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Is Free Airfare Too Good to Be True?

When you’re looking at a cruise, you often see promotions dealing with airfares to and from the cruise port. Sometimes it’s “free air;” in other cases, the cruise line promotes its own add-on fare, typically announcing it’s a good deal. Airfare can be especially important in one-way cruises, the most common of which are on Alaska cruises or transatlantic positioning cruises. A recent reader inquiry dealt with such a repositioning cruise:

“We are taking a repositioning cruise in April from Florida to the Mediterranean, ending in Rome. The cruise line quoted air connections (Chicago to Florida and Rome to Chicago) for $1,300 per person. I consider that expensive. What is the most cost-effective way to buy one-way tickets from Chicago to Florida and then Rome back to Chicago?”

The short answer is that, in this case, our reader can do better than the cruise line’s airfare. For travel in April, [[Southwest Airlines | Southwest]] currently features one-way fares from Chicago-Midway to Ft. Lauderdale as low as $59 per person. And [[Aer Lingus]] lists fares from Rome to Chicago, via Dublin, at €274 (about $356, see for current exchange rates), for a total of $415. That’s a lot less than the cruise line’s deal.

But the numbers don’t always come out this way. You have to check each trip. And you also have to consider factors beyond just the relative airfares.

Round-Trip Air Deals

In many—probably most—cases, your air problem is a round-trip ticket from your home airport to the cruise port, most frequently in Florida, California, or the Northwest. And that calculation is easy and straightforward: Just log onto your preferred airfare search sites, such as our own comparison tool, and evaluate the results against the cruise line’s quote. The only caveat is to make sure your site includes Southwest—or that you check Southwest separately.

Open-Jaw Air Deals

You can sometimes combine a one-way cruise with an open-jaw airfare. That’s an airfare from your home city to your departure cruise port, with a return from a different arrival cruise port. Open-jaw tickets typically cost half the sum of the round-trip fares, which means they provide whatever price advantage you normally get with round-trips.

In the case of cruises, however, opportunities for conventional open-jaw ticketing are limited, because airlines typically won’t sell an open-jaw ticket if the “open” part of the itinerary is longer than either of the flight legs. And, with many one-way cruises, the cruise itinerary is longer than at least one of the flights. Still, it’s worth a try. In their wholesale deals with airlines, cruise lines can often work out what amounts to open-jaw deals that violate that rule, but you can’t buy those as an ordinary consumer.

One-Way Air Deals

If your cruise begins and ends in the U.S. or Canada—for example, Vancouver to Anchorage—many North American airlines now price one-way tickets at roughly half the price of a round-trip. I checked a sample trip from Anchorage to Chicago, where the one-way fare this spring is just half the round-trip on several lines. So you can easily price the separate one-way tickets you need.

Then question becomes more complicated with international trips—especially transatlantic. That’s because only a few transatlantic airlines offer relatively low one-way fares. The most notable of them is Aer Lingus, which prices even its lowest fares on a one-way basis. Aer Lingus or affiliated lines fly to Ireland from all over Europe, so connecting on that end is no problem. However, in North America it flies only to Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, so your options here are limited. Our reader in Chicago would do fine. The main drawback is that he would have to connect in Dublin rather than fly nonstop.

Of course, he could take a nonstop from Rome to Chicago. But the price quoted by [[Alitalia | Alitalia ]] or [[American Airlines | American]] for a nonstop is a whopping $2,088! And even with a connection, most other big lines quoted one-way Rome to Chicago flights starting at $1,300. And there’s no guarantee that the cruise line’s air option would be nonstop, either—it doesn’t say.

What if our reader lived in, say, Kansas City rather than Chicago? Without an Aer Lingus option, one-way fares are much higher. The best one-way rate from Rome to Kansas City I could find was $1,662. Of course, our reader could buy a ticket to Chicago and a separate ticket from Chicago to Kansas City, but an extra connection—and having to claim his bags and pass through security a second time—could be quite a hassle.

Throw-Away Returns

On many transatlantic routes, round-trip tickets are much cheaper than one-ways. And in those cases, you sometimes come out ahead of the game by buying and booking a round-trip itinerary, then just discarding the return portion. Our hypothetical Kansas City traveler, for example, could get a Rome to Kansas City round-trip for $842, throw away the return portion of the ticket, and still pay almost $800 less than the cost of a one-way ticket. The airlines tell you that doing this violates their rules, but who cares—and what can they do to you?

What About “Free” Air?

“Free” air on a cruise, of course, isn’t really free; it’s buried somewhere in the total price you pay. If you want to check on how good a deal it really is, look for the cruise line’s fine print, where you may well see some sort of “refund” or “credit” if you elect not to take the line’s built-in airfare package. Many of the “free air” cruise rates I’ve examined do, in fact, provide some form of credit if you don’t take the air option. And that’s the true cost of the cruise line’s airfare, which you should use in your calculations.

Other Considerations

The dollar cost differential isn’t the only factor to consider. Cruise air has some pluses and minuses, compared with independent air ticketing:

  • The cruise line’s air deal can provide you a bit more peace of mind. If you take a cruise line’s air option, the line has some responsibility if the flight to your cruise is canceled or delayed past the cruise’s departure time. That means either delaying the cruise departure a bit (if a lot of passengers are delayed) or arranging for you to meet the ship at its next port. But if you buy your own air ticket—or decide to use frequent flyer miles—you’re on your own if your flight misses the cruise. The line might be sympathetic, but it would be up to you to arrange to connect.
  • On the other hand, the cruise line’s air might entail a less desirable itinerary than one you could arrange yourself. The airline handling the cruise line’s business, for example, might have only a lousy connection between your home and port, whereas you could arrange a nonstop on your own. And the cruise line’s air option might not earn frequent flyer credit.

As with so much else, you face a trade-off. If you do decide to arrange your own air, you’re probably better off padding your schedule, especially from your home to the departure port, as a guard against missing the departure because of a delay.

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