A Shore Excursion Fail

On March 19, 2018, my mom, my husband, our 7-year-old son, our 3-year-old son, and I happily got off the ship at our first port-of-call on our 14-day MSC Fantasia Caribbean cruise: St. John’s, Antigua!  We thought that, on that day, we would experience the most amazing adventure to start out our cruise, but it turned into a disappointment. Of course, as in most disappointing life experiences, there is a lesson, and as such, I am writing this blog post to share the lesson with you. 

Some background - We first visited Antigua in 2016, when we sailed onboard Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas.  During our 2016 visit to Antigua, we enjoyed a beautiful beach day, so this time, yours truly planned a quick, hop, skip, and jump trip to the neighboring island of Montserrat, which is easily accessible from Antigua by ferry, airplane, or helicopter.  Our ship was in port on a Monday, and at the time of our cruise, the ferry was not operating on Mondays, so our options of getting to Montserrat that day were either by airplane or helicopter. 

Our initial plan, since the ferry was not running, was to do a helicopter tour that has received rave reviews from cruisers, and which flies over Montserrat, but does not land on the island of Montserrat.  We were excited about this option and looked forward to it for months.  However, a few days before our cruise, the company sent an email explaining that, due to circumstances beyond its control, its six-seater helicopter would not be in service on the day we would be in Antigua, so we could do two separate helicopter tours if three of us went on one trip, then two of us went on the next trip, a few hours apart. I thought that would defeat the purpose of experiencing the tour as a family, so I decided not to go forward with that tour, and I requested and received a refund.

I then contacted a company that also has great reviews for actual Montserrat land tours from Antigua, and that company quickly sent an itinerary to me that would get us back to Antigua well before the MSC Fantasia's scheduled 5pm departure time, and before the 4:30pm “all aboard” time:

08.15: Taxi from cruise ship dock to V.C airport

08.50: Check in at V.C Bird Airport for plane flight.

09.50: Flight departs Antigua

10.10: Arrive Montserrat. The tour guide will meet you at the airport. He will give you an authentic account of events at the time of the volcano’s eruption and insight into the long-term impact of the volcano on the island's development. Tour includes views of the volcano, going into the exclusion zone to see the devastation, a visit to the MVO, lunch at a local restaurant in Salem, a stop at a family-friendly bar to sample local bush rums (and fresh fruit juices for the children).

13.15: Helicopter safety video - Little Bay

13.45: Check in for helicopter return flight to Antigua.

14.15: Helicopter flight departs

14.35: Arrive Antigua

15.00: Taxi to cruise ship dock

15.35: Arrive at cruise ship dock.

The email containing the itinerary also included flight confirmation numbers and emergency telephone numbers.  Sounds good, right? 

So, what went wrong?  Well, if you’re familiar with cruising in the Caribbean, then you’ll know that ports of call do not usually require cruise guests to clear immigration when leaving the ship for the day, and our leaving the ship in Antigua that day was exactly what we are accustomed to doing… simply walking off the ship, after having ship personnel scan our ship ID cards, and walking through the port to whatever excursion we have planned for the day.  We followed the initial steps outlined in the above-mentioned itinerary, which as you see, mentions nothing about clearing immigration, and we went all the way to the airport, checked in at the Fly Montserrat counter, and we were stopped at the immigration desk because the immigration officer did not see stamps in our passports indicating when we arrived in Antigua.  We explained that we had just arrived in St. John’s onboard the MSC Fantasia that morning, but he explained that, in order to board an airplane from Antigua, we needed passport stamps to show our arrival in Antigua.  In hindsight this makes a lot of sense to me, being someone who not only cruises internationally, but also flies internationally.  However, unlike airports that have a clearly streamlined process that leads international passengers to immigration before exiting, cruise ports, generally, do not do this.  We did not even know that there was an immigration office at the Antigua cruise port.  In the moment, at the Antigua airport, I was a bit perplexed because we had just arrived in Antigua that morning, and figured that the immigration officer at the airport could verify that with the cruise documentation we had available.  Unfortunately, or rather, we can say, FORTUNATELY, that was not the case, and we could not board our planned flight to Montserrat on March 19, 2018.  I say “FORTUNATELY,” now, because we are thankful that the obstacles and delays that we encountered occurred in Antigua, where our ship was docked, and that we did not get all the way to Montserrat to be delayed there or to have anything cause us to miss our ship.  

“All things work together for good to those who love God and are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28. 

When we went back to the Antigua cruise port, we asked a few people to direct us to the immigration office.  Only one person was able to direct us to the immigration office/booth on the ferry dock.  The immigration officers there were very pleasant and informative, and honestly, it was a blessing to speak with them that day.  We learned that a tour company or cruise guests can contact a cruise line ahead of time to inquire about early disembarkation either to end his or her cruise early in another port, or to make a day trip to a neighboring country, which would have applied in the case of what we were attempting to do that day.  Had we known that prior to cruising, then we could have contacted MSC ahead of time, and if the cruise line allowed, then we would know to visit the immigration office at the cruise port to have our passports stamped, and it seems that the immigration office would have to officially disembark us from the ship in order for us to then leave the country of Antigua to visit the country of Montserrat, and then, we would embark onto our ship again once we return to Antigua. 

By the time we found the immigration office and had this all explained to us, it was too late in the day for us to be comfortable attempting to leave Antigua for Montserrat and to return to Antigua before our “all aboard” time, so we made the wise decision to stay right there at the St. John’s, Antigua cruise port that day.  We also made the best of it by taking a laid back stroll through the cruise port shopping area, and then getting back onboard our ship.  My husband and I explored the beautiful MSC Fantasia while lots of guests were in port, so the ship was quite empty and peaceful to explore.  We even had a moment to dance to some reggae music. 

Lessons learned. 

Have you ever hopped to another island/country during your cruise stop? Tell us about it. 

Have you ever had an excursion cancelled? Tell us about it.