Avoiding Hurricane Irma on our Caribbean cruise

We heard the news of Irma brewing into a serious hurricane a few days before we were set to leave Miami on our 6 night Western Caribbean Cruise on Carnival Vista.

What bad luck, I thought, although I wasn’t worried. I completely trusted that Carnival Cruises, or any cruise line, would not commit business suicide by steering us into a hurricane.

Could you imagine the fall out if the Captain did that?

There was still doubt about Irma’s path. It was early days anything could happen. We kept updated on the cruise and the clear, sunny days we were having let us know we were far from Irma’s fury.

cruise ship
And then it happened. The path pretty much determined, save some angelic intervention that this mammoth storm – the largest recorded hurricane over the Atlantic was headed straight for Miami and the entire state of Florida.

We’d gotten back from our day (Wednesday) on Grand Cayman, our second island destination on the cruise, to the Captain’s message – we would not be returning to Miami on Saturday.

We had a choice.

We could alight at our next destination, Cozumel in Mexico and find our own way home, or stay on the ship waiting until the hurricane had passed and it was safer to return to Miami.

The decision was easily made for those passengers who did not travel on the cruise with their passports.

On Caribbean cruises it’s okay for American’s to cruise without their passports and just use their drivers license for photo id. So many did – some don’t even own a passport. I’m so glad we had ours.

The answer was pretty simple for all the Floridian guests – stay on the ship, enjoy the facilities, food, drink and shelter and remain far from the worst hurricane ever.

For us out-of-staters, we had a decision that required more thought.

Should we stay or should we go?

Carnival Vista Cruise should we stay on or get off because of Hurricane Irma

Staying on the cruise

Cruising around for a few more days sounded attractive – especially to the girls – BUT, Craig had a conference and flights booked on the Monday for Santa Barbara. And I was booked to go to Austria on the 17th of September to speak at a conference.

Irma was due to hit Miami on the Sunday. The Port may not be reopened for days after and then we’d have to get out of Miami.

What if the Port, or the airport, was wiped out? Can you imagine the chaos in the aftermath trying to get out with all the after hurricane horror?

Our flights out of Miami were cancelled so we’d have to buy new ones anyway. And we knew they wouldn’t be cheap.

South Beach Miami. The calm before Hurricane Irma
South Beach Miami. The calm before Hurricane Irma

Then there was the fact that Irma was moving up the Carolina’s so we may not even get into Raleigh.

I had spoken to a guy from another Carnival ship who said those stuck on the boat waiting for Harvey to pass so they could return to Galveston remained on the boat for an extra 8 days as the port was wiped out.

No way. That was a a risk I was not willing to take.

Plus we couldn’t afford any more time offline away from our business which was already amounting due to the bad internet and little time we had available for work on the cruise – there are TONS of fun activities and shows!

We knew that wifi would be challenging going in and factored that into the cruise by preparing before hand. But 6 days was the max time off and we have a lot of upcoming travel to prepare for and too many unfinished projects.

Leave the cruise early

Snorkelling Grand Cayman Island

We decided to jump ship in Cozumel, Mexico a day earlier and make our own way home.

First we wanted to check our insurance options before booking flights. Thank goodness for collect calls which helped me talk to someone to clarify coverage.

He couldn’t give me a definite yes or no as to whether we’d get reimbursed for flights, as it is up to the claims department, but he advised me to provide them with as much documentation as possible including cancelled flights and a letter from the cruise saying they couldn’t get back to port.

He brightened my day a little when he asked to clarify if we were leaving the ship by helicopter. Lucky our plight was not that bad or expensive!

But, it was going to be expensive to get out of Cozumel. Whether insurance would cover it or not, we knew it was a price we had no other option to pay. It was either going to be in Mexico or Miami. At least Mexico would get us home faster and help us avoid hell.

I didn’t bother phoning the airlines to see if we could transfer our cancelled flights from Miami to Cozumel. I knew that futile task would waste precious time. Based upon all the stories I heard I am glad we didn’t!

Here are a couple of the stories I heard:

  • On the phone to the airline for three hours, no real solution came about.
  • “To transfer my flights, my option was a $6,000 one way flight from Cancun to Oklahoma. I was looking at the same flight online for $1,800 one way.” Both of those prices are scandalous. The $6,000 was offered by the customer service on the phone. Shame American Airlines.
  • $2,000 one way to transfer my flights from Cancun to Houston.

Friggin outrageous!

Apparently, once they figured out what the “Algorithms” were doing, they capped the prices. Too bad for the man that paid $8,500 for a flight that was now reduced back down to normal prices. I wonder how he feels. If the airlines have any decency they’ll reimburse everyone the “algorithms” overcharged.

As soon as we heard the news I checked online to get an idea of flight prices. From Cozumel to Raleigh it would cost us at least $2000 for all of us to get home, which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t money we had lying around. It was Wednesday and the earliest flight was Friday.

We stupidly said we’d sleep on our decision and went to enjoy the night time entertainments.

