Taking a cue from Syms – a well known clothing store – here is more content, perfect for uploading to the Consumer Education section of your website. We strongly suggest you custom edit the content – then post under an attention getting heading such as “Secrets the Airlines* Don’t Want You to Know! (*or the Cruise Lines – or, the Credit Card Issuers – or, Your Mother…you fill in the blank).
And, if you figure out a way to get clients to read this stuff BEFORE they call…please let me know!
The Cruise is Booked – Now How Do You Get There?
‘Air/Sea’ packages are available – purchased through the cruise line. Your travel agent will handle this as part of a single transaction – the cruise and airfare combined. Or, your TA can arrange the flights separately. However, the “unbundled” option almost always results in greater choice and lower fares.
Or, how about loading the family the car and driving to the port of departure? With ships sailing out of many regional ports such as Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, New York, etc. – driving is becoming more and more of a viable option.
For do-it-your-selfers – or control freaks – with the time and who are up to the challenge of researching and booking online, we’ll take a look at current best bets.
Lastly, if you have some frequent flyer miles or loyalty points that you are just itching to put to work – now’s your chance! Skip to the “Using Frequent Flyer Mileage” section below.
If you’re feeling like I do right now – not ready to get back to work just yet – let’s discuss the pros and cons of all four options in detail.
Some Options for Booking Online –
Pros -The fare display is extremely flexible and user friendly. With Kayak.com it is very easy to limit results to a particular airline, to specific departure and arrival time frames, the number of connections you are willing to tolerate, to scan multiple dates at once or to return to the original input form for modification.
Cons – Kayak.com is a data aggregator and does not actually sell tickets – once you have chosen the flights you want – you are directed to another site – often the airline’s own proprietary site – to complete the sale – you don’t know who you will be dealing with until you are ready to purchase.
Pros – Offers some of the best deals on hotels. The flight, cruise and vacation packages work just like other sites.
Cons – For hotels and car rentals you won’t know the brand name and exact location until you book.
Pros – Created by a group of airline employees, hence the emphasis airfare search. Tends to get high marks from consumers for consistently low prices – and seems to be a front runner in the “User Friendliness” category.
Cons – Pages load slowly due to amount of detailed information. Cruise and car rental searches are just average.
Pros – Like Travelocity and Expedia, this is a full service online agency – and, in the spirit of full disclosure – our own “private label” online booking engine. So please forgive us if we shamelessly plug Tripfinder.com as the best place for booking cruise add-ons. The user interface is very user friendly and offers a hotel “Best Rate Guarantee”.
Cons – Absolutely none! It is hard to believe that this site was designed and implemented by mere mortals. To live one’s entire life without utilizing Tripfinder.com would be a shame. Add it to you own personal Bucket List. Tripfinder.com users regularly report improved vitality, renewed sex drive, dramatic increases in popularity, as well as an almost embarrassing abundance of compliments from friends and family – usually to do with how much younger and slimmer they look – often immediately following their first booking. (Actual results may vary.)
Pros – Specializes in international airfares and is especially good for visually oriented searches – one can just click at a location on a map rather than type in city names or airport codes. Nice.
Cons – No advantage over other sites unless you are just thrilled by seeing a map with flight paths superimposed. Plus, you cannot purchase a last minute ticket on Vayama.com. Travel must be five days out or more.
Always Plan for Contingencies
Unless yours is a very short flight, say Tampa to Miami, it is almost always best to schedule arrival at the port of departure a day or two prior to the ship’s sailing. Why? If you are late to the port for ANY reason, the ship is not going to wait. You will be on your own for all costs related to catching up with the ship at the first port stop. And the cruise line is not going to compensate you for days that you were not on board. The best strategy is to book a flight arriving the day before the ship sails, grab a hotel near the pier or in an area that would be fun to explore for half a day. Then sleep easy with the peace of mind that you are not likely to miss your ship. When returning to port for disembarkation allow for unexpected contingences, such as a customs or immigration instigated delay in clearing the ship for one reason or another- or a weather related delay to the ship’s arrival in port, etc. A good rule of thumb – if you are catching a flight home on the same day the ship gets in, don’t schedule your departure any earlier than mid-afternoon; even if the ship is scheduled to arrive at 7am and the airport is only a stone’s throw away – such as in Ft. Lauderdale.
Working with a Traditional Travel Agent
Pros – Agents have the experience and resources to get it done quickly and can often save you money – even after paying the service fee. One issue to discuss with your TA – that there is some value in the marked up Air/Sea ticket purchased through the cruise line that is not apparent at first glance. Example: Transfers from the airport to ship (or hotel) and return are usually included – plus there is a minor insurance factor in that the cruise line will assist and cover the cost of getting you to the ship if you miss departure due to delayed flight arrival. This is not something they will do if you bought the airline ticket separately. Still, all things considered, we feel there is better value in booking the air on your own.
Cons – Just one, the standard agency service fee will apply to all non-commissionable purchases such as air tickets – generally from $30 to $50 per. Well worth the money in our estimation since a good TA will save both time and money in the long run.
