Unless you live close to an embarkation port, you'll likely need to fly to meet up with the cruise ship you're taking on your next vacation. And while booking cruise airfare isn't usually a time-consuming task, missing a few details during the process can lead to headaches, delays or higher costs later.
Whether you buy plane tickets on your own or enlist the help of a cruise line's air department, it can be useful to take some time to look at commonly overlooked or misunderstood points. Read along as we decipher frequent misconceptions about flights for cruises and reveal the best ways to plan for smooth travel.
If you're looking for airfare on your own, it can be tempting to jump at the lowest price. Before booking, however, you'll want to carefully read the fine print. The cheapest basic economy fares might charge you extra to pick your seats and bring carry-on luggage, earn you fewer miles and prevent you from making changes to your flights once booked.
Lower prices sometimes also mean more layovers. Check how many stops are involved because a trip with several connections increases your risk of travel delays, missed connections and even missing your ship. A long layover in one place or complicated travel plans might make you tired and stressed before you even start to sail. A higher-priced ticket that is a direct flight could mean fewer meals at the airport, resulting in a better overall deal.
This is not necessarily the case. Cruise lines frequently work with airlines to reserve a certain number of seats on their aircraft in advance. This setup often drives the price per ticket down and makes the cost competitive with other flights on the market. Some cruise lines will even offer to give you credit onboard if you book a flight through them and then find a cheaper ticket option.
Another value that cruise lines sometimes offer involves arrival support. If you book the flight through the cruise line and then experience a travel delay, the cruise company might help you rework travel arrangements or meet up with the ship at the next port city. Read the fine print or ask a cruise consultant about these options before making a purchase, as the details and services provided can vary depending on the cruise line.
For some cruises, you may have little say in the flight times, or number of connections in a trip. Other cruise lines, however, offer a program that gives you more flexibility. For instance, during a set time period before a cruise, you might be able to search for a flight and select the one that best fits your schedule. You could include some preferences, such as if you want to arrive a day early or leave a day later.
The easiest way to learn how the cruise line schedules flights is to ask for the options available. You might find some programs offer a greater number of selections but cost more. You could also discover that the best price and your preferred travel times are available when booking through a cruise line.
Pulling up just before a ship leaves might seem like you'll save on lodging costs, as well as any meals or drinks you consume while waiting. If you miss the ship, however, you could lose out on the vacation you paid for or run up higher costs trying to reschedule the trip.
In general, when flying to a port city, you'll want to avoid cutting it too close. The ship will leave at the scheduled time, regardless of who is onboard. One thunderstorm could delay a flight, or heavy traffic might turn a 30-minute trip from the airport to the port into a two-hour ordeal. To be safe, you might opt to arrive a day in advance. This will allow extra time in case there are unexpected issues on the trip.
After a cruise, you might opt to remain for several days in the disembarkation port city before or after your cruise, which will allow you a bit more time to explore and relax. Cruise lines make this easy with pre- and post-cruise tour packages and hotel stays, often bundled with your air/sea arrangements. You don't need to research hotels, arrange transportation or put together an itinerary, as the cruise line will handle the arrangements for you.
However, going this route means you might have to pay an air deviation fee if you're not booked into a cruise line tour or hotel and that you give up flexibility and independence in your post-cruise travel arrangements. You can't tailor the itinerary to your sightseeing preferences or choose the hotel where you're a loyalty club member. You'll be forced to travel in a group, whose company you might or might not enjoy. It's not difficult to book your own airfare for your preferred airline and travel dates and then choose your own hotel, independent sightseeing or perfect tour provider to create a personalized pre- or post-cruise vacation.
Purchasing tickets on your own might seem like an option to have more say in travel times and preferences. You can choose your preferred airline for earning frequent flyer miles, use your status privileges to get a good price or perks or even pay for the flight with miles. You can choose your routing and flight times for the best possible travel experience.
But when unforeseen problems arise, you might feel less in control than you thought. What happens if a flight is delayed and you miss the ship leaving? Or if, during hurricane season, your ship is stranded at sea and you miss your flight home? It's on you to try to rebook your travel plans, sometimes with the frustration and expense of doing so from the ship or an airport in an unfamiliar city.
However, if you buy a ticket through a cruise line's air department, help is often available in unexpected situations. For instance, the cruise line might offer to help make sure you meet up with the ship, even if your flight gets delayed due to weather. Or it could help you rebook flights if plans change, due to mechanical or weather issues, during the cruise. And while itinerary-altering problems are rare midcruise, they do happen, and you might prefer the peace of mind afforded by cruise line air.