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Galveston…A Growing Cruise Port with Growing Pains

When you’ve taken as many cruises as Janet and me, you experience the ups and downs of the cruise lines, their ships, their crews, and the ports they sail from. Each cruise takes on its own personality, and we have enjoyed every cruise we’ve taken. One thing we do not enjoy is embarkation day…that is always our least favorite part of the trip, and our most recent cruise was worse than most.

We cruised from the Port of Galveston aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas with Michael Sims and his dance group. We had a wonderful cruise…we always do when we cruise with Michael, but this time just getting to the ship presented some challenges. We encountered similar issues the last time we cruised from Galveston, and while the cruise lines have made a significant investment in Galveston as a home port for their ships, the city hasn’t kept up. I want to share some of the challenges we encountered as a result of Galveston’s growing pains as a cruise hub and offer recommendations to help make your next embarkation from Galveston go more smoothly than ours did.

Galveston is one of the barrier islands along Texas’ Gulf Coast. It has a charming, laid-back island feel with a small but lively tourist district. As a home port for cruise ships, Galveston offers easy access to the Gulf of Mexico with a direct course to the most popular ports along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and from there further south to Belize.

Getting to Galveston for cruise passengers living in the Baltimore/Washington area is convenient. Most of the major airlines offer flights to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, which is on the north side of Houston and about 70 miles from Galveston. Southwest Airlines offers direct flights from BWI to William P. Hobby Airport, better known as Hobby Field, which is on the south side of Houston. From Hobby it is a quick 40-mile drive to Galveston.

Cruise lines have invested heavily in making Galveston a hub for their ships, to include new terminal buildings to handle the increased number of weekly departures they offer. Unfortunately, with a resident population of about 53,000, Galveston’s investment in their infrastructure has not kept pace with the demand posed by the influx of 20,000 cruise passengers each weekend.

There are several hotels in Galveston’s tourist district, but they are pricey. You can find less expensive hotels several miles away, which is where we stayed, but even those three-star properties charge five-star prices because of the cruise-driven high demand. Once you are outside of the tourist district, restaurants and attractions are more spaced out, and we discovered rather quickly that Galveston has too few taxis to handle the addition of cruise ship passengers. To make matters worse, Galveston is engaged in an ongoing battle of taxation with ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft, limiting their ability to contribute.

The only “restaurant” close to our hotel was a Sonic Drive-in and neither of us felt like eating take-out, so we ended up walking over a mile to an overpriced sit-down restaurant each time we had a meal. I’m not complaining, I need the exercise. OK who am I kidding? I whined like a baby the whole time, but at least I can walk a couple of miles. Anybody with mobility limitations would have real problems.

Recommendation #1: Avoid staying in Galveston. It’s worth visiting, just don’t do it in connection with a cruise. If you cruise from Galveston and want a pre-stay, book it at a Houston area hotel and arrange for a transfer to the port through the cruise line. If you book your cruise with us, we’ll handle all of that for you.

Recommendation #2: If you want to stay in Galveston, plan to rent a car at whichever Houston airport you fly into and return it in Galveston. You’ll have to pay a drop fee, but at least you’ll have a way to get around the island, and Galveston is a destination worth exploring. That still won’t get you to the port…the closest rental car drop site is several miles from the port, and that’s the biggest problem with staying in Galveston.

Recommendation #3: Book your transfer to the port in advance. My plan for this trip was to arrange a taxi to take us from the hotel to the port, but when I called the local taxi companies the day we arrived, which was a full day before I needed the taxi, they were already fully booked. Lyft provides limited service to the Port of Galveston, but not Uber. Galveston charges a tax for ride sharing services just to come on the island, which Uber and Lyft only recently agreed to pay. They charge an additional tax for vehicles to enter the port facility, and as of the time of our cruise only Lyft had agreed to that tax. After striking out with the taxi companies I worked with the hotel front desk clerk to get a ride with a Lyft driver he knew since I was getting no takers for my ride requests through the Lyft app.

