Cruise Line Airfare: Yes or No?

Phoenix, Arizona

By Angie

February 19, 2023

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When people find out that we have taken 15 cruises (and counting) for a total of 127 nights on cruise ships, we get quite a few questions. One of those questions is: Should I take the free or reduced airfare offered by my cruise line? In the last 5 years, we have seen an increase in free or reduced cost airfare offers from cruise lines, particularly during the pandemic shutdowns and this continues today.

Due to the prevalence of these airfare offers and the savings they offered, we ended up booking three cruises for 2022 with airfare deals from Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). I was worried that the routes would be convoluted and indirect, but for the savings we took the chance.

Request Deviations To Save Money & Add Time in Destination

In booking airfare through NCL, we learned that you can request a ‘deviation’ to fly into your embarkation port up to two days before your cruise and out of your disembarkation port up to two days after your cruise. We requested these deviations for all of our cruises with NCL booked airfare to enjoy the cities of the cruise ports and more importantly, to leave time before the cruise in case of flight issues to help ensure we would not miss our cruise if there were flight issues.

NCL offered a $25 credit per cruise for adding these deviations to our reservations, which was a nice, but small, added bonus.

Avoiding Transfer and Hotel Costs Added by Cruise Line

Be aware that purchasing airfare through your cruise line will likely lead to your cruise line automatically adding costs for transfers to and from the ports to your bill, as well as costs for their choice of hotel for those nights added by your deviation. I can typically find a better deal on hotels and we often use public transit to get to our ports, so I declined the cruise line provided transfers and hotel and had these fees removed from our bills which saved several hundred dollars per cruise.

The first two cruises we booked airfare with NCL for were: 1.) our Greek Isles cruise in and out of Athens, Greece in June/July of 2022 and 2.) our Northern Europe cruise from Copenhagen, DK and ending in Southampton, UK.

Our home airport is Minneapolis, which is an international airport, but a smaller one, and despite this, the flight routes for both of these cruises were reasonable and we experienced no significant issues with either trip, but there were a few things I hadn’t considered.

No Seat Selection

The immediate downsides to a cruise line airfare booking are that some of the flights were basic economy bookings that didn’t allow us to accrue flight miles with that airline nor select seats before the flight.  If you have flown 8+ hours in a middle economy seat, you probably understand why this made me nervous!

I did indeed end up in a few long-haul middle seats in economy, but Jeff and I were seated together so it wasn’t my worst-case scenario of a middle seat in economy between strangers for 8+ hours.

Things Go Well Until They Don’t

As is the case often, things go well…until they don’t. We also booked airfare with NCL for our African cruise in December 2022 from Dubai, UAE and ending in Cape Town, ZA. Our route booked by NCL was United for Minneapolis to Chicago and Chicago to Toronto and Air Canada for Toronto to Dubai.

As can happen in Minneapolis, it was snowing on the day of our departure. The snow was quite heavy right at the time of our scheduled flight departure leading to the airport shutting down for just under 3 hours. As I mentioned previously, we had requested a deviation and so were scheduled to arrive in Dubai 2 days before the cruise departed and therefore were leaving Minneapolis 3 days before the cruise, so a 3 hour delay didn’t sound too bad.

A Short Flight Delay Might Cause Us to Miss the Entire Cruise

But the delay was long enough to cause us to miss our booked connection from Chicago to Toronto. In addition, United ended up cancelling our Minneapolis to Chicago flight completely and rebooked passengers on the flight for that route the next day.

Due to lack of options to get to Dubai, just that 1 day delay on our original route would have led to our missing the cruise. I immediately got on the phone to United’s customer service (while also waiting in line at the United desk to speak to a United agent) and began working on alternative routes.

The first challenge was that NCL had booked us on United from Minneapolis to Chicago and Chicago to Toronto and Air Canada from Toronto to Dubai. United was the airline I was on the phone with and the agent told me their job was only to get us as far as Toronto and then it was up to Air Canada.

There weren’t any more routes through Toronto that would get us there on time with Air Canada. I was then told we could look at other flight options with United for the amount it had been booked for and then learned it was only a few hundred dollars that the cruise line had paid for our airlines, which doesn’t go far on a same day booking from Minneapolis to Dubai!

No One Wants to Take Responsibility

It quickly became clear that the airlines didn’t see us as their customer because the flight was booked by NCL. I called the NCL airfare department instead thinking that we definitely were NCL’s customer on this trip and for 14 cruises prior and NCL would be able to help us navigate this.

