"We don't drink and we don't gamble. That's where they make the money." A couple discussed their most recent cruise. They are regular cruise passengers out of the port of Ft. Lauderdale and have been cruising for many years. As Florida residents with leisure time they can pick up cruise bargains at the last minute with five day packages going for as little as $149. The price for seniors, Florida residents, and members of a cruise line's special frequent patron clubs makes the initial purchase very affordable.
"There are gratuities added to your credit card that amount to about $15 a day. Sometimes the service is so good that we want to add more. Envelopes are provided for that purpose. In some cases the passenger's bar bill exceeds the price of their cruise," the husband said.
Public transportation has been improved in Florida. However with the nation's principal cruise embarkation ports at Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, there is no feasible way to get to a cruise ship with heavy baggage other than driving. On a recent Princess Cruise that left Ft. Lauderdale with boarding times between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for a 4 p.m. departure, round trip car service from a private person would have been $130 for the 70 mile total round trip. Tri-Rail commuter train is only $5 each way. Train service provides shuttle busses to the airport not to the piers. Princess Cruise Lines charges $19 each way for a shuttle from the airport to the pier. This would require a cab ride to the Tri-Rail station, lugging heavy suitcases, the shuttle bus, the airport, the bane of scheduling it.
Inquiry about parking on the pier resulted in a price quote of $15 a day. There would be the additional hassle of driving in and out of the congested security-checkpoint port area and finding a place to park. As with most things today, the computer is a handy way to navigate most needs. When Ft. Lauderdale cruise parking was typed in, up came several options. The most handy was Gold Coast Cruise and Fly Parking. Their daily parking fee was half what the port charged. They were polite, courteous, and had free shuttle bus service to the pier. Reserving with Gold Coast was easy. The Gold Coast lot is right off the Ft. Lauderdale SR 84 (West 24th Street) exit of I 95.
Easy to find, close to I 95 and immediate friendly help to get luggages out of the car and into their shuttle bus. It was a short drive from the Gold Coast lot to the pier. Seniors enjoy cruising and have the discipline to arrive early. Lines stretch outside the pier entrance. The Gold Coast driver knew the routine. He dropped luggages off right in front of where they could be checked in thus there was no hassle dragging heavy suitcases along the long line of waiting cruise passengers.
Our friends wisely advised to take a carry on with anything that might be needed for the first few hours aboard ship. Checked luggage would arrive on board later in the day once it was sorted and brought to the cabin.
If you like to swim always pack bathing suits in the carry on so the ship's pool can be enjoyed. Obviously be sure to carry on any needed medications and fragile items like computers or cameras. Remember cruise lines charge 79 cents per minute to access WiFi aboard. Minutes can be pricey.
Princess Cruise Lines has X-ray and metal detectors installed to screen passengers. Those needing special care are accommodated by attendants. Electric mobility scooters, wheel chairs, and walkers are handled by attendants. Always be prepared for long lines and request assistance if needed.
"All cruise lines follow the same pattern. You will find that they have a jewelry store on board, art exhibitions and auctions, shopping networks, and shore excursions," the experienced cruise passengers told me. "They have it all down. There are machines in front of the casino. One has a key to go into a hole. I never saw anyone win on that one. They have coin pushers. The gambler puts a quarter in a slot, it pops up and pushers push it against other coins that can drop into a tray. The only time I saw anyone win on that was when the ship was rolling and coins fell out. I scooped them out of the tray and used them to play. I never won anything but I was playing with their money."
I listened. My friend's story was verified once aboard and the ship left port. I was content to watch passengers play the machines. Bundles of single dollar bills offer temptation. One gambler commented, "You have to spend $40 to get back $25." The player didn't even get the bundle of bills for his $40.
There are special restaurants aboard ship that cost extra. These restaurants charge an additional $25 and offer Italian specialties and steaks. "I already paid to eat. I'm not going to pay again," a cruise passenger said when the Maitre d'Hotel at one specialty restaurant told him there would be an extra charge.
