Here's the scoop ... the Navigator was to dock in Port Everglades at 8:00 AM. From my time on her in November, I knew that she was actually supposed to arrive earlier and be cleared by 8 AM. This would still mean, however, that customs/immigration would have to be quick, I'd have to carry my own bags off, I'd have to hope there would be enough cabs, and I'd have to hope for short lines at the airport.
Well, it kind of worked that way, but my small insurance policy was that I only had a carry-on bag ... essentially giving me the full time, until 9:50 or so, to get on the plane and allowing me not to have to worry about getting my bags checked by a certain time.
So what actually happened?
Well, Navigator did dock early, but there was a small delay in customs/immigration. Those doing Express Walkoff 1 and 2 were supposed to meet in Studio B before 8 AM. Of course, those who arrived early were doomed to be the last ones out of the meeting area as those who arrived closest to 8 lined up by the doorway, blocking all exits incidently, instead of finding a seat in the room. At around 8:20 passengers were allowed to leave, which meant exiting Studio B and making your way down congested stairwells full of people who could barely manage the huge bags they were trying to carry off. Those who were a bit more sly did some photo shopping until it was evident that the ship was cleared, then slipped into the line as no one was keeping order, nor was anyone checking the express departure tickets that they were so adamant that everyone have.
Once off the ship (and yes, as they constantly announced, you do need your SeaPass in hand), there is the long walk down the length of the ship to the warehouse where customs is located. This walk really makes it clear as to who shouldn't have done express debarkation as many people had to stop, rest, readjust, and otherwise could not easily travel (though to be fair, I will say that Royal does not let passengers know just how long of a distance they will have to manage the bags). As I finally entered the customs building, there was quite a bit of looping around cattle-chutes, but there was almost no wait once finally reaching a customs agent and, in an admittedly quick fashion, I was cleared by 8:45.
At this point, there was a line for a cab. However, cabbies seemd to become aware that the ship was now unloading for, as soon as I took a few steps towards the line, 6 cabs pulled in to pick up passengers. By the time I made it up to the line there were only a few people there. A driver signaled me, I signaled him back, and some quick driving later, I was standing in the Fort lauderdale airport by 9:05.
Now I had heard that the Fort Lauderdale airport was a madhouse, but I'd never really experienced it because I'd only flown out later in the afternoon. I'd also never flown Southwest out of FLL. Both of those realities came crashing down on me as I looked at the Southwest ticket counter which was absolutely mobbed with people (I had counted on getting their earlier most passengers ... obviously not the case on a Monday morning with all of the weekend ships dumping their passengers in Miami and three ships letting loose in Fort Lauderdale). Luckily, however, I actually had forseen this (hence the carry-on and pre-printed boarding pass from the ship), so I proceeded to security for shock number two.
At first glance, the line was fairly short. Then I realized that the reason it was short was because it was broken up into several sections because the area was so small. There was one section right in front of the screeners. There was another section off to the right, Off of that second section, the overflow then ran down a long hallway that otherwise contained a people-mover. So yup ... I had to take a people mover to get to the end of the overflow-security line. Let me tell you, that was a GREAT feeling with 50 minutes left until the flight and as I shook my head, I told myself that I really did know better, but of course the siren's song of cheaper flights (there's a reason why they are cheaper) had befuddled my mind.
Now ... the story takes a positive turn, thank goodness. The security line was super-long, but it also moved super-quickly as those agents were good at getting people screened and through. That huge line only lasted about 20 minutes or so which meant that I was at my gate about 10 minutes before boarding started. So all of that ... a combination of things going right and wrong ... and I still only had about a 20-30 minute cushion.
So the moral of the story, you ask? Well, first, add an hour to your "best possible" projection of getting off the ship and to the airplane. Second, don't be lured by an early flight ... they may be cheaper, but emotional stability is probably worth something too.
I hope that perhaps someone finds this helpful ... and others find it enjoyable. Cheers.
Chris's guide for budget travel - Made for conferences (may make a cruise version some time) but airline, shuttle, Priceline, and Hotwire tips should remain the same
Cruise Albums on Flickr