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Cruise Planning 101

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 17 - 2006

Missing the boat. It’s the cruise traveler’s worst nightmare, and it happens more often than you might think. There are several culprits. Sometimes, it’s a poorly planned connection to the port city. Sometimes it’s a failure to carry the necessary documents. Whatever the reason, it scuttles your cruise — and leaves you crying on the dock.

Don’t let your cruise set sail without you. Follow these five tips for pre-cruise planning, and you can board your ship without a care in the world.

Sailing from a distant port? Arrive a day early.

Tim Johns and his new bride just wanted to celebrate their honeymoon in style: a New Year’s Eve Caribbean cruise aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Radiance of the Seas. But as soon as they boarded their United Airlines flight in Cleveland, things started to go awry. The de-icing truck broke down, and it was an hour before another truck could service the plane.

“We were on a bit of a tight schedule,” Johns remembers. “As soon as the pilot announced there was only one functioning de-icing truck for the whole airport, we knew we would miss our connecting flight to Miami.” Sure enough, the Johnses missed their connection, and no available flight would get them to Miami in time for the ship’s departure. They would literally miss the boat.

The Johnses had purchased an air/sea package through the cruise line, so the responsibility for getting them to the ship fell to Royal Caribbean. The Johnses didn’t have to fend for themselves, but the arrangements were still disappointing. “The best Royal Caribbean could do was to arrange a flight for us out of Miami, then fly us directly to Jamaica, where we would catch up with the ship midway through the cruise,” Johns says.

Lesson learned: If you live far from the embarkation port, get there a day early.

Traveling early has saved several of my family’s cruise vacations, most memorably in August 2003, during the Great Northeast Power Blackout, which caused havoc with air travel nationwide. Fortunately, we had planned to arrive in Fort Lauderdale the day before our cruise started. While our departure city wasn’t affected by the blackout, the connecting airport was shut down. We eventually made it to Fort Lauderdale via a crazy routing through Houston, but many people on our cruise missed the ship.

Need identification? Get a passport.

All cruise lines deny boarding to anyone not in possession of the required documentation of citizenship. Sadly, this happens more often than you might think.

Currently, if you are sailing on a Caribbean, Canadian or Mexican cruise and do not have a passport, you will need to present a certified copy of your birth certificate — one that bears the signature and embossed seal of the official in charge of maintaining your birth record. Photocopies don’t count. To obtain a certified copy of a birth certificate, write or go to the vital statistics office in the state, county or city where you were born. More information is available at the National Center for Health Statistics.

But beginning on December 31, 2006, not even a certified birth certificate will get you on board. On that date, the State Department’s “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative” will take effect, requiring all U.S. and Canadian cruise passengers (including infants and children) who are sailing to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to carry a valid passport.

This rule will affect cruise passengers returning to the United States after December 30, 2006, no matter when they departed, so if you’ve booked a holiday cruise and you — or your children — don’t have a passport, you need to get one. You may also need to get a new passport if your existing passport is near expiration. Many countries require that entering travelers have at least six months remaining on their passports or they will be denied entry.

You can print a passport application and get more passport information by visiting the State Department’s passport Web site. Be aware that acquiring a first passport can take several weeks to several months (renewing a passport takes less time) and that first-time applicants and all children under 14 must apply in person at a designated passport office. U.S. passports for adults 16 years of age and older cost $97 and are valid for 10 years; passports for children under the age of 16 cost $82 and are valid for five years.

Kids traveling with one parent? Get a note from the other.

Thinking of taking the kids with you on a solo jaunt? Well, you can’t just take off with them. Due to the rising number of child abductions, child custody disputes and runaways, border officials the world over are paying close attention to minors traveling with solo adults. In fact, children under the age of 18 leaving the United States and traveling with only one parent or guardian (or with grandparents or other relatives) must have written and notarized permission from the other parent (or both parents or legal guardians) to enter many countries, including Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Lebanon and Australia.

A “Permission to Travel” letter should contain the following:

* Written permission from the other parent, parents, or guardian(s) for the traveling adult to enter the country with the child
* Dates of travel
* Accompanying adult’s name
* Airline and flight numbers, if applicable
* Cruise line and/or resort information, if applicable
* Contact information
* A notarized signature

If you are traveling to a country that requires this kind of documentation, the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the INS) will enforce this rule through the airlines or border patrol. Airline agents will request the notarized documents at the gate; border patrol agents will ask at the border crossing.

When planning your itinerary, contact the tourist offices or embassies of all the countries you will be visiting and learn all the rules and regulations that apply to those countries. Foreign countries change their rules and regulations often. Up-to-date information can be found on the State Department’s Travel Warnings and Consular Information Web site.

Kids want to cruise without you? Read the fine print.

Gwenn B. in Ohio wrote to me asking if it was OK for her 16-year-old daughter to travel on a Royal Caribbean cruise with her 21-year-old cousin.

No, it is not OK. Most cruise lines have strict rules for unmarried, underage “guests” traveling with or without their parents. Royal Caribbean, for example, requires unmarried guests under the age of 18 to travel with their parents or a legal guardian, though its cruise contract goes on to say that “these restrictions may be waived at our discretion where applicable.”

It’s not just Royal Caribbean. In the last few years, all cruise lines have tightened their rules about minor children sailing on their ships. Most cruise lines now insist that unmarried, underage guests be booked in a stateroom with an adult who is at least 21 years old (or in an adjacent stateroom). Carnival has the strictest policy: Its unmarried guests under the age of 21 must be in a stateroom with someone over 25.

Policies vary on this point, so be sure to talk to your travel agent or cruise line before you book your cruise. Understand that if you show up at the dock without the proper documentation or if you violate underage guest rules, even inadvertently, you will not be able to board the ship — and you won’t get a refund, either.

Baby on board? Get a note from your doctor.

In the world of cruising, pregnancy is regarded as a medical condition, and the cruise line may require a medical certificate establishing the passenger’s due date and fitness to travel. Many cruise lines will not permit passengers who are more than 24 weeks into pregnancy to sail, so try to schedule your cruise sometime between the morning sickness and the midway mark.

Don’t be vexed on your next cruise vacation. If you book your connections wisely and get your documents in order, you can board the ship without a care in the world. And that’s the only way to cruise.

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