When it comes to purchasing airfare for a cruise vacation, travelers have many questions. There are a lot of factors to consider and once in a while, you'll see an air-plus-cruise deal that’s so obviously outstanding, it's a no-brainer.
A few years ago, I got an email from Seabourn Cruise Line announcing a one-week September cruise in the Mediterranean that included economy-class airfare from the East Coast for $2,199. Checking the airfare to and from the ports, the best deal for those dates I could find was $1,600 in economy class. Do the math: That’s a luxury cruise for a mere $599 per person. But deals like that are rare. The best way to learn about them is to sign up for every cruise line's email announcements. Do that, and then consider these five tips on how to get the best airfare for your cruise vacation:
1. Expect less control when buying from the cruise line.
Not all package deals let you choose the airline you fly on. - Photo by Emilio Pastor de Miguel / Shutterstock
When you purchase airfare from the cruise line, you may not be able to choose airlines, flight times, or connecting times unless you pay extra for the privilege. For example, you might find yourself arriving on the morning of departure — which is never a good idea — rather than a day or two ahead of sailing. In addition, cruise lines sometimes book using "bulk" airfares that may not qualify for frequent flyer miles. If miles and schedule are important to you, booking airfare on your own gives you more control.
2. Think about what you’ll do if you miss the sailing.
It's not a fun scenario to plan for, but if you choose to fly in the same day, missing the ship is a very real possibliity. - Photo by Steve Mason / Thinkstock.com
Cruise lines sell as many airfares as they do by dangling a safety carrot. Most of these programs promise to get you to the ship at their expense if your flight is late or canceled, and they'll rebook your return flight automatically if, say, the ship arrives late in port because of engine problems or a weather delay. Royal Caribbean International calls its program ChoiceAir, Holland America Line calls its Flight Ease (a program shared by Seabourn), and Carnival Cruise Lines' is called Fly Aweigh.
If you’re not booking through the cruise line, your best insurance is to arrive at least one — but preferably two — days before sailing. Also, your travel insurance policy might provide some compensation if there's a flight delay, but read the fine print before you leave home to evaluate the exclusions.
3. Shop around.
Kayak.com has a great system for setting up price alerts on flights. - Photo by Kayak
Most experienced cruisers still buy airfare on their own rather than through the cruise line, unless there's a deal that's too good to pass up — like that Seabourn offer. Airfares do change often, and there's no "magic" time of the day or week to get a deal, so remember these two tips: Search multiple times a day (well before your cruise), and sign up for free airfare alerts from several third-party sites. They'll let you know when there are unadvertised sales, as well as fare drops to embarkation ports like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Priceline.com is also good for last-minute fares, but be sure to arrive the day before sailing since you might not know exact flight times before payment.
4. Look for business-class discounts from cruise lines.
It never hurts to have a travel agent double check the price on airfare in a package deal. - Photo by ra2studio / Shutterstock
Some upscale cruise lines offer business-class airfare add-ons. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, often has deals beginning at $499 per person on its more expensive cabins and cruises, and I've seen similar offers from other high-end lines. But beware of "free airfare" offers: Sometimes cruise lines inflate the cost of the cruise to cover the "free" ride. Research the best air-inclusive fare, and compare that to booking your airfare and cruise separately. If you’re using a travel agent, it’s worthwhile to ask the agency to run the numbers for you.
5. Factor in the higher cost of last-minute fares.
Strangely enough, sometimes you can get a hotel and your airfare for cheaper than just airfare. - Photo by SIME / eStockPhoto
If you're booking a cruise fewer than seven days before sailing, shop for a package that includes your hotel and airfare. Recently, for example, last-minute fares from New York to Fort Lauderdale on JetBlue were as high as $700 round trip, but a last-minute package that included a hotel stay was selling for $300. That's because packages use airfares without the advance purchase restriction. Remember, you don't even need to use the hotel portion if you don't want to.