Have you ever had a great travel idea that turned out to be more disastrous than you could have imagined?
A few months ago, I was searching for cheap spring break cruises when I stumbled upon a 2-night sailing from Malaga, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal on Norwegian Sun. The itinerary included one stop in Cadiz, Spain - and best of all, it was priced at just $99 per person.
This was, quite possibly, the cheapest cruise I had ever seen before!
Most people would never consider flying halfway around the globe for a 2-night cruise. The cost of airfare alone would wash out any savings with this cheap cruise fare. Even as someone who loves European cruises, I am usually looking to make the most of my airfare and travel time across the pond by booking longer itineraries.
But, I had a crazy idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. What if I used my standby flying benefits to get over to Europe so I could take this cheap cruise?
Flying standby would inherently keep the costs down - and I am no stranger to wild standby trips. I’ve been known to take some insane weekend trips to Europe and Asia. I’d rather spend 2 whirlwind days in a new country than sit at home dreaming of what Dublin, London and Tokyo are like.
I thought about the decision to book this cruise for a few weeks. I went back and forth about whether the idea was too crazy to be executed. If nothing else, it would be an insane adventure that I’d probably remember for the rest of my life.
To my pleasant surprise, one of my best friends, Hayley - who also has access to standby flight benefits - was open to joining me on this crazy trip! That was the final push I needed to pull the trigger and book the cruise.
Here’s how I flew standby to Europe for a cruise - and why I would never do it again.
In the weeks leading up to our standby trip to Europe, we had to keep plans super generic and very flexible.
Because we were flying standby, we couldn’t solidify any plans. Nothing was guaranteed or confirmed. Ultimately, our goal was to take any open flight to Europe that was available.
The plan was pretty simple. We would take whatever international flight to Europe that we could. From there, we would book flights with a cheap budget airline, like EasyJet or RyanAir, to get to our cruise port.
Traveling within Europe is notoriously easy and cheap thanks to plenty of budget airlines and fast-speed trains.
Because the cruise was over a weekend, we planned to leave a few days earlier in the week to allocate buffer days in case we needed to pivot our plan. If you’ve ever flown standby, you know that things can go awry quickly, so you need to have multiple backup plans in place.
Hayley and I have both traveled extensively in Europe, so we were confident in our planning abilities to navigate the logistics of this trip.
Hayley visited Europe twice last year while I had three trips across the pond myself. This isn’t to brag, but to set the stage that we are well-versed travelers. We were comfortable with the logistical challenges that we might encounter with international travel.
As the trip approached, we set our sights on a few open flights to London.
Heathrow is a major travel hub with plenty of options for standby flights; in addition, London had tons of cheap flights to our cruise port thanks to multiple regional airports like Gatwick, Luton and Stansted.
Hayley and I met a few times the week before our trip to discuss various options for how we would get from London to Malaga for the cruise. We found some really cheap flights (around $50) with RyanAir and Vueling Airlines with direct flights to Malaga.
In addition, we looked at options to Granada and Seville in Spain in case we couldn’t get directly to Malaga. These cities were only two hours from the cruise port with high-speed train options available. We wanted to cover all of our bases.
After the cruise, our plan was to return to London and hope to make a flight back to the United States within a few days. Luckily, the cruise was pretty short being just two nights, so buffering a few days before and after meant that we were only planning to be gone for one week.
To be as flexible as possible, we opted to use large backpacks instead of rolling luggage for the week. This was Amazing Race style traveling!
We felt fairly confident in our plan as the trip approached, but my anxiety started to creep in as I finalized packing.
Even though I’ve taken plenty of cruises and standby flights before, I was unexpectedly very anxious the night before we planned to leave. I actually cried right after I finished packing, telling my husband that so many things felt unknown. Our home felt so safe and secure as I envisioned potentially sleeping on the airport floor or getting stuck somewhere foreign.
I started to doubt myself. Although the idea was fun and crazy, was it practical? So many things could go wrong that I was overcome with emotion thinking of every possible disaster that could happen.
I joked that I was getting too old for these trips because my anxiety was overwhelming me! There were so many moving pieces and nothing could be booked until we knew for sure we were heading to London.
This meant we didn’t have any hotels or regional flights confirmed when we showed up to the airport. All we had was our passports, backpacks and a few plans in place. The cruise was confirmed, but that was it.
But, I threw caution to the wind thanks to encouragement and support from Hayley. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do this solo!
Once at the airport the next day, we were thrilled that our goal of getting to London was going as planned.
While sitting at the airport, we monitored our options of getting to Europe - and London was still the best option. However, we didn’t feel comfortable booking anything in Europe until we had a confirmed seat. Instead, we sipped on some airport cocktails!
