Aug. 4, 2010 -- For whatever reason, many of you decide to drive to your cruise port or airport and out of necessity leave your car there for the duration. Unfortunately, the parking charge can sometimes add a lot to your total trip cost. One reader put it succinctly:
"The biggest rip-off of all is the fee that the embarkation port charges for parking. Miami, for example, charges $20 a day—that's a whopping $140 for the week of your cruise.
Although you can't avoid all parking costs, you can probably cut them significantly below what some of the rip-off lots charge. Over the years, I've reported on the parking situation—mainly for airports—but cruise ports are getting increasingly important. And in either case, you have two basic alternatives.
Airports: Several online sites allow you to reserve (and prepay) parking at off-airport sites close to most big U.S. airports and lots of smaller ones. Participating lots almost always provide no-extra-fee shuttle service to/from the airport terminal(s) for both departures and arrivals. A few offer the choice of either self-park or valet park; a few let you choose between outdoor and indoor parking.
Some also claim additional discount promotions, and some can arrange optional while-you're-away service and minor maintenance for your car. Most claim they offer lower rates than you find at the official on-airport long-term lots—a claim I've found that is usually true, but not always. In a few cases, off-airport lots charge more than on-airport remote lots, but claim to provide better "service."
Here's my current list of sites where you can book and pay for off-site airport parking:
All serve the country's major airports, but coverage of smaller cities varies somewhat. These sites solicit listings from parking lots—some independent, some owned by parking chains—and they earn fees for online bookings. As with vacation rentals, many individual lots list themselves on multiple sites.
Beyond price, most off-site lots offer another advantage: the ability to reserve parking for a busy holiday season. If you've ever driven to an airport only to see a bunch of "lot full" signs, you'll appreciate an advance reservation.
Cruise Ports: For some reason, the discount-parking business seems to be ignoring the large and growing cruise market. I found only one site pitching low-cost off-port cruise parking, in Seattle. I found nothing for the very busy ports in South Florida. At least, however, you can verify port parking prices in advance: CruiseCheap posts at-port parking rates for most major ports.
Airports: If you use an airport that is a long way from your home and you plan to drive to and leave your car at that airport while you're gone, hundreds of airport-area hotels offer packages that combine accommodations for a night or two with up to 14 days of no-extra-charge parking at the hotel. In most cases, the night(s) you buy can be at either the beginning or end of your trip. I know of three online sites that arrange these parking packages at airport hotels:
In addition, many airport- and port-area hotels and motels independently offer similar packages. Unfortunately, if they don't list on one of the big nationwide sites, they're not easy to find.
The typical hotel-park package includes one night (double or single, up to quad), parking for seven to 14 nights, depending on location, plus shuttle transfer to/from the airport for both departure and arrival flights. The one-night package rate is almost always higher than the hotel's lowest available rate, but the difference is usually much less than the cost of parking for a week or two at an airport-area parking lot. Most of the time, I've found that the price difference works out to much less than $5 a day—and almost always less than the airport charges. Most participating hotels allow you to take the hotel night(s) at either the beginning or end of your trip, or one at each end—options you might find useful depending on your specific itinerary and how tired you expect to be on your return flight.
Cruise Ports: Unlike the parking folks, the hotel-parking packaging sites have moved into cruise parking in a big way. ParkSleepFly and Stay 123 provide separate search functions for cruise port hotels, and each covers most major U.S. and Canadian cruise ports. BuyReservations lists hotels offering cruise transfers in its airport selection list, but at fewer ports than the other two. Given the typical locations of ports, many of the participating hotels are downtown or in other central areas.
Unlike the airport situation, however, many cruise promotions do not include no-charge two-way transfers to/from the port. In spot checks, I found quite a few deals with no-charge one-way transfers, but none that covered both-ways shuttles. There may be some, however.
To illustrate the system, I checked on a Miami stay for a one-week cruise in early July. In this case, all of the participating hotels were in the airport area, but they all offered no-charge one-way transfers to the port. On ParkSleepFly, a one-night stay with the parking package at Howard Johnson Plaza is $99, including one-way port transfer and up to 60 days parking; the unbundled rate is $71. That means you could get a week of parking for $48—$28 extra on the hotel bill plus, say, $20 to pay the hotel for a return shuttle trip. For someone who needs a hotel night, anyhow, it's a no-brainer. Even if you don't need the hotel night, the total of $119 is still a bit less than the port parking lot's charge.
"Trust but Verify"
No single example can cover your exact trip. As with just about anything to do with travel, always check prices and never accept a claim of "discount" or "less expensive" without comparing the alternatives. You can check on airport on-site parking rates directly—all the airport websites I've checked show parking rates.
Ed Perkins is a contributing editor to SmarterTravel and a respected commentator on all aspects of the travel industry, including passenger comfort and rights, travel insurance, the best credit cards for travelers, and car rental fees. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.