Recommendation #4: If you cruise on Allure of the Seas, be prepared for a long check-in line at the terminal. Cruise ships have a narrow time window, 8-10 hours, to disembark passengers and their luggage, take on fuel, water, and fresh supplies, and then take on another load of between 2,000-6,000 passengers and their luggage, depending on the ship. Every other port we’ve sailed from has a well-oiled process for cruise ship turnover. Not Galveston.

In spite of the new cruise ship terminals, the Port of Galveston lacks the infrastructure to handle the number of passengers the cruise lines bring in. There was no port security staff directing traffic to a central drop-off area when we arrived, and no luggage bins for longshoremen to pile your bags into. Arriving cars, vans and buses dropped their cargo of cruisers and luggage wherever they could, leaving passengers milling about wondering what to do with their bags. The longshoremen that were there did a good job of finding you, but without bins for them to pile luggage into, they had to rely on hand carts that have a fraction of the capacity of the bins. They then had to haul the luggage into the terminal and to the ship themselves one hand cart at a time. It was a time consuming and inefficient process.

Despite those inefficiencies, according to the port staff the only time they have problems with long check-in lines is when Allure of the Seas sails. Galveston can handle ships with a capacity of 2,000-3,000 passengers, which is most of the traffic they get, but it struggles with a ship the size of Allure of the Seas with her 6,000 passengers. At the Florida ports it usually takes less than 15 minutes to check in, and if the ship isn’t ready for boarding, guests are seated in a waiting area inside the terminal building that is large enough to hold several thousand passengers. That was not our experience in Galveston.

One way the cruise lines manage their check in process is to assign guests a specific check-in time. The theory is if they stretch out passenger arrivals, they can match the flow of passengers to the port authority’s ability to process them. Unfortunately, cruise passengers always show up early, and the cruise line did nothing to organize people for check-in based on their assigned check-in time. We had one of the earliest boarding times and we arrived on time, yet the line outside the terminal building was already several hundred passengers long and many of the people in line ahead of us had later check-in times than ours.

It took us an hour just to get to the terminal entrance, and by then the line behind us stretched past the back end of the terminal building, across the wide arrival avenue, looped around past the front of the terminal building, and past the checkpoint where vehicles enter the pier to drop passengers. It was probably half a mile long or longer at its worst. Once we entered the terminal building it took another 30 minutes to get through the security check point, and after getting checked in we had to wait another 30 minutes before we were allowed to board. That wasn’t much fun, but it could have been worse. It wasn’t raining, and everyone behaved.

One thing that didn’t help with the long lines was that our cruise departed over Mardi Gras weekend. The cruise line was concerned that passengers could get caught up in traffic due to scheduled Mardi Gras parades in Galveston and not get to the port until after the ship sailed. To avoid that, the day prior to our departure they sent a message advising passengers to arrive half an hour earlier than their scheduled check-in time. The day of the cruise they sent out another note, now advising passengers check-in would be delayed as the ship would be undergoing enhanced sanitation, and guests should plan to arrive half an hour after their scheduled boarding time. The mixed signals resulted in most of the 6,000 passengers on our cruise arriving within an hour of each other. That would be a problem even for the most efficient port, and Galveston is not the most efficient port.

Once we were onboard the ship it was smooth sailing and the difficulty getting there was a distant memory. But that wasn’t the end of our problems with the Port of Galveston’s growing pains. At the end of our cruise, we got off the ship quickly, but because of Galveston’s inefficient baggage handling system one of our bags did not. In all of our cruises that was the first time we couldn’t find all of our bags when we disembarked. The cruise rep in the terminal told us it was a regular occurrence for Galveston and not to worry…bags always showed up. And ours did. Eventually. After we were at the airport. They shipped it to us a week later.

We had a great time on the cruise, but I don’t think either of us is keen to sail out of Galveston any time soon. And if we do sail from Galveston again, we’ll book our pre-stay in Houston, arrange our transfer to the port in advance, pack our patience, and be prepared for a wait. And it won’t be over Mardis Gras weekend.

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