I woke up at 4am the next morning tossing and turning over the situation and finally decided to get up at 6am and sat on our balcony to just book the flights.

cruise ship

No flights available for Saturday. Or Sunday. Or Monday.

“Faarrrk you stupid idiot. Why did you not book them last night? Of course every passenger of the 5 boats in Cozumel are wanting to get out right now!!”

I started crying thinking of being trapped on that ship for god knows how much longer. I was so mad at myself and did not know what we could do.

And then I saw the little check box – search flights nearby. My Mexican geography is not good but I did recall we were close to Cancun and it’s a big tourist destination.

Ochos Rios Caribbean Carnival Vista Cruise (1)

I was grateful for Skyscanner because I trust them and to save time, I turned to them and quickly found a flight leaving from Cancun which was just a two hour journey from Cozumel.

I was so glad that tossing and turning forced my out of bed early to do this as no one else was awake and I could get faster internet. Otherwise we’d be screwed.

The good news is the flights were actually cheaper by $500 total. A lot of people paid $1500 just for a one way ticket out so we were very lucky.

Next we had to inform the cruise and fill out a mountain of paperwork, print off plane tickets, given them a hotel name in Mexico and pay $31 each for an immigration fee.

One of the travel tips I share in my free email newsletter on taking your travel dreams to reality is to have a couple of search engine booking sites you like and trust to save you time. Sometimes the savings you get in checking multiple sites for the best deal is not worth it for the time you spend finding it.

I had to very quickly find a hotel for our stay in Cancun so we could get our paperwork in on time. Booking.com is our trusted hotel site so I went straight to them and in five minutes found a good villa near the airport with excellent reviews for only $80.

To get to Cancun, we had to take a ferry to Playa Del Carmen on the mainland (Cozumel is an island off the Mexico coast) and then take either a local bus or private transfer.

Most people said with more than two people, a private transfer was better. Plus, it was local Mexican buses – they’d leave once the bus was full and all the roosters had found enough laps to sit on.

For $65 for the van, it was a fair deal and less stressful. We met two ladies from the boat who were going to Cancun and so jumped in our van which further reduced our costs.

Getting home to Raleigh

Ochos Rios Caribbean Carnival Vista Cruise (1)

Immigration officials had to come onboard the evening before we left to give us all permission to travel through Mexico. It was chaotic as no one really knew what was happening. We had to pack all our bags to take with us for them to check, instead they didn’t check them.

Keep reading to find out why I would have appreciated a little more information and clarity as to what we needed once they went through our paperwork and took our money!

The next morning we waved goodbye to our cruise and headed to Cancun for the evening and an early morning flight home.

We were grateful for our early morning flight as the infamous chaotic Cancun airport was much quieter, yet we still only just made bag check in – despite getting there two hours earlier. Immigration was a nightmare.

It turns out that immigration on the ship – because it was such a chaotic nightmare – didn’t give us our receipts for the $31 immigration fee!

So the immigration officer at the airport was not going to let us through. I can see why this is so, but he wouldn’t even offer me any words on what to do. He wouldn’t even look at me.

He basically gave me an “F you. I don’t care. This is our procedure. I’m not giving you a stamp.”

He just let me stand there asking, what can I do? He’d just shrug his shoulders and started serving other people around me.

I started to get teary as I thought after all this we were going to get stuck in Mexico.

We had Hurricane Irma to the west, an earthquake in Mexico to the south East, and Hurricane Kaita to the north east. I felt like Mother Nature was squeezing me and I just wanted out.

Eventually after asking several times, he said that I could pay it again. “Go get the money from there,” he shrugged his shoulder towards the ATM, not even looking at me.

Meanwhile, there was another Aussie behind me in the same situation. He only had a $100 bill. The immigration guy wouldn’t take it as he had no change. The Aussie guy, obviously late and stressed, told him not to worry about the change then to just take the hundred and use the remainder to pay for three people behind him in the line.

He had only processed one of my fees at this stage so he told him to use the money to pay for our remaining three. He just ignored him, took my money, and wouldn’t give the guy back his passport. He made him just stand there waiting without telling him what to do next.

I understand his job must be stressful, but it’s his job.

He could have made the situation so much better by just looking at people, being a little kind, and giving them instructions on what to do to help make his job easier!

I will remember him as the biggest jerk I have encountered in 20 years of global travel. I’m pretty tolerant and accepting, but I was so put off by this guy’s attitude. He truly was awful.

I was eventually processed and had to run to get the bags checked in and get through security. The Aussie guys was still there waiting,

“Good luck mate. I think he’ll be pocketing that money and not paying it forward like you asked.”

I was so happy to step onto that Delta flight and hit the runway.

When vacations go wrong

Carnival Vista Hurricane Irma

It rarely happens.

In my 20 years of travel, I’ve only had real stressful situations about three times, so never let the fear of things going wrong stop you from traveling.

We want to let you know when the bad stuff happens, so you can clearly see it passes and you’re clever enough to handle most situations that come your way. You will learn and grow a lot in strength because of them.

However it can involve a lot of stress, frustration and tears. It can be hard to manage your emotions, but it’s best that you do.

