The dark side of our Norwegian Star cruise: embarkation and disembarkation

It’s been a few weeks since we returned from our Norwegian Star cruise to the Mexican Riviera and we still have lots of great memories and have enjoyed looking at the over 800 photos we took between the four of us who had cameras. If you haven’t read my previous articles, I encourage you to start there before you read this one, however: Part I: Our Cruise to Mexico and Part II: Food, Norovirus and Excursions.
This time I am going to write about by far the worst part of the entire cruise, an experience that so marred our holiday that we’ll really have to think carefully before we take another cruise, our experience getting onto the ship and, far worse, our experience getting off the ship when we returned to port.
I can best explain by sharing the letter I’ve sent to Colin Veitch, President and CEO of NCL Corporation and Andrew Stuart, Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Passenger Services… The photograph I have of the embarkation mess was not included in what I sent to NCL, however.


Dear Mr. Veitch and Mr. Stuart,
We recently enjoyed our first cruise, to the Mexican Riviera on the Norwegian Star, departing from San Pedro, California on Sunday, February 18th, 2007. To be more precise, however, we enjoyed the cruise while we were on the ship, but found both the process of embarking poor and disembarking downright appalling, a complete chaos and shambles. Disembarking was in fact sufficiently poor that I can only quote my wife in saying “if this is what it’s like to get off a cruise, I’ll never go on another in my life.”
I’ll start with embarking. We arrived at the port approximately three hours before scheduled departure to find a line snaking through the entire reception area and outside, at least 600-750 people long. There were far too few Norwegian employees explaining what was going on or helping with the elderly, infirm, or, like us, families with small children who weren’t prepared to wait almost two hours to get on the ship. The weather turned cold and blustery while we waited and by the time we did get on the ship, my wife had picked up a bit of a bug and was subsequently sick for half of the cruise with a cold.
I spoke with the few Norwegian employees I could find and the general consensus seemed to be that there was an argument with the local longshoreman’s union and that they had sent fewer people than needed to the ship. If that is indeed true, I would like to strongly suggest that your union issues are not something that should ever affect passengers. If there was another explanation, my complaint remains: there were too few staff and the embarkation process was far too inefficient. We wanted to have our first experience with Norwegian be a positive, fun, exciting one and instead it was a relief to finally get onto the ship. We sailed 30 minutes late that afternoon.

The crowd waiting to get onto the Norwegian Star in San Pedro, California
A small subset of the crowd dragging its luggage along, waiting in line to get onto the Norwegian Star. The man in black walking towards me told me in no uncertain terms that photography was forbidden “for security reasons”.


But nothing could have prepared me for the utter shambles of when we disembarked in San Pedro on Monday, the 26th of February. We were scheduled to arrive at approximately 7:00am that morning, but the evening before were informed that there was some sort of propulsion issue and would be arriving closer to 9:00am. Since people had carefully synchronized their flights home with the anticipated arrival time, many passengers were quite upset. As is doubtless typical, the staff of the Star came up with color-coded tags that specified at what time you wanted to have your bags available on the dock, post-disembarkation.
The problem was, we didn’t actually dock until 10:30am and by then not only were all the color zones completely worthless, but hundreds and hundreds of us “freestyle disembarking” passengers had queued up on Deck 6, luggage in tow, with the line snaking up the stairs and continuing along the hallways of Deck 7. Throughout the entire time we were in line, at least two hours, we saw not a single Norwegian employee, and even when people started to get quite upset, raising their voices and trying to circumvent portions of the line, we were all left to our own devices, like some sort of modern recreation of Lord of the Flies. It was not a pleasant scene and certainly my young children were exposed to the kind of language that we never expected to hear on a family-friendly cruise line.
To make matters quite a bit worse, Archie Archbold, the cruise director, came on the PA system more than once and directed the people who hadn’t yet lined up to go to the wrong place given the line that had formed. The line was through Deck 6 and up to Deck 7, but Archie told passengers to just take the elevator to Deck 6 and join the line, which meant that these people who hadn’t yet joined the line effectively were given permission to cut in front of those already lined up on Deck 7. Completely unacceptable.
What baffles me is that the ship has an extensive array of video cameras and monitors and it’s impossible to understand why Archie and the rest of the staff, including the security personnel, weren’t closely monitoring the situation to at least minimize difficulties, if not to actually make disembarkation pleasant.
The topper to the entire situation was when my sister and her husband finally did get to the front of the disembarkation line, they found themselves herded past the customs officers directly into the line to turn in stamped customs forms. They, of course, didn’t have their form stamped, but when they tried to go directly back to the customs officials, they were blocked and forced to rejoin the line. At that point they’d already been in line two hours and they then had to wait an additional 20 minutes before they finally disembarked. My brother in law said afterwards: “Forget it, I’m not going on another cruise”.
Between us, we had four cabins on this ship and paid for a total of nine passengers in those four cabins. It was a significant investment and while we did have a good time on the cruise, the experience of getting onto the ship and the ghastly experience of disembarkation has profoundly influenced our opinion of cruises as vacations. I can only hope that what we experienced was atypical of cruising, but nonetheless I felt you needed to know what had transpired on our cruise and wanted to give your firm a chance to offer up some sort of resolution.
Please note that I have also published this letter in its entirety on the Internet, on my weblog. You can read it – and post a response if you’d like – at http://www.APparenting.com/
With regards,
Dave Taylor
Boulder, Colorado

