Tampa: Getting to the Port

I had read that it was pretty convenient to get to the Port of Tampa from the airport, and a quick Google mapping seemed to confirm this to be true. But there was a wrinkle in my plans: Due to our same-day travel and tight connection, we’d be carrying our bags on the plane with us, which meant I couldn’t pack my usual 2 bottles of wine for the cruise. (What a first-world problem, right?)

Fortunately, a fellow travel blogger was kind enough to alert me to the presence of a Publix grocery store fairly near to the cruise port. (Thanks, Michael!) It’s not quite walking-distance close, so we took an Uber from the airport to the Publix, where we picked up our two bottles of wine as well as a snack (as we’d now been traveling since very early in the morning) and rested a bit before taking a second Uber to the cruise terminal.

Tampa’s port area is pretty spread out, and so it’s important here (honestly, this is a good idea at many larger ports) to take a look at your cruise documents and look for the specific terminal you’ll be departing out of. You can access the Cruise Docs online at the cruise line’s website, or if you book with a travel agent, he or she will usually send you your documents before the cruise.

It was only a short Uber ride from Publix to Terminal 2, where we boarded Empress of the Seas. It was time for our Cuba adventure to begin!

Flying in on the day of the cruise (aka knowing when to break your own rules)

Ever since I started cruising with my mom, over 20 years ago, I’ve always held fast to one rule: Always fly in to your port city the day before your cruise. Airlines and weather are unpredictable, and it’s always better to give yourself a cushion where something can go wrong and you’ll still make it to your cruise on time.

But when I booked our last-minute cruise to Cuba, I was faced with a dilemma: Flights on the day before our sail date were considerably more expensive, adding to an already expensive last-minute plane fare, and that fare increase would have added to the cost of a hotel room to make our last-minute deal not so much of a deal at all. So I took a deep breath and broke my cardinal rule of cruising: Always fly in the day before your cruise.

I booked us on flights that left first thing in the morning on the day our cruise was scheduled to sail. To make my sins even worse, I had no choice but to book us on a connecting flight through Delta’s hub of Atlanta, with a connection time of less than one hour. Yikes!

It wasn’t all bad. I had done some research to check that there were two connecting flights that would have (theoretically) gotten us to Tampa in time to make the cruise. Flying through an airline’s hub airport will usually give you this kind of option as a backup. I’d done some research and learned that Tampa’s port was relatively easy to get to from the airport, so I figured that a same-day fly-in would be less difficult here.

In the end, our flights went smoothly and we made it to Tampa with plenty of time to get to the port – we even had time to stop at a grocery store so I could pick up a couple of bottles of wine to take with us. I even felt brave enough to schedule our next cruise’s flights on the same day the cruise sailed (though I did opt for a nonstop flight, which significantly helped put my mind at ease in the lead-up to our cruise).

As I always say to my writing students, you have to know the rules before you can break them. In general, I think I’ll stick to my oldest rule of cruising: Always fly in the day before your cruise. But now, I feel like I have a little better of an idea now about when I can break that rule.

My first time booking a guarantee room

Ah, the mythical “guarantee” rate – I’d heard about it often in my time as a cruiser, especially as I began to learn more about the behind-the-scenes of being a travel agent. Mostly, I’d heard about guarantee rates as a way to get a good price for your cruise, so naturally, I was intrigued.

Rather than being its own type of cruise cabin, guarantee refers to a booking that’s made in a certain class of cabin without an assignment to a specific room. In a typical cruise booking, you get the opportunity to pick the specific cabin you’ll sail in; with a guarantee, the cruise line picks for you. The name comes from the fact that your booking will “guarantee” you that you’ll get no worse of a cabin than the type you’ve chosen: For instance, if you choose an ocean view guarantee, you may get an ocean view cabin or possibly even a balcony, but you won’t get assigned to an inside room.

There are a lot of advantages to the guarantee rate. As I had heard, it’s often cheaper than the price you’ll pay to pick your own room, and on our 4-day cruise to Cuba, I figured that the location of our stateroom wouldn’t really be a deal-breaker, especially for a short cruise on a smaller ship. If you book a guarantee cabin, you’ll be assigned your stateroom at some point between your booking and your sail date, and a part of me has to admit that it was a little exciting to check my Cruise Planner to find out what room I’d been assigned.

Many cruisers are lured to book a guarantee room by the elusive potential for a blockbuster upgrade – because you’ll only be assigned up, and not down, in the category of your room, it’s certainly possible that your oceanview guarantee could turn into a lovely balcony room. But most experts advise that you shouldn’t count on this – and in fact, that you should be prepared to accept any cabin in your category of booking, even the worst of them (tiny rooms, obstructed views, etc).

