It’s the nightmare scenario no cruiser wants to face: the moment you realize that you won’t make it on time to board your ship because the flight that was going to get you to your ship’s homeport has been delayed or, worse yet, cancelled.
These unfortunate situations are nothing new: the risk of a flight delay or cancellation is always a possible outcome that travelers have to be prepared to face, no matter how well laid out your travel plans are. In spring and summer 2022, however, the likelihood of seeing your flight plans affected has spiked dramatically. The usual culprits – overscheduling, overbooking, severe weather – are coupled with all too familiar COVID-related issues like staff shortages and supply chain limitations to create a frustratingly unpredictable scenario for travelers.
In the U.S. alone, airlines have canceled more than 21,000 flights since Memorial Day weekend, almost twice many as the 2021 total during the same period, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. And countless delays have done their fair share of damage to disrupt many a travel plan.
This reality has not gone unnoticed on Cruise Critic’s community boards, where cruisers have expressed their fears of missing their next cruise due to flight interruptions and shared tales of missed voyages.
Here are our tips of what to do if you find yourself in this situation:
You’ve pleaded with the airline, explored any and every possible connection and surveyed alternative airports, but the song remains the same: you’re stuck at the gate, witnessing precious hours whittle away as the ship embarkation time approaches. Once the inevitability of missing your cruise hits, and you’ve gotten in touch with your cruise line to update them on the situation, what options are available to you?
In broad terms, you are faced with two possibilities. The first, and more optimistic one, is to join your cruise at another port of call on the itinerary. This option is feasible if you’re sailing in a region like the Mediterranean or the Caribbean where flight routes and even land-based transportation from one port city to another (as in the case of the Mediterranean) are relatively abundant.
But it’s less realistic in other regions like Alaska, and practically impossible if you’re taking a repositioning transoceanic cruise or an expedition voyage to Antarctica, the Arctic or any other remote region.
Assuming it’s viable to board your ship at a later port, the process to do this will depend on how you booked your airfare. If you booked through the cruise line and your flight was cancelled or significantly delayed, in most cases the cruise company will arrange the flight changes to get you to the next port. If, on the other hand, you booked your air independently, you or your travel agent will have to handle the arrangements directly with the airline. More often than not, expect to incur the additional costs to get you to that port, unless you purchased a travel insurance policy with coverage for this type of scenario.
While doable, the alternative of joining your cruise at another port is not without its complications. The logistics alone in the current travel climate can be daunting, and given time is of the essence, you’ll be pressured to act quickly to find a suitable flight or other mode of transportation to the port of call where you can meet your ship.
Therefore, you might want to consider a few options from the ports of call on your itinerary and not just the one that comes immediately after the embarkation port, although this option becomes less desirable if your cruise is relatively short. Also make sure to check with your cruise line to be sure there aren’t any limiting factors, like COVID testing or local regulations, that can prevent you from exercising this option.
Speaking of regulations, another unavoidable hurdle that can thwart your chances to meet your ship are the so-called cabotage laws that govern cruise and other modes of international transportation. The case of Alaska cruises is perhaps the most glaring example: The vast majority of cruises sailing in this region are not flagged in the United States, and the Passenger Services Act of 1886 establishes foreign vessels cannot transport passengers from one US port to another.
Therefore, if your embarkation port is in Vancouver and the rest of the ports on the itinerary are in the U.S. (as tends to be the case in Alaska cruises), it would be against the law for you to board the ship anywhere but Vancouver or another non-U.S. port.
The second possibility you face in case a flight delay or cancellation forces you to miss your embarkation point is to cancel your voyage altogether. Depending on your situation – how you booked your travel, if you have insurance, etc. – you will obtain future cruise credit and the opportunity to rebook at a later date. But note that if you booked airfare on your own , then it’s almost certain that the cruise line will have no obligation to reimburse. That is not to say that the cruise line won’t be willing to work with you to sort out a reasonable solution, but don’t count on it.
Flight cancellations and delays are, by nature, unpredictable. In very rare cases you’ll get more than a few hours’ notice, so your ability to react on the spot is, at best, limited. So what can you do to preempt this type of scenario?
The most universally touted tip to lessen the impact of a flight delay or cancellation is to book your flights to arrive at least a day or two before your cruise is scheduled to depart. Having this cushion gives you a better chance to rebook flights at a later time or day, or to seek suitable alternatives to ensure you will arrive at your embarkation port with ample time to board your cruise.
In the current climate, planning more than two days ahead shouldn’t be out of the question; and the recommended lead time should increase if your cruise plans include overseas travel. Naturally, this will increase the overall cost and length of your vacation, but the peace of mind afforded is well worth the additional cost of accommodations, meals and other expenses. Plus, you can always plan some fun pre-cruise activities to make the most of the additional time.
Work schedules, limited vacation time and other factors, however, don’t always allow cruisers the ideal flexibility or the luxury to extend the length of a cruise holiday by adding pre-cruise days. If you must travel close to your embarkation date, the following tips could prove helpful.
Book your flights through the cruise line. All major cruise lines have an air department and will offer this service to you when booking your cruise. It’s tempting to forego this option and book on your own, given the abundance of booking sites vying to ensnare you the best price. Additionally, booking directly with the airline might prove more cost-effective.
But when you book through your cruise line’s air program, the line will be invested in getting you to your ship and deliver your entire travel package. If and when a cancellation or a delay happens, the cruise line will be at your disposal to help you find alternative travel arrangements and at the very least provide you with an assistance hotline that can make the difference between securing alternative travel arrangements and missing your embarkation.
In some cases, like Carnival’s Fly2Fun air program, your booking not only comes with free flight protection - meaning you’re covered in case weather conditions or flight changes delay your arrival to the ship. In case Carnival can’t find a viable option to get you to the ship before departure at homeport, you will receive FCC to cover for the missed voyage.
The specific air policies vary from cruise line to cruise line, but generally speaking, you will be better positioned to obtain assistance should your flight get cancelled or significantly delayed.
Don’t go it alone. Further to the above point, in the current climate of increased flight delay/cancellation risk, it can’t hurt to have the services of a travel professional to help you navigate the stressful process of finding alternative travel arrangements. Consider booking your voyage through a travel agent to enjoy this added level of assistance.
Purchase insurance with trip interruption coverage. Similar to booking air with your cruise line, the option to purchase trip insurance is available to you when you book your cruise. It’s also ok to shop around as there are many independent insurance company that can offer you similar benefits. Either way, it’s always good to start with the cruise line’s plans, as they are generally designed with your cruise trip in mind. Similarly, your credit card might offer some manner of travel insurance, so don’t rule out that option.
Always be sure to compare different policies and examine the small print. You’ll want to make sure that if your flight is canceled, your policy will cover you for hotel stays, rebooking costs and even getting you to the next port of call, in case you miss the embarkation port.
Consider taking the wheel. This option obviously excludes overseas voyages, but if you’re traveling stateside, driving to your embarkation port is an alternative you should seriously consider. Even if you’re looking at a significant drive (say, 8 hours or more) it’s worth considering and adding a road trip to your plans. Current gas prices do make this option less attractive, but it might save you peace of mind.
Alternatively, consider flying to an alternate airport even if it’s some hours away from the embarkation port. If you’re sailing from, say, Port Canaveral and your flight to Orlando is canceled, you might have success finding an alternative flight to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville or a Tampa Bay area airport from where you can drive to your ship’s homeport.
Pack Your Passport. If you are taking a Caribbean cruise and end up having to fly directly to another country to pick up your ship, you will have to have a passport as opposed to a drivers license. This goes for all people in your party, including kids.
Updated July 01, 2022