How do I Book My Cruise Airfare?
You can buy an 'Air/Sea' package direct from the cruise line that includes airfare or you can arrange flights on your own - through a travel agent or online. We recommend either a TA or the 'on your own' option - as both almost always result in greater choice and lower fares. In this article you will find out how to:
* Find the Best Deals
* Plan for Contingencies
* Work with a Travel Agent
* Book with Frequent Flyer Miles
* Drive to the Port of Departure
* Plus Learn the Background & History of Cruise Air
Finding the Best Deals Online -
Pros -The fare display is extremely flexible and user friendly. With Kayak.com it is very easy to limit results to a particular airline, to specific departure and arrival time frames, to scan multiple dates or to return to the original input form for modification.
Cons - Kayak.com is a data aggregator and does not actually sell tickets - once you have chosen the flights you want - you are directed to another site - often the airline's own proprietary site - to complete the sale - you don't know who you will be dealing with until you are ready to purchase.
Pros - Like Travelocity and Expedia, Tripfinder is a true online agency - and well suited for all your ancillary cruise booking - airfare, pre/post cruise hotel, car rental, etc. Deeply discounted hotel packages are automatically offered as an option to air itineraries - a real convenience and time saver if you are going to be looking for a hotel deal anyway. The user interface is as friendly - or more so - than any other online reservation service. Plus, Tripfinder offers a hotel " Best Rate Guarantee".
Cons - While excellent for domestic travel and trans-Atlantic flights, Tripfinder is weak when a multiple destination itinerary is required.
Orbitz.com, Fly.com & Hotwire.com
We are still accumulating data on these systems, however, we do know that Orbitz.com tends to get high marks from consumers for consistently low prices - while Hotwire.com seems to be the front runner in the "User Friendliness" category. The newest of the three is Fly.com which, like Kayak, is an aggregator of information from other sites but has the added convenience of displaying premium fares (first and business class) next to economy. This is a real time saver for people wanting to see at a glance just how much extra it would cost to ride up front in comfort.
Pros - Specializes in international airfares and is especially good for visually oriented searches - one can just click at a location on a map rather than type in city names or airport codes. Nice.
Cons - No advantage over other sites unless you are just thrilled by seeing a map with flight paths superimposed. Plus, you cannot purchase a last minute ticket on Vayama.com. Travel must be five days out or more.
Plan for Contingencies -
Unless yours is a very short flight, say Tampa to Miami, it is almost always best to schedule arrival at the port of departure a day or two prior to the ship's sailing. Why? If you are late to the port for ANY reason, the ship is not going to wait. You will be on your own for all costs related to catching up with the ship at the first port stop. And the cruise line is not going to compensate you for days that you were not on board.
The best strategy is to book a flight arriving the day before the ship sails, grab a hote near the pier or in an area that would be fun to explore for half a day. Then sleep easy with the peace of mind that you are not likely to miss your ship.
When returning for disembarkation allow for unexpected contingencies, such as a customs or immigration instigated delay in clearing the ship for one reason or another- or a weather related delay to the ship's arrival in port, etc. A good rule of thumb - if you are catching a flight home on the same day the ship gets in, don't schedule your departure any earlier than mid-afternoon; even if the ship is scheduled to arrive at 7am and the airport is only a stone's throw away - such as in Ft. Lauderdale.
Work with a traditional travel agent -
Pros - Agents have the experience and resources to 'get-ur-dun' quickly and can often save you money - even after paying their service fee.
Cons - You will still have to pay the standard agency service fee - usually $30 to $50 per ticket.
Using frequent flyer miles -
Pros - Travel to a distant port of departure can be a very effective way to get maximum value from your miles - especially if you use them to snag first class seats at the lowest redemption tier. The very best value to be squeezed out of your mileage stash is to use them to reach an international port in First or Business class. In this instance your value return per mile can be quite high, even if you have to redeem at a higher tier to get the seats.
Personal Example - for a recent cruise departing from Amsterdam we redeemed 175,000 miles each for business class seats. There was availability one way at the lower tier but we had to jump to the higher tier for the return in order to get two seats on the same flight.
The Math - Airline policy allowed for splitting the difference - half the standard (lower tier) round trip business class level of 100,000 (50K) and half the "Sky Choice" round trip level of 250,000 (125k), totaling 175,000 per person. We ended up parking our rear ends for two eight hour flights in seats that retailed for approximately $6,000 per person at time of travel - giving new meaning to the term "bottom line".
