Drive-to Cruises Are More Practical Than Ever

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013
A road trip to your ship can be less expensive -- and more hassle-free -- than flying.

When we book a cruise, a lot of us look for a great deal on the cruise price but forget about the cost of getting to the ship until later. This can lead to sticker shock when the time comes to book your flight.

In fact, the airline journey to and from your cruise port is becoming more of a hassle all the time -- and not just because air fares are starting to go up again. The price of oil is once again above $100 a barrel, pushing airline fuel costs up. And because the number of air travelers has fallen off during the recession, airlines have slashed their schedules -- so more and more flights have every seat filled, and you have fewer flights to choose from.

In addition, almost all airlines now impose fees for checked baggage, anywhere from $15 for one bag to $55 for two bags (exceptions: Southwest still allows two bags to be checked for no fee; JetBlue allows one checked bag free; you can search airlines' fees at www.luggagelimits.com). This means more people are now bringing more carry-on bags into the aircraft cabin, filling up the overhead bins and causing a scramble for space.

Southwest has just announced it will no longer give out pillows and blankets; a couple of airlines even charge passengers for blankets and pillows now. But cost and discomfort are not the only reasons why flying could become less popular in 2011. Most airlines have stopped serving free food onboard, or they charge hefty fees for non-nutritious filler.

The government has been imposing tough new restrictions on passenger screening and in-flight activity,although the rules seem to change every couple of days. Travelers on international flights coming into the U.S. are now expected to get to the airport three hours before departure. International travelers are also subject to random bag searches and manual pat-downs of their person -- and soon the airport security procedure will likely require you to stand in a new kind of imaging device that can literally see through your clothes.

Will this affect you? That depends on where you live and where you're going, but longer lines and more congested airports are probably a certainty.

Drive-to Cruises Making More Sense

Is there any way cruise vacationers can avoid the air travel trauma? "Drive-to" cruises are certainly one possibility. I recently compared the costs of flying a family of four to a cruise vs. driving -- and if you can tolerate the road time, driving is a far better deal, even if the distance is as much as 1,200 miles (Chicago to Port Canaveral for a cruise on the brand new Carnival Dream, for example). We found the total air travel cost, including air fare plus add-ons, was about $1,400, while the driving cost was $350 roundtrip including a two motel stays for four people halfway through the trip.

Here is the web site, TravelMath.com, where we did the calculations; it can tell you the driving distance and cost of fuel to get between any two U.S. cities.

If you can save as much as $950 (and lots of convenience as well – more room for luggage, for example), that makes a big difference in what you can do on your family vacation.

Of course, our example started in Chicago, one of the most inland cities in the U.S. Chances are you live even closer to a cruise port. There are now cruise ships sailing from as many as 21 different port cities in the lower 48 at various times of the year. You can sail out of ports from Seattle in the Northwest to Boston in the Northeast. Most of the post cities are in the South and Southwest cities, however. Here are the drive-to port cities:

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Jacksonville, Charleston, Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Bayonne, New York and Boston. You can also toss in Juneau, Honolulu and San Juan.

Some ports have only seasonal cruise departures, especially the northerly ones like Seattle and Boston. But you can get a seven-day cruise any week of the year out of Los Angeles, Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Baltimore or New York City.

The driving distance between Chicago and Baltimore is 700 miles, with 11 hours of driving time and $151.70 round trip for the cost of fuel. (Once again, thanks to TravelMath.com.) The Web site not only gives you driving distances, fuel costs and drive times, it will give you a road map for the journey and help you find a hotel along the way or at your final destination.

Drive-to Cruise Hotels

Choosing the right hotel is important. When you get to your port city, you will have to park your car for the duration of the cruise. Unfortunately, that may cost up to $15 per day at some cruise terminals. But there are hotels that offer stay-park-and-cruise plans where one night's stay will let you to keep your car in the hotel's parking area for the entire week you are cruising at no extra cost. You can drive to your cruise port, arrive in the evening, stay overnight at the hotel and take its shuttle to the ship in the morning.

To find these hotels, do a search on "park and cruise [city]". For example, a Google search of "park and cruise San Diego" led me to a listing of cruise-friendly hotels in San Diego at SanDiego.org, the official tourist bureau of San Diego.

An example of a cruise-friendly hotel in San Diego is the Best Western Seven Seas, where you can stay in close proximity to Sea World and other attractions, get a complimentary shuttle to the cruise terminal and park free for the duration of your cruise. The hotel also offers free wireless Internet and other amenities.

Some of more the cruise-friendly hotel chains include Best Western, Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites and Days Inn. Each individual property has its own policies, however, so find out in advance whether the hotel you pick offers park-and-cruise, and at what cost. Some are free, while others charge a more reasonable daily fee than the cruise terminal parking facilities.

Finding the Right Cruise Port

Use TravelMath.com to do your driving research. All the major cruise line web sites let you search for cruises by port of embarkation, and if you want to see more than one cruise line, most of the cruise agency web sites offer the same search capability.

America's Vacation Center, an award-winning cruise agency, has an entire section of its web site that allows you to search for cruises by port city. You first select your port city (San Diego), then select a cruising region (Panama Canal), and you see a choice of 12 different cruises in March 2010 alone.

That's all there is to it. Remember, when you calculate the total cost of a cruise, getting to the ship is a major factor. You should be able to plan your drive-to cruise within a matter of minutes and decide whether it is better to fly or drive. Maybe it's time to consider a drive-to cruise.

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