Is free airfare too good to be true?

When you're looking at a cruise, you often see promotions dealing with airfares to and from the cruise port. Sometimes it's "free air;" in other cases, the cruise line promotes its own add-on fare, typically announcing it's a good deal. Airfare can be especially important in one-way cruises, the most common of which are on Alaska cruises or transatlantic positioning cruises. A recent reader inquiry dealt with such a repositioning cruise:

"We are taking a repositioning cruise in April from Florida to the Mediterranean, ending in Rome. The cruise line quoted air connections (Chicago to Florida and Rome to Chicago) for $1,300 per person. I consider that expensive. What is the most cost-effective way to buy one-way tickets from Chicago to Florida and then Rome back to Chicago?"

The short answer is that, in this case, our reader can do better than the cruise line's airfare. For travel in April, Southwest currently features one-way fares from Chicago-Midway to Ft. Lauderdale as low as $59 per person. And Aer Lingus lists fares from Rome to Chicago, via Dublin, at ?274 (about $356, see XE.com for current exchange rates), for a total of $415. That's a lot less than the cruise line's deal.

But the numbers don't always come out this way. You have to check each trip. And you also have to consider factors beyond just the relative airfares.

Round-trip air deals

In many—probably most—cases, your air problem is a round-trip ticket from your home airport to the cruise port, most frequently in Florida, California, or the Northwest. And that calculation is easy and straightforward: Just log onto your preferred airfare search sites, such as our own comparison tool, and evaluate the results against the cruise line's quote. The only caveat is to make sure your site includes Southwest—or that you check Southwest separately.

Open-jaw air deals

You can sometimes combine a one-way cruise with an open-jaw airfare. That's an airfare from your home city to your departure cruise port, with a return from a different arrival cruise port. Open-jaw tickets typically cost half the sum of the round-trip fares, which means they provide whatever price advantage you normally get with round-trips.

In the case of cruises, however, opportunities for conventional open-jaw ticketing are limited, because airlines typically won't sell an open-jaw ticket if the "open" part of the itinerary is longer than either of the flight legs. And, with many one-way cruises, the cruise itinerary is longer than at least one of the flights. Still, it's worth a try. In their wholesale deals with airlines, cruise lines can often work out what amounts to open-jaw deals that violate that rule, but you can't buy those as an ordinary consumer.

One-way air deals

If your cruise begins and ends in the U.S. or Canada—for example, Vancouver to Anchorage—many North American airlines now price one-way tickets at roughly half the price of a round-trip. I checked a sample trip from Anchorage to Chicago, where the one-way fare this spring is just half the round-trip on several lines. So you can easily price the separate one-way tickets you need.

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