33 comments on “The dark side of our Norwegian Star cruise: embarkation and disembarkation

  1. I would like you to submit this story to Cruise Bruise. It is a real eye opener into the ordeal families with children have to go through in order to board and disembark a cruise ship. I have heard this type of story many times before across the web, but your story, with photo, makes it all very real. Very well done. Please go to http://www.cruisebruise.com to submit your story. Thank you. Your submission would be very valuable to others.

  2. Thanks for your suggestion, J, but I’m going to pass. I checked out your site and it’s all bad news, all negative. I recognize that like anything else, cruising has its good and bad points (obviously, given the note I just wrote!) but I would rather not contribute to a uniformly bad news site.

  3. Just checking to see what sort of response you got back from NCL.
    I’m leaving on the same cruise, in a couple weeks. This is my first, and already, there’s a huge problem. NCL double billed my cruise, and still hasn’t refunded the amount. i did write a letter to Customer Service, but have not heard back.

  4. Timm, it’s definitely too soon to have a response: the postman just took the letters away to deliver to them at their Miami office TODAY! Come back the end of April, perhaps??

  5. I was on the cruise leaving on 2/26 after your ship arrived late. I had a group of 43 seniors and we sat on our bus for 4 hours – at least we didn’t have to stand in line like everyone else.When he finally got in to register and get our cabin cards, we were handed a paper saying change of itinerary – no Acapulco stop. We were given $50.00 shipboard credit – that you couldn’t use for gratuities – but had 43 very unhappy people in our group. Thank you, Ida Kaufman

  6. Our family arrives in Long Beach at 11:00 for 4:00 PM sailing. Do you suggest heading directly to terminal for ‘the lines’ or planning for a later arrival? Our children are 10, 7 and 5.
    David

  7. I am leaving on this same cruise with my mother and 3 year old the beginning of April. We were planning to arrive at Noon. Do you suggest something different?

  8. I actually just got done with my cruise on the star with archie. I had a great time! I was also a little upset about Acapulco, but that was out of the cruise lines hands and many cruise lines also had to pull that location from my own research. I am younger (24) and was with 3 friends. We got to LAX around 1:00 and we took an NCL bus to the port. (Note, on the way back we took a taxi for 1/2 the price) We got to the port and the NCL bus had already took our taged bags. We went in a short line to get our Room key and then proceeded to a big open area with seating to wait to board. We were given a boarding number and waited about 20 min to board. Our number was called and 10 min later we were eating food on the pool deck.
    On disembarkment (were lazy youngsters) we choose the very last time available to disembark (10:15). We didn’t have our bags because we choose to do the colored tags and disembark at a specific time. We got in a line that looked very long, but a cruise line employee said there was two places to disembark and to go around the other way. We got into a very short line to get off the ship (3-5 min) and then a line to go through customs (15 min). After that we found our bags in the area matching our colored tags with little effort and then left within minutes in a taxi back to LAX.
    I have been on the Norwegian Dream in 2005 and the Star now from Mar 14-22 2007. I have had a great time both trips. The only thing that bugged me was the itinerary change, but i had a great time at the stops.

