Florida to the Bahamas … by Ferry

Far too often, I find myself deep down the rabbit hole on travel sites, learning of interesting places that, heretofore, had never crossed my mind, but have instantly found a place on my Must Do travel list. Sometimes I bring the distraction upon myself by purposefully visiting one of my favorite cheap travel sites just to see what deal I can snag. Sometimes the rabbit hole opens before me while I’m booking a hotel for a conference. Who knew how awesome Madison, Wisconsin, could be?!

And sometimes I’m lured into the cavernous, gaping maw by a clickbait article that seems too good to be true. Weather.com, you are the CHAMPION of this.

Months ago, I was looking at projections for the 2017 hurricane season to see if our upcoming dive trip to Roatan, Honduras, would see good weather or foul, when I started down the proverbial rabbit hole. One interesting article led to another until I finally came across an advertisement for a fast ferry crossing from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to Grand Bahama.

You read that correctly. You can get from Florida to the Bahamas by ferry! Immediately, I decided on the destination for our 2017 Guys’ Dive Trip. I had never been to the Bahamas and knew that the shark diving was quite spectacular. Ben was totally on board. At $198 per person, the roundtrip ferry tickets were comparable in price to airfare. And the thought of visiting a Caribbean nation via ferry was just too cool to resist.

It was still a week before our scheduled departure, and I was checking and organizing the scuba gear as I always do before a dive trip. Because Ben and I were traveling to the Bahamas via ferry, I had assumed that luggage really wouldn’t be an issue. We’ve taken cruises before, and I’ve seen the mountains of luggage that people regularly bring with them on a cruise, so I hadn’t given a single thought to luggage requirements for this trip. In my mind: ferry=boat=cruise=no problem.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I googled “Balearia fast ferry luggage allowance” and found that not only was there a $100 round-trip charge for oversized luggage (e.g. scuba gear) but also that I would have to register the oversized luggage with the Customs and Border Protection 24 hours before departure!

My red-tape travel alarm was going off, so I called the very nice people at GoBahamasPlus where I had made the reservation. They said I would need to call the very nice people at the Balearia corporate office. As Balearia is a large international company, the nice people at the corporate office told me I would need to contact the actual port in Ft. Lauderdale, where I left no less than 12 unreturned messages over the course of several days. No one could tell me whether or not the scuba gear would be allowed or how I could go about registering it with customs.

Ben and I were road tripping down from Chattanooga just prior to the ferry crossing and would be unable to make the 24-hour window mentioned on the website. But I forged ahead, arriving at the Balearia port just before closing time on the afternoon before our departure day. I explained the situation to the two Balearia employees still on duty, and they confirmed my worst fears.

Yes, my scuba gear would have to be approved by Customs and Border Protection, and I should hurry over there as they would be closed in less than 30 minutes. Unable to find the place after a quick Google search, I asked for directions, and they proceeded to burn 10 of my 30 minutes by drawing a vague map with no street names.

We dashed away in the truck, taking speed bumps and turns at unsafe velocity. There was a port authority checkpoint that required another 10 minutes for ID verification, the officer explaining that this was highly irregular but allowing us to pass anyway. We screeched to a stop in front of the unmarked building indicated on the “map,” praying that we were in the right place as there were only seconds to spare before a prompt 5 p.m. closing time.

The lone customs official in the service window listened incredulously to our story: ferry, scuba equipment, website, unreturned calls, 24-hour window missed, bad map, checkpoint. Then he calmly asked, “Do you have tanks in your equipment?” No, we told him, we never travel with tanks or weights. “Then there’s no problem,” he said, shuttering the window and walking away.

We were happily stunned and walked back to the truck on rubbery legs, breathing a sigh of hopeful relief.

Sure enough, early the next morning (you have to check in by 6:30 for an 8 a.m. departure), there was, indeed, no problem. After passing through security, we were able to check the dive gear as oversized luggage, and it only cost us $50 as opposed to the advertised $100 roundtrip. So, for the second time already on this trip, erroneous website information for the win!

But fate is both cruel and capricious, as the rest of the ferry experience was abysmal. Here are the low points:

  • The loading process is chaotic. Balearia personnel bark orders and erect temporary gates to funnel passengers into arbitrary lines for boarding. Passengers were frequently turning to each other to verify if they were in the correct queue. Gah!
  • Signage in the loading area is confusing and contradictory. There were large signs for “Free Wifi” posted everywhere, accompanied by tiny signs forbidding the use of electronic devices in the loading area. Again, Balearia agents screaming for people to put their cellphones away, yet pointing in the direction of the “Free Wifi” sign. What?!
  • On board the vessel, people would regularly stretch out across multiple seats to sleep, while other passengers were sternly warned against taking up extra seats with luggage. Sigh.
  • No less than THREE different movies were being simultaneously broadcast at top volume on TVs throughout the cabin, making it impossible to hear any one movie clearly. Not that I necessarily wanted to hear any of them. Adam Sandler, Tyler Perry, and Nicolas Cage competed for our attention while Adele was being piped through the ambient sound system. The definition of cacophony. Argh!
  • The ferry is a European ship with European power outlets. While I’m typically prepared with an assortment of adapters, I knew that the Bahamas uses the standard U.S. outlets, so no need to bring them on this trip. Except during the ferry crossing. Fail.
  • The ferry uses its own drivers to transfer passengers from the arrival terminal to the main town of Freeport. At a round-trip cost of $45 for the two of us, I was actually okay with this arrangement. Until the transfer driver tried to illegally charge me an extra $100 to load our one bag of dive gear. I was having none of that and loaded the gear myself, paying him nothing extra. Booyah!

Don’t get me wrong. The dive trip to the Bahamas was fantastic. We met some wonderful people and experienced some of the best diving I’ve ever encountered. So, I encourage you to visit the Bahamas, but I would highly recommend you choose a different way to get there.

Ben and I have suffered the journey from Florida to the Bahamas by ferry, so now you don’t have to. You’re welcome.