When you fly standby, you’re often among the last people to get assigned a seat and board the flight. We anxiously awaited our seat assignments, as that would be the green light to book our hotels and flights to Malaga for our cruise.
As the flight started to board, we were assigned seats to London - much to our relief! I started to book hotels in London and Malaga while Hayley coordinated our flights to the cruise port.
Shockingly, our ‘budget friendly’ flights were no longer $50 to Malaga; instead, they had jumped into the $200 to $400 range, even on cheap airlines. The top choice for us was a $200 flight to Granada, which we attempted to book while our flight started boarding.
Although Google Flights showed availability, the airline’s website showed absolutely nothing available! We were so confused. We tried multiple times only to get the same error message.
We instantly panicked as the only other flights were $400 each on RyanAir to Malaga for our cruise.
At this point, our flight to London was halfway through boarding and we were starting to become frantic. RyanAir is known for their dirt cheap airline tickets! Just the week before, these flights were $50 each, but we didn’t feel comfortable booking anything until we knew for sure where we were going.
Looking back, had we known prices would skyrocket, we should have booked tickets and considered it a sunk cost if we had to change plans.
We never dreamed a regional flight in Europe would cost $400 each! In fact, we were shocked at these prices. But, this was our only option. We were committed to the trip and cruise at this point, so we booked the flights to Malaga literally as we walked onboard our flight to London.
We were the last people to board our flight and still felt like we were tying up loose ends.
The taxi to the runway felt like it was lightening speed as we also booked our return flight from Lisbon to London after the cruise, which was just a few days away at this point too.
Seeing how the prices had skyrocketed, we wanted to lock in a direct flight from Lisbon to London on WizzAir, which was an airline we had never even heard of. At just $90 each, we wanted to get these seats confirmed - which we did, quite literally as the plane’s wheels lifted and we were off to Europe.
Both feeling frazzled and coming down from the high of booking those flights, we enjoyed our in-flight dinner before sleeping for most of the flight. Hayley even forgot to text her husband goodbye in the frenzy of it all.
Our flight was uneventful, except for the panic when we lost one of our phones at some point during the end of the flight, which induced another frenzy.
We both agreed that this was uncharacteristic of us, as we never lose things. We are both pretty organized when traveling. Clearly, we were out of sorts with all of the logistical chaos we encountered. Just as the plane landed, we found the lost phone luckily!
Once we landed in London, we felt a sense of peace that the standby hurdle was over and we could enjoy our day in the city.
Hayley and I were able to drop off our luggage at the hotel and wander around London. With coffee in hand, we walked around the gloomy and quiet city in the morning hours.
We enjoyed all of the major sites, like Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. We even stumbled upon the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace.
London is truly one of my favorite cities - so we were thrilled that we had an entire day before our next travel plans of flying to Malaga the following day. We did a great job of leaving the standby stress behind as we took full advantage of our time in this fabulous city.
For dinner, we found a cute little pub where we enjoyed drinks by a warm fireplace.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed almost 10 hours of sleep to fight off the jet lag. We fell asleep with big smiles on our faces - we made it to London!
The next day, our scheduled flight to the Malaga wasn’t until 5:00pm, so we spent the entire morning in London.
Again, we had a lovely morning in the city. We walked around Kennington Gardens and visited a few sites near our hotel. With our flight scheduled at 5:00pm, we wanted to allocate plenty of time to get to the airport, as our cruise was the following day.
We figured that we should get to the airport between 2:30 - 3:00pm for our flight, as we were international travelers and needed to confirm our boarding passes and passports at the airport.
RyanAir being the cheap budget airline that they are, we were required to print out our boarding pass at the hotel, as it would cost an additional $25 at the airport to do so. We would need to get a boarding card at the airport once our passports were checked.
Hayley and I confidently made our way to Victoria Station, where we (… mistakenly) planned to catch the Gatwick Express for our flight.
As we entered the train station and looked to buy our ticket to the airport, Hayley made the comment that we should just confirm our flight was actually leaving from Gatwick and not another airport.
There are many smaller airports in London that airlines utilize - and we had exhausted all of them looking for Malaga flights. Looking back, Hayley said she felt almost a whisper in her ear to confirm the tickets. Pretty much every option we had looked at during our planning process was from Gatwick.
The moment Hayley pulled out the tickets and the ticket said Stansted and NOT Gatwick is etched in my mind.
My heart dropped when Hayley confirmed the flight was at an entirely different airport, which was north of the city while we were already heading straight south.
We panicked - how could we have missed this?! Of course, so many flights were looked at during our planning process and we had to pivot last minute. We ended up booking one of the few flights to Malaga from a different London airport.
