Steve Simmons and his family booked the trip of a lifetime – a South American sailing from Buenos Aires onboard Celebrity Cruises Infinity. The trip was meticulously planned two years in advance and included custom air arrangements for all four family members to make sure they were on the same flights. One month prior to sailing Steve Simmons received the cruise documents and airline schedule. To his dismay, it had changed dramatically.

South American air samba
The flights to Buenos Aires had remained the same. However, the flights home had separated family members – of most concern was Simmons’ elderly mother whom he did not want traveling alone. “We paid a total of $1,039 for custom air fees to Celebrity Cruises to get exactly what we wanted. We are all extremely upset that Celebrity has changed them at the last moment,” said Simmons.

Simmons immediately contacted his travel agent to find out why the flight had been changed and to demand that Celebrity fix the situation. Unfortunately, the agent and Simmons were unable to resolve the problem despite speaking with Celebrity numerous times. Completely frustrated Simmons contacted Tripso for help.

Celebrity Cruises responds
I spoke with Michael Sheehan, associate vice president of corporate communications at Royal Caribbean, Celebrity’s parent company, about the Simmons’ issue. Sheehan told me that the company had a difficult time pinpointing what exactly happened with the family’s flight itinerary. Over a period of a week, cruise line managers mined data from the Amadeus reservation system to pinpoint the problem. Sheehan deemed it a “CSI” type of investigation.

What they uncovered was a flight schedule change on Simmons’ mother’s return flight home to Kansas City. When that flight change occurred, the reservations system automatically generated new reservations for the entire family that were different from what they originally booked.

Celebrity says there was also an issue with the Simmons’ travel agent, in that, after the company had notified the travel agency of the flight change, another travel agent from the agency confirmed the flights with the cruise line without notifying the Simmons. Steve Simmons only found out about the flight change when he received his final documents one month prior to the cruise. “Due to the passage of one month, and the fact that the flights were during the busy holiday season, very few options were available,” said Sheehan.

Sheehan noted that Celebrity isn’t responsible for the airline or schedule changes that may occur, but the company prides itself on being customer service oriented and wanted to be fair and reasonable to help resolve the situation. “As a gesture of goodwill we have waived the fees for the flight changes, custom air fees, and we have offered each family member a $100 future cruise credit.” Overall Celebrity provided the family with $1,000 in compensation. “We hope our gestures of goodwill demonstrate our desire to assist the family with this difficult situation,” said Sheehan. Steve Simmons is happy with the arrangement and told me the family appreciated Celebrity’s assistance in the matter.

Cruise air
Most cruises offer a complete package including airfare to and from a passenger’s home city. When the cruise line books the airfare they pick the airline, flight times, and number of connections. Guests wanting more control over their flight plans like the Simmons can pick their airline and flight connections — it is called a custom air arrangement. While such a package offers the convenience of not having to book your own flight or worry about how to get from the airport to the cruise ship, that convenience comes at a cost.

Cruise lines buy their airfare packages in bulk from the airlines in advance so the price quoted by the cruise line doesn’t vary throughout the year like normal airline pricing does. Sometimes the fares are lower than the open market, but for someone keeping a good eye on airfares and checking the discount sites it will generally be higher. Many travel agents advise their clients to book air travel with the cruise line since booking a la carte can be risky if one doesn’t know what they are doing.

On the plus side to booking air through the cruise line – if you do miss the ship, the cruise line has a responsibility to get you to the ship. If you book on your own, you are literally on your own.

If you book your own flight, leave a big cushion between when your flight arrives in your port city and when the cruise actually embarks so you can get to the ship. In some locales, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the port is a quick ride from the airport. But in other places, such as Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome’s port city) the airport is a good two hours away from the port.

Lastly, if you do book your flight on your own, seriously consider purchasing a travel insurance policy that will reimburse you for your costs if you have to catch up with your ship once it has left port.