When you book a cruise, you’re usually given the option of having the cruise line book your flights for you, too—often advertised at a discounted rate. For many, cruise and flight packages are an easier option than organizing air travel yourself, though take note: there’s a lot of fine print to read, and policies vary widely by company. At the end of the day, there are distinct advantages and challenges with opting for flight-inclusive cruise deals, and we’re here to break it all down.
Pros to booking flights through cruise lines
It’s less work up front
The long and short of it is that if someone else is booking your airfare, it saves you the hassle of having to find flights that work with your cruise departure and return.
Cruises have access to bulk fares, which can be cheaper than what you can find
Every major cruise line has contracts with airlines for specially negotiated deals called bulk fares, which can be cheaper than the prices you’d see if you booked individually. That said, they’re not always cheaper, so it’s key to do some independent research before you commit. Royal Caribbean, it should be noted, has a policy in its Air2Sea program that guarantees that you’ll pay for the lowest airfare possible, with a 110 percent refund of the difference if you find a lower price—in shipboard credit, though, not cash.
You may score a business class flight
If airfare is wrapped into the price of your cruise cabin, you might really find yourself in great seats on your flight. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for instance, offers free business-class airfare for certain long-haul flights to all passengers booked in suites, which is particularly important if you’re flying from, say, New York to Sydney for your cruise. Many other cruise lines, including Seabourn, will offer premium economy or other upgraded flights. Just know that the price of your cabin may be higher to compensate for these packages, so you’d be wise to separate research airfare on your own to gauge the value.
You’ll have help from the cruise line if your flights get delayed or canceled
Make no bones about it: If you miss your ship’s departure, it will leave without you. Likewise, your plane will not wait if your ship is delayed in reaching its final port. But, cruise lines typically have 24/7 hotlines to assist passengers with these travel issues—including the logistics of catching up to the ship at the next port or staying in a hotel overnight to wait for the next flight home. The catch? The financial burden of those additional travels could fall on you; it’s important you read the ship’s policy about these situations before you book.
Note that some cruise lines, like Carnival, will absorb the additional travel cost, depending on the reason for the missed departure. But if you really want to ensure you reach your ship on time, arrive a day or more before you set sail; and, on the return, plan to spend an extra night or two in your final port in order to make your flight home. And don’t forget: You can also purchase travel insurance to mitigate the risks.
Cons to booking flights through cruise lines
You have far less flexibility
For standard air transportation bookings, the cruise line’s agent will pick your flights, and you won’t have a choice when it comes to which airline you’ll fly, when you’ll fly, and whether or not you’ll fly direct or with a layover.
Also, you won’t likely be able to make a longer trip out of it. If you’re booking airfare through a cruise, some cruise lines, like Oceania and Viking, mandate that you arrive the day of your ship’s departure for certain sailings, unless you’re willing to pay a deviation fee to get in a day or more early. Other lines, like, Celebrity, Carnival, and Uniworld, do offer their guests more flexibility from the get-go, such as arriving at the departure port a few days early to explore that city sans an additional fee. It’s crucial to speak with a booking agent directly to find out the precise terms of your cruise’s air transportation program. And if you move forward with the package, be ready to pay for flexibility.
Frequent flyers might be disappointed
Because of the aforementioned flexibility issues, frequent fliers who want a particular alliance will not always be able to fly on their preferred airline. Plus, since cruises use bulk fares, frequent fliers might not earn award miles, qualifying miles, and qualifying dollars on their flights, or they might earn substantially fewer than they would have if they booked on their own. In the same vein, passengers with airline status might not qualify for complimentary upgrades. Both situations depend on which fare class your ticket falls into, which will vary by cruise line and by airline.
There are often hidden fees
If you’re booking your flight through your cruise line, you might expect your transfers between the airport and the ship are included—but they might not be. While all cruise lines can arrange a transfer for you, you’ll likely need to pay extra for the service. (Viking and Uniworld provide free transfers if you fly on the days of embarkation and disembarkation.) Similarly, if you’re looking to upgrade to business class, you might need to pay the cruise line an extra fee to do so on top of the difference in fare. And if you change your itinerary before your sailing, you could end up paying fees to the cruise line and the airline (as opposed to just the airline if you booked on your own).
You’ll still have to deal with the airline directly to manage your reservation
Want to pick a specific seat on your flight, or opt for the vegetarian meal? You’ll have to contact the airline directly to manage those aspects of your reservation if you book your airfare through a cruise line. You’ll also have to handle checked luggage—and the associated fees—yourself.
The Bottom Line
Booking airfare through your cruise line can be easier and offer a better deal than seeking out your own flights, but if you need flexibility and want to customize your travel plans, do some research first. Read the fine print carefully to figure out if your cruise’s air transportation is the right choice for you.
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