How to book air travel for your cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 7 - 2008

Question: I’ve heard it is cheaper to book my air transportation separately from my cruise. But then a friend told me I should book my flights through the cruise line. I’m confused. Which way is better?

– Linda Thibodeau, Portland, Maine

Answer:This is always a tricky question, Linda, and it’s not surprising you have gotten some contradictory advice.

Booking air transportation through your cruise line is the easiest way to book your cruise vacation, but the resulting “air/sea package” is often more expensive than separate bookings. There is also the problem that flight schedules are sometimes unavailable until 30 days before departure. If you want to book particular flights, or you want to travel on dates that differ from the departure and return dates of the cruise, you will have to pay the cruise line an “air deviation fee” of between $35 and $50 per person. Moreover, you can’t use frequent-flier miles if the cruise line books your air. For these reasons, many cruise passengers choose to book their own air travel.

But buying an air/sea package does have several advantages. For one thing, airport transfers are often included, and those can add up. More importantly, if your flight is delayed, the cruise line will know it. If they can’t delay the ship’s departure (and sometimes they can), they will make every effort to get you to the first port to board the ship – at the cruise line’s expense. If your own air arrangements go haywire, you’re stuck with the bill and the headache of getting to the ship after it has sailed.

Your booking decision can also depend on your city of embarkation. Cruise lines usually book bulk-rate airline tickets at a volume discount that is unavailable to the general public. Still, I have almost always found cheaper airfares on my own for cruises departing from mainland U.S. ports, especially cruises that sail out of Florida. But that’s not always the case for cruises leaving from Alaska and Hawaii or from foreign ports. In fact, when I was pricing air options for a European cruise last year, I found that the cruise line’s round-trip airfare to Rome was $250 cheaper per person than anything I could get on my own. So always run a price comparison before deciding which way to go.

Priceless advice

Here’s another piece of advice: No matter who books your air travel or cruise, get yourself some travel insurance. If you encounter travel problems or miss the ship, the right insurance will cover the cost of getting you to the next port and will also pay your expenses until you can catch up with the ship.

Also consider traveling to your embarkation port the day before your ship is scheduled to leave – especially if you book your own flights. This strategy gives you a time cushion in case you encounter travel delays, and often scores you cheaper tickets than you can get on embarkation day, when traffic and fares are high. For example, Fort Lauderdale and Miami are packed with cruise travelers coming and going on Saturdays; it’s actually cheaper to book a hotel and fly in and out on Friday and Sunday.

Finally, a word of caution about your flight home: Don’t book it before noon. Customs and immigration can delay disembarkation, and you don’t want to miss your flight. The later you book the flight the better — and, again, it’s often cheaper.

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