As you saw in Chapter 2, cruise vacations come in a wide variety of prices, styles, and durations. The one common denominator is that most companies promote their lowest possible, cruise-only rates to get your attention. Food and a nightly show are included, but not much else. You need to consider secondary expenses.
One of your biggest secondary expenses is likely to be airfare to and from your ship. If you live in Southern Florida, western California, or New York City, you are in luck—you can often drive to a nearby port and find a round-trip cruise itinerary that will bring you back to the same port, thus negating the need for airfare at all.
If you travel often for business, you may also be in luck. You may have enough points on your frequent-flier program to purchase round-trip airfare for your whole family at no additional charge. Blackout dates are of course a concern here, but destinations likely are not, since most cruise ships intentionally begin and end their itineraries in major cities near international airports.
If you don't have either of those options on your side, you will have to purchase airfare in addition to the price of your cruise, as do the majority of people who book cruise vacations. To make your planning process a bit easier, most cruise companies have programs that enable you to add airfare and round-trip transfers onto the price of your cruise.
Be sure to include round-trip airport transfers in your budget if you book your own airfare instead of getting a cruise ship/airline package deal. If, after taxi fees and tips, you're only going to end up saving $5 or $10 total, you might want to avoid the hassle and let the cruise line do the work of making the arrangements for you.
The question you will of course ask yourself is this: Will it cost me less if I book the airline tickets myself? The answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on where you live, where you need to fly, and what airfare specials are being advertised at the time you choose to book.
Your best bet is to start by asking your cruise-ship company how much it would charge you to add round-trip airfare and transfers to the price of your cruise package. In some cases, you will get more than just the price of the ticket; Carnival's Fly Aweigh Air Fare Supplements program and the Disney Cruise Line sometimes include complimentary overnight hotel accommodations if your flight can't get you to the embarkation port on time for a same-day departure. And Radisson Seven Seas sometimes offers free airfare upgrades to business or first class if you book your ticket through them.
In virtually all cases with all cruise-ship companies, your cruise/airline package rate will include round-trip transfers to your ship. That's a convenience sometimes worth paying extra for—especially if you are traveling during the winter from a snowy city and are worried about delays that might leave you precious little time to get from the airport to your ship.
If you plan to book your own airline tickets instead of using a cruise line's package deal, you may still want to purchase the cruise line's round-trip transfers from the airport to your ship. Carnival, for instance, suggests that you do this when flying to meet ships in Alaska and the Mediterranean that are sometimes more than an hour from the airport.
After you know exactly what your cruise line wants to charge you for exactly what kind of airline seats and transfers, you can have your travel agent do further research for separate airfares, or you can look around on your own. The Internet makes this kind of search much easier than it used to be. Most airlines have their own sites, where you can check the exact same flight numbers and flight times that your cruise ship is offering you. If you book through the particular airline's Web site, you sometimes get a discount on the published fares or an extra number of frequent-flier miles.
You also can do research through travel Web sites such as www.orbitz.com, which will search many of the airlines’ sites and give you a list to choose from by price and flight time. Last, there are “meta-search” travel Web sites such as SideStep.com and Kayak.com that will search through the airlines’ Web sites and the sites like Travelocity and Orbitz, providing you with a very good perspective on all the airfares available throughout the industry with a single click of your mouse.
If you choose a cruise/airline package, you should still contact the airline on your own well in advance of your trip to ensure that you will be getting everything you want—including good seat assignments, special meals, and frequent-flier credits. Do not expect your cruise line to do this for you.
The last thing you should consider is whether your credit-card program gives you points toward a redemption program or cash back for every dollar you spend. You'll obviously get a similar number of points whether you book your airline tickets yourself or through your cruise line, as long as the price of your airline tickets is similar. However, some newer credit cards, such as the Citi Premier Pass, offer rewards points not just for every dollar you spend, but also for every mile you or anyone else flies on a plane ticket booked with your credit card. If you can't make the airline ticket purchase through your cruise company a separate line on your credit card statement, it might be a smarter move for you to book your airline tickets yourself. You'll probably end up with enough extra redemption points to get yourself something like a nice gift certificate to a home-improvement store when you get back from your vacation.