Janice Parker describes her most recent port stop in St. Thomas as sheer bedlam. She ventured off the ship with her two small children in tow, but quickly turned back as mobs of tourists from eight other cruise ships jostled and swarmed over the docks. Hoping to see some of the island away from the crowds, she later hailed a cab. But then she spent more than half the day fighting traffic trying get to the popular spots on the island.
St. Thomas is a regular stop on most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries, and in recent years it has become a very popular port of call -- too popular, if you ask cruise regulars and island residents. And St. Thomas is not alone. St. Maarten, Grand Cayman and Cozumel all regularly see more than 20 ships a week in winter. The problem is the glut of cruise ships in the Caribbean, where cruise bargains are abundant and ships usually sail full. On top of that, cruise ships have gotten bigger in the last decade, whereas most ports and their infrastructures have remained pretty much the same size; that disparity can lead to some noticeable crowding on busy days, when half a dozen cruise ships can offload their passengers for shore leave -- all within three or four hours of each other.
Such experiences leave cruise passengers frustrated and angry, and some swear off cruising for good. Is there anything you can do to avoid the crush?
Yes. Three things.
First, consult the monthly cruise ship arrival calendars posted online at CruiseCal.com. These calendars show the expected arrival and departure times for most cruise ships at most ports of call worldwide. Say you have your heart set on Grand Cayman but you don't really want 12,000 fellow cruisers hogging up all the tours and prime beach spots. A quick glance at the calendar will tell you to avoid arriving on April 10, when there will be seven ships in port; just three days later, aboard Royal Caribbean 's Brilliance of the Seas , you would have the port to yourself. Another option is to consider booking cruises that call on smaller islands like Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Barts and St. Kitts.
Second, if you can't avoid a crowded port day, be sure to book your shore excursions prior to your arrival in port. Most cruise lines allow you to book shore excursions on their Web sites up to one week prior to sailing. Another option is to book through companies that specialize in planning tours for cruise passengers. Port Promotions and ShoreTrips, for example, allow you to book your shore excursions before you leave home.
Third, if you see that the port is going to be a madhouse, and you have already visited this port before, consider staying aboard the ship. Port days are very relaxing onboard. Because the crowds have moved ashore, there are no lines at the buffet, no dash for the loungers at the pool -- you'll even find discount appointments in the spa.
As for Janice Parker, she and her family haven't given up on cruising, but she says she plans to look real close at the ports of call and what other cruise ships will be there before planning her next voyage.
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