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  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:

  • Choose the line that’s right for you.
  • Make your book­ing.
  • Choose an ap­pro­pri­ate cab­in.
  • As­sist with din­ing times, and sub­mit any spe­cial meal re­quests.
  • Ar­range air­fare and trans­porta­tion to the ship.
  • Help with pre- and post-cruise ar­range­ments.
  • Ad­vise on shore ex­cur­sions.
  • Ad­vise on trav­el in­sur­ance.
  • Ar­range for a re­fund, if need­ed.

Rea­sons not to work with an agent:

  • You like to do ev­ery­thing your­self.
  • You have plen­ty of time on your hands to do re­search.
  • For you, plan­ning is half the fun of the trip.
  • You know ex­act­ly what you want.

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.

Be­ware Scams:

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.

 
     
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