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Bundle airfare or buy it separately?

Often, when you buy a cruise or tour, the cruise line or tour operator offers you a bundled air ticket. It may be advertised as “free” airfare (an obvious mislabeling—believe me, you’re paying for it); it may be “free” from some cities and an add-on extra from others; and it may always be extra, with various fares specified from a dozen or more cities around the country. Bundled airfare has some plusses and minuses, and it’s not always easy to figure out whether you’re better off taking the bundled airfare or buying a separate ticket. Here’s a case in point, recently sent in by a reader:

“I have just had an unpleasant experience with a large tour company. I agreed to let it arrange my air travel from Houston to Boston. It booked me on American Airlines, with a connection in Chicago, for a total of eight hours—a flight I could have arranged, nonstop on Continental, for just four hours. However, the tour operator couldn’t book me on a nonstop flight because it does not have a contract with Continental.

“When I initially made reservations for the trip, and specifically asked about air arrangements, the agent did not inform me about the airline limitations, which I found unacceptable. I finally got the tour company to cancel the original reservation, at a cost to me of $50, and I will make my own arrangements.

“Also, the tour company normally charges a flat fee of $300 to $500 for domestic flights. I have always found flights for myself at $100 to $250 less than the tour company’s rates.

“Travelers shouldn’t fall for this bundled air ploy. It’s too easy to make your own arrangements.”

This reader obviously did better by arranging separate airfare. But the choice isn’t always as straightforward as in this case.

Bundled airfare is sometimes better

In some cases, buying airfare bundled with a cruise or tour is the better choice:

  • Often, it’s less expensive than fares you could arrange on your own.
  • If anything goes wrong with the flight—delays, cancellations, lost baggage, and such—and you or your bags miss your departure date, the cruise line or tour operator is responsible for fixing the problem. Sometimes, that means delaying the departure of your cruise or tour a bit; at other times, that means doing its best to reunite you with your original schedule or your bags as quickly as possible.

But not always

Our reader’s experience illustrates the obvious downsides to buying bundled airfare:

  • The price is often higher than the price of a ticket you could arrange on your own.
  • The schedules may be far less convenient than the best schedules you can arrange on your own.
  • Also, although our reader didn’t mention frequent flyer problems, you usually don’t earn frequent flyer miles on a bundled ticket, and you can’t upgrade it by using frequent flyer miles.

Ed’s choice

My general rules for bundled airfare are fairly straightforward:

  • First, check the price for the bundled airfare and ask the cruise line or tour operator about the proposed schedule. Then, figure out the fare and schedule for whatever flight you would arrange on your own.
  • If the bundled fare is reasonably close to the best fare you can find on your own—and the schedule is acceptable—take the bundled airfare. Being able to hold the cruise line or tour operator responsible in case of an airline problem is a big plus.
  • But if either the fare or schedule for the bundled airfare is significantly worse, arrange your own air travel. But maybe build in a little extra schedule padding at the beginning of your cruise or tour in case something goes wrong.

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