In the example above our redemption value quotient was a pimped 3.2 cents per mile. (It's not rocket surgery...just divide the approximate dollar value of the ticket by the number of miles redeemed.)
After messing with miles for over 25 years, experience tells us 3.2 cents per mile is an excellent return. As a matter of fact, anything over 2 cents per mile is good.
Cons - See the above computations. The tragically uninformed have been known to spend $1,000 worth of miles for a ticket they could have bought for $200 cash. Go figure - literally.
Finding mileage seats with Expertflyer.com
Pros - Here is a hot little opportunity to bypass the infernal/eternal phone calls to frequent flyer customer service to check availability and options for mileage tickets. Expertflyer.com has done a brilliant job of determining the inventory code for most free seats and upgrades for all classes of service and for most airlines (some better than others). For example, if you are looking for First or Business class seats, your search will be for flights that show availability in the "D" or "I" category of seat inventory.
The basic Expertfyer service is $4.99 per month - with a Premium Service level option for a monthly subscription fee of $9.99. We use the site often, even just for checking schedules or to determine what carriers service a particular destination.
This unique service will become even more valuable in the future as people gain more flexibility and choice over which airline frequent flyer account they wish to fatten for harvest - i.e., if you have a stash of American Express points you are entitled to move them into anyone one of about 14 different airline programs. You only have to first establish an account with that airline, which can be done online and is free of charge, then link it to your AMX Rewards account.
Yes, you heard right! You can now find out which airline has availability - THEN build up the mileage in that airline's proprietary program - all in a matter of minutes.
And here's another tip if you are an AMX point hoarder - you can transfer points from your AMX Rewards account into ANYONE'S account - all you have to do is link that person's account with yours - all done online and free of charge. What a great way to help Aunt Martha top off her account and ride up front in comfort on that long haul trip to Athens for that Mediterranean cruise-of-a-lifetime. Or, for her to top off yours for the same reason.
Cons - To get the most value from the Expertflyer.com program you need to know which of the various codes to look for - and they vary from one class of service to another and not always the same from one airline to another. But this is a short and painless learning curve, well worth the time and effort if you are regular redeemer of frequent flyer miles. On those times when you do have to call the frequent flyer desk, develop the habit of asking the customer service agent to provide the "inventory code" as well as seat availability. We have never been refused when making that request. They are usually happy to provide it.
Driving to the Port of Departure-
Pros - Usually secure, fenced in parking is provided by the cruise lines at domestic ports of departure - sometimes even covered parking. The fee is usually reasonable - $10 to $15 per day. Plus, by driving rather than flying you not only save on airfare, you can pack EVERYTHING! Think you might want that polyester Nehru jacket for formal night? Just throw it in the suitcase. No need worry about schlepping too many bags, excess baggage surcharges, etc. Once at the pier you can always make several trips from the car to your cabin. Just tell those longshoremen giving you the Stink Eye that your spouse over-packed.
Cons - None that we can think of. Just don't leave anything valuable in the car. Break-ins happen. Even in "secure" parking areas.
Background & History of Cruise Air Connections -
It used to be that the best value was to buy the "Air/Sea" package from the cruise line. This option usually resulted in a low - if not lowest - price on the airfare - with the added the convenience of not having to shop for the fare on your own.
The cruise lines loved to sell these inclusive packages because they pocketed a portion, if not all, of the commission offered by the airlines at the time. However, beginning in 2000, the airlines began to reduce commissions, eventually eliminating them all together. Under marching orders to maintain the profitability of their air departments, the beady eyed cruise line revenue managers responded by marking up the base price of each ticket sold.
Apparently the cruise lines have now decided that they'd rather not be in the airline ticketing business at all. Their markups have gone so far beyond the typical travel agent's $30 to $50 per ticket service fee - well, it's embarrassing. Today, you will almost invariably find a better deal on your own - or by paying a travel agent's fee to have it all handled for you. However, there is some value in the marked up Air/Sea ticket not apparent at first glance. Transfers from the airport to ship (or hotel) and return are usually included - plus there is a minor insurance factor in that the cruise line will assist and cover the cost of getting you to the ship if you miss departure due to delayed flight arrival. This is not something they will do if you bought the airline ticket online or through your favorite travel agent.
Still, all things considered, we feel there is better value and greater choice in booking the air on your own.