Why is the start of a relaxing cruise invariably so stressful? Or perhaps it’s just me. I’m joining Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas in Tampa for one of RCI’s last transits through the Panama Canal for quite a while. Staying in Orlando, it’s only a maximum of a couple of hours drive down the interstate, drop my rental car at the airport, a cab ride to the ship and I’ll be in my own shipboard poolside Margueritaville with hours to spare.

Except I’m only halfway to Tampa and I’m looking at the backside of a long traffic jam on the freeway. Suddenly all that spare time is evaporating and I recall tales of passengers turned away because they didn’t arrive in what US authorities regarded as sufficient time to clear customs and immigration formalities. I dive off I-4 to the confusion of my Budget GPS and after half an hour return to the freeway beyond the bottleneck. In one of those gratifying sequences that gladden the traveller’s heart the car drop off is quick, the cab line is short, the driver is friendly and knows where to take me and he deposits me at Cruise Terminal 3 with time to spare.

Now I enter Royal Caribbean world. A porter hardly sneers at my antipodean lack of printed baggage tags (not an option for my online check-in), we handwrite some and my bags disappear as fast as the tip. Upstairs there’s a security check as thorough as any airport and I sign that I’ve never seen a swine with flu, a mad cow, or any of the other afflictions of humans in herds. My Australian passport has me sent to a special check in counter but I pass whatever alien checks and get my plastic swipe card/room key.

As I go from one queue to the next I ponder how unequal systems can be in the egalitarian USA. With no gold pass or Concierge Club membership but merely a reservation for an inside cabin for one I can only look across at the expansive and expedited Express Check In and Express Boarding areas. But soon enough I’m on board and directed to cabin 3143.

My cabin is set up as a twin, it’s spacious and modern enough with lots of varnished wood to provide a nautical mood, there’s lots of hanging space and hangars, the bathroom is bright and, contrary to some reports I’d read, the shower stall is large enough (though the shower and tap pressure is lacking).

As mine is the most sternward cabin I can hear suitcases being carried to every other cabin but mine. Each extra heavy thump reverberating through the wall gives futile hope that my bag has landed. Guest services say to be patient so I set off to explore the ship. There’s a lot of pressure to buy. Spa treatments, wine packages, excursions, pre-departure cocktails, even soda packages for Coke addicts, are just some of the offerings. I find the coffee station where there’s hot water for tea and I hope the coffee/tea imbalance is redressed before Radiance arrives in Oz later this year.

Tampa is behind us, we’re well off the coast of Florida and the early dinner sitting is well underway and I still don’t have my luggage. Guest services say that I should just be patient but I’m contemplating two weeks in shorts, T-shirt, Crocs and one pair of underpants. Fortunately, a young American already in holiday mode overhears my dilemma. “Did you have booze in your bag? They’ve been really tough on bringing liquor onboard and there are piles of bags down at Security on Deck 2.”

Cartoon light bulb illuminates. I didn’t have alcohol but I did have a ceramic kitchen knife I’d bought in the US to see if it really did “stay sharp 15 times longer”. And I found the bag it was in at security. The knife stays with security for the voyage. I now have one of my two bags but, sadly, it’s only the small bag of shopping and everything else I didn’t need for the cruise. I continued my quest for my main suitcase. And I found it, behind a door right by Guest Services. I was heading to ask a question and passed by a door that automatically opened by sensor to reveal my suitcase stowed inside. Ta Da! I took it.

I changed, went to dinner met my dining companions for the next two weeks and fell into bed as the ship sailed towards Cuba.

Words: David McGonigal