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Homeport cruising: Extra savings, fewer hassles

For some travelers, planning a cruise can be stressful. Beyond choosing a cruise itinerary that meets your interests and budget, you must also figure out how to get from your home city to the departure city and from the airport to the cruise terminal. Airfare, transfers, perhaps even hotel stays must be booked and fit into your budget.

But what if you could eliminate that last step? What if all you needed to do was book a cruise and then show up at a nearby port on your date of departure? You could replace an airplane flight with a cab or bus ride, a hotel stay with a night in your own comfortable bed. And just think of the dollars you’d save.

Homeport cruising has made this convenient and hassle-free form of cruising a reality. With 22 U.S. departure ports plus Vancouver, many travelers living near the Pacific, Gulf, or Atlantic coasts can easily drive to their cruise vacation. If you’ve never been on a cruise because you think it’s too expensive or too difficult to plan, homeport cruising might change your mind.

What is homeport cruising?

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, cruise ships made almost all of their U.S. departures from Miami, Los Angeles, and San Juan, PR. That meant that cruisers in most states had to fly to reach the port where their cruise would begin.

But in the ’90s, cruise lines began to change the way that they approached their U.S. departure ports. Expanding fleets sent cruise lines searching for new places to berth their ships, and newer, faster vessels could now reach the same Caribbean islands from ports farther up the U.S. coasts. Add in the first Gulf War and then 9/11, and cruise companies started pulling ships out of the Mediterranean because Americans had become wary of overseas travel. The result was that cruise ships began sailing out of a wider variety of U.S. ports: Port Canaveral, Galveston, Charleston, Boston, New York, and San Francisco, to name a few.

According to Jason Sheets, director of cruise for Travelocity, it was Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), looking to increase its brand recognition, that coined the term “homeland cruising.” At the time, the line boasted that its ships left from more U.S. ports than other cruise lines. It turns out that NCL and the other cruise lines that began sailing from more U.S. homeports had hit on an idea that would be embraced by many American travelers: Sail from a conveniently located port and save money at the same time.

Why is homeport cruising a good deal?

Savvy travelers are turning to homeport cruising for two reasons: cost and convenience. Cruising from a nearby port is less expensive because it often eliminates the need for airfare, hotel stays, and paid transportation to the departure port. Terry Thornton, vice president of marketing planning for Carnival Cruise Lines, explains that on cruises departing from the newer homeports, “most of the people come from an area within a six-hour drive.” Cruisers can drive to the port and pay $8 to $10 per day for parking, rather than shelling out hundreds of dollars for airfare. The money saved can be spent on shore excursions, spa treatments, or other amenities that increase the value of a cruise vacation.

People who do choose to fly may also find that they can keep airfare costs down by flying to alternate homeports. Thornton tells us that “some of the new homeports happen to be in cities served by the low-cost airlines,” so cruisers can find competitive airfares on short flights to ports closer to them than Miami.

Convenience is another factor. First-time cruisers may think that Miami is too far away, but may have no qualms about getting to San Francisco or New York to depart on a cruise. Choosing a port closer to home can eliminate many of the hassles of travel planning, such as determining how much time to spend in the port city before embarcation, or booking hotels, airfare, and transfers.

Marcia Duffy, director of cruise marketing for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), emphasizes how easy it is for local residents to reach homeports, such as the Black Falcon Pier in Boston. “The Boston homeport is 10 to 20 minutes from downtown,” she explains. “Plus, it’s convenient to Amtrak and major highways.” Many cruisers take public transportation to the port or get dropped off there, but those who drive will find a city-owned parking lot across the street from the terminal.

Plus, several hotels in the area offer “drive/park/stay/cruise” packages, which provide increased convenience at a good value. For instance, the Best Western Adams Inn in Quincy, MA, offers a Park, Stay, and Travel program for $99 to $119 per night, before taxes. The package includes accommodations for one night, complimentary continental breakfast, free parking for the length of your vacation, and round-trip shuttle service to the Black Falcon Pier. Not only do other hotels in many cities offer similar packages, but Thornton says that Carnival and other cruise lines also offer pre- and post-cruise packages in major homeport destinations.

So whether you drive, bus, train, or fly to a nearby port, you can save money and reduce hassles on your cruise vacations. Perhaps because of this, Thornton reports that in an industry with one of the highest vacation satisfaction ratings, homeport cruisers report an even higher level of satisfaction with their trip than cruisers who left from a less-convenient port.

Where can I find a homeport cruise?

If you want to take advantage of the savings and conveniences of homeport cruising, you’ll find the most variety of homeports with mainstream and premium cruise lines. For instance, Royal Caribbean sails from 17 ports, including one in Puerto Rico and two in Canada; Holland America also sails from 17; and Carnival sails from 13.

Travelocity can help you if you’re not sure which cruise line you want to sail. The website provides a map with all of the U.S. homeports and the destinations that can be reached from each port. Plus, Travelocity’s Advanced Search option lets customers search for available cruises from nearby ports.

Once you’ve found your cruise, the best way to make sure you get the most savings from your cruise is to book early. Sheets recommends “planning a year in advance if you’re a family of four.” He says that most people don’t realize that they can put down a refundable deposit on a cruise if they’re not entirely sure what their vacation schedule will be next year. But if you don’t book ahead, you may find that there are no cabins left on your first-choice cruise from your home city.

With the increased popularity of cruising in recent years, you can bet you’re not the only one considering taking advantage of a homeport cruise. Book early for the best prices and availability, depart close to home for more savings and fewer hassles, and you can spend your newly freed-up time daydreaming about your upcoming cruise vacation.

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