Are Air/Sea Cruise Packages Worth the Money?

March 5, 2010

(4:30 p.m. EST) -- Cruise Critic member DougH was booked on the March 2 departure of Star Princess from Valparaiso, Chile, when a deadly magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck about 200 miles away. Uncertain whether the cruise was still on or even if the damaged Santiago airport, the nearest gateway for Valparaiso embarkations, was accepting inbound flights, he called Princess Cruises, knowing that his flights had been booked by the line's air travel department. That meant the cruise line would help re-book his trip, if necessary. But instead of getting assistance, he got the run-around.

"About 5 pm I again called [Princess] and this time was told that the Star is 'sailing as scheduled' and it is my responsibility to get to the ship. I asked the rep how was I to get there when the airlines are saying they are not flying until the day of the sailing? She again said it was not the job of Princess to get me to the ship and they had only booked my air as a 'courtesy' and I was to contact the airlines myself."

That courtesy booking cost DougH $1,644, and he assumed that paying the cruise line to make flight arrangements meant he'd be taken care of in just this type of situation. So what, if any, is the benefit of buying your air from the cruise line?

Cruise lines say that booking air travel for your cruise through their travel departments takes the stress out of trip planning. But is that true, or does buying air/sea packages actually create a more stressful travel scenario? Here's what you need to know about the myths of choosing an air/sea package and the realities of what you'll experience:

Myth: Cruise lines can get better fares through their relationships with the airlines.

Reality: In most cases, cruise line airfare will be more expensive than the deals you'll find by comparison shopping for airfare online. For example, I priced out flights for a 12-night Mediterranean cruise on Celebrity Century, sailing roundtrip from Barcelona in September. To add airfare between Boston and Barcelona to the cruise reservation through the line's Standard Air program added an extra $1,389 per person roundtrip for flights and transfers. But a search on Expedia (Cruise Critic's parent company) showed flights as low as $756 on Swiss Air, and many other options under $1,000. We spoke with travel agent Bill Kraus of Cruise Club of America, who concurs that cruise line air "is really high compared to what consumers can get it for on their own."

Myth: Booking air/sea packages takes the stress out of trip planning.

Reality: It might seem easier to let someone else do the research and make the arrangements, but in practice, Cruise Critic members find that the lack of control results in more hassles than time-savers. That's because the cruise line won't reveal your flights and seats until 30 to 60 days prior to departure, and often flights involve non-direct routing and connection and arrival times that are a bit close for comfort. Want to change your flights, arrive in port a few days early or pick better travel times or routings? You'll need to pay an Air Deviation or change fee, ranging from $15 to $100. (For an excellent, more in-depth explanation of how cruise line air works, check out the thread on the message boards.)

For example, in a Message Boards thread entitled "Cruise Assigned Airfare: We're definitely missing the ship," member FrOhara1213 details a complicated air travel itinerary provided by Carnival's Fly Aweigh program involving a connection in JFK and an arrival in Fort Lauderdale a mere three hours before Carnival Glory is supposed to depart from Miami. To switch flights to better travel times would cost almost $300 per passenger. This member writes, "The sheer number of variables involved in this scenario have forced my partner and I to resign ourselves to the fact that there is a 99% chance of us missing the ship's departure and the first day of our cruise vacation." Ultimately, the reader was able to bypass the cruise line's air department and make flight changes directly with JetBlue for no fee to fly in the day before the cruise.

Another thing to note is that cruise line airfare is often part of bulk contract fares negotiated between the cruise line and airline. The nature of these fares makes it difficult for airline representatives and travel agents to make changes when a rebooking is necessary. This means that in the case of a flight delay or cancellation, the travelers will need to contact their cruise line, and depending on response times, remaining flight availability might disappear while the passengers wait for the cruise line to assist them. With regular airfares, an airline representative can help you on the spot.

Myth: If your flight or cruise is delayed, the cruise line may hold the ship for you or make alternate arrangements for you.

Reality: Sometimes the cruise lines do put in the extra effort to assist travelers when there's a transportation snafu, but it's not required. For example, when Hurricane Ike prevented Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy from returning to their Galveston homeport as scheduled, the two ships docked in New Orleans, where passengers could disembark and make their way home. However, Carnival only assisted passengers booked on air/sea packages with making alternate arrangements; independent travelers were left to fend for themselves.

And Samuel Spencer, Owner and General Manager of Cruise Holidays of Calgary, part of the Cruise Holidays and Travel Leaders group, has also seen cruise lines make the extra effort. "When clients faced a winter storm and a cancelled flight, this particular cruise line went above and beyond in providing flight rebookings, and even went so far as booking and paying for hotels and ground transfers in a Caribbean island to join the ship mid-way through the itinerary."

However, the cruise lines are pretty vague on their Web sites about exactly what you can expect as an air/sea customer and nowhere do they guarantee assistance in the face of travel problems. Holland America's section on Airline Delays says "If you believe a delay will cause you to arrive in the port of embarkation less than two hours before the ship's scheduled departure or if you are concerned for any reason that the ship may leave before you arrive, our representatives may be able to advise you of arrangements to minimize disruptions in your vacation plans." May help you, not will help you.

Royal Caribbean's ChoiceAir Web site says with air/sea packages, the line can "monitor our Guests' travel to the ship, and step in to help should they run into trouble in transit. We will ensure the Guest makes it to the ship or if necessary work with our airline partners to get them to the next port-of-call, whenever possible."

While cruise line travel departments are not responsible for paying for hotels or meals in these cases, Kraus says that in general he's had good experiences with Royal Caribbean and sister line Celebrity when it comes to helping air/sea guests with travel problems. He adds that in general, the nicer you are to the representative, the better chance you have of getting additional assistance.

When looking for information on Princess' Web site, all I could find was a note about en route delays, stating "it is the airline's responsibility to make alternate flight arrangements resulting from a delay or cancellation." Kraus says that in his experience, "If there has been a problem with connections and making the embarkation date, Princess will generally fly [air/sea customers] to the next port of call; however, they usually do not offer the guests any credit."

And Spencer tells the story of an anonymous cruise line that booked 14 of his clients with a very tight connection for their end-of-cruise flights."The group missed the flight out of San Juan, and were told by the cruise line that it was up to them to figure it out with the airline. The group was put on standby, split up onto several different flights, and none were able to get home the same day. The cruise line did not provide assistance with hotels or airline rebooking and the clients were left to make arrangements themselves."

In general, paying a premium for cruise line air does not guarantee you peace of mind and assistance should something go wrong. We generally recommend that cruise travelers book their own airfare to get the flight routings they prefer, and then buy comprehensive travel insurance that will cover them in case of an emergency. If you do book an air/sea package, you'll want to purchase travel insurance from a third-party provider and not the cruise line for the most coverage. For more on booking travel insurance, read our feature on the pros and cons.

Ultimately, booking an air/sea package is somewhat of a gamble. When you pay the premium, you're betting that the extra money will get you assistance should something go wrong with your travel plans, but It's just as likely that you're paying for third-choice routings and no help at all.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor