More and more river cruise lines are advertising their products as all-inclusive – and it’s obvious to see why. As travellers grapple with fluctuating exchange rates and a litany of additional expenses, river cruising’s inclusive nature is as much a draw as the beautiful destinations that these journeys operate in.
But with the term “all inclusive” comes a great deal of confusion, especially for first-time cruisers or vacationers who might be used to all-inclusive resorts. And the big question that often arises is this: Is my airfare included in the cost of my cruise?
Generally speaking, no.
Now, from time to time river cruise lines or individual travel agencies may do something to sweeten the pot, from discounted airfare to inclusive airfare rolled into a larger package deal. But by and large, airfare for river cruises is still a separate purchase. However, there are three ways you can go about handling air.
1. Booking Air Through The Cruise Line
The easiest and simplest (if perhaps not the most cost-effective) solution to the airfare dilemma is to have your chosen river cruise line arrange your airfare for you. When you arrange your air through the cruise line, quite often transfers between the airport and the ship will be included (if those aren’t included to begin with), and you can relax knowing that the line will pick flight times that correspond with your ship’s departure and arrival schedule.
Where booking with the cruise line falls apart is if you are at all particular about your airline, route or seats. Flights from nonstandard (read: airline hub) cities might incur additional charges above the cruise line’s stated price, which is typically a lead-in fare.
Requests for specific seats, airlines, aircraft, routing or flights might also incur additional charges, depending on your cruise line. It’s always good to ask in advance about the specific policies, or grab a brochure and flip to the back – information about airfare is always included, either on the airfare page or in the “Terms and Conditions” section at the back of the brochure, usually under “Services Provided By Airlines” or similar heading.
2. Booking Air Through Your Travel Agent
A happy medium between the do-it-yourself method and having the cruise line take care of everything is to put your travel agent to work for you. A good travel agent will be able to source available flight itineraries on multiple carriers and present them to you so you can see which ones will best suit your needs.
Have a lot of frequent-flier points and e-upgrades? Your travel agent might be able to source a routing that uses your preferred carrier. If take off and arrival times are important, or if you care about which cities you lay over in and for how long, your travel agent will work with you to determine the best itinerary for your needs.
Although some travel agents charge a modest booking fee, change fees are typically limited to those imposed on the airlines themselves.
Travel agents have an additional built-in advantage: If things start going badly and the delays and missed connections pile up, your travel agent can go to work for you to find an alternate itinerary. This is particularly useful in Europe, where airlines like Lufthansa and Air France have struck with significant impact in the last 12 months, stranding thousands of travellers.
3. Booking Air On Your Own
We definitely recommend this last option only for experienced travellers who are frequent fliers. Booking airfare independently and on your own gives you the greatest amount of flexibility, from choosing the airline, routes, aircraft, and even the seats you want. If you fly a lot, you can ensure you’re flying with your preferred airline alliance (Star Alliance, Oneworld, Skyteam) to maximize your benefits, and you have greater control over preferred airport stopovers and connections.
Where booking on your own can turn into an issue is in areas of the world you may be unfamiliar with, or in areas requiring numerous connections. Have you changed planes in Hong Kong before? What is the best airline to take if you’re river cruising along India’s Ganges? Should you connect through London, Frankfurt or Munich to reach Budapest on-time? These are all important questions that travellers will likely need to ask. The difference here is that experienced travelers and frequent fliers can weigh their options in a way that inexperienced fliers (particularly on international routes) cannot.
For example, in Amsterdam you can make a 90-minute connection. In Frankfurt, you’re going to be running from one gate to the next in that time. And at London Heathrow … forget about it, particularly if you have a terminal change.
If things go wrong – either due to weather or mechanical delays – the onus is on you to work with your airline to fix things. If you book through the cruise line or with a travel agent, they can go to work on your behalf to try to get things straightened out.
None of these three options is particularly better than the others. The one you select is up to you depending on your comfort level.