I Missed My Ship! What Now?

By Paul Motter

You arranged a flight from your hometown to the port city where your cruise departs. According to the airline's flight schedule, you had plenty of time to check into your cruise before the ship sailed. But due to circumstances beyond your control - weather, or mechanical issues with the airline - you miss the ship. What happens next? You may have a few surprises ahead.

When you book your cruise, the cruise line will offer to make your flight reservations as well. Not long ago, most people believed that if the cruise line booked your air tickets, it would assume responsibility for getting you to the ship no matter what happened - at the line's expense. The assumption was that the cruise line would put you on another flight, or failing that, they would put you up in a hotel and fly you to the first port of call.

Unfortunately, that common misconception has never been true except in cases where the cruise line (not the airline) caused you to miss the ship - a very rare occurrence. Here is the real story: If you miss the ship because of any kind of problems with your flight, it is not the cruise line's responsibility, and maybe not the airline's either.

Strangely enough, the cruise lines never did much to clear up the misconception that they would take responsibility for getting you and/or or your luggage to the ship no matter what. But it was debunked a few years ago, as the Internet made such detailed "fine-print" knowledge much more publicly available. People drifted away from cruise line air bookings, causing a loss of revenue for the cruise lines.

In response, most cruise lines came up with new "special air programs" that once again lead you to believe there is an advantage to booking air through the cruise line, but now you have the privilege of paying a premium for these services. Two examples are "Choice Air" from Royal Caribbean and the "Princess eZair" program, although all of the major cruise lines have air programs that are similar.

Let's look at Royal Caribbean's Choice Air: The fee is $15 per person for a domestic flight, $25 for international flights. That is not an exorbitant fee - but probably more than you might pay any travel agent to help you with air reservations. But what exactly do you get?

"At our Choice Air Web Site you can purchase airline tickets at the best prices, on virtually any airline, and even have access to some terrific Choice Air Specials. Once booked, you'll know your itinerary in advance, your carrier and seat assignments, and that your flights fit perfectly with your cruise vacation. Ground transportation between the airport and seaport is also available."

Basically there isn't anything promised here that any competent travel agent can't do for you. These days, the online prices for airfare are virtually the same everywhere, including the Choice Air Web sites. Yes, you "can" purchase tickets at the best prices - just as you could if you saw the best prices at any other airfare web site.

I especially like the phrase "Ground transportation between the airport and seaport is also available." Yes, it is, at the same price everyone pays for ground transportation regardless of where the air tickets are purchased.

"Choice Air: Assured Arrival gives you peace of mind by knowing, if and when flight schedules are disrupted, we're with you 24/7 working with our airline partners to rebook your flights. Royal Caribbean International will work with the airlines to get you to your port on an alternate flight, or if necessary, to the closest available port."

In truth, the airlines will change any flight for a passenger whose flight has been canceled without charge anyway, but canceled flights are not the major problem. The problem is delayed flights that will cause you to miss your connection or the ship sailaway. The airlines charge passengers to rebook flights that are merely delayed. There is no law that says your flight has to arrive at its destination at any specific time.

All you get for your premium payment is the cruise line air program agent working on your behalf to get new flights booked so you don't miss the ship. There are no guarantees and if there is a change fee by the airline you will be responsible for paying it. Even worse, the potential for an airline to get you on another flight that will get you to the ship on time is quite low. These days most flights average 80% full, and when flights get delayed or canceled later flights fill up quickly.

The alternative of getting you on a flight to the first port of call is a possibility, but it is also going to cost you. The airlines only promise to get you to the destination you originally booked - they don't care if you missed a cruise ship. Any change fee, as well as the cost of the flight to the next port of call and the cost of a hotel stay if needed will be your responsibility. To be very clear - the only thing these air packages promise to do is "work with" the airlines to help make changes to your flights, but there is no promise to pay for any additional charges.

Once again, the language of the ChoiceAir program:

"We'll continue to monitor flights to identify air travel disruptions that could jeopardize your timely arrival at the ship. If any flight disruptions or delays occur, we'll be prepared to assist you. In the event of a delay that causes you to miss your ship, we'll work with you and our airlines for 48 hours to find a reasonable alternative so you can meet up with your ship at the next port (when feasible). For complete peace of mind before - and during - your trip, consider CruiseCare, our vacation protection plan."

"CruiseCare" is the line's trip insurance program, and having trip insurance is the only way you will ever have a flight rebooked for you at no additional cost. That insurance program is available to you no matter where you book your air.

Remember - there are only two ways a cruise line will guarantee that you meet your ship:

1) if the reason you missed the ship was the cruise line's fault, or

2) if you buy trip insurance for your cruise, which generally costs between five and ten percent of your total vacation cost per person. In my opinion, you are far better off spending the money on insurance than on special air programs from the cruise lines.

[Note: Royal Caribbean is not unique in the way they handle air problems - all of the industry's special air programs have similar rules and language in their contracts.]

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