Booking airline tickets for your next cruise may seem like a no-brainer, but please don’t make the mistake of turning off your brain. It’s a cruise mistake that could force you to pay for a new flight — or even get stranded at the port.
Just ask Beverly Rasmussen, who booked her airfare through the EZAir program offered by Princess Cruises because it offered the “reassurance that it will get you to your ship” when there’s a delay. But when her airline canceled her flight and she couldn’t get through to the EZAir department by phone, she had to pay $1,517 for new tickets.
So much for the guarantee.
She called Princess numerous times. The results are always the same.
“Each time we sit on hold for hours, then the line disconnects,” says Rasmussen, a retired nurse from North Ogden, Utah.
Cruise mistake: Airline tickets are often an afterthought to a cruise booking
If you’re thinking of taking a cruise soon, maybe you’re wondering about airline tickets. Then again, probably not. Travel advisors say airline tickets are often an afterthought to the cruise, a decision made at the end of the booking.
But let’s not do that today. Wave season — the time of year when most cruises are booked — is dead ahead. And with the industry trade association Cruise Lines International Association predicting that global cruise capacity will rise 19% from 2022 to 2028 (up from 625,000 berths to 746,000), you don’t want to make a rookie mistake.
“The last thing you need is to miss the cruise and then have to get to the next port,” says Limor Decter, a luxury travel advisor with EMBARK Beyond. “No one needs that kind of drama.”
There are no publicly available statistics on the number of passengers who miss their cruise because of airline connections. But based on the number of cases I’ve received lately, it seems to be a growing problem. Passengers don’t think about it soon enough, that’s true, but cruise lines also impose significant restrictions on their air-inclusive programs. (Related: River cruise turns into a bus tour.)
The problem with cruise line guarantees
Booking airline tickets through your cruise line may seem like a good deal, because they often offer guarantees that you will make it to your ship even if your flight is delayed.
There are other benefits. The special contract fares offered through cruise lines are sometimes cheaper than published airfares. The cruise line air programs also often allow you to hold flight reservations until the final payment date. You can change flights at any time before making your final payment. You can’t easily do that if you book directly with the airline.
But there are also some downsides — which is to say, some restrictions apply. After Debra Stewart missed her recent Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise because of a flight cancellation, she found out that the Booksafe Travel Protection Plan had a few strings attached. NCL would only offer a future cruise credit equal to 75% of the non-refundable cancellation charge because her flight cancellation was not covered under the Booksafe plan. She says that cost her $16,000.
Did NCL apply its Booksafe plan correctly?
I checked with NCL and it says it applied the policy correctly to her Booksafe Protection Plan.
“Although Norwegian Cruise Line provides flight arrangements as part of its cruise offering, we do not have control over the operations of the airlines and are not responsible for any flight modifications or cancelations,” a spokesman told me, adding that its claim assessments “are final.”
NCL noted that under its Booksafe Travel Protection Plan, it will provide guests who are denied due to a non-covered reason with a future cruise credit equal to 75% of the non-refundable cancellation charge to use on your next cruise, and that it had done so in this case.
“This is so wrong,” said Stewart, a physician from Bakersfield, Calif. “They canceled the flight, I missed my cruise — and I am out $16,000!”
Not to pick on NCL, but many of the cruise lines’ air-inclusive programs have similar restrictions. They will protect you in most cases, but not all the time. Experts say you can avoid this “gotcha” clause. I’ll get to that in a moment.
What are the worst mistakes you can make with airline tickets for your cruise?
You don’t have to get left at the dock while your dream cruise sails into the sunset. Here are some of the worst rookie mistakes I’ve seen:
Arriving at the last minute
Make sure you schedule your flight so you arrive in port a full day early — just in case something goes wrong and you need to reschedule your flight. “Yes, many times it will entail additional expense for hotel and meals, but you have a much better chance of not missing the ship,” says Clark Mitchell, a cruise specialist with Strong Travel. If you book your airfare through the cruise line, it often promises to get you to the next port at its expense, but Mitchell says you shouldn’t push your luck. Give yourself a day.
Failing to consider travel insurance
Maybe the biggest rookie mistake is failing to buy travel insurance. A specialty policy like BHTP’s WaveCare will track your flight and cover missed connections and lost luggage. Adrienne Sasson, a travel advisor with Rubinsohn Travel, says travel insurance has saved the day for many of her clients. “Cruise lines do not always protect your flights and get you to the next port,” she says.
Not thinking about airline tickets before you book your cruise
But perhaps the biggest error is waiting until the end to think about airline tickets. If you consider airfare at the same time — and if you read the fine print on your tickets — you should be able to avoid most airline ticket problems. (Here’s more advice on how to book a cruise.)
Finally, a long-awaited refund
And what about Rasmussen, the nurse from Utah, who spent an extra $1,517 on last-minute tickets? Her case was more than a year old by the time it landed on my desk.
After several phone calls — and hang-ups — she finally reached a Princess representative via a live chat in April, who apologized and told her, “That is not the experience we want you to have with us.” But still, no refund.
I contacted Princess on her behalf. A Princess representative responded, “I can confirm our team has connected with the guest and advised they will be issuing a refund check.” Rasmussen received the refund shortly after that.
Rasmussen’s case should have never gotten this far. There’s an ocean of fine print in these cruise line guarantees. And as my old diving instructor used to tell me, never turn your back on the ocean.
About this story
I decided to write this article after hearing from Rasmussen and many other cruise passengers who had experienced problems with their airline connections. Unfortunately, cruise lines place significant restrictions on their airline tickets, and it was time to write something. I’m also grateful to my fellow advocate, Dwayne Coward. Dwayne flagged all of these cases in our system and recommended that we cover them. This story was researched, written and fact-checked by Christopher Elliott, edited by Andy Smith and his team and illustrated by Dustin Elliott.