Shipboard dining can be at a buffet, various grills for hamburgers, and franks as well as sit down dining in formal restaurants. There are formal and casual nights. Tuxedo dining is no longer in vogue. Dark suits with ties and evening gowns are seen on formal nights. On board photographers take all manner of pictures of cruise passengers throughout the trip. Photo packages run about $50. Passengers with their own cameras can take their own pictures. Members of the crew and other passengers are always willing to snap shots for you.
Plan your shore excursions carefully. Review the possibilities in advance. Typically it is possible but more difficult to venture out into ports-of-call on your own. Shipboard warnings describe hazards to tourists. Local taxis can be rip-offs thus organized shore excursions, especially in ports that you have never been to. Some passengers choose not to leave the ship. They enjoy the food, swimming pools, and atmosphere on board while the ship is docked.
Land excursions run from $60 to $200 depending on the adventure. There are antique train rides, zip lines, dolphin swims, jungle cruises, snorkeling, visits to forts, ruins, and museums. The organized shore excursions have local guides. Princess Cruise Lines sends an escort from the crew along with most excursions to help.
Escorted tours assure return to the ship before sailing time. People get caught in traffic or otherwise miss the ship. Cruise lines have shore personnel to help with any contingency. The important thing is not to miss the ship. Cruise lines inspect and verify the safety of providers of shore excursions, an important and valid safety precaution in many developing countries.
Make photo copies of your passport and driver license and take the copies with you on shore excursions along with the cruise line's issued identification card. Leave the originals in your in-room safe unless there is a special purpose why you need your original documents on shore.
Shopping can be fun. Cruise lines have shopping experts that choose stores that are approved. Buying jewelry can be tricky. Gold may be stamped 18K but may in fact be of a lesser purity. Silver the same, some marked 950 may be alloyed with other metals. There are bargains to be had and bargaining with locals can be fun. Always remember it is "caveat emptor," let the buyer beware. If select cruise merchants are chosen, expect prices to be higher. The same may be true for shipboard shopping. There is no choice in that since the overhead is great. Higher prices aboard ship are not always the case. One passenger, pushing her mother in a wheel chair, bargained and then bought a hat in the market in Cartagena. She paid $25. That night the boutique aboard ship offered the same hat for $10.
Always remember that U.S. Customs allows $800 of duty free items to be brought back. Duties on expensive purchases are charged. It is always best to know in advance what the duty will be before deciding that the purchase is a good buy.
Art on board cruise ships can be tempting. There are Champagne parties, auctions, get-togethers to tempt passengers. The art offered in most cases can be found considerably cheaper at land-based galleries. While shipboard auctions help pass the time, and a free glass of Champagne is always a draw, check out the particulars.
"It is not really an auction," the husband of the cruise-savvy couple explained. "They want you to put a bid on for a minimum price. They'll offer some premium if you do. Bidding starts at their minimum prince, it can be $1,200. I never found the art worth anything near the opening bid." This person is an experienced art collector and expert. You may very well find just the right piece of art you are looking for at a price you are willing to pay.
While bargain initial cruise prices can be viewed as loss-leaders, cruise lines are expert marketers. They know that people will want to buy fancy coffees, duty-free liquor, will enjoy cocktails and wine at dinner, will gamble, take shore excursions and shop. The informed consumer can save money and still enjoy all the amenities of luxury cruising. Some passengers determine how much, if any, wine or liquor can be brought on board. They then drink from their own supply. Some enjoy watching others gamble and lose their money without participating in games of chance. Watching is the best way to win at a casino.
A little computer research will save at least half on parking fees and certainly great bargains can be had by checking last minute deals. Cruise lines do not want to sail with empty cabins. The most important thing is to relax and enjoy your vacation.
The offsite parking I discovered with efficiency and convenience for the Port of Ft. Lauderdale is GoldCoastCruiseAndFlyParking.com, toll-free 1-800-421-8752 or 954-522-0665.
John Christopher Fine has authored 25 books, including award-winning books dealing with ocean pollution. He also writes for major magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe. He is a master scuba instructor and instructor trainer and expert in maritime affairs.