The Best Way to Travel to Your Cruise Ship

Airplane flying over blue water with a bridge and many building en route to a cruise port
There are many ways to travel to your cruise port, flying is just one of those options. | Author: Leio McLaren

You’ve booked a cruise, so now what? You selected your preferred ship and itinerary, but the trip planning is far from over. Getting to your cruise port safety, stress-free and on-time is your next big concern. Can I drive there or should I fly? There is a huge range of variables to consider based on striking the right balance between cost and convenience, and reducing the impact should things go wrong. There is the matter of finding cruise ship parking for your car, or arranging a convenient cruise port transfer from the airport among other considerations. Here are the key tips and tricks to ensure you never miss the boat and arrive at port, refreshed and ready for a fantastic cruise vacation.  

Where do most cruisers depart from?

With the three busiest cruise ports in the world located in the Sunshine State, it’s no surprise that Florida is the top choice for cruise vacations. Port of Miami, Port Canaveral and Port Everglades lead the way with millions of cruise ship embarkations every year. Tampa, Port of Palm Beach and Jacksonville round out Florida’s cruise port options. Why is it such a hit with cruisers? That’s simple - the world’s top cruise region is right on their doorstep. Florida is the undisputed king of the short cruise market due to its proximity for short cruises to the Caribbean, which have sustained the growth of cruising. Short ‘taster’ cruises of 2-3 nights to the nearby Bahamas and the Caribbean are a big lure for first-time cruisers and there are dozens of sailing every week out of Florida ports. There are busy international airports close by and a dizzying array of options for transportation to the cruise port. 

To the west of the Sunshine State, the Gulf Coast ports of Galveston, Texas, New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama collectively pull in several million cruisers a year for short and medium length Caribbean and Mexico cruises.

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What are the transportation options to get to your cruise?

Not everyone is fortunate enough to live on the doorstep of a cruise ship homeport. That means getting to a cruise port predominantly means driving or flying. Both options have an up side and drawbacks depending on how much time you have to invest in getting there, overall costs and the convenience factor. But what if there was a middle ground between these two options? In a perfect world no one really wants to endure a long distance drive, and many people – even veteran cruisers – simply refuse to fly. It is a little known fact that every cruise port city is served by an Amtrak train station, including cross-country long distance overnight services. Most downtown train stations are just a short hop from the cruise port. It’s a third option worth considering for lovers of slow travel, who would rather leave the car at home and not have to worry about cruise port parking facilities.

Which is the preferred method of getting to your ship?

It is estimated that cruise ships are homeported around the country within driving distance of about 75 percent of the American population. This is an obvious attraction for Floridians with so many cruise vacation options in their backyard. The statistics bear this out. According to Cruise Lines International Association’s 2018 Cruise Travel Report consumer research, a huge 86 percent of Florida residents continue to take cruises to the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico, suggesting a predominantly drive-to market for Florida’s main cruise ports. This very evident when you realize just how many different options there are for cruise ship parking. It is a similar picture for cruisers living in nearby states such as Georgia and North Carolina, and Texas, which offers its own local options at Galveston and other nearby Gulf Coast ports. Getting to cruise port from major metro areas like Houston is pretty hassle free, be it driving or taking a cruise port transfer.

Yet, cruisers are flying in to Florida in great numbers too, especially from up the East Coast and Midwest, as well as a sizable market from California. California of course has its own vibrant local cruise market, from short cruise getaways to Baja Mexico to longer Alaska and Hawaii itineraries. These destinations are only served from the West Coast (along with Seattle) so they inevitably receive a high proportion of fly-in cruisers jetting in from around the country. When flying to the cruise port, there are a few things to consider when you want to get the best flight.

A port in which a cruise ship is berthing ready to receive its arriving cruise guests
Starting your cruise vacation, it all depends on your taste how to get to the departure port. | Author: Chris Unger

Which travel option is best for your cruise vacation?

When it comes to transportation to cruise ports there really is no simple one-size-fits-all answer. The distance from home to embarkation port is a big factor in the driving vs flying conundrum. When both options are feasible, the decision about getting to the cruise port comes down to a combination of cost, convenience and comfort. If traveling as a family or a group of friends and the driving distance is manageable, then go ahead and take that road trip. The gas, toll road charges and cruise ship parking fees can sure add up, but is probably unlikely to exceed the cost of airfares, luggage fees and cruise port transfer for a family of four, for example.  Driving means you are not tied to rigid schedules and can take it as leisurely as you wish with a couple of side trips or an overnight in a motel along the way. Of course there is always the chance of getting stuck on a crowded freeway, taking a wrong turn or being impacted by bad weather.

It’s all about your preferred travel style. If the thought of many long hours behind the wheel fills you with dread, then let the plane take the strain. Getting to the cruise port city as quickly as possible is for some cruisers, worth the pain of crowded airport terminals, long security lines and the dreaded middle seat. 

1. Flying in a few days before your cruise starts

Seasoned cruisers know it makes sense to arrive in the embarkation city a day or two before sailing. It’s a tried and trusted strategy that avoids any extra travel anxiety – there is already enough to worry about on embarkation day without the fear of possible traffic delays, an unsuitable airport - to - cruise transfer, or missed connections. You’ll wake up on the day of embarkation refreshed and rearing to start your cruise vacation, and getting to cruise port is just a short ride away. An extra day or more gives you the opportunity to explore the surroundings in a more leisurely fashion rather than cramming everything in a few hours prior to sailing or post-cruise. When it’s time to check-in for the sailing, the kids will already be in vacation mode rather than fighting off jet lag-induced fatigue.