We ran over to an information desk to ask how we could get to Stansted Airport - and if we would be able to make our 5pm flight. The man gave us a look that incited more panic, but he gave us directions to Tottenham Hale station.
My heart was racing and I felt sick to my stomach. These flights were so expensive and we needed to make this flight or we would miss our cruise.
I couldn’t imagine coming all this way to London just for us to miss our confirmed flight to Spain that we had paid for!
Luckily, Hayley was more calm than I was. I ran to a taxi and asked how long it would take us to get to the Stansted Airport. The cost didn’t matter to me. He said it would take 1.5 hours by taxi, and he insisted we should take the train because of traffic.
In a moment of panic, we opted to go for the train and hope for the best. It wasn’t anything we had researched but hoped we could navigate there quickly.
We ran down to the tube and made our way to Tottenham Hale station, where we planned now to take the Standsted Express train. We were making pretty good time, but we had no cell service during the train ride to confirm how often the express train left for the airport and how long it would take for us to get there.
This only exacerbated my anxiety.
As we made our way on the train, I struck up conversation with a gentleman who had a suitcase and asked if he was going to the airport.
His name was Terry and he was heading to the airport for his 5:00pm flight. We immediately felt relief that we were not insanely behind schedule. Come to find out, he was on the same flight as us to Malaga!
I told Hayley that Terry was our angel, as he provided the peace I needed during that train ride. He also shared that the following week was spring break for Brits, right before Easter. He said that’s why the tickets were super expensive to Spain, as most were leaving that day for holiday.
That made sense, and it was something we wished we had thought about sooner.
We followed Terry to the ticket counter where we purchased tickets on the 2:20pm express train to the airport, which would get us to the airport around 3pm. This felt like just the right amount of time, although our boarding pass suggested being through security by 3:30pm.
Terry suggested that we book the Fast Track, which was $8 and allowed for expedited security. I purchased the Fast Track tickets as fast as my fingers could type and hoped that would make a difference.
I would have paid a lot more money than $8 in that moment.
Once we boarded the train, we breathed a sigh of relief to be on our way to the right airport - until the train broke down.
We had almost made it to the airport when we heard the unwelcome announcement that our train had a maintenance issue and it was uncertain how long the delay would last.
At this point, it felt like the odds were against us and maybe the universe didn’t want us to make our flight to Malaga! I joked that we could walk to the airport at this point - Hayley, who had been pretty calm until this point, started to get anxious herself.
Thankfully, the train started moving within a few minutes and we were on our way to the airport again. It was a big scare that we didn’t need.
Getting off the train at the airport brought one final hurdle for us.
Much to our frustration, we found one single worker was manually checking every single person’s train ticket before they could board the escalator up to the terminal.
As such, there was a huge bottleneck of people starting to gather around the escalator. We were at the very back of the pack and moving very little.
It was about 3:10pm by now, and we felt the pressure to get up to the terminal so we could get our passports verified. The tickets said we should be through security by 3:30pm, and that time was quickly approaching.
We made the decision to leave the bottleneck crowd and head to the elevator instead. This ended up being a good call, as we were able to get on the elevator quickly and up to the check-in counter within a few minutes of waiting.
We breezed past the long line of regular security thanks to our Fast Track. Even still, we had no time to spare at the airport.
Once through security, we walked another 15 minutes to our gate. Our flight started to board within a few minutes of our arrival.
Essentially, we had little to no time to spare for this flight. If we had spent any more time panicking - or if we had made another travel mistake - we would have been in a bad position.
Ultimately, had we missed this flight, we would have been totally screwed for getting to our cruise in Malaga the following day.
Not to mention, all of the money we spent on these flights would be lost.
We walked down the stairs and boarded the RyanAir flight on the tarmac using the stairs, lugging our big backpacks up to the plane.
RyanAir’s faded yellow overhead bins reflected the overall low-cost carrier vibe onboard. The seats were stiff with very little legroom, although it was only a 2.5 hour flight to Spain.
We were sweaty and relieved all at once to get onboard. Of course, we didn’t sit together because we refused to pay $50 to select a seat.
I am convinced RyanAir purposely seats people apart even on the same reservation to set the precedence that you must purchase an assigned seat if you want to sit together.
We arrived safely in Malaga around 10pm and made our way to the hotel.
We were so relieved to arrive to the port city for our cruise the following day, even with all of the challenges we faced and obvious mistakes we made.
I had little faith in myself that the cruise was actually departing from Malaga the following day. I even tracked Norwegian Sun’s current location to confirm we were in the right city because my confidence was so low.