Sadly, that was not the case. The NCL representative insisted that we had to work with the airline directly and that NCL could do nothing at this point. It was a game of ping pong of who was responsible for helping us between NCL, United, and Air Canada and we were the ping pong ball. I am a kind, but assertive person and pushed back on all of this nonsense repeatedly.

Finally, after several hours of pleading calls and conversations with in-person United and Air Canada agents at the airport, it took me getting a United customer service agent on the phone who cared enough to listen to my situation and we were re-booked on a flight path from Minneapolis to Dulles in DC with United and to Frankfurt, DE to Dubai with Lufthansa.

We had some tight connections and our bag did not join us on that flight (more about that story in this another blog post.) but we made it to Dubai only about 6 hours later than originally scheduled.

We had some tight connections and our bag did not join us on that flight (more about that story in this another blog post.) but we made it to Dubai only about 6 hours later than originally scheduled.

We No Longer Have a Flight Home!?!

You might think that’s the end of our flight related drama for our African cruise, but sadly that is not the case. Our flight home from Cape Town was booked through a third airline, Delta, and the route was Cape Town to Atlanta and Atlanta to Minneapolis.

This flight was in my Delta app prior to the trip. While on the 19-day cruise from Dubai to Cape Town, I didn’t worry about travel home details. But, once we arrived in Cape Town, I signed into the Delta app to reconfirm our flight home details and the flights were completely gone! I was concerned, but not too alarmed yet.

I started a text chat with a Delta customer service agent and after an hour of checking under our prior flight confirmation numbers, our passport numbers, our names, etc.-the representative confirmed that there was definitely no reservation for flights home for us.

Now, I was a bit more panicked. It was a few days before Christmas and flight options to get us home in time for our plans with family were available but for a cost of over $7000! This was not in our trip budget!

Due to the time zone differences, I had to wait until about 10 p.m. in Cape Town to be able to reach the open hours of the NCL flight booking department in Miami, Florida. I thought a quick phone call to explain the situation would be all it would take and the issue would be resolved.

Over 6 hours later, I had spoken to 7 different NCL representatives due to multiple hang ups or disconnections and begged any of them to take the time to understand the issue when they parroted that I had to deal with the airline directly. We DIDN’T have a reservation with that airline anymore and needed NCL to rebook what they had previously booked for us.

Staying Up All Night to Get the Flight Reinstated

I racked up about $30 in international calling fees outside of our pre-purchased international phone plan for the trip and ended up staying awake nearly all night on one of our final nights of our vacation before an expensive all-day tour booked of the Cape of Good Hope the next day to attempt to fix this via hours on the phone.

None of it was ideal. I finally found a representative for NCL, Jasmine, who took the time to understand our situation and speculated that our issues on the front end of our trip with rebooking had been processed incorrectly as a no show to our original flight itinerary leading to a cancellation of the entire booking.

She ensured we were rebooked on our original flights home and even called me after she was already clocked out from her shift to deliver this news and ensure we were all set. She is an example of an exemplary employee and saved the day for us!

NCL Disappoints Us for the First Time

Unfortunately, since returning home, I have been unsuccessful in getting anyone at NCL to address these issues at all and the entire experience didn’t just shake our confidence in booking airfare through a cruise line but has caused us to question our 15-year loyalty to NCL.

We cancelled our NCL cruise booked in summer of 2023 and currently do not have any cruises booked at all with NCL for the first time in years due to the lack of care from NCL on this issue, but that’s another story.

Things to Consider When Booking Airfare Through a Cruise Line

If you’re considering booking airfare through a cruise line, here are some things to consider:

Are the cost savings worth the lack of control on your flight itineraries?

Are you willing to take any seat(s) assigned to you on the flight(s)?

Do you have the time and flexibility to add extra travel days to your trip to allow for more options if your flight(s) experience issues so you do not miss your cruise?

Do you have flexibility to be late arriving home and nothing pressing you need to be home for after the cruise?

Check, re-check, and re-check your flight arrangements before and during your cruise vacation. If we had been on board the ship when we discovered the missing flight home, we may have had a better experience or at least a person in front of us to plead our case about the issue.

Would We Book Airfare Through A Cruise Line Again?

We would be very unlikely to book airfare through a cruise line again after our flight issues during our December 2022 African cruise travels. If our trips had continued like our first two airfare bookings via the cruise line, we might have continued.

One trip with all the snafus we experienced is more than enough for us and going forward this is one instance where we will pay more, if needed, to maintain more control of our trip.