  9. That comment about the double billing made me laugh. They did that to me too .. but a few days later the credit showed up on my on-line statement. I have to say that overall I did enjoy the cruise. As did your kids by the look of things .. ice cream, ice cream, ice cream 🙂
    Your sister

  10. I was on the Norwegian Star out of San Diego in April of 2006. We were on the ship and off the ship very quickly. Your story is not typical. I have been on 15 cruises and have only had problems one time. This was due to the ship having mechanical problems on the cruise before ours, so it was late to port and we were taken to a hotel to wait for it. There is always some wait to get on and off the ship and you just must prepare for that.

  11. My husband and I went on the Norwegian star last Sept and also had a horrible time with the boarding. It was complete mayham.People get crazy to get on the boat pushing , shoving and budding into lineups. Though we did not have any children with us and are not elderly, I thought it was in very bad taste for the cruise line not to let the elderly , diabled, and families with small children board first. It seems like this paticular cruise line is not up to consideration in their boarding tactics. We thoroughly enjoyed our cruise so much in fact that we have booked another one for this April but embarkment and disbarkment should be be items on the Norwegian Cruise line’s list due for improvements.

  12. We just sailed the same cruise March 30-April 7…and while the engine trouble and delays have been resolved, the poor disembarkation system is still going strong! Our problem, was that we had purchased a photo the morning we arrived in Los Angeles. They did not accept cash to pay for the photo, said you had to swipe your room card. Well, our bill had already been delivered to our state room…finaled out so to speak. So, when we went to disembark, they said there was a problem as we had last minute purchases and we must go settle our bill upstairs at reception. So, children, luggage and I were sidelined down on deck 6, while hubby went back upstairs to pay cash…at the reception desk for our last purchase. While we waited for his return, about every third passenger was going thru the same trouble, some quite loud and vocal in their anger at the situation. Seems to us, the cruise director, had he been on his toes, could have easily resolved this problem by reminding passengers the previous day to get all their last minute purchases out of the way to avoid delays in leaving the ship the next morning. UGH.

  13. Hey Dave
    I have been on bad cruises but I took my family on the Disney Cruise twice in the past year and let me tell you, embarking and disembarking are smooth as silk. We arrive, get in line and are wisked through lines right to our cabin. We are up to the kids pool drinks in hand within an hour. Leaving is even better. We arrive early in the morning, have breakfast, go through customes where our luggage is waiting. We have our car packed and on the road no problem.

  14. Free style cruising? More like slob style cruising! We have been on Holland America and Princess in the past and find that NCL is a distant last in the cruise industry. Our flight was held up because of heavy rain in New York and we missed the cruise by 30 minutes tops. Our calls to NCL were like talking to a deaf person on the phone. The people we talked to (3 different times) knew nothing, offered nothing and made no attempt to help at all. WE asked if other passengers were arriving late and were assured that we were the only ones and that the cruise would be leaving at 4 PM sharp with no exceptions. When we joined the cruise 4 days later in Cozumel we found out from other passengers that the ship never left port until 5:15. Over the next 7 days we found out that nothing about free style cruising was free. The so-called variety of restaurants to choose from turned out to be 3 main restaurants with the same exact menu. The buffets had food that resembled hospital food and getting a decent cup of coffee was impossible. They had an ice cream bar that had the cheapest ice cream I have ever had. We thought the menus many times had nothing that we would ever have ordered at a restaurant and if we wanted something good to eat we had to pay extra just to get a passable meal. In closing, in my opinion, NCL’s main focus is getting the absolute most money from each customer. I believe they put a lot of thought into how get the most money from each passenger while delivering the least amount of service. We had considered writing NCL to complain thinking that they would want to know how to make their cruise line better. I guess not.

  15. Really interesting comments on this one, ranging from “ain’t it awful” agreements, to “get a life” disagreements. You won’t ever get more than a form-letter answer from NCL on this one, because there is no possible resolution (as far as they know). When you have some 750 people all in a rush to disembark, it can be awful and tempers will flare, especially when there are too many of them who are doing this for the first time. I feel most sorry for the cruise director; he really does want to help.