Using Frequent Flyer Miles
Pros – Travel to a distant port of departure can be a very effective way to get maximum value from frequent flyer miles or loyalty points than can be converted into airline tickets. This is especially true if used to snag first class seats at the lowest redemption tier. The very best value to be squeezed out of your mileage stash is to use them to reach an international port of departure in First or Business class. In this instance your redeemed value per mile can be quite high, even if you have to redeem at a higher tier to get the seats.
Personal Example – for a recent cruise departing from Amsterdam we redeemed 175,000 miles each for business class seats. There was availability one way at the lower tier but we had to jump to the higher tier for the return in order to get two seats on the same flight.
The Math – Airline policy allowed for splitting the difference – half the standard (lower tier) round trip business class level of 100,000 (50K) and half the “Sky Choice” round trip level of 250,000 (125k), totaling
175,000 per person. For two eight hour flights I parked my plus sized derrière in a most luxurious seat that retailed for approximately $6,000 per person at time of travel – giving new meaning to the term “bottom line”.
In the example above our redemption value quotient was a pimped 3.2 cents per mile. (Hey, it’s not rocket surgery…just divide the approximate dollar value of the ticket by the number of miles redeemed.)
After messing with miles for over 25 years, experience tells us that 3.2 cents per mile is an excellent return. As a matter of fact, anything over 2 cents per mile is good.
Cons – See the above computations. The tragically un-hip have been known to spend $1,000 worth of miles for a ticket they could have bought for $200 cash. There is only everlasting shame to be associated with such a foolhardy move. If you are guilty of such a blunder, keep it to yourself! The heaping helping of scorn dished out by the unsympathetic might prove to be unbearable – nudging one towards a risky new activity gaining ground on cruise ships – Cordless Bungee Jumping. (Ok, this is an inside joke, we don’t expect you to know that – due mainly to the huge popularity of private balcony cabins – each year a small number of inebriated and/or self-medicated passengers end up “in the drink” – so to speak.)
Finding Mileage Seats with Expertflyer.com
Pros – Here is a hot little opportunity to bypass the infernal/eternal phone calls to frequent flyer customer service to check availability and options for mileage tickets. Expertflyer.com has done a brilliant job of determining the inventory code for most free seats and upgrades for all classes of service and for most airlines (some better than others). For example, if you are looking for First or Business class seats, your search will be for flights that show availability in the “D” or “I” category of seat inventory. The basic service is $4.99 per month – with a Premium Service level option for a monthly subscription fee of $9.99. We use the site often, even just for checking schedules or to determine what carriers service a particular destination.
This unique service will become even more valuable in the future as people gain more flexibility and choice over which airline frequent flyer account they wish to fatten for harvest – i.e., if you have a stash of American Express points you are entitled to move them into anyone one of about 14 different airline programs. You only have to first establish an account with that airline, which can be done online and is free of charge, then link it to your AMX Rewards account. Yes, you heard right! You can now find out which airline has availability -THEN build up the mileage in that airline’s proprietary program – all in a matter of minutes!
Cons – To get the most value from the Expertflyer.com program you need to know which of the various codes to look for – and they vary from one class of service to another and not always the same from one airline to another. But this is a short and painless learning curve, well worth the time and effort if you are regular redeemer of frequent flyer miles. On those times when you do have to call the frequent flyer desk, develop the habit of asking the customer service agent to provide the “inventory code” as well as seat availability. We have never been refused when making that request. They are usually happy to do it.
Hot Tip – Been hording AMX points since the last millennium? You can now move points from your AMX Rewards account into ANYONE’S account – all you have to do is link that person’s account with yours – all done online and free of charge. What a great way to help Aunt Martha top off her account and ride up front in comfort on that long haul trip to Athens for that Mediterranean cruise-of-a-lifetime. Or, for her to top off yours for the same reason.
Driving to the Port of Departure
Pros – Usually secure, fenced in parking is provided by the cruise lines at domestic ports of departure – sometimes even covered parking. The fee is usually reasonable – $10 to $20 per day. Plus, by driving rather than flying you not only save on airfare, you can pack EVERYTHING! Think you might want that polyester Nehru jacket for formal night? Just throw it in the suitcase. No need worry about schlepping too many bags, excess baggage surcharges, etc. Once at the pier you can always make several trips from the car to your cabin. Just tell those longshoremen giving you the Evil Eye that your spouse over-packed.
Cons – None that we can think of. Just don’t leave anything valuable in the car. Break-ins happen. Even in “secure” parking areas.
More to come soon. We’re big on the “educated consumer” stuff. – LEC
Author’s Bio – Lyn Edwin Cathey – Network Travel Services, LLC
A veteran of 25 years in the travel industry – holding positions within the industry such as trainer, educator, agent, consultant, agency owner/manager and product specialist. For 15 years prior to joining the travel industry Lyn worked as a full time entertainer/comedian, performing on banjo & guitar – often as a featured act on cruise ships. He created and currently maintains several websites, including – http://TripFinder.com ; http://PimpMyCruise.com and http://LaughTreks.com