Cruise Tip: Fly in the Day Before Your Cruise

If you’re like me and you only get one or maybe two vacations per year, you want to make sure you don’t miss the boat (literally) when your vacation arrives. You can safeguard your purchase by buying travel insurance should something go awry; research your departure city, cruise ship, and ports of call; and plan out ahead of time what activities you might want to take part in. There is one important strategy that I have utilized over the years to help ensure I make the ship when my cruise vacation finally arrives: staying overnight in the cruise departure port the night before the cruise.

What Prompted Me to Begin Flying into Port the Day Before a Cruise

Back in 2009, I was booked on a cruise on Carnival Legend with my grandmother and my uncle. We were scheduled to fly out of Philadelphia to Tampa the day of our cruise. It was rainy and dreary earlier in the morning, but as our shuttle was en route to the airport, no rain fell from the cloudy skies.

Carnival Legend anchored off Grand Cayman
Carnival Legend anchored off Grand Cayman

As soon as we arrived at the airport, I checked the list of departures and our flight was still on time! I was still wary about any last-minute delays, but the check in process went smoothly and soon enough we were boarding our flight right on schedule. I remember feeling relieved as I buckled myself in on the plane. In fact, we actually pushed back from the gate about 5 minutes early. Despite the clouds and misty conditions, things were happening according to plan. At this point, we still expected to land in Tampa around 1pm. The current time was around 10:30am.

As I recall, taxiing to the runway took longer than usual. Our plane came to a stop and – long story short – our plane didn’t move again for another two hours. Meanwhile, I call my parents to inform them of the situation. They call Carnival and the cruise line says they will hold the ship as long as possible but made no promises we would be able to make the ship in Tampa. As we sit on the runway, I overhear several other families also trying to catch our ship in Tampa. All told, there were probably about two dozen people on our plane headed for Carnival Legend.

We eventually are able to take off and we land in Tampa just in time to catch the last bus transfer to the ship. When we arrive at the cruise terminal, the staff are already cleaning up and there are no other passengers in the terminal. By the time we make it on board the ship, the buffet and other eateries have already closed for lunch. Soon after, we attend the safety briefing. (Given these facts, I assume we boarded close to 4pm.)

Benefits to Flying into Port the Day Before a Cruise

What the moral of this story? Despite making it to the ship, we cut it extremely close and nearly missed the ship simply because we chose to fly in to Tampa the day of the cruise. Since this incident, whenever I am not within a couple hours driving distance to the cruise ship, I always fly/drive to the departure city the day before the cruise and stay overnight in a hotel.

Hotel Room
I’d rather be in a hotel room like this the night before my cruise than sleeping in the airport!

There are two major benefits to doing this:

  1. It provides me with ample time to account for any incidents that may arise en route to the departure city. Flight delayed? No problem! I have a full day to make new flight arrangements and still make it to the ship in time.
  2. If everything goes smoothly, I can enjoy a leisurely start to my vacation. Let’s face it: flying can be a hassle nowadays. A long half-day drive can be tedious. I am happy to get it out of the way so on the morning of the cruise, I do not have to worry about the long trek to the ship! I can sleep in and enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the hotel prior to heading to the ship.

The Downside to Flying into Port the Day Before a Cruise

The obvious downside to this is the cost of paying for the overnight hotel stay. I rationalize this additional cost like this: I consider the cost of the overnight hotel stay to be an insurance policy of sorts. If my flight/drive goes smoothly, I can enjoy a night on the town before my cruise. The morning of the cruise, I can take my time getting ready; there’s no rush! If something goes wrong and I don’t make it to the hotel, I’ll eat the cost of the hotel (boo!) but I’ve bought myself an additional 24 hours or so to make arrangements to get to the ship (yay!). For many people, another downside is the extra day they may have to take off from work to accommodate the hotel stay.

The Bottom Line

To me, the cost of the overnight hotel stay is 100% worth it! There is no price tag for putting my mind at ease before the start of a cruise vacation. The additional time I now have should something go wrong before the cruise is worth every penny. I only get one or two vacations per year. Unlike a land resort, a cruise ship will leave me behind if I’m running late. This is why I recommend you always stay overnight in your cruise departure city the night before your cruise if you are flying in or driving in from more than a couple hours away.

Here is a bonus tidbit regarding the close call before my 2009 Carnival Legend cruise. After we took off, our pilot informed us that we were the second-to-last plane to take off before all flights out of PHL were grounded due to impending thunderstorms. This is the reason he pushed us back from the gate 5 minutes early. I recall looking out the window when we took off and seeing only one plane behind us. But I didn’t realize how close we had cut it until the pilot made this announcement. Despite the hiccup, luck was indeed on our side this day. I will never again rely on luck alone when traveling to catch a cruise ship.

Do you fly or drive into port the day before your cruise? What’s your favorite hotel to stay at overnight?

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