  16. I’d like to comment on Holland America, since Steve Edwards held it in glowing esteem.
    I took the Oosterdam on a 8-day Alaskan cruise and found the dining room’s food deplorable three or four nights. The buffet appeared to be the prior day’s dinner re-worked into a different meal and was usually only palatable, at best. The late-night meal was a real joke consisting of the earlier food as well for the most part. But the staff were real winners: outside of the personal staff (cabin steward, waiter, etc.), they were a surly crew that you could rarely even coax a smile from. I wouldn’t care to have the job either, but if you’re in it I say make the most of things and try to make your day enjoyable rather than scowling at your customers. Other than that, it was a pretty boring ship but, tastefully furnished with adequate sized cabins.
    I’ll be taking the Star in December and I will embark with an open mind.
    I’ve been on NCL one other time; the Norway (a re-fitted trans-oceanic liner, previously the France), and although the there were only a couple of restaurants and a few bars, that was the most enjoyable cruise, food, ship, etc. (maybe not staff) that I’ve been on.

  17. Hi everybody, my name is Corrado and I’ll have a cruise with Norwegian Star next april from 16th to 24th with my “just married” wife Donatella (it’s part of our honeymoon1). We are Italians and our English is not so well, so please we would be happy if you would help us with some important advices as we are doing this for the first time. First, I’d like to know how to reach the port from LA downtown (taxi?). And much more…
    Thanks for all.
    Corrado

  18. Just got back from an 8 day cruise on the Norwegian Star. Getting on the boat took approx. 30 minutes from beginning to end and off the boat in about 15 minutes. Not as much activity on NCl as Carnival. NCL is probably my least favorite cruise line, but still a fabulous time. My teenagers had a great time in the Teen activities. Many people came down with the Norwalk virus but the ship was prepared to handle all of the disinfecting that needed to take place. Sometimes problems that happen on cruise ships are not the fault of the Cruise line. Go with the flow people. You can only have as much fun as you want to. After 12 cruises, you bet I’ll take another one.

  19. I would like the address for the CEO of NCL because I wish to address a few concerns. We just returned from a cruise on the Pride of Aloha. I knew from the get-go that the ship was no prize, but it was worse than I expected and I have cruised on many other ships. Even though it will do absolutly no good, I would feel better having a say. They are really giving the cruise industry a black eye.

  20. Hi my family and i and friends a party of 17 people spread over 5 cabins have just completed the Mexiac Riveria cruise on the Norwegian Star. from the 27th Jan returning on Monday Feb 4th 2008.
    As a group we have all done both carnival and Princess cruises and this cruise and the cruise line Norwegian would have to be the worst.
    Boarding was a shambles and there was only 1 NCL employee trying to organise in the pre departure area, to no real effect with people just ignoring him and going into any line. We boarded 4 hours before the 5pm departure which was 45 minutes late and we did not see our bags until 10.00pm that night and with 8 children in our group tired and grumpy this was unacceptable.
    Disembarking had to be one of the worst experiences i have ever had with only one queue and a line that went from deck 6 back up the stair area to deck 10. With evreyone trying to get off with having only one departure point. What made it worse was that there was only the grumpy NCL staff at the door no one anywhere else and what was even more frustrating was NCL staff pushing through to try and get off the boat as well. It did become dangerous due to no one managing the disembarkation because people would get into the lifts and go down to the 6th level and try and push there way out of the lifts, quite often in the 50 minutes we were crushed in that area children were crying due to the pushing and shoving.
    During the cruise they seemed to be short staffed as the levels of service were poor and the staff always seemed to be tired. There was very few deck activities especially in comparison to other cruises we have done. Many times activities were closed or no one atended. Many times we went to the quiz sessions and often no member of the staff turned up. Movie sessions were cancelled and no one turned up to run the teen club. When we queried it they said the person was sick and then they told us that there weren’t enough kids despite there being 12 in the teen age group registered for the cruise then they tried to tell us that there were no sessions because no one was turning up.
    After the 3rd day the kids and i just gave up and every time we went there was a sign saying that they were closed due to other circumstances and then when we queried them it mysteriously disappeared.
    Service in the restaurants was terrible with you constantly having to ask for condiments or coffee or desserts as they tried to rush everyone through.
    Every time we tried to query or raise an issue no one wanted to know especially not Denny Anderson cruise director or Les Riley Hotel Director.
    There were many incidents too numerous to mention, but the sad thing is that we all travelled from New Zealand to do the cruise and to have an experience this sort of crap means we will not be reccommending Norwegian to anyone. Given the outlay it cost 17 of us to travel to the US and do the cruise you would think the level of service could have been better.

