Same Day Travel to Cruise Ports
At one time, there were four hot topic issues associated with cruising. They were:
1. When you should arrive at your port of departure;
2. Formal nights;
3. Drink packages/booze smuggling; and
4. Chair Hogs.
Whenever I mentioned any of those subjects, I knew that I would be the recipient of numerous e-mails. In this blog I am going to address item one as it is the one topic that has seen changes to the way people think. Instead of being equally split on the best time to arrive in a departure port, I have seen a large shift towards people advocating for a one or two day pre cruise buffer. If I ask the question whether to arrive the same day as the cruise departure or not, I am soon inundated with stories about missed sailings and stressful rides to the ship with minutes to spare.
In my soon to be released book Sleeping in a Life Jacket, I devote an entire chapter to arriving at your cruise port of departure and I annotate the pros and cons of same day arrival versus arriving a few days early. I have engaged in both arrive in advance and same day arrivals and as such, I speak from experience about the merits and pitfalls associated with both.
Clearly, arriving the same day will save you the cost of accommodation and meals and for those who have limited holiday time, it will also save on the number of days associated with your trip. If you know the port city, you may have already toured there or you may simply not like the place. As such, you may feel that being there would be a waste of your time and money. It might also be that the port city is expensive or have limited accommodation options.
If you are starting your cruise outside of your home country, your travel to the departure port may involve time and costs to get there. People ask me if I have ever engaged in same day arrival & departure on overseas trips that involved connector flights and the answer is “Yes”. One example that comes to mind involved a Royal Caribbean sailing that was departing Barcelona. I left Ottawa, flew through New York City where I had to change airports, and then I flew overnight to Barcelona. I arrived five hours before sailing, left the airport, hired a taxi and negotiated an off the meter quick partial city tour that took me to the Sagrada Familia and then the Barcelona Cathedral. My driver threw in a few other points of interest, and I subsequently learned that I paid less for my mini city tour than others who booked a cruise ship transfer from the airport to the cruise port. I did not worry about missing the ship, delayed flights or running into ground traffic once in the city.
I have also arrived at departure ports a few days in advance and enjoyed the sights prior to the cruise. Yes, it was a little more costly and certainly added a few days to my trip, but it meant that I was in no danger of missing the ship and any possible weather or flight delays could easily be addressed within the pre-cruise window. Once again, I will use a sailing from Barcelona as an example. I was on a Celebrity Cruise departing Barcelona and I arrived in that city three days in advance. I spent two and a half days exploring an amazingly beautiful city and by the time I boarded the ship, I had adjusted to the time difference and was ready for my cruising adventure.
Having provided examples of what I have done in the past, I will now speak about what I would do NOW. I have found that air travel has changed somewhat and although three of my last four flights taken last month, were all on time, the delay with one of the flights could have resulted in a problem, had it been tied to a same day arrival at a cruise port. Air travel has changed a bit and air carrier movements are subject to more delays than in the past. Consequently, my same day arrival tolerance is gone. I highly recommend you arrive in port a day or two early if flying. I also offer some recommendations if driving to the port.
In my latest book, I chose an example of a couple who were within easy driving distance of a port and who missed their sailing due to traffic delays. Traffic is another common problem that crops up repeatedly in cruise departure stories. Some departure ports (think Civitavecchia – Rome), can be more challenging than others.
I have been asked whether flights arranged by cruise lines render the passenger safe from missing their sailing or being guaranteed a full refund if a cruise is missed. The quick answer is “No” although some cruise lines are better than others at assisting their customers when transportation problems occur.
My response is that the air carrier you are flying on is responsible for getting you to your destination and problems with flight(s), are generally not the concern of the cruise line. Using my earlier mentioned trip as an example, if my flight to New York had been delayed, and I missed my connector flight to Barcelona, the air carrier would have been responsible for getting me to Barcelona, but not for me missing the cruise. The cruise line would not have been responsible for me missing the cruise and I would have had to join the ship at the next port if possible. This holds true regardless of whether I had booked my air travel through the cruise line or not. If I had travel insurance, the flight delay clause would have kicked in but that would have been about the best I could hope for in such a case.