Hayley and I are convinced that the unusual nature of this trip had us off our A-game. I have never made an obvious travel mistake like going to the wrong airport, nor has Hayley.
In fact, I’ve never missed a flight in my life. But having so many plans up in the air and logistics constantly changing, we didn’t set ourselves up for success.
We successfully boarded our 2-night cruise on Norwegian Sun the following day in Malaga - finally!
Stepping onboard felt like a huge accomplishment - we made it!
Once onboard, we sipped on mojitos as we looked over the Malaga skyline and Mediterranean Sea. It was time to relax a little bit!
Sleeping until noon that morning didn’t give us any time to explore the city, but we were just relieved and excited to be onboard the cruise. We made our way to Cadiz, Spain the following day, where Hayley and I had a lovely day walking around the port city.
The morning started with coffee as we wandered around the tiny streets in the old town. The waterfront was gorgeous and the weather was sunny and warm. We did plenty of shopping for souvenirs - or “treasures” as Hayley likes to call them!
Knowing this was our down day, we relished in all of the relaxation and fully enjoyed knowing we didn’t have to be anywhere that day. We were proud of ourselves for making the cruise and laughed about all of the crazy challenges that we had encountered to get to that point.
Back onboard, it was already time to repack our giant backpacks again and prepare to head back to London.
I’ve never done a 2-night cruise before, but boy, it went by quickly. This was the only time we had more than one night in a single spot.
We were already disembarking in Lisbon for a full-day of exploring before our 10pm flight that evening. Hayley and I found a luggage storage space in Lisbon where we could store our backpacks for the day. We had the entire day in Lisbon and wanted to take full advantage of this too.
Although the luggage storage was essentially the closet of a souvenir shop, we felt oddly comfortable leaving our backpacks there and took our passports, wallets and valuables in our purses for the day.
Lisbon is a charming city that’s rich in history. We started our day with coffee before heading to the castle for exploring. Again, we did more shopping as we wandered around the old town. If you’ve been to Lisbon before, you know our calves were burning from the steep incline!
Before leaving for the airport, we checked to see the cost of flights to London. To our surprise, the same flight we had booked was available for $99, even though it departed in just a few hours.
Just goes to show that booking something last minute is a truly a huge gamble! This was crazy compared to our RyanAir flight for $400.
After our last airport debacle, we wanted to allocate more than enough time to get to the Lisbon Airport for our WizzAir flight at 10pm.
Because we didn’t want to risk anything, we opted to head to the airport between 5pm-6pm to ensure we had plenty of time to get through security. We wanted to buffer even more additional time so we didn’t encounter any problems.
Upon arrival at Lisbon’s Airport in Terminal 2, we were less than impressed with the facilities. Essentially, this terminal is only used by budget carriers and it literally feels like a giant, bare airplane hangar. The bathrooms were nasty and WizzAir didn’t even have a sign for their check-in counter.
Once through security, we were shocked at the condition of this airport. It truly was a giant hangar with very little seating. There was a McDonalds and one other place to grab food, along with a few shops.
Of course, we allocated plenty of time and ended up having about 3 hours to spare in this airport. It was freezing cold and we struggled to find a seat. There were just a few places to charge our devices so we uncomfortably sat waiting for our flight.
After a long wait for customs and immigration, we boarded our flight to London at 11pm. You couldn’t get us out of that airport quick enough! We were exhausted from a long day of exploring and we were terribly cold, tired - and (I am sure) stinky.
We were utterly exhausted once we arrived to London’s Luton airport at 1am.
Thankfully, we had booked an airport hotel for us to easily access upon arrival. We finally got to our hotel and we ready for a warm shower and a good night’s rest.
Back in London, we spent one final day exploring the city and getting situated before attempting to fly back to the United States the following day.
Flying standby is a mind game. Once you’ve successfully made it to your destination, that’s only half of the challenge. You still have to get home!
Arguably, getting home is more stressful because you either make the flight or you get stranded away from home. In this case, you can be stuck unless you buy a last-minute ticket back to wherever you need to go - which can get very pricey.
We planned to fly back to the United States the following day and our flight’s availability was still looking good. As such, we spent the day exploring London, including London Tower and Tower Hill. We dined in a cute pub called The Victoria, thanks to a suggestion from a fellow traveler.
All day, I had this lingering anxiety about what the following day would bring. One cancelled flight from another airline or a major delay can totally sway your standby travel plans. I prayed everything would work for the following day as we reminisced on the entire week’s adventure.
On our last night, we packed our backpacks for (hopefully) one final time.
The backpacks were plump full with all of our treasures. Our hearts were full with memories and we were hopeful that the next day would go smoothly.