Accomodation prior to embarkation day

Arriving a day early (or more) means planning ahead and booking hotel accommodations in advance. Every cruise port city has dozens of suitable options within easy reach of the port across most budget levels. Cruise lines offer their own inclusive pre-cruise stay programs on selected sailings, although the options may be fairly limited and tend to be on the pricier side. There is nothing stopping you doing it yourself.  So, where to start? The good news is you are not alone. Check out cruise messaging boards for inspiration and tips.  Every conceivable question regarding hotels for cruisers has likely been answered, such as does it have a free shuttle to the port and free cruise ship parking lots. Browse the boards for a while and you’ll soon get a feel for the top hotels that cater best to cruisers. 

2. Ground transfers between your hotel or flight and the cruise ship

A cruise line operated cruise port transfer from the airport is relatively hassle-free and can be arranged when you book your cruise. The down side is you’ll likely pay more compared to other options, especially if traveling in a group of three or more people. Transfer fares are calculated per person so the price can rack up. Invariably, they will be other transportation operators able to undercut the cruise lines’ price. Additionally private car cruise shuttles may be affordable for a small group. Shop around but factor in not only the price but cruise port transfer timings too – there is nothing worse than hanging around at the airport for hours waiting for other passengers to arrive on later flights.  

If you are flying in a day before embarkation, you’ll need to arrange the transportation to cruise port yourself or take advantage of a private or shared hotel shuttle service if available. Many hotels offer this either inclusive of the room rate or as an extra fee.

3. Driving your vehicle to the cruise port

If you want to optimize your pre- and post-cruise time while still giving yourself ample flexibility, driving to the port might just be the answer. Of course, the distance in getting to the cruise port is the obvious primary factor; recovery time after an epic overnight road trip could seriously eat into your first day aboard. However, there are numerous benefits of driving to the cruise ship terminal. 

Firstly you are in total control. You’re not tied to inconvenient flight schedules and can skip the stress of seemingly endless security lines and the dreaded checked bag fees. That means you can pack exactly what you want without worrying about stingy weight allowances and you’ll never have to fret over a missed flight connection or a lost bag in transit. Once you load up the car with your bags, you never have to worry about them again until you arrive at port parking or at your pre-cruise hotel. 

Parking cars at cruise port next to the sea
If you use your car as a means of transport to the port, you have to be prepared for different parking fees. | Author: Shai Pal

Parking at the cruise port

You may save a small fortune on airfares and those checked baggage fees by driving, but you still need to find a secure home for your vehicle while you enjoy a week of Caribbean island hopping. There are a ton of options for port parking - covered and uncovered lots, onsite or offsite with a shuttle bus transfer, and valet parking. Unsurprisingly at major cruise hubs like Port Miami, the per day costs can vary widely. As a rule of thumb, the closer it is to the cruise terminal, the more you’ll likely pay. The difference can be three or four-fold, so it pays to do some cruise ship parking research. At some ports you’ll be able to save a few dollars with online prepaid parking, giving you a reserved spot.  

Or, how about free cruise parking? Well, kind of. Book a pre-cruise overnight hotel stay and take advantage of up to a week’s free cruise ship parking. There are options aplenty close to most major cruise ports with hotels offering cruise and park packages. Simply book a one-night stay and take the (free or paid for) hotel shuttle service to the port. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not only high-end hotels that offer this service. There are mid-range and even a few budget priced options.

Here is what the average parking cost per day looks like:

Cruise Port Avg. Cost per day
Port Miami $22.00
Port Canaveral $20.00
Port Everglades $15.00
Tampa $15.00
Jacksonville $17.00
Galveston $12.50
New Orleans $20.00
Mobile $18.00
Los Angeles $17.00
Long Beach $20.00
San Diego $24.00
San Francisco $18.00
Seattle $22.00
Boston $25.00
New York Manhattan $40.00
Cape Liberty New Jersey $22.00
Baltimore $15.00
Charleston $20.00
Average cost of parking at major cruise ports in the USA.

4. Other options to get to your cruise ship terminal

Public transportation has the obvious attraction of being the most affordable option, but is rarely a seamless experience.  A subway, bus or train (or a combination of these) will get you close to your cruise port of choice but the final leg may still involve a short hop by taxi. Hauling bags onto crowded buses or local commuter trains is hardly the ideal way to start a relaxing cruise vacation. Exceptions include San Francisco and Boston where it is possible to go by public transit all the way from the airport to the cruise port.

Cruise line or independent cruise port transfer services from the airport can be pricey with per person fares, so for a family of four for example, a taxi could work out a much better deal. Better still, an Uber ride will invariably be even cheaper as long as they are permitted to pick up from your chosen airport. 

Make transportation to the cruise port part of the vacation

They say half of the fun is getting there. That is certainly true once onboard and enjoying the cruising life, but the transportation to cruise port needn’t be overloaded with stress and anxiety either. It’s all about having realistic expectations, and a little forward planning to take any travel mishap in your stride. It can and should be part of the vacation experience.  

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