Is free airfare too good to be true?

Then question becomes more complicated with international trips—especially transatlantic. That's because only a few transatlantic airlines offer relatively low one-way fares. The most notable of them is Aer Lingus, which prices even its lowest fares on a one-way basis. Aer Lingus or affiliated lines fly to Ireland from all over Europe, so connecting on that end is no problem. However, in North America it flies only to Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, so your options here are limited. Our reader in Chicago would do fine. The main drawback is that he would have to connect in Dublin rather than fly nonstop.

Of course, he could take a nonstop from Rome to Chicago. But the price quoted by Alitalia or American for a nonstop is a whopping $2,088! And even with a connection, most other big lines quoted one-way Rome to Chicago flights starting at $1,300. And there's no guarantee that the cruise line's air option would be nonstop, either—it doesn't say.

What if our reader lived in, say, Kansas City rather than Chicago? Without an Aer Lingus option, one-way fares are much higher. The best one-way rate from Rome to Kansas City I could find was $1,662. Of course, our reader could buy a ticket to Chicago and a separate ticket from Chicago to Kansas City, but an extra connection—and having to claim his bags and pass through security a second time—could be quite a hassle.

Throw-away returns

On many transatlantic routes, round-trip tickets are much cheaper than one-ways. And in those cases, you sometimes come out ahead of the game by buying and booking a round-trip itinerary, then just discarding the return portion. Our hypothetical Kansas City traveler, for example, could get a Rome to Kansas City round-trip for $842, throw away the return portion of the ticket, and still pay almost $800 less than the cost of a one-way ticket. The airlines tell you that doing this violates their rules, but who cares—and what can they do to you?

What about "free" air?

"Free" air on a cruise, of course, isn't really free; it's buried somewhere in the total price you pay. If you want to check on how good a deal it really is, look for the cruise line's fine print, where you may well see some sort of "refund" or "credit" if you elect not to take the line's built-in airfare package. Many of the "free air" cruise rates I've examined do, in fact, provide some form of credit if you don't take the air option. And that's the true cost of the cruise line's airfare, which you should use in your calculations.

Other considerations

The dollar cost differential isn't the only factor to consider. Cruise air has some pluses and minuses, compared with independent air ticketing:

• The cruise line's air deal can provide you a bit more peace of mind. If you take a cruise line's air option, the line has some responsibility if the flight to your cruise is canceled or delayed past the cruise's departure time. That means either delaying the cruise departure a bit (if a lot of passengers are delayed) or arranging for you to meet the ship at its next port. But if you buy your own air ticket—or decide to use frequent flyer miles—you're on your own if your flight misses the cruise. The line might be sympathetic, but it would be up to you to arrange to connect.

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