Moore Travel Blog
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When to purchase airfare thru the Cruise Line
When you must fly to a departure port to board a cruise, you can either ask your cruise counselor to book your airline tickets through the cruise line or arrange the tickets on your own. The three main things to consider when making this decision are price, air schedules and support in the event that things do not go according to plan.
Price: Cruise lines buy a huge number of airline seats each year, and with this volume, one might think they could negotiate discounts for their passengers. The airlines, however, have the upper hand in this relationship. With so few well-timed flights into departure ports, cruise lines need the airlines more than airlines need the cruise lines.
So at least as far as flights within the continental U.S. and Canada are concerned, the price at which cruise lines are allowed to block airline seats is frequently higher than the lowest advance purchase excursion fare available to individual travelers. If you are booking well in advance, you can generally expect to save money by arranging flights on your own, directly through the airlines.
On most flights, however, air prices available to the general public increase as the departure date approaches, while the prices offered through cruise lines tend to stay the same. If you are booking within 60 days of departure, you may find that the cruise line's air prices are just as good, or even better, than going directly to the airline.
The picture changes for long-haul flights. Cruise line air is usually competitive with, or cheaper than, what you can find on your own -- no matter when you book -- for cruises in Europe and exotic destinations such as Tahiti, Asia or Australia. Cruise line air is also frequently cheaper for one-way Gulf of Alaska sailings between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier. (Note that you can generally beat the cruise line's air price by going direct to the airlines if you are sailing to Alaska round trip from Vancouver, Seattle or San Francisco and need air into one of these cities.)
Air Schedules: One clear advantage to booking your flight directly through the airlines is the control you gain over your schedule and itinerary -- you decide which airline you fly and when. If you book your air through the cruise line and pay their standard air add-on, you will generally have to wait until 30 days prior to departure to find out which carrier you will fly and which flights you will take, and the routing may not be the most direct available. For a small additional "air deviation" fee, most cruise lines will attempt to book you on the airline or flights of your choice, but there is no guarantee that you will get what you asked for and you must make your request at the time you book your cruise, not after you have received airline tickets with an unsatisfactory itinerary.
Support: Sometimes things don't go according to plan. A flight may be cancelled or delayed causing a passenger to miss a ship's departure, or a ship's schedule could be changed or a sailing cancelled. Cruise lines are more likely to step in to aid passengers who purchased their air from the cruise line in these situations.
There have been several instances over the years where cruise lines have had to cancel or modify sailings due to unforeseen circumstances. In all cases, passengers on the altered sailings who had booked air through the cruise line were protected -- the cruise line helped arrange refunds or new flights with no change penalties. Those who had arranged airfare on their own were left to wrangle with the airlines over refunds or change fees.
My Bottom Line: Anyone who is comfortable personally booking flights and arranging transfers from the airport to the pier should compare the cost of buying direct from an airline with the cost of going through the cruise line (including the air deviation fee if you want control over flight selection).
If you find that the cruise line's air prices are about the same as what you can get directly through the airlines on your own, go with the cruise line's air, for a bit of added protection in case something goes wrong.
If you can save money booking direct with the airlines, you'll have to decide whether the savings and complete control of flight selection outweigh the added protection of booking through the cruise line. I personally take the savings every time.
In either event, I highly recommend arriving a day or two before the sailing date, especially if you are flying a long distance to your port of departure. That eliminates any concern about a delayed or cancelled flight causing you to miss the boat, and you can do some local sightseeing and rest up to be ready to enjoy every moment of your cruise.
All cruise lines offer pre-cruise hotel packages in conjunction with their cruises and air/sea programs, as well as travel insurance, and our cruise counselors can tell you about your options.