Not all cruise line air/sea packages are created equal. Programs vary from cruise line to cruise line, and to further complicate matters, your itinerary will determine whether you'll see price benefits by booking through the lines.
We scoured the programs and policies of the cruise lines, got cruise travel agents to weigh in and reviewed a range of anecdotes from avid cruisers. This revealed only one certainty: your travel personality probably will be the deciding factor as to whether you will find value in cruise lines' air/sea programs.
"Some people just like to have everything taken care of for them," says Linda Allen, with Cruises by Linda, a cruise travel consultancy.
Some cruisers, such as Cruise Critic member dolphin2012, who flew from Texas to Barcelona to sail on Carnival Sunshine, report positive air/sea experiences: "We just used the Fly Aweigh program in June with no problems," dolphin2012 wrote on Cruise Critic's message boards. "... we were on the Sunshine so I didn't want to worry since we were flying in the same day from Texas to Barcelona... the flight only had one stop in Amsterdam and on the way back we did have two stops ... the flights were about 400 cheaper per person also."
Others, though, learned the hard way that the programs can leave you susceptible to changes to your flight plans that you might find inconvenient.
Cruise Critic member StrongMinded1 offered this experience: "I made the biggest mistake booking my air through Royal Caribbean's 'Partner,' Choice Air. I purchased assigned seats for my party of 8 on a 6:40 a.m. flight back on 3/7/2011. The carrier changed the flight time to 7:30 a.m. but since the flight didn't change, I had the same assigned seats. On June 5th, Choice Air took me off my 7:30 a.m. flight with NO reason, DID not notify me and then TWO days later, put us on a 9:00 a.m. flight. Royal Caribbean called me and says the CARRIER made the flight change but after spending 4 hours on the phone yesterday with the carrier and Choice Air, I found out the change was voluntary by my agent, Choice Air. BOTTOM LINE -- CHOICE AIR makes it completely THEIR choice to do what they please with the flights that YOU paid for. You have no control over your own reservation."
To make an airfare choice that best suits you, it can help to simply know what to expect.
What You Get With Cruise Line Airfare
Cruise lines tempt travelers to book flights through them with a couple of incentives: low fares and assistance if travel plans go awry.
The cruise lines generally promise to get you the lowest available rate on the base airfare. And because they negotiate bulk contract fares with the airlines, the cruise lines might be able to provide a nice savings on some routes.
For example, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises' ChoiceAir program guarantees the lowest available rate on the base airfare -- though watch out for added service fees of up to $25 per traveler. Cruisers who find lower airfare within 24 hours of booking with ChoiceAir get 110 percent of the difference in price applied as an onboard credit.
In addition, when you use a cruise line's air/sea program, you typically get guaranteed assistance with alternative flights if there are any delays or cancellations with your originally scheduled flight.
Carnival Cruise Lines' Fly Aweigh program, for example, guarantees that if a flight cancellation or delay makes you miss your embarkation port, you will be put on a flight to meet the ship at the next port of call, and Carnival will provide hotel and transportation at no expense.
It's nice to have that peace of mind, especially if you loathe travel disruptions.
The same rule applies to flights home. In August 2013, cruisers on Regent's Seven Seas Mariner missed flights when their ship was delayed in reaching its disembarkation port in Rome, due to a "technical issue" with a lifeboat winch. Those who had booked airfare through Regent received assistance in rearranging flights. The line also provided complimentary hotel rooms and $100 meal stipends for those who couldn't get on flights out of Rome that day. Passengers who had not booked airfare through Regent did not receive the same compensation.
What You Don't Get With Cruise Line Airfare
In order to access the promised low fares and travel assistance, cruise travelers may have to give up some control of their flights and travel plans. "While there are a few exceptions, as a general rule, when you book your air with the cruise line, they dictate the routing and schedule," says Roberta Westwood, a cruise travel specialist with Expedia CruiseShipCenters. "You could find yourself connecting through three cities."
Celebrity and Royal Caribbean's ChoiceAir program does allow cruisers to choose their flights. "We filter out flights that won't work with your cruise," states its website. And Princess Cruises' eZAir lets cruisers choose "preferred" flights and "review up-to-the-minute flight schedules, with competitive, real-time airfare pricing and inventory for only those flights that complement your cruise."
Holland America's Flight Ease service offers passengers a chance to pick from a selection of "flights that arrive and depart in time for the specific cruise booked; competitive pricing and availability from multiple carriers is presented."
However, with Carnival's Fly Aweigh, you can't pick your flights. The program offers flight arrangements from most major U.S. and Canadian cities to the line's cruise departure cities. "Working in conjunction with our airline partners, our flight selections ensure you arrive early enough for a seamless boarding experience. In the event flight schedules do not allow for an arrival on the day of your cruise, we will arrange to fly you in the day before. In these cases, we will arrange a hotel stay and transportation to get you to the hotel and to the pier the next day," Carnival's website says.