  21. I’m not sure if most of you folks have cruised the same NCL as my wife and I have. We’ve cruised with Royal Caribbean, Carnaval, and NCL, and NCL is by far our favorite. In fact, we have sailed with them four years in a row. We have never had any problems with either embarking or disembarking. The food and the service have been excellent. There are pros and cons with every trip and with every cruise line. If one goes on a trip seeking something bad to complain about, I’m sure you’ll find it.

  22. Mr. Taylor,
    I would like to first say thank you for sharing your experience on the Star. Your description of events was very similar to mine. I went on the Alaskan Cruise in May 2007. This was my first cruise, so I was very open minded in regards to the cruising industry. I had a wonderful time and was overwhelmed entirely with both the ship and the beauty of Alaska. Overall everything was satisfactory, the staff was plentiful and friendly, the entertainment onboard was nice, and the food was delicious. The disembarkation was chaotic to say the least and most definitely the worst part of the trip. We were late arriving in Seattle due to a fire in the engine room earlier during the trip. This didn’t hinder our arrival to the airport though, and was not that big of a deal to us. So anyway, after the Alaskan Cruise, I decided to go on another one…this time to Hawaii for 11 days! I scheduled this cruise for January 2008 on the Pride of Aloha. My Parents, who have been on many cruises with different cruise lines, went with me. This cruise was nothing in comparison to the Alaskan cruise. Most of the staff was lazy and uncaring in terms of customer service. This Ship was smaller in size and somewhat dilapidated. There were long lines at the main dining rooms for every course (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). On several occasions my family requested to sit at a “privateâ€? table (with the people in our party only). However the hostess completely ignored this request and would seat us with other groups of people. This happened two or three times before we expressed our dissatisfaction. Our cabin steward was the worst one ever, according to my parents. I thought he was mostly lazy and didn’t seem to understand the duties of his job. It was typically after 5pm before he would make his way to our cabin to clean, replace towels, make the beds, etc. There were two occasions where he never arrived at all!! We overheard other people onboard expressing their unhappiness on many occasions throughout the trip. This cruise was certainly a huge disappointment to us and was like night and day when compared to the Alaskan cruise. I highly recommend the Hawaiian cruise, but on a different cruise line! We are finished with Norwegian Cruise Line and will do more research before our next booking! I think I’ll Google “Pride of Aloha complaintsâ€? just for fun to see how many others share the same views as me.
    Thanks and take care,
    Joseph

  23. I found your blog while googling NCL Mexico Cruise. My boyfriend and I are going on the 7 days Mexican Riviera Cruise on 12/13/08. Now I know we need to arrive super early to board the ship. If we can get on the ship early, at least we can wait for sail at the buffet or something, right? Thanks for all the great information. We are really looking forward to our trip! ^^

  24. Agreeing with some of the previous comments I must say that when someone is on a vacation especially with a large number of people I promise you there will be issues; typically with the family rather than the vacation itself but we cant complain about family so we must focus our grievances on the third party. I myself have been on several cruises with my wife and inlaws and have yet to have a negative experience other than the 3rd degree burns. When someone goes on a vacation with a positive outlook you will always have a good time, but if you go with the thoughts that there will be issues you will always find them. As for boarding and getting off the ship it will take time but I have never missed the ship and they never set sail with me still on it so i cant really complain. I myself am going on the Riviera cruise in march and am a little concerned about the changing ports but i have never been on the Riviera and as long as they can replace the port with another things should be smooth sailing.