I will address issues of responsibility nearer the end of this blog as I am reprinting (under license), an article from The Roanoke Times which I believe provides an excellent example of when things go wrong with cruise line booked flights:
Cruise operator denies Roanoke family’s plea for $58,300 refund
Byline: Dan Casey
Credit: The Roanoke Times
Last year, William “Kip” Thompson and his wife, Beni, began planning “the vacation of a lifetime.” It would be for themselves and their five offspring, the youngest of whom is 15.
Soon, the south Roanoke couple will have four in college at the same time, yikes. They figured summer 2023 would be their last chance in years to have an all-in-the-family vacation.
So they splurged. They booked a seven-day Alaska cruise package, in a luxurious three-bedroom suite, aboard the Norwegian Jewel. The package included five days of post-cruise land travel in Alaska, as well as air travel for all seven Thompsons.
They booked it through Norwegian Cruise Line, a well known Florida-based cruise operator. The trip’s cost was $60,619.17. Kip Thompson, a local eye surgeon, paid that fully five months in advance.
Some weeks before they were to leave, NCL sent the Thompsons their itinerary, including flights. Beni Thompson noticed a potential hitch almost immediately. They were flying on the same day they were supposed to board the Jewel. That made her nervous.
She said she contacted Norwegian Cruise Line twice by phone about that specific concern.
“Everything I’ve ever seen about cruises said, never travel on the same day you’re boarding a ship,” because of the potential for airline delays, Beni Thompson told me. She mentioned that to the NCL representatives as well.
Both reps assured her the family would make it to Vancouver in time, because “we were leaving on the first flight of the day and hardly anything ever goes wrong with those,” Beni told me. As a result, the family stuck with the original flights booked by Norwegian.
The big travel day was June 28. Early that morning, the Thompsons were to board a Delta flight in Greensboro that would fly them to Atlanta. There, they’d catch a connecting Delta flight to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Norwegian Jewel would leave its dock at 4 p.m PDT.
The Thompson’s first flight was scheduled to leave Greensboro at 5:41 a.m. The Thompsons were at the airport, but that airliner didn’t take off. The fight was canceled because its crew, which had been delayed flying into Greensboro the night before, lacked the minimum number of required rest hours to fly early that morning to Atlanta, Kip Thompson told me.
The Thompsons called NCL. A rep informed them the cruise line could not rebook them on flights that would get them to Vancouver on time. The family should work with Delta, to see if there was another way to get them to Canada, NCL told them.
American flight to Seattle?
According to Delta, there was a possibility.
Delta booked the family on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte that was supposed to arrive in Seattle shortly after noon. Then they could catch a short Delta flight to Vancouver, and make it to the Jewel on time. But it would be tight.
So the Thompsons hurriedly drove 90 minutes from the Greensboro airport to Charlotte, where they caught the American flight to Seattle. Unfortunately, it was delayed by more than an hour.
The American flight landed in Seattle around 1:30 p.m. PDT. By then, their Delta flight to Vancouver had left its gate. (The two cities are roughly 140 miles apart.)
In desperation, the family tried to hire an Uber to Vancouver. But none of the three Uber drivers they contacted had passports — which the driver would need to get the family across the Canadian border.
Kip Thompson contacted NCL again. Was it possible they could board the Jewel at its first stop in Ketchikan, Alaska? Kip said NCL told him a rule prevented the family from boarding at any port other than Vancouver.
The land package portion of their vacation would not begin until the cruise ended seven days later. Thompson inquired whether there was any way his family could do that part of the trip.
NCL replied no. Thomson said he’s never gotten a decent explanation as to why.
2-day summer-travel nightmare
So on June 30 around 5:30 a.m., the Thompson clan landed home in Roanoke after a 48 very frustrating hours. They never took their planned Alaska trip-of–a-lifetime.
Shortly thereafter, Kip Thompson began asking Norwegian Cruise Line for a refund. He did that via email. Initially, an NCL “guest experience coordinator” sent Thompson a denial letter addressed to a different unhappy NCL customer, Monica DeGraff of Golden, Colorado. (This becomes noteworthy later in the narrative.)
Next, NCL sent Thompson a correctly addressed denial that was identical to DeGraff’s — in other words, it was a form refund denial letter. Ultimately NCL offered Thompson $2,500 back. That constituted some taxes and service charges for dining and beverages that Thompson had paid as part of his $61,000 prepaid travel package.
Dissatisfied, Thompson escalated his refund request with the cruise operator. But that didn’t do any good. The latest communication he received was Aug. 7 from Roger Farinas, the cruise operator’s “guest experience supervisor.”
