Cruise lines long have marketed their bundled products as having a certain "safety net" to them. Shore excursions booked through the cruise line are guaranteed to return you to the ship, even if the tour arrives late. Airport to ship transfers are guaranteed to get you to the ship, the airport or vice-versa.
Airfare packages purchased through the cruise line come with similar guarantees.
"Rest easy that you'll make your cruise if flights are delayed or canceled and get home if you miss flights because of your cruise or transfer," reads the verbiage on the Princess Cruises website for its EZair offerings.
"All Fly2Fun bookings come with flight protection -- free!" Carnival Cruise Line says. "That means you’re covered in case weather conditions or flight changes delay your arrival to the ship. We’ll make alternate flight, hotel and/or ground transportation arrangements and do everything we can to get you to the cruise port in time to board the ship, at no expense to you."
Recently, however, Cruise Critic readers have reported that despite their promises, cruise lines are struggling to come through with help when flights are delayed or canceled. This isn't entirely the fault of the lines -- the challenges to the airline industry in the summer 2022 are nothing if not well documented, and keeping up with the demand associated with endless delays and cancellations is nearly impossible. (Even Cruise Critic's own editorial staff isn't immune; someone comes back to the office every other week with a veritable horror story of epic proportions).
All of this turmoil can leave cruisers feeling slighted when it happens -- and angry that their cruise line of choice can't go to bat for them and make the problems go away.
So, what can your line actually do for you when you book your flights through them and the unexpected happens?
Short answer: Yes. Real answer: It's complicated.
There are two problems at play here.
First, if you booked your air through the cruise line, calling the airline won't help. Airlines consider these tickets to be booked through a third-party; depending on the airline, you might not even be able to manage basic elements of your booking, like seat selection, online.
When you run into problems with tickets booked through the cruise line, the airline will throw up its arms and tell you to call the cruise line. The cruise line, in turn, will sometimes tell you it's out of their hands -- and advise you to contact the airline.
Second, that's if you can get through to your cruise line. Most lines have air departments that are only open from 8 a.m. Eastern to 5 p.m. Eastern and can be closed entirely on holidays and weekends. And like the airlines, cruise lines are facing staffing shortages. Even those companies with 24/7 emergency lines are unable to keep up with demand when air schedules around the world are routinely disrupted.
"I was to fly out for my (Norwegian) Breakaway cruise using NCL Air last Sunday," writes Keata. "Air Canada cancelled the flight from Ottawa to Toronto and could not put me on anything that would get me to the port on time.
"AC was not keen on dealing with me directly as NCL (viewed as a 3rd party travel agent) booked the flight. Didn't make the cruise…I personally believe I would have had more luck with Air Canada if NCL hadn't booked my air as a "bulk ticket".
"A similar issue happened with me last year," writes publicpersona of Royal Caribbean's Air2Sea program. "I talked directly to American (Airlines) who said because they changed the flight times, they'd be happy to book me on a different flight at no cost ... but ... wait ... I went through Air2Sea. So they couldn’t help me.
"Then the days ticked away waiting for Air2Sea to fix it."
Calling your cruise line these days, though, might not be much better than most people experience calling the airlines.
"I have been waiting on hold for over two hours, and this is the fourth time this week!!," writes sailmeaway on the Celebrity Cruises message board. " If I hear how important my call is one more time ... "
Flights that change or are canceled by airlines earlier can sometimes have a bit more wiggle room -- but not much. The closer you are to your sail date, the more likely it is that you will find yourself on "the milk run" -- a collection of less-desirable flights routed through places you perhaps hadn't intended to go.
"After talking with a HAL rep, I was told that Lufthansa had cancelled the 2nd leg of my flight from Frankfurt to Amsterdam and that they had rescheduled my flight with only a 1 hour and 20-minute transfer time in Frankfurt," writes Kamfish642. "They informed me that my only option was a flight on United from MIA to Newark with a 2 hour and 45-minute layover until flight to Amsterdam."
Booking flights through the airline doesn't necessarily guarantee you'll get access to prompt notices about flight changes or cancellations either -- something that would, in fact, be the case were you to book directly with an airline, most of which will send "push" notifications to your app to advise you of changes to upcoming trips.
"Recently I just happened to check my record on AA's site (as I do about once a week) and my ticketed flights were changed mysteriously," writes Caribbean Chris on the Holland America message board. "No notice from FlightEase nor American then or since. Hiccups. We now have only a 50-minute connection to change flights in different terminals at PHL to proceed to Quebec City."
Several Cruise Critic readers cite the reduced cost of booking air through cruise lines as one of the major benefits to doing so. What you lose in control in terms of being able to select your preferred airline, seats, and routing, you gain in savings which can, in some instances, be substantial.
"I've booked an Alaska cruise with NCL using NCL Air with 2nd passenger flies free," writes deliver42. "The total round trip from Charlotte, N.C. is $718.00. The cheapest flights I can find is $1495.00. I think that's a pretty good deal."
When it comes to buying airfare through the cruise line, the benefits of doing so seem to be negligible in the current travel climate that exists, some readers say.
"I wouldn't use it again," writes vwrestler171 of Carnival's Fly2Fun air program. "Twice I've had my flights canceled and rescheduled, but the original flight was still available, if I wanted to pay more. I won't deal with Carnival for flights again."
"F2F has failed for other cruisers recently and not gotten them to the ship," writes Elaine5715. "Better to book directly so you can fix immediately any flight changes."
Several posters, however, stated they had good results with cruise line air programs in the past.
"I have used NCL air twice, both with good flights and no problems," writes M4RK. "You have to realize that the people that tend to post are the ones that encounter problems. I am booked again in December and have the air promo booked again."
Royal Caribbean's "Air2Sea saved our butts in Barcelona when Covid locked the world down on March 13, 2020," writes John&Lala. "Made one call, they handled it all. Got us back to Miami a day early."
Still, some posters questioned the need to even have a third-party book airfare in this era of apps and self-service options.
"Booking airline tickets is one of the easiest things to do on your own, and then you have full control of your flights, seats, times, everything," writes Shidah. "Giving up control and peace of mind over our flights isn't worth any amount of money to us."
First, purchase trip cancelation and interruption insurance. This protects you in the event that you can't reach your ship for any reason, provided it is purchased along with your cruise vacation.
Second, have a plan of attack in case of the unexpected. It helps to have phone numbers for your airline and cruise line handy, either on your phone or written down with your cruise documentation somewhere. While call times are generally pretty long, you could still luck out and get to speak to an actual human being in a reasonable amount of time.
Additionally, familiarize yourself with some alternative flights. Cruise Critic's editorial team has had better success in telling agents, "Can you get me on flight XYZ" than in just hoping for a random flight assignment.
Get your cruise line to book you with a carrier you have any kind of status on. Even low-tier status often gets you at the front of the queue (or closer to it) than no status at all. And often, even low-tier members have dedicated phone numbers.
Finally, be polite and calm. It's far from easy, to be sure, but you'll get more help if you're polite but firm than you will if you start yelling at ticketing agents that, really, have no control over the situation either.
Updated July 11, 2022