Is it better to book my river cruise airfare independently, or should I let the river cruise line handle it?
Airfare is something we write about frequently here on River Cruise Advisor. Because of its relatively high cost and numerous moving parts, airfare has the ability to dramatically affect your river cruise vacation. Done properly, you’ll never think twice about it. But when things go wrong, they go wrong in a hurry – and that starts right at the booking stage.
Why Would You Want To Book Your Own River Cruise Airfare?
Unless the river cruise line has a special promotion – like free economy-class airfare – we recommend that cruise passengers book their airfare independently, or use an experienced travel agent. It’s not that the cruise lines do a bad job of it; far from it. Rather, we recommend booking it separately from the cruise line because it puts you in the driver’s seat in terms of which airline you choose, what aircraft you fly on, what airports you connect through, and even what seats you pick.
We practice what we preach by booking our own air, and while it can be a time-consuming process, we appreciate the ability to choose the airline we prefer, the seat we want and the airports we want (to endure). But there is a caveat to all of this. We are experienced travelers, nerds to some degree when it comes to studying routes and aircrafts, so gauge your own skills, and if you’re not comfortable with booking your own air, use the travel agent who booked your cruise for you.
Here’s why we want to be in control of our airfare: Take a look at the below screenshot that we took off the Air Canada website, for flights between Vancouver and Budapest, which we randomly chose departing on February 28.
There’s a lot going on here: The first two sets flights are operated by Star Alliance codeshare partner Lufthansa. The last two pairings are operated by Air Canada in conjunction with Lufthansa. Some route you through Toronto and Franfkfurt with two connections, while others fly you direct to Frankfurt with only one connection. One of the Toronto-bound flights is operated on a narrow-body Airbus A320; the other has a better aircraft (a widebody 777-300ER, noted here by the code 77W) and a later departure time.
If you’re booking your flights (or you’re doing this with a travel agent), you can pick the best combination of connections, aircraft and departure times. Who the heck wants to leave at 7 a.m. when you can leave at 1:25 in the afternoon?
Airfares are already notoriously restrictive, and cruise lines (ocean and river) will pass any changes incurred along to you. Cruise lines typically can’t pick or guarantee your seats, and may charge a per-person fee for changing them. Date or city deviations can result in fees running up to $300 per person or more, and you won’t be able to choose the airline you wish to travel on (or which airline alliance you want) unless you pony up some more cash. If you travel frequently for business or personal reasons and have accumulated status with alliances like Star Alliance, Oneworld or Skyteam, this might be a important consideration to you, as frequent-flier perks can provide faster access to check-in and security, lounge access, complimentary baggage and even waived change/standby fees.
Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t get a quote from your river cruise line – you are always free to reject their quoted price and book your airfare independently. Remember that “free economy airfare” example we gave at the start of the article? Even that comes with caveats: “free” is typically only available from major U.S. and Canadian gateways, like Houston-Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), or Toronto (YYZ). Do you live in Spokane? Austin? Saskatoon? Get ready to pay more – a “supplemental fee” will be required for non-major air gateways. However, that may still be a bargain. You’ll need to do some legwork to figure out what works best for you.
Before the age of the internet, booking airfare through a cruise line was often the way to go. Now, with the ability to research and book airfare on virtually every airline on the planet right from your own smartphone or in conjunction with a knowledgeable land-or-internet-based travel agent, it’s less of an essential.
In the end, the choice is yours – but travelers like us appreciate the flexibility and control that comes with booking our river cruise airfare independently of the cruise line.
Important to note: Transfers between the airport and your ship are sometimes not included if you book your own air. To find out if yours transfer is included, see our chart.