“After a review of your case at length, we have determined that your concerns have been addressed in accordance with our policies,” Farinias wrote Thompson. “While we are sorry to learn of your continued disappointment with our previous responses, our position in this matter remains firm.”
I learned details about the botched vacation from the Thompsons last week. Tuesday, I wrote Katty Byrd, Norwegian Cruise Line’s vice president of guest services, about the Thompsons’ issues with NCL.
“It appears to me that Norwegian Cruise Line’s policies have cost Dr. Thompson $58,300, because of canceled flights that Norwegian booked and for which the Thompson family was on-time. It wasn’t their fault the flight NCL arranged for them was canceled,” I wrote Byrd.
“From that perspective, it seems less than fair that Dr. Thompson should have to eat that $58,300. Am I looking at this the wrong way? If so, please tell me how and why.”
Norwegian Cruise Line responds
Byrd never replied. But Friday morning I received an unsigned email message from NCL’s public relations department.
“Although Norwegian Cruise Line offers flight arrangements as part of our cruise package, we do not have direct control over the operations of the airlines and are not responsible for their cancelations,[sic]” the message said.
“Per our air policy terms and conditions, ‘If there are delays, cancelations, [sic] or any schedule changes within 72 hours of your departure time, you will need to work directly with your airline for re-accommodations. These changes are beyond the control of NCL.’
“Additionally, as a convenience to our guests we offer the option to deviate flights up to two days pre cruise, which the guest did not elect to do.”
(Weeks before their travel, Beni Thompson tried to persuade NCL to book her family on earlier flights. But the NCL reps pooh-poohed her concerns, and assured her flying a day earlier was unnecessary.)
NCL’s response continued: “The guest is ineligible for a full refund as they did not purchase travel insurance. It is because of unexpected situations, such as this, that we strongly recommend guests obtain travel protection insurance. Without travel protection, we are unable to provide an exception to our cancelation [sic] fee policy.”
Kip Thompson says he was offered travel insurance, by NCL, at the time he booked the cruise package. But he turned it down without inquiring as to the price.
That brings us back to Monica DeGraff, the other unhappy Norwegian Cruise Line traveler. Recall that when Thompson first asked NCL for a refund, the cruise operator replied to him with a letter addressed to DeGraff in Colorado.
NCL’s letter also denied her a refund for a different Norwegian cruise. So I called DeGraff and asked for her travel story. Turns out it was very similar to the Thompson’s nightmare.
She had trip-protection insurance
DeGraff bought a 10-day cruise in Italy and Greece for herself, her teenage daughter and her mom aboard Norwegian’s Breakaway Voyage. That ship departed May 26 from Rome. Norwegian arranged their flights for the same day as the cruise’s departure.
The DeGraffs missed the cruise because a flight NCL booked them on from Toronto — the second leg of their air travel to Rome — was delayed. That plane didn’t arrive in Rome until the Breakaway Voyage already had left. The airliner was so late leaving Toronto that DeGraff and her family never got on it, because they knew they would miss the ship’s departure.
DeGraff had purchased trip-protection insurance offered by NCL as part of her vacation package. She told me it cost about $200 per person. Though she later made a claim for $11,000 (the amount she advance-paid for the missed cruise package) the insurance company denied it.
Instead, the insurer paid DeGraff, her mom and daughter $500 each, the maximum coverage in the insurance policy for airline flight delays, DeGraff said. That paid for their flights back to Colorado, but not much else.
DeGraff told me she’s invested more than 50 hours trying to get an $11,000 refund, or a credit for future travel, but she’s been stymied by NCL and the insurer that wrote the policy.
Collectively, the two families are out $72,000 because they could not take cruise vacations with Norwegian Cruise Line because of delays with flights booked by the cruise operator.
Everyone reading this will draw their own conclusions from these sad stories. Here are a few:
First, I’ll never book anything on Norwegian Cruise Line because its refund policies seem unfavorably skewed against its customers. (It would seem less frustrating to flush the money down a toilet. At least with that, there’d be no expectation of a vacation.)
Second, I’ll never buy trip-protection insurance for a vacation unless I’m absolutely certain it’ll fully cover my losses if the vacation doesn’t happen because of airline delays. Those occur at every single airport, every single day. (In that respect, the policy Norwegian sold Monica DeGraff was almost worthless.)
