestic flights, you'll have to pay a checked baggage fee on most airlines (unless you're an elite member of the carrier's frequent flyer program). If you fly overseas, you should be allowed to check one bag per person at no additional fee. Be sure to distribute the contents of your luggage carefully, weigh your bags before you arrive at the airport, and check your airline's baggage weight limits – an overweight bag charge can be very expensive, and you might not have a chance to re-pack once your bags are checked.
Drive-to cruises are a great alternative to flying to the ship these days. "Drive-to" refers to ships sailing from U.S. ports that are within a reasonable drive from your home. Here are the current U.S. port cities: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Honolulu, Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Charleston (S.C.), Baltimore, New York (Manhattan and Brooklyn), Bayonne (N.J.), and Boston.
Florida – Cruise Capital of the World
The cruise industry got its start in Miami because it is the gateway to the Caribbean. Cruise ships can reach more Caribbean islands from Miami than from any other U.S. mainland city. Because of this, the best cruises – i.e., the newest and most exciting ships and the most extensive itineraries – sail from southern Florida. But getting to Miami isn't always easy, so let's look at alternatives to Miami first.
West Coast Cruises
West Coast cruises out of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle go to Mexico and Hawaii in the winter, and to Alaska in the summer. (U.S. citizens should consider the ease of sailing out of Seattle vs. Vancouver due to customs at the airport.) The west coast does not have the variety of destinations that the east coast enjoys. And cruises to Mexico have become less popular due to rumors of danger to tourists, so the cruise lines have cut back to visiting only certain ports like Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. These places are safe, and rumors of dangers for cruise tourists have been somewhat overblown; however, the cruise lines must react to public perception.
Here is a cruise industry secret: Every year, demand is soft in certain cruising regions for any number of reasons. There may be political turmoil (which rarely affects you as a tourist), or just too many ships deployed in the region – meaning the cruise lines have a surplus of empty cabins to sell. Remember, cruise lines always want to fill up every departure because they make more money from having occupied cabins at any price than they make with empty cabins.
A few years ago, cruises to Mexico were the biggest bargain in the industry, but the number of cruises going there has been cut in half since 2005 – and so prices have recovered. Today, a seven-day Mexico cruise on a new ship in a balcony cabin should cost about $100 a day, per person. This is an average "good price" for most cruises.
Other Options for West Coast Cruisers
If you want to see the Caribbean, you can cruise to many of the same destinations from Galveston as you can from Florida, so people in the West can drive there or find cheaper airfares. New Orleans is similar. You can fly from Los Angeles to Galveston for $220, and arrive early enough to catch the ship. When you have a group of four people, airfare adds up fast.
Another challenge for West Coast cruisers is the time zone change. Flying from Los Angeles to Florida, you lose three hours, so a five-hour flight means you arrive eight hours later in the day, in local time. Typically, you should plan to arrive in your port city no later than four hours before your ship leaves, which means you need to book a non-stop 5:00 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to Florida – and hope there are no delays. That's why most western cruisers choose to fly into Florida a day early.
I personally consider the newer ships to be the best. The newest ships tend to sail out of Miami – and if this is what you want, that is the price you have to pay. But you can sail on some ships that are almost as new out of Galveston or New Orleans and visit Cozumel, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Roatan, Costa Maya and other popular Western Caribbean itineraries identical to those out of Florida.
Driving to a cruise from the Midwest might make more sense than you think. It is 925 miles from Chicago to New Orleans. Roundtrip, the fuel cost is about $250. You will need a motel halfway, for about $150. That equals $400 to get a family of five to your cruise, vs. airfare of around $1,350. My favorite web site for calculating driving costs is Travelmath.com. From Chicago, it is 1,100 miles to Orlando but just 700 miles to Baltimore.
East Coast Options
If you live on the East Coast and want to take a tropical cruise, you can leave from several different cities. Most people want a tropical cruise in the dead of winter. You can cruise from New York City year round, but in January your ship won't hit even moderately warm weather until the third day. A balcony cabin on such a cruise is not needed, although it is always nice. Sailing on a seven-day cruise from New York, you will visit Port Canaveral and two stops in the Bahamas, no further south than Miami. A nine-night cruise from New York yields far more bang for the buck – with far warmer weather – by reaching as far south as Puerto Rico. Prices from Baltimore are similar.