  25. We will be cruising The Norwegian Star to Alaska in 6 weeks. We are hoping to have a very positive experience and have read mor “pros” than “cons” on the subject. We have not cruised with this line before…but have cruised Carnival twice, Royal Caribbean once and Celebrity ( 14 day round trip San Diego to Hawaii). Our experiences on these cruises have all been good. One of the Carnival Cruises was a family reunion with 15 people. Not one glitch the whole way. Embarkation took only minutes…and disembarkation had us back on dry land by 10:30-11:00am. With each cruise, our disembarkation expectations were exactly as had been told to us by travel agents…pretty much “hurry up, and wait”. But this can only be expected when a ship is trying to unload 2000 passengers, 4000 pieces of luggage, tons of garbage, AND get cabins/ship ready for 2000 new arrivals starting at noon. So, being asked to leave our cabins, wait for our group number/color code to be called was not all that bad. We were prepared and had books/crosswords/cards with us to occupy our time.
    Our 14 day Celebrity Cruise (which we have been told is the 5 STAR of cruise lines) is the only cruise that had change in itinerary and disembarkation time. Due to forecast weather change, we had to travel at a slower speed and this caused the ship to cancel one port. Each cabin was given a $200 ship board credit…very nice. On the trip home, a pretty good sized storm caused the ship to have to use stabilizers at full strength – and this caused the ship to have to slow down considerably. We knew a day in advance that we would be docking 6 hours late. Celebrity opened their phone and computer lines for free to all who needed to re-arrange flight times. They paid for the fees to change airline tickets…and they paid for hotels to all who would have to push back air flight until the next day. Most passengers were laid back with the unexpected changes…as you really can’t do much about Mother Nature. And Celebrity handled it so well. If you ever get the chance, we highly recommend The Celebrity Infinity (they also cruise Alaska) as a good cruise choice. It’s a bit more expensive, but the ship was lovely and the service great. We’re looking forward for the NCL Star trip and expect that we will have a great time. We always go into these trips with the most positive attitute…and we have never had a vacation ruined by circumstance. We pretty much go with the flow. But that is easy when you travel “child free” and on no particular schedule. Thanks for all the input written by folks on this blog. It’s always a great help to hear what people have to say. Sometimes it helps to keep our expectations at a realistic level.

  26. I sailed Pride of Aloha(Now Norwegian Sky)in June of 2007.I enjoyed my first cruise immencely.It was worth the bargain price I paid.Embark and disembark was fine I arrived about 4 hours before departure,and took about 30 minutes to board.I immediately requested padding for our beds and they were their in 10 minutes with them.I read many blogs saying cruise ship beds aren’t too comfy so I asked for pads quick to avoid an “sorry all out” response.The food was good over all and service was good.Tables were bussed quickly at the main cafe.The staff(all American)were courteous.The ship didn’t look dilapidated to me.My only disatisfied moment was a rude staffer at the pub crawl sign up.Maybe the poor third world workers on foriegn flagged ships are just greatfull to be there,more than the jaded american crews.I’m not spoiled,so I don’t expect the crews to kiss my feet,like so many american cruisers seem to feel they should.Of course if you’re spending $200 or more a day to cruise,the food and service should be good.I didn’t cruise with overly high expectations and was pleased with what I got for my money,$650PP 7 days.I will likely cruise NCL again.

  27. Does anyone know how to get ahold of some high up with NCL? I’ve been trying to get my money back for a cruise that I didn’t book for two weeks now. They used my debt card from a cruise I took in January. I wish someone had the CEO phone number.

  28. Why would anyone take their chidren on a cruise,Other than Carnival? My god,I think that’s just rude and irresponsible, to the other passengers I’m sure it’s very annoying! If you can’t leave them home,Please use carnival and stop annoying everyone else!

  29. The security reason is that they don’t want the people’s faces to be revealed all around the world. Would you like it if your headshot was sent out to the whole entire world? NO!

  30. Well, the process is not any better. Took Norwegian Star from LA to Miami on the 14 day cruise in Nov 2014. Our senior center had 11 people on the cruise and most of us stood in line for over 3 hours in embarkation. Swollen legs, small blood vessels bursting, and just plain worn out before getting on board! The cruise was wonderful but they sure need to work on getting folks on and off board.

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