By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 4/27/2010 11:34:43 AM ET 2010-04-27T15:34:43

You've seen the ads in the fancy travel magazines or perhaps you received a mailing or even a phone call encouraging you to choose a cruise line because it's offering free airfare. Is that free airfare for your cruise really free? Maybe not.

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Sea the difference

When you're pricing out a cruise vacation often times there are promotions that tout airfare savings to and from the ship. Some cruise lines offer "free air" deals and other lines may offer discounts or credits if you book the airfare through them. "You have to really break down the offers to see if there's a deal," says Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as The Cruise Guy.

He cites the following air deals between premium cruise lines Oceania Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, which operate identical ships that were purchased from the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises.

Oceania is offering two-for-one cruises with free air from select gateway cities on certain sailings. Chiron priced out a Sept. 30, 12-night Barcelona to Venice sailing on the Regatta in a Category A3 stateroom that offered free air and up to $2,000 in bonuses. The brochure rate before the two-for-one deal and free airfare is $11,998. After the two-for-one discount, which brought the base price down to $5,999, the free airfare came with an additional $444 in air taxes per person, and $1,000 in bonus savings per person, the total cost was $5,443 per person. Sounds like a great deal, but is it?

Chiron priced out the same cruise with the two-for-one offer, but without the free airfare and the difference was eye opening. After the two-for-one discount, which brought the base price down to $5,999, Oceania offered a $630 air credit, plus the $1,000 bonus savings and the bottom line fare was $4,369. Yes, the free air option cost an additional $1,074! Clearly, the airfare was built in to the total price. When asked to break down the $444 air taxes a Oceania reservations agent could not provide those details.

An example of a company that does disclose these fees is Azamara Club Cruises. The line recently offered free air for a trans-Atlantic cruise where the cruise price was the same with or without the airfare included.

Top 10 cruises in 2010"It was truly a free air deal," said Chiron. Azamara is currently offering two-for-one deals, along with shipboard and airfare credits if you purchase air through the cruise line. Chiron priced out a 14-night Copenhagen to Barcelona sailing in a Category 1B stateroom leaving Aug. 29, onboard the Azamara Journey. The brochure rate before the two-for-one deal is $9398.

After the two-for-one offer, the base price was reduced to $4,699, plus $275.14 in government fees, the fare was $4,874.14. Now adding in airfare from New York's JFK airport priced at $901, plus $156.30 taxes, the airfare came to $1,057.30. Factor in the $500 air credit per person from the cruise line and the total airfare came to $557.30. Total cruise price with air credit is $5,431.44 per person. Additionally, Azamara offered a $500 shipboard credit per stateroom, which added to the value.

This is not to say that Oceania's offer isn't a good deal, but it is deceptive. That fact wasn't lost on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) when last week it fined Prestige Cruise Holdings, parent company of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for $75,000 for failing to disclose fees and taxes on free air fare offers in advertisements. Since the DOT fine Prestige Cruise Holdings has simplified pricing structure for both Regent and Oceania in which all airline-imposed fuel surcharges and government taxes are included in the advertised fare.

Compare the air

Clearly, "free air" on a number of cruise offers truly isn't free. As in the example of Oceania the costs were buried in the total price. This is one case where it pays to compare different offers and to look in the cruise line's contract, where there may be wordage like "refund" or "credit" if you don't book the cruise line's airfare package. If there is indeed a credit that's the true cost of the cruise line's airfare, which is a discounted bulk rate deal they work out with various airlines. Use that number and calculate the differences with other cruise lines and airline fares to understand all your options. "It's important to evaluate the offers based on their merit not their hype", said Chiron.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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