Regent’s Seven Seas Cruise Line’s “Free Air” leaves a bad taste

Cruise lines love to use the word “free,” even for the inexpensive ships. Although, generally, the less expensive the ship, the more ways passengers have to spend extra money on board.

Deluxe lines tend to be more all-inclusive, though there are always things to spend money on. However, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line makes much of the fact that besides the more common gratuities and beverages, they include free air transportation to the embarkation port and travel back home. But, for some recent clients, free turned out to be relative.

Cruises from Europe can be difficult as far as air bookings, with limited service into many ports. But, the Regent cruise was a simple one — a 10-day sailing from New York to Montreal, booked about six weeks in advance. It was not inexpensive, over $18,000 for three people. Regent advertises that if there is a “forced overnight,” they will pay for a hotel, too.

In this case, the clients are from near San Francisco. The ship was sailing at 8 p.m., with guests asked to arrive by 5 p.m.

From the West Coast, that is difficult at best, with a few flights getting in around 4 p.m., either nonstop or, with connections, leaving at the crack of dawn. The travelers in question were a couple in their early 80s, traveling with their 11-year-old grandson.

When we asked about the “free” air, I was told that Regent would choose safe flights for them, and include transfers, or they could “deviate” and choose their flights for $175.00 per person plus any fare difference. If the cruise line felt it was a forced overnight they would include a hotel as well.

Or, if the clients wanted, Regent would do a “cruise only” discount of $450 a person, but then transfers would be on their own.

My clients didn’t care about which airline they might fly. And, considering that Manhattan traffic, let alone possible delays, would make any 4 p.m. arrival risky at best, the helpful reservations agent agreed with me it was very unlikely the air department would do a same day arrival.

The clients also indicated that if Regent didn’t consider it a “forced overnight,” they would pay for their own hotel. The agent added the note to the booking

After a few days of calling, flights finally showed up in the booking. The return flight wasn’t great, a slightly out-of-the-way three-hour connection in Philadelphia, but it was acceptable. The outbound, on the other hand, was not only a red-eye; it was a 2-hour connection in Chicago.

So the travelers would leave San Francisco Saturday night at 11:30 p.m., take a short 3-1/2-hour flight to Chicago, wait around O’Hare for 2 hours, take another 2 hour flight and arrive at 10:40 a.m. Regent would then take them to the ship. But, they could not get into their cabins until 2 p.m., which would mean a very long time without the chance to lie down and get any real sleep.

Even for a young couple that schedule sounded exhausting. But for older grandparents and a child, it sounded like a hellacious way to start a vacation. Plus, the New England-Canada cruise started with a port at 8 a.m. the first morning after departure.

I called the Regent agent back, and he agreed that it sounded awful, so he transferred me to the air department to plead my case. I got a friendly sounding air reservationist and explained the situation and the fact that my clients would pay for their own hotel and transfer. She agreed to look to see what they had available, and offered a United flight to Newark. Not awful, although Newark is an expensive cab ride.

But, when I said they could do that, she told me it would be a $525 surcharge, because the clients were selecting their own air. (The flight from San Francisco to Newark she had selected, for what it’s worth, was only $174.50 retail per person.) And no one at the cruise line would budge, although everyone agreed with me that the free flights were “not ideal.”

Curiously enough, I found that the “free” air was booked in “V” class on American; the identical routing, with the identical “V” class, was available Saturday during the day time. But, Regent wouldn’t allow it without the $525 fee.

In the end, we decided to take the air off the booking and used the $450 credit to cover most of the cost of decent flights. The cost of the transfers and hotel were a small price to pay for not starting off the vacation completely exhausted.

We could have done exactly that from the beginning with a lot less wasted time, rather than deal with Regent’s stipulations.

No company has to toss in something for nothing, but when a supplier makes “free” part of its selling strategy, it ought to be something free customers actually want and can use.