Should you or shouldn't you relinquish control (and the headaches) of booking your pre-cruise flights? The deals and the simplicity of booking your cruise and flight together via cruise line air packages certainly look tempting, but there's always that nagging question of whether one-stop shopping is the right way to go. We scoured cruise line air policies and stacked up the pros and cons to help you make the decision that works best for you.
The airfare might be a deal. The key word here is "might." There are some packages that have airfare with lower prices than you are likely to find on your own. European river cruises and luxury cruises are sometimes packaged with low or free airfares, some even with reduced-price upgrades to business class. For peace of mind, some mainstream ocean cruise lines offer low-fare guarantees that pay you back if you find a lower airfare after booking with them.
It is sometimes easier than booking independently. The cruise line's agents take all the work out of shopping for flights, much as any travel agent would do for you. In some cases, you call a toll-free number and provide your cruise reservation number. The agent will then give you appropriate flight options to choose from. Other cruise lines handle air reservations directly on their websites, allowing you to input your cruise information and answer a few preference questions on a simple form to get flight choices. What makes this easier than searching on your own is that it eliminates the headache of figuring out timing the flights to match your cruise schedule -- both coming and going.
You might get assistance if there are disruptions or travel delays. Some lines offer guaranteed assistance for flight disruptions that keep you from making it to the ship on time. It is always best to read the fine print before you book. We found lines offering everything a good travel insurance policy would provide, including re-booked flights to the ship's first port and hotels if needed. Other cruise lines seemed a bit vague regarding what assistance would be provided.
In addition, if the ship itself has delays or scheduling changes, passengers who book air through the cruise line are more likely to get a helping hand, or at least be first in line for assistance. The Cruise Critic message boards have plenty of horror stories from independent passengers scrambling to make alternate flight arrangements when ships change their final destination port or are delayed due to weather or mechanical difficulties.
Air packages might include airport transfers. Again, it is wise to read the fine print so that you know what you are paying for. Some websites we looked at placed information about transfers on the same page with the flight options; without careful reading, it would be possible to assume that the transfer was included in the air package you are requesting. River cruise packages, some hotel land packages and luxury cruises might have transfers included with the air, but mainstream air packages rarely do.
**There might be limited or no choices of schedule or carrier.**We found cruise lines offering almost as many flight choices as any other booking site would give you. However, we also found cruise lines that offered no advance selection of airline, no options for upgrades, no seat selection prior to check-in and no ability to select an extended stay either before or after the cruise. Some lines offered early arrivals or late departures but charged fees for these special requests.
Even when choices are offered, cruise line air packages might involve multiple flight legs, seemingly impossible-to-make short layover times (or excruciatingly long ones), arrival times that barely get you to the ship on time, or departure times that have you disembarking and heading to the airport at 3 a.m.
You still must manage your reservation with the airline. In most cases, the cruise line's agents will only be booking the flights for you. Anything else you need, from special meal requests to seat selections (when they are available) are up to you to handle via the airline's website. You will also still need to check in for your flights yourself and pay any baggage fees the airline charges.
You might miss out on flight upgrades. If you fly frequently and have status with a particular airline, booking an air package is almost a guarantee of the lowest fare class ticket, which moves you down the upgrade list, not up. In addition, your ticket might not be upgradeable even with miles or money. Cruise lines bargain for low airfares by accepting what are essentially no-frills group tickets that make your status almost worthless.
Change fees might be higher than the airline's. That's if you can make changes at all. In many cases change penalties are steep for the same reason you lose out on upgrades -- the tickets might be the lowest fare class the airline sells. This is yet another thing to watch out for in the fine print before you book an air package.
It is easier to arrive early or stay over. In most cases, if you prefer to arrive early or stay extra days in port, or to fly in or out of a city other than the port city, it is often easier to book independently. Some cruise lines handle these complications at no additional charge, while others charge extra fees for flights other than same-day arrival or departure.
You are in control throughout the process. If you are that person who flinches at handing over the details of your trip to someone else, air packages are probably not for you -- especially if your travel plan has complications. Group travel, small children, special seating needs or special dietary requests are best handled independently, in most cases. Booking independently is also wise if you prefer a specific airline or airline group. If you have status or air miles accumulated, booking independently allows you to manage your own upgrades without the restrictions caused by the cruise line's low fare deal with the airline.
You can use a travel agent just as easily. If you regularly use a travel agent, in most cases, your agent can find you a comparable airfare without stripping you of your independence, your seat selections and your upgrades. Even if the air is a tad higher, you may maintain upgrade options and flexibility you would forfeit with the cruise line's air package.
You might get a refund. Some cruise lines that offer airfare as part of their cruise fares will give travelers who decline the "free air" option a credit applied to their final bill. So if you do prefer to book independently, you don't have to worry about technically paying twice for flights.
It can be time consuming. Booking independently requires far more research on your part. You will need to be wary of time zone changes, layover times and must often book on multiple airlines to get the same low fares offered by the cruise line. Even with the aid of a travel agent or online booking engine, it can get complicated to line everything up perfectly.
You might be on your own when problems arise. The Cruise Critic message boards are filled with tales of cruise passengers left stranded in airports, both before and after cruises, when weather or mechanical issues cause delays, either to their flights or their cruise embarkation or debarkation. Those who book air through the cruise line are usually handled seamlessly, while independent travelers must scramble online or on the phone to make alternate arrangements. Good travel insurance covers the cost of those problems but might not provide immediate assistance in the form of tackling the actual re-booking of flights for you.
What's the best way to book a flight for your cruise? It all comes down to what type of traveler you are and whether a few extra dollars saved (or spent) makes up for the things that make the trip enjoyable for you. Consider your own travel temperament and weigh all the options carefully; don't let the experiences of others on the Cruise Critic message boards be your only guide.
If the convenience of one-stop shopping with comparable air prices, plus the security of knowing the cruise line has your back when things don't run smoothly sounds good, then packaged air is probably the right choice. But if you have the time to search for deals and want total control over the process, skip the package and keep your independence.