I was furious with that immigration guy, yet I remained calm and composed (yet teary) when interacting with him.

The Carnival Vista crew were doing their best to help people on the ship, yet many people were taking out their frustration and fears on some of the workers. I felt bad for the position they were in and did my best to maintain my composure.

Although, we didn’t need much help as we just got straight to solving the situation ourselves. That’s the value of having years of travel experience. If you don’t, and something happens, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

You’re not alone in these situations. Our fellow passengers were fantastic support for each other.

I can’t say whether Carnival Cruises responded in the best way as we didn’t really need much of their help, so for us, they were fine. They kept us away from Hurricane Irma and in the sunshine, so I was happy.

Some things I think they could have done better, based on my thoughts and complaints of other passengers.

  • Let us know from the beginning that it was unlikely they would go to another US port and why. One reason we held off a little on our decision was that we thought there was a high chance they’d just let us off in Texas or Louisiana. To everyone, it seemed common sense, so an assumption was there, even though Carnival didn’t mention it. Unbeknownst to us, just pulling up at another port is not as easy as that sounds. It’s hard to get into a port unless you’ve previously arranged it, due to the amount of cruise ships coming in and out. Had we been aware of this, we would have just booked our flights immediately. Many others felt the same way.
  • The lines to see guest services were huge. Different lines of priority would have worked best. That way those who urgently needed help with getting off the ship didn’t have to wait behind those who wanted to know how to extend their drink package.
  • I didn’t know until the last day, when other passengers told me, that the ship was offering free Wi-Fi and phone calls for guests to arrange forward travel. Some kind of announcement or mail sent to our room notifiying us of this would have been helpful.
  • We were kind of just waved goodbye once we got off the boat. I know many people mentioned how nice it would have been for Carnival to provide a shuttle to take us all to the ferry or airport.
  • I lot of people commented that they should have brought us back to Port earlier. I don’t agree and I’m glad they didn’t. Irma’s path was still up in the air. Once they knew for sure, Carnival made the right decision. If we went back earlier, we’d be bloody stranded in Miami right now feeling Irma’s wrath, as our flights out of Miam were cancelled anyway and the airport was closed. I am so glad we stayed safe on the ship.
  • And many people commented how one free glass of wine would have been perfect to ease the stress!! Ha ha. #TheSimpleThings
Carnival Vista cruise rum punch
Rum punch would be lovely!

I have since found out that Carnival offered free laundry services for those still on the cruise and that they were taking care of the gratuities for the workers on the ship.

And of course all guests staying on the ship do not have to pay any extra cruising fees!

We’ve also heard today that Carnival Cruise Lines announced a $2 million dollar donation to relief efforts and are working to deliver supplies to affected islands and pick up tourists stranded. Well played.

I honestly think Carnival did the best they could on our Vista cruise.

This was just an unfortunate play by Mother Nature. She’s the boss – always. We work with what she wants and love and respect her no matter how loud or violent she speaks.

My girls cursed Mother Nature having to depart from the fun a little early. It was a good chance for me to talk about how Mother Nature works and how important it is for us to walk more softly on the earth so she doesn’t speak so damn loudly.

She’s furious with us at the moment and rightly so!

Planning on taking a cruise? Here’s s a cruise packing checklist to help

The lessons

Carnival Vista cruise lines lesson

One thing this taught me was the importance of listening to your gut. It never fails.

My gut told me not to go on this cruise some time ago – for various reason. I went against that voice and look what happened! Although we had fun for the few days we were on it, it ended in stress and it didn’t bring me the value I would have gotten elsewhere.

My voice also kept nudging at me to get up and book those flights – and look what happened – we got on a flight for about a quarter of what many others ended up paying. Just before those naughty algorithms played up real bad.

I’ll be keeping an eye on my fellow Vista passengers and hope they can get back to Miami port soon and home to their loved ones. May they be relaxing and enjoying the cruise in the meantime! Those chocolatini cocktails will certainly help!

Here are a few tips to remember

  • Have travel insurance – it doesn’t’ matter where you travel, things can go wrong. We have insurance with Allianz and are ambassadors for them.
  • Always travel with your passport.
  • Weigh up your decisions carefully but act quickly
  • Use trusted websites
  • Consider the cost of time and energy
  • Have emergency money stashed away – forevery trip you take
  • Keep as much documentation as you can
  • Ask for help
  • Stay calm and collected. It’s easier to assess a situation, to find solutions, and gain the help of others (Truly years of meditation practice has helped me do this. A few years ago I would have flipped it at that immigration guy and possibly ended up in trouble. Excuse the analogy, but meditation does help you become the calm in the middle of the storm.)

I’m grateful we could leave and get home safely.

There are thousands more tourists stranded on cruises, and worse, on the islands that have been affected by Hurricane Irma. And we know those in Florida are facing horror right now.

May they be safe and as free from harm as possible. What we went through is no drama at all really.

We have donated to Hurricane Harvey and Irma through World Vision. Click here if you want to donate as well.

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What happened when we could not return to Miami on our Caribbean cruise because of Hurricane Irma? Here's how we avoided it

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