A few months ago my bride and I took a trip that had been on my bucket list for several years. Actually, it was a combination of two items – first, take a re-positioning cruise from wherever to wherever. Second, take a cruise through the Panama Canal.
A re-positioning cruise is the result of a cruise ship company deciding to move a ship from one ‘market’ to another. In most cases, the decision is based on the calendar. For example, a ship that has been plying the waters of the North Atlantic is moved to the Caribbean in the winter months and then returned to the New England area for the summer travelers. In other instances, an older ship is moved to make room for a newer (larger and more luxurious vessel) that will accommodate more passengers in a particular ‘market’.
In our case, the Norwegian Sun, was being replaced by the Norwegian Bliss (the newest and one of the largest ships in their fleet). The Sun was being returned to Florida and assigned to cruise between Miami and Havana, Cuba. Thus, our cruise began in Seattle, Washington and ended at Port Canaveral in Florida.
The best part of a re-positioning cruise is the price. The cruise line would rather not send an empty ship from one port to another for any reason. This is true in the airline industry as well as the trucking industry. If you can pick up a load and carry it to your destination and make some money in the effort, why not? The best way to get that load is to drop the price.
Our 18 day cruise had a base price (inside stateroom) of about $900 per person, or around $50 per day. Thus, the two of us got to sail for $100 a day. A price that included a ‘motel’ room, numerous meals and snacks throughout the day, nightly Las Vegas style shows, other forms of entertainment throughout the day, a large swimming pool, and numerous other amenities. It cost very little to upgrade to an outside cabin, so we did.
The other costs included airfare from Atlanta to Seattle and from Orlando to Atlanta; shore excursions – we took a bus tour of San Francisco, a hike and boat trip through the rain forest of Costa Rica, and a hop on/hop off bus tour of Cartagena, Colombia – tips for the ship’s crew members, and a few meals on land, and souvenirs. In total, we spent less than $6,000 for a wonderful three week vacation. That total included paying to park our car near the Atlanta airport and paying for someone to take care of our dog in our absence. (More about our dog later!)
We started our trip a few days prior to the ship’s departure. This is good advice for anyone taking a cruise for two reasons. First, the cruise ship leaves port when it is scheduled to leave port. This is true almost 100% of the time. Second, airlines are not always as punctual. If your plan calls for you to fly to the port city the day of the cruise ship’s departure and the flight is delayed or cancelled, you may miss the boat. If you’ve already paid a few thousand dollars for that cruise, a day or two in a motel is a sound investment. Plus, it gives you a chance to tour the port city.
In our case, the motel was basically free. I say ‘basically’ because we had to take a shuttle bus to get from the airport to a small town where we met my brother Doug and his bride Nancy. We then spent some time with them at their home in Port Townsend, Washington.
While in the area, we toured the town and learned that it had once been a thriving port – long before Seattle became the base for many cruise ships and cargo vessels. We also learned that the local government and chamber of commerce members are working hard to make the area a major tourist attraction. From our experience, I’d say it is worth the trip… even if you can’t stay with my brother for free.
After enjoying our visit, we were up before the sun and making our way to the cruise ship. This part of our trip was free because the ferry boats only make you pay when you are leaving Seattle. (As I recall, many years ago the city of Philadelphia made airline passengers pay to leave. If memory serves, they insisted on cash! I also remember that most people were more than glad to pay to leave. It might have been the “City of Brotherly Love”, but at the time it did not live up to its name.)
It wasn’t long before the city of Seattle came into view and I found myself disappointed by the ‘progress’. You’d have to magnify this picture quite a bit to see it, but the Seattle Space Needle is now plastered with advertising. Lu and I had been to Seattle in 1999 and ate at the restaurant that sits on top of the needle. It was much more attractive without the commercial messages. I’m sure it helps to pay their bills, but it is definitely an eyesore.
Shortly after that photo was taken we spied our ship. Soon our ferry boat docked and we walked a few blocks and got in line to board and enter the cabin that would be our home for the next eighteen days.
For whatever reason, we spent the next few hours sitting in a large room waiting to board the ship. It seems they weren’t ready for us. Even after we finally got on board, we were directed to another area to wait until our cabin was ready. During this time we learned all sorts of interesting tidbits about the Norwegian Sun. As I recall, the ‘cruise from Hell’ was a phrase used more than once!
I skipped a lot of details. So before I explain the ‘cruise from Hell’ statement, let me list the specifics of the trip to this point.
First, we drove from our home to a Holiday Inn near the Atlanta airport. We spent the night at the motel to be sure we would have no problem getting to the airport in time to catch our noon flight. That should tell you a lot about Atlanta traffic. We live about 60 miles north of the airport. To get there two hours before our flight would have put us in the middle of the morning rush hour. Smarter option? Spend the night at a motel and pay the few extra dollars.
Our first flight was to Kansas City where we had a short layover and changed planes. That gave us a chance to grab a bite to eat and meet other travelers. We then boarded the plane to Seattle and arrived around 4:30 P.M. west coast time.
From there, we took a shuttle bus to Silverdale where my brother and his wife met us. We then had dinner at a great Chinese buffet that also included steaks cooked to order! Finally, on to my brother’s home to spend the night.
The next day was for roaming around Port Townsend and visiting a few historical sites.
Another night in Washington and an early wake-up call so we could head to the Port of Seattle. That was accomplished beginning with my brother driving us to the ferry boat terminal.
Thus, “Getting to the Port” was actually a three day event.
Now, the explanation of the ‘cruise from Hell’.
Our re-positioning cruise was actually phase two. The Sun had been used for Caribbean cruises and was being refurbished prior to taking on the Florida to Cuba route. Phase one was to move the ship from Florida to a dry dock in British Columbia for a complete refurnishing. As mentioned earlier, if the cruise line can carry paying customers and make some money on the deal, why not?
Well the ‘why not’ was what made this cruise Hellish. Based on some top executive’s infinite wisdom, it was decided to begin the refurbishing effort during the trip from Florida to California. Thus, the ship not only carried passengers and crew, it also carried construction workers and their equipment. For the next two weeks, the passengers had to endure dust, noise, toxic odors, and various areas of the ship being roped off while decks were torn up and completely replaced. While the workers wore hazmat suits, the passengers were left to their own devices.
The passengers insisted on meeting with the captain. He entered the room, blamed everything on upper levels of management and walked out of the room. It took less than five minutes and the captive audience could do nothing until they reached port in Los Angeles.
At that point, they raised so much Hell with Norwegian Cruise Lines that they all received full refunds.
Obviously, had we learned of this before we booked the cruise, we might not have made the trip. But, until we sat in the waiting room waiting to board the ship, we were totally ignorant.
At that point, all we could do was continue on our way and hope for the best. We would not be disappointed!