Third, is the old saw about arriving at least a day early at the port of departure for any planned cruise. It’s solid advice. I’ll take that if I ever book a cruise.
We’ll wrap this up with the last sentence from the final, four-paragraph form letters Kip Thompson and Monica DeGraff each received from Roger Farinas, Norwegian Cruise Line’s guest operations supervisor. Here it is:
“It is our hope that over the course of time, you will consider Norwegian Cruise Line in your future travel plans,” Farinas wrote to each.
Was he kidding?
As surprising as this story appears regarding the treatment of both families, I am reminded of the cautions I issue when giving talks about cruising. I now warn against same day arrival when flights are involved, and I now address insurance limitations.
1. Don’t plan to fly into your departure city the same day as the cruise is departing unless you have no other choice.
Air travel has changed over the years and flight delays for various reasons happen. Weather, air traffic issues, aircraft movement problems with the carrier, flight personnel shortages. elevated threat alerts or for any other reason, flight delays have become more common. Book to arrive at least a day in advance if you are flying to your departure port. Two days in advance during winter if living in Canada or the northern US.
2. If you book your air travel through the cruise line, check your flights and request a change if they are unacceptable.
If you buy your air travel through a cruise line, you can usually dictate the flights you want to travel on and not accept travel arrangements that have you arriving on the same day as the cruise ship departure. Remember if you have more than one flight, your chance of a departure delay goes up 20% rising to 40% at some airports.
3. If you are travelling during the time of the year when the weather can be a concern (think Canada in winter), ALWAYS give yourself a two-day window.
4. If you are driving to your departure port, leave sufficient time to ensure you have a five-hour arrival window.
One accident on a freeway, can significantly delay those travelling by road.
5. If you are travelling by rail, buy your tickets in advance and monitor for possible rail interruptions. For a train trip of over 4 hours, book a day in advance.
6. Check your credit card to see if you have trip insurance that automatically attaches to your trip if you pay for your travel with the card.
I always try to marry up my insurance coverage and I chart what I am covered for and the amount.
As seen with Monica DeGraff, her insurance only covered the flight delay. The rationale behind the application of such a limited payout is that the only problem with her trip was her flight was delayed. Essentially, her flight was not scrubbed, and the cruise was not cancelled. Although she would have missed the start of her cruise, she could have still made the remainder. She and her party would have boarded the ship at the next possible port stop. Who would have been responsible for getting her to the next stop on the cruise is an interesting question and I suspect it would have been the air carrier.
She was also, in my opinion, the victim of a possible privacy breach when her name was provided in the letter to the Thompson family. Such a letter disclosed her name, the fact she was a customer of the cruise line and she had filed a complaint.
7. When deciding on what insurance to buy, check to see which insurance providers have the most robust packages that will provide the best coverage.
Unfortunately, under various policies, trip cancellation "acceptable" reasons can be restrictive (death, illness or bankruptcy with the travel provider), which means it is critical that the purchaser pay attention when buying the coverage.
The fact that final payment for a cruise usually happens around 90 days (or three months), in advance of a cruise, makes it difficult to cancel the credit card charge paid for such a trip but I usually recommend that customers contact their credit card provider to discuss options even though the charge dispute time most likely has passed.
Why did the same “join the cruise while enroute” possibility not apply to the Thompson family you might ask? In their case, they were supposed to board the ship in British Columbia, Canada and end the cruise in Alaska, USA. The Norwegian Jewel is registered in the Bahamas and not in the USA. As such, the Thompson family became victims of the 1886 Passenger Services Act that prohibits a foreign registered ship from picking up and dropping off passengers at US ports. The ship could pick them up at a US port or drop them off at a US port but not both. That is why those sailings have stops in Vancouver or Victoria BC.
Do I think the cruise line could have done more as a gesture of good will? Yes, I do. Cruise lines are recovering from the Covid shutdowns and customer relations are important to ensure repeat business and overall good will. Telling a family that the cruise line hopes they “will consider Norwegian Cruise Line” in “future travel plans” is one cut and pasted line that should have been omitted. If the cruise line really understood the issue, staff would have known that such a possibility is remote.
Although I ultimately leave it to my readers as to whether they want to arrive the same day, or several days in advance of their cruise departure, the importance of being aware of the risks and consequences is critical. No one wants to miss the boat.