In Norwegian Cruise Line's Air/Sea program, Norwegian also "reserves the right to choose the air carrier, routing and city airport from each gateway city and reserves the right to substitute commuter service and/or charter air service for scheduled air carriers without prior notice."
And, while cruise lines keep touting low fares, expert cruise travel agents say travelers almost always can find better deals booking their own airfare.
Generally, the only time you're going to find a better fare with the cruise air option is on long-haul or open-jaw flights, says Allen of Cruises by Linda. "Otherwise, fares will be published prices" -- meaning the cruise line's rates will be the same as you can find online through the airline or other booking engines.
Allen says she tells her customers to open two computer screens at the same time when making an online airfare reservation through a cruise line program -- one with the air/sea booking page and one with the airline's website. Once you get your reservation confirmed on a flight, make sure you go in immediately to the airline's website and get a seat assignment, too, she says. If you don't, the cruise line might not assign you a seat until much later.
Allen says companies block off a certain number of premium seats until closer to the cruise date. Travelers without seat assignments risk being involuntarily bumped off a flight in favor of those who have paid premium prices for seats. In those cases, you better hope your cruise line will help you out if you end up missing embarkation, which it might not.
"It is a common belief that when you book your air with the cruise line, getting you to the ship becomes their problem, not yours. But that is not always the case," Westwood says. "How much the cruise line will do to assist you, and what they will pay for, varies greatly."
For example, while Carnival and Princess have fairly comprehensive "next port protection" guarantees -- they'll get you to the ship at its next stop if you miss embarkation due to flight delays -- Norwegian's, for example, might leave passengers feeling less confident.
"If your flight is changed or a weather-related delay leaves you stuck while you're traveling to one of our Freestyle Cruises, don't panic. The first thing you should do is immediately advise an airline representative at the airport.... Usually, they can arrange alternative flights at the airline counter, so you can get to your ship or hotel package destination," states the policy on the Norwegian website. The cruise line isn't going to help you, leaving you at the mercy of airline personnel.
What You Get With Independent Air Arrangements
If you book your own airfare, you won't get cruise line assistance (where available) if flight delays cause you to miss the ship's departure. You're also on your own if your ship returns late, causing you to miss your flight. Basically, you assume the risk of having to handle your own travel arrangements with the airlines if anything goes wrong. Still, this typically is the option most cruisers choose, Allen says.
"We've rarely used any of the cruise lines' … deals," she says. "My clients want to ensure they can customize their travel … get in a day earlier or stay longer" after they get off the ship.
While you are assuming a bit of risk for dealing with any unplanned travel disruptions, you also give yourself the flexibility to choose your travel schedule. Some air/sea package flights leave you with tight connection times, red-eye flights or an arrival in your port city that bumps up uncomfortably close to your ship's scheduled departure. Cruise lines also assign seats as late as 60 days before your sailing.
Book on your own, and you can plan leisurely stopovers, choose your favorite airlines and be the main contact in case flight changes occur.
Additional Things to Consider
Travelers often want maximum flexibility and convenience at the best possible price. Some cruise-line air programs allow passengers to pay a little more to achieve more control over their flights.
Holland America Lines' Flight Ease program provides two options for airfare selection, for example. "Flexible Fares" allow you to adjust your flight schedule with no fees, and the airfare payment is required with your final cruise payment. "Restricted Fares" typically are lower priced but feature cancellation fees; the airfare payment is required in full when you book your cruise. Princess offers an almost identical flexible fare program.
Royal Caribbean's ChoiceAir service also features two classes of tickets: refundable and nonrefundable. Both allow you to choose your own flight times.
Cruise lines sometimes offer promotions that tout "free airfare." But what "free" really means is not always obvious. Lines offer you a cruise at one special price that includes airfare, but you have to break down the offers to find out whether there would be a cost savings compared with booking your own air travel.
When cruise lines bundle pricing, they don't have to make clear how the price actually breaks down, Allen says. "So, you don't even really know what the discount is."
When booking, check the cruise line's contract for wording such as "refund" or "credit" related to a free airfare deal, which indicates you probably are eligible for credit if you don't book airfare with the line.
"When the cruise lines offer 'free air,' it means they have negotiated lower airfares directly with the airlines," Westwood says. "A good travel agent will break out the cost of the airfare that the cruise line is offering, along with the restrictions and protection offered, to make sure it offers the best value."
And, of course, booking this kind of deal means you're at the mercy of the cruise line when it comes to schedule.
"If you want to change your departure or return date to go early or stay after your cruise, this is possible but subject to a deviation fee," Westwood warns. "This fee is usually about $100 per person."
Ultimately, only you can determine whether a cruise line airfare program is the right way to go based on price, convenience and your travel schedule. It might be ideal for one trip but not the next. Check directly with the cruise line -- every time -- to understand precisely what it is offering with its services. "There are a whole lot of nuances that go into it," Allen says. "It's just not one-size-fits-all. And it varies from cruise line to cruise line and customer to customer."
--by John Roberts, Cruise Critic contributor