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Cruise Line Hotel Package ... Choose It or Lose It?

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You've no doubt seen them. The optional transfers and pre or post-cruise hotel add-ons, promising the ultimate in convenience. All cruise lines eagerly offer them with your booking. But are they worth it? Purchase transfers, and a cruise rep will meet you at the airport and whisk you and your belongings safely away to your awaiting cruise ship and, likewise, shuttle you back to the airport when you return. Even better - add a hotel to that transfer, and spend a night or three in your port of embarkation. No need to worry about your luggage, either. It will be in expert hands from one point to the next - airport to hotel to cruise ship and back again. All packaged together in a neat, agreeable package, what could be better than that!

The price, for starters.

At first glance, you see the nightly rate - $239 - and think, well, that's fairly reasonable for a 4-star hotel in the city - and it includes a ride to the hotel and, later, to the airport with a cruise representative to happily greet you on either end. But, wait - look again. That $239 rate is per person! All of a sudden, that deal doesn't look so sweet.

Then there's the hotel selection. Cruises generally contract with two or three hotels in a port city, in varying price ranges. One might be close to the ship, and another convenient to the airport. To their credit, the cruise lines do attempt to offer a hotel for varying tastes and budgets. However, with hundreds of competitive hotels in the same city, you could be cheating yourself out of an equally acceptable ... and more affordable ... stay.

Some cruisers always book hotel packages with the cruiseline, perhaps because it's the easy thing to do and they don't need to watch their pocketbook. They also may be cruising to new, unfamiliar territory and may not be familiar with accommodations in the area and don't have time to research. Then there are people like me. Priceline and Hotwire are my best friends, prominently listed in my web bookmarks. Always looking to save a buck, bidding for a hotel room is one of my favorite pastimes. I don't always succeed, but it's still fun, and I have sometimes saved lots of coin on accommodations in various cities and towns.

In the case of our upcoming Alaska cruise from San Francisco, I recently suffered a severe case of sticker shock when looking for a three-night pre-cruise hotel. It will be our first time in the City by the Bay, and our must-see list of attractions is a long one. Summer prices for an average 3 or 4 star hotel in SF are averaging around $280 per night - and even higher in the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood, popular with the tourists ... and I am a tourist, so this is where I want to be. With only one hotel offered by this particular cruise line in all of San Francisco, in an area of the city we weren't even looking at, we chose to book a much-recommended hotel in Fisherman's Wharf using a 20% AAA discount. Still pricey, but at least we got a discount at a hotel in the location we wanted. Oh ... and don't worry ... I made certain that I can cancel out just in case I am triumphant in my bidding wars!

Next, we needed a one-night post-cruise stay, this time in the city - perhaps Nob Hill or Union Square, which happens to be where the cruise line's hotel sits. After thoroughly researching said hotel ... an essential task, by the way, before I book any accommodations ... we decided to throw caution to the wind and book the cruise package. It was only slightly more costly than making our own hotel and transfer arrangements, and we wouldn't have to worry about getting from here to there. What the heck - it was only for a night.

Then the practical, frugal side of me took charge, and I quickly came to my senses. Did we really need to stay downtown again? After all, we will have spent sufficient time seeing the city prior to the cruise. There are four of us - two couples. All we really needed was a comfy place to relax for the night before flying out early the next morning. I did a search of much more affordable accommodations by the airport, and I couldn't believe my luck - a 2-bedroom, 2-bath suite at an all-suite hotel, with free breakfast, free wifi, free airport shuttle and a ride to the BART - if we felt the need to go somewhere - all for a fraction of what that fancy cruise line hotel would have cost for two rooms. Even with a $50 cab ride from the ship, we still come out way ahead. As you can imagine, I just couldn't contain my excitement over such a steal!

Back to the original question: Cruise line hotel and/or transfer - should you choose it or lose it? I guess it depends on one's personal preference and budget. I have tried to convince myself that there are times when a cruise/transfer package is a good value, but I still have trouble buying it. I am a bargain shopper by nature, and when it's just my husband and I traveling and we don't require anything special, bidding for a hotel remains my preferred method of nabbing a good hotel at an affordable price.

Of course, there's always exceptions to every rule ... such as in this case, when one is looking for just a transfer to get from airport to ship or vice-versa. While in most cases it's easier, quicker and more economical to get a taxi or airport/hotel shuttle, there are instances where a cruise transfer is the way to go. In fact, this came up for us last summer relating to the two-hour ride from the ship in Dover to London-Heathrow. We chose the transfer, and it went very smoothly - well worth the price. When the journey to and from the airport is long or overly complicated, a ship shuttle makes perfect sense.

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