We were assigned to an acceptable but odd oceanview room: We were located at the very front of the ship, with a window that looked out onto a publicly accessible deck as you see in the photo at the top of this blog post. (No, this is not at all normal! Most windows face out to the ocean.) We also had two (unused) pull-down bunks that, even when stowed, were a little bit of a nuisance. (You can watch a video tour of the room next door to ours – identical in terms of layout to ours – to see what I mean.)

Ultimately, I had a good experience with my guarantee room, and I booked another one shortly thereafter. It’s all about managing your expectations and being prepared for whatever you get!

Booking our last-minute cruise to Cuba

I’d wanted to go to Cuba for a while, but I wasn’t planning on doing it as soon as early October. After all, we’d just gotten back from our 7-day Pacific Coastal cruise!

However, fate intervened: In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Royal Caribbean was having trouble filling its cruises to Cuba from Tampa (on board, we were told the previous two sailings had been only 60-70% full). I’d learned from the excellent CNBC documentary Cruise, Inc. that cruise lines made most of their money from drinks and shore excursions (along with other extra charges), not really from the cruise fare itself. So I wasn’t surprised to see Royal drop the prices on cruise fares to Cuba.

In this particular case, the price drop was irresistible: The total cost of our 4-day cruise to Key West and Havana was just over $800 total for two people, including taxes and fees. We kept the price as low as possible by booking a guarantee oceanview room. (We could have made it cheaper by booking an interior room, but to be honest, I was still a little scarred by my experience in an inside room on Majesty of the Seas!)

I did learn, however, that the price savings for booking a last-minute cruise are often offset by the cost of purchasing last-minute airfare. In this case, our tickets from North Carolina to Tampa for the cruise were pricing at just under $500 apiece, due to the fact that we were only one week away and we needed to fly at certain times. Fortunately, I still had the companion certificate I earned from my Delta American Express card, so I used that to keep the overall costs down.

Overall, if you have the flexibility and are relatively close to a cruise port, last-minute deals on cruises can be a good option for you. I’ll write more soon about some strategies for finding some last-minute cruise deals.

A Day in Havana, Part I: Disembarking and customs

Finally, the day that we’d been waiting for was here. I set my alarm for 6 am so I’d be awake for our early (8 am) arrival into Havana. However, it was October, and sunrise time for Havana wasn’t until nearly 7:30. I realized that almost all places looked the same in the dark – I probably could have slept an extra half hour.

We stayed in our room getting ready and kept an eye out our window to see when it started to get light. At around 7 am, we went up to the Windjammer to get some coffee and breakfast, and after that we headed up to the top deck outside to get some pictures as we sailed into Havana. The pre-sunrise pictures were the best – soft light and some great colors in the sky. There was a lot of excitement on deck as we approached Havana.

Our shore excursion in Havana had a listed meeting time of 8 am in the ship’s theater. We showed up and found about half the ship there as well! (Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit.) We learned that they use the theater as a staging area for the departure of tour groups. You have to go through immigration as soon as you get into the cruise terminal, and this process often gets backed up. Better to wait in the air-conditioned theater!

We did wait, for about 45 minutes, in the theater before our tour group was called. We disembarked and waited for a few minutes before we were allowed into the terminal, where we stood in lines about 7-8 people deep at one of about 15 stations, each of which were manned by a Cuban immigration officer.

When it’s your turn, you go up to the officer’s station by yourself, regardless of whether you’re traveling with someone else. (I suppose with children it might be different.) You hand the officer your passport, your Cuban visa (given to you when you check in for the cruise), and your cruise card. You’ll be asked to take off any hats and also glasses, even if they’re normal glasses you wear for correcting your vision. A hanging digital camera will take your picture, your passport will be stamped (twice, one for your entry and one for your exit), and you’ll be on your way.

After passing through immigration, your next stop is straight ahead of you. It’s the place where you change your money for CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso), the money that’s used by visitors to Cuba. I’d read on a couple of blogs that you’re best to bring money that is not American dollars, if you can (e.g. Euros, British pounds, Canadian dollars); the Cuban government charges a tax on the change of American money. (Can’t say I blame them.)

Knowing this, I brought some Euros and British Pounds that I had left over from previous trips. At this first stop, I changed 220 Euros for 250 CUC. In hindsight, I wish I had changed more at the cruise terminal, but that’s largely because we wound up spending about 150 CUC on cigars. If you’re not planning to make that sizable of a purchase, this amount of cash should be sufficient for you. (You can read in Part II how we changed some money later in the day.)

With our passports stamps and our CUCs in hand (well, in my purse), we headed out to meet our bus for the day’s tour. (Read more)