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Is that cruise line free airfare deal really free?

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 25 - 2010

You’ve seen the ads in the fancy travel magazines or perhaps you received a mailing or even a phone call encouraging you to choose a cruise line because it’s offering free airfare. Is that free airfare for your cruise really free? Maybe not.

Sea the difference

When you’re pricing out a cruise vacation often times there are promotions that tout airfare savings to and from the ship. Some cruise lines offer “free air” deals and other lines may offer discounts or credits if you book the airfare through them. “You have to really break down the offers to see if there’s a deal,” says Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as The Cruise Guy.

He cites the following air deals between premium cruise lines Oceania Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, which operate identical ships that were purchased from the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises.

Oceania is offering two-for-one cruises with free air from select gateway cities on certain sailings. Chiron priced out a September 30, 2010 12-night Barcelona to Venice sailing on the Regatta in a Category A3 stateroom that offered free air and up to $2000 in bonuses. The brochure rate before the two-for-one deal and free airfare is $11,998. After the two-for-one discount, which brought the base price down to $5999, the free airfare came with an additional $444 in air taxes per person, and $1,000 in bonus savings per person, the total cost was $5443 per person. Sounds like a great deal, but is it?

Chiron priced out the same cruise with the two-for-one offer, but without the free airfare and the difference was eye opening. After the two-for-one discount, which brought the base price down to $5999, Oceania offered a $630 air credit, plus the $1,000 bonus savings and the bottom line fare was $4369. Yes, the free air option cost an additional $1074! Clearly, the airfare was built in to the total price. When asked to break down the $444 air taxes a Oceania reservations agent could not provide those details.

An example of a company that does disclose these fees is Azamara Club Cruises. The line recently offered free air for a trans-Atlantic cruise where the cruise price was the same with or without the airfare included. “It was truly a free air deal,” said Chiron. Azamara is currently offering two-for-one deals, along with shipboard and airfare credits if you purchase air through the cruise line. Chiron priced out a 14-night Copenhagen to Barcelona sailing in a Category 1B stateroom leaving August 29, 2010 onboard the Azamara Journey. The brochure rate before the two-for-one deal is $9398. After the two-for-one offer, the base price was reduced to $4699, plus $275.14 in government fees, the fare was $4874.14. Now adding in airfare from New York’s JFK airport priced at $901, plus $156.30 taxes, the airfare came to $1057.30. Factor in the $500 air credit per person from the cruise line and the total airfare came to $557.30. Total cruise price with air credit is $5431.44 per person. Additionally, Azamara offered a $500 shipboard credit per stateroom, which added to the value.

This is not to say that Oceania’s offer isn’t a good deal, but it is deceptive. That fact wasn’t lost on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) when last week it fined Prestige Cruise Holdings, parent company of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for $75,000 for failing to disclose fees and taxes on free air fare offers in advertisements. Since the DOT fine Prestige Cruise Holdings has simplified pricing structure for both Regent and Oceania in which all airline-imposed fuel surcharges and government taxes are included in the advertised fare.

Compare the air

Clearly, “free air” on a number of cruise offers truly isn’t free. As in the example of Oceania the costs were buried in the total price. This is one case where it pays to compare different offers and to look in the cruise line’s contract, where there may be wordage like “refund” or “credit” if you don’t book the cruise line’s airfare package. If there is indeed a credit that’s the true cost of the cruise line’s airfare, which is a discounted bulk rate deal they work out with various airlines. Use that number and calculate the differences with other cruise lines and airline fares to understand all your options. “It’s important to evaluate the offers based on their merit not their hype”, said Chiron.

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9 Responses to “Is that cruise line free airfare deal really free?”

  1. George Kay says:

    I did a comparison of cruises on Regent Seven Seas on one
    2 for 1 , free air , free tours and standard alcoholic drinks.
    I asked for the same cruise from the same company at the same time.
    The air fare credit was $800 USD. The cruise was from Rome to Fort Lauderdale . The cheapest air fare was about $1600 USD. I live in Canada and we don’t get any cheap fares to Europe or the States.
    the $800 USD credit would just pay for the air fare from FLL to Vancouver BC . If I flew into Seattle Wa I would save $200 USD. This would be easily eaten up by the transportation to Vancouver and one
    night in a hotel in Seattle.

  2. Scent Magic says:

    Thanks for this posting, finally explaining the “free air” debate. And for turning me on to Azamara Club Cruises, which I wasn’t familiar with before. Given their transparency on this issue, I’ll definitely check them out!


  3. I was thinking of purchasing one of these packages with free air fare and really did not make comparisons with other cruise lines. This is a big eye opener and I will have to look into this. I will check out Azamara Club Cruises and see the comparison.

  4. Russell says:

    This is really interesting. I’d love to see some kind of comparison website which gets under the true details of the hidden charges that you talked about.

    Have you thought of exposing the “free” airfair deals that budget airlines pretend to offer?

  5. Kim says:

    its funny how the DOT only fined them 75000, I would wager that they still came up with quite a handsome profit after it was all said and done… which is a shame really, a company shouldn’t be able to profit for being deceptive, and if they get caught, they should have all of the profit they did make off it fined away from them…

  6. I’m a litle late to chime in here… but really, who expects something for nothing? Nobody. Free air is a marketing tool by airlines, tour companies – even real estate agents. Once in a blue moon you’ll really find it. If you want the real skinny I strongly suggest becoming a travel agent, or even easier, using a good one who will do the work for you.


  7. Henry says:

    Thanks for exposing the “free airfare” scam. I think a lot of people latch on to the word free without ever actually checking the offer out. That is what they are counting on I guess. Thanks

  8. Richard Roark says:

    Oceania cruises always posts two for 1 and free airfare. So the two for one price is the actual price. No one ever pays the full price. It is a discount scam. I have been tracking their deals for a few years. Two for one is not two for one. It’s just half the price of a super expensive fare, which no one ever pays. Look elsewhere.

  9. theo says:

    Hope i will have read this before booking my oceania cruise under the pressure that this super deal will end soon. A lot of problems with the air management…


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