Hayley and I arrived at Heathrow Airport and quickly made our through security and to the airport lounge.
Our flight still had plenty of seats, so we relaxed with coffee and breakfast.
To our surprise, we were assigned a seat within an hour of the flight taking off. We were so excited to be seated together and we were guaranteed at that point to be getting back to the United States - a huge relief!
We boarded our flight and waved goodbye to London. We thanked the city for so many fun memories as the flight took off. We relaxed, edited photos and watched movies during the 8 hours.
We did it - almost! We were on our way home and we had successfully flown standby to Europe and taken our cheap 2-night cruise.
During the final hour of the flight, I started to strategize how we would get back to our home airport. Sadly, none of the flights home had any availability.
Once we landed and went through U.S Customs and Immigration, we started to panic. None of the flights to our home airport had any seats available. We started to look at other airport options within a few hours of our home and strategize our plan of attack.
We ran from the international terminal in an attempt to make a flight that had a few seats available. Huffing and puffing, we literally watched the plane pull away from the gate as our frustrations (and odor) began to mount.
Although it was only 4pm, we wanted to keep trying for other flights to get us closer to home. Sadly, nothing looked promising and it started to induce a lot of anxiety. We just wanted to be home at this point. We’d already had so much travel and we were exhausted.
At one point, it was looking like we might not get anywhere until midnight. Even then, we would be more than an hour away from our home.
Hayley and I debated back and forth about what we should try to do. There was a flight to Alabama that we could try for, which would get us within a few hours of our home. The standby list was long, but we had nothing else to do, so we sat at the gate.
We watched everyone board the flight and waited for the gate agent to start calling standby names, with little hope for us.
We were at the bottom of the priority list with only one or two seats available. At this point, I had already cried from frustration, anxiety and panic. I wanted to get home and I was tired of logistics. Hayley was so sweet with keeping her composure and reassuring me that we’d get back home eventually.
Suddenly, the gate agent made an announcement that sounded like Hayley’s last name, but it was butchered. We had seen a few other standby flyers get seats, so we had no hope. As such, we were confused and didn’t react.
The agent again said her last name and looked directly at us. He said “Hayley? Lets go!” And I questioned “On this plane?” And he yelled back frantically, “Yes, now! Let’s go!”.
Hayley and I squealed with excitement and a rush of adrenaline, we couldn’t believe we got seats! We had no hope that we would make this flight, so much so that Hayley’s husband hadn’t even started driving to the airport to get us.
We were boarding at the very last minute as the plane was quite literally pulling away from the gate. Our backpacks were so big that mine didn’t even fit in the overhead compartment on the small plane.
I didn’t care though - we were heading home and I’d be sleeping in my own bed! We landed and waited about an hour for Hayley’s husband to come get us before we started the drive back to our houses.
Now, we really did it! The adventure was over and we successfully flew standby to Europe for our cruise. But, I would absolutely never do it again.
As much fun as we had, there were multiple times during the adventure where I thought to myself, “I would never do this again”.
I’d always considered flying standby to a cruise, as it saves a considerable amount of money. If you can snag a first-class seat, that makes it even better! However, standby flying is a huge gamble.
Don’t get me wrong, we had a ton of fun and made some incredible memories. But, flying standby had a ripple effect with planning, making it less cost efficient than I ever imagined.
Looking back, things would have been much easier if our cruise left from Southampton, England. If we could have flown to a major airport and booked a that cruise departed from that city (like Amsterdam or London), that would have alleviated some of the unexpected costs associated with last-minute bookings.
Our RyanAir flights ended up being $400 each, which is way more than we budgeted for. We also had to pay taxes and fees on our standby flights - and the UK has some of the highest taxes of anywhere in Europe.
Along with the cost, there was heightened stress throughout the entire trip. It’s one thing to make a plan and then execute that plan. It’s a whole different ballgame to plan and execute simultaneously.
As such, we were out of sorts. We made some stupid mistakes, like going to the wrong airport and losing our phone, because we had changed our plans so many times. This wouldn’t have happened if we had planned this trip like normal.
I think we could have booked confirmed flights for about the same amount that we spent, which would alleviate the anxiety of not knowing where you’re going or when.
So many things were uncertain and required a huge amount of spontaneity. I don’t have any regrets, but it isn’t a trip that I would attempt again. Had we missed our cruise, we would have been super disappointed. But, it’s a risk you take when you fly standby and you need to prepare to drop big money if something goes wrong.
Above all else, I am grateful to have a wonderful friend accompany me on this adventure, as I couldn’t have done it alone. We made great memories together and had a lot of laughs along the way.