|Cruise 101: Using a Travel Agent|
By Fran Golden
The rise of the internet has spurred many travelers to book their vacations independently, but booking a cruise can be a complex operation and here’s an important fact to chew on: Most people book their cruises through a travel agent (68% of them in 2011, according to the Cruise Lines International Association). The cruise lines actually prefer this arrangement. They have small reservation staffs, rely on agents for the bulk of their sales and even list preferred agents on their websites.
A good travel agent can stop you from making a dumb planning error. They can also be of assistance if things go wrong, such as if your cruise is cancelled or you miss your flight to the port.
Even if you’re the most stubborn DIY type, if you’re cruising for the first time, seeking the assistance of a travel agent is a smart idea. If you’re not a cruise novice, you may still run into questions regarding such things as location of a specific cabin or dining reservations. Using a travel agent, especially a cruise specialist, is not a bad idea then either.
The reality is you’re not likely to find greater savings by booking on your own through the cruise line — erasing one particular argument against booking with an agent — and you may even get a better deal through an agency that specializes in cruising. Plus, said agencies may not charge customers for their services (though some now have a consultation fee). The bulk of their pay is via the cruise line in the form of commissions, so it won’t cost you anything to make use of their expertise. Finally, those of you who wouldn’t dream of picking up a phone or walking into a travel agency office, can, on the larger agency websites, link up with an agent in a chat room to ask questions — a way to have your cake and eat it too.
Travel agents can help:
Reasons not to work with an agent:
Making the Right Choice:
It’s important to keep in mind that when booking a cruise you’re making the bulk of your vacation decisions in one fell swoop — everything from transportation, to dining, to lodgiin, to entertainment. All of these factors will have an impact on your cruise experience, making the right choice crucial. A good agent will steer you toward the right selections for your vacation, so getting the right agent is vital.
Conduct an interview with an agent before you commit. You are, in fact, hiring the agent and you’ll want someone with cruise experience, preferably on the line(s) you’re considering.
Ask the agent:
Have they actually cruised on the line/ship? The more they’ve sailed, the better. Have they been to your chosen destination before? First-hand knowledge of a destination or itinerary is always preferable. Do they have a preferential relationship with specific lines? If they have a close relationship with the line you want to sail on, you might be able to get a better deal or special perks.
The best way to find an agent is through a referral. But if that’s not possible, try to find an agency that is cruise-only, a home-based agent who specializes in cruises, or a full-service agency that has a cruise desk.
Look for an agency that’s a member of either (or both) of the following:
Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s main marketing group, now a worldwide organization. CLIA agents have had training in cruises; those agents accredited as Certified Cruise Counselors by CLIA have particularly extensive training. CLIA’s website has a search tool to find an agent in your area. American Society of Travel Agents, which monitors agencies for ethical practices. Use the search function on the website to find ASTA agents who have specialties in "cruises" or "cruise lines."
Note that not all agents represent all cruise lines. They may limit their offerings to one or two mainstream, premium, and luxury lines (this maximizes their sales with the lines, increasing their commissions). Be cautious about being pushed to a line just because the agent wants to earn more. A good agent should ask questions about your specific vacation preferences and book accordingly.
Generally, you’ll get more personalized care from a smaller agency rather than the mega online agencies such as Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, or Orbitz.com and big agencies. That said, the big agencies do have phone numbers you can call and/or online chat forums where you can ask questions. Get the name and direct number of the agent you deal with, if possible, in case you have follow up questions.
How Agents Save You Money:
The cruise lines tend to communicate deals to their top agents first, before they appear in public. Some of these deals will never appear in your local newspaper, on bargain travel websites, or even on the websites of the cruise lines themselves.
Some of these promotional offers are confusing, but good agents know how to play the game. For example: A line offers a "guarantee cabin" promotion that allows you to book a category of cabin rather than a specific cabin, and guarantees that your cabin will be in that category or better. An informed agent can direct you to a category where your chances of an upgrade are better.
The cruise lines will also sometimes upgrade passengers as a favor to their top-producing agents.
Depending on the agency you choose, you may run across other incentives for booking through an agent. Some agencies buy blocks of space on a ship in advance and offer it to their clients at a reduced "group" price. Others may throw in perks such as a bottle of champagne.
Remember: Always make sure you understand what’s included in any fare you are quoted to determine if you’re actually realizing any savings. Is it cruise-only or does it include port charges, taxes, and fees? How much are airfare and airport transfers? Is insurance extra? One agent/website might break down the charges in a price quote, while another bundles them all together. Make sure you’re comparing apples with apples when making price comparisons.
The travel business tends to attract its share of scam artists. If you get a solicitation by phone, fax, mail or e-mail that doesn’t sound right from an agency (especially if you’re told you won a free cruise), call your state consumer-protection agency or the local office of the Better Business Bureau, or call the cruise line and see if they’ve ever heard of the agency.
Protect yourself by making sure the deposit you pay goes directly to the cruise line rather than into a travel agency account – if that’s not the case, be wary. And always use a credit card to pay the bill if that’s an option.
--Fran Golden is the Experience Cruise expert blogger and a contributing editor of Porthole Magazine. She is the co-author of Frommer’s Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call.