So, you've decided to go on a cruise -- perhaps your first venture on a vacation at sea -- and you're a little overwhelmed. You have to consider how much you're willing to pay, whether to book an inexpensive inside cabin or splurge on a suite, and which cruise line and ship are right for you. Add dinner seatings, shore excursions and cabin location to the list, and planning a relaxing getaway suddenly seems like a second job.
In the age of the Internet, many people assume that online is the only way to book travel. But, as booking online can often be confusing, a travel agent may be just what you need. In fact, according to the Cruise Lines International Association's (CLIA) 2008 Cruise Market Profile Study, nearly 75 percent of cruise travelers book their cruises through travel agents.
One of the most important things to know is that agents -- in particular, cruise specialists -- have been onboard the ships and can really give you first-hand advice about different cruise options. They have done a great deal of research through familiarization trips and cruise-line seminars, so you don't have to do the work yourself. Even better, agents often have access to special discounts or perks -- or know best where to find them -- and as the cruise lines pay their commissions, you don't pay more for their services and expertise.
Still undecided, or unsure where to find an agent to help you? Here are a few tips to get you started.
Reasons To Consider a Travel Agent
If you're used to booking travel independently, consider these reasons why you might want to make use of a travel agent to book your next holiday at sea.
Choosing a Cruise: For your first cruise, you may need help in matching your lifestyle and budget with a cruise line and destination. Choosing a cruise is not the same as picking a hotel or flight, as there are many more options to consider.
Remember, you won't just be using the ship as a home base, like you do with a hotel; it will be your home, restaurant and entertainment venue for a week or more. The right ship and itinerary can make your vacation that much more enjoyable -- and an agent can help you determine the best selection for your tastes. In addition, an agent can answer any questions or assuage any apprehensions you might have about taking a cruise for the first time.
Shopping for Great Deals: Contrary to what you might expect, travel agents may actually be able to get you better deals than Internet retailers or even the cruise lines themselves. The best travel agents have access to discounted group rates and exclusive cruise pricing that's not found anywhere else. In addition, agents occasionally give you extra value on your booking -- such as prepaid gratuities, a free bottle of Champagne or onboard credit -- to sweeten the deal. And if the price of your cruise drops after you book, a good agent will notice and refund you the difference in fare. Finally, as cruise lines pay agent commissions, you don't have to worry about paying extra for their planning services.
Booking the Trip: Once you've chosen your cruise and, with the agent's help, matched your style with your vacation goals, you've got to book the trip. Again, it's a bit more complex than you might think, but a good agent will make the process go smoothly -- from securing the right cabin type and location to booking the dinner seating that will suit you and your party. Your agent will also be able to sort out travel insurance, if required, and will collect payment for the cruise (usually a deposit at the time of booking and the full amount 60 to 90 days before departure). In addition, the agent can help you with the rest of your travel plans, such as pre- or post-cruise stays, airfare and transfers.
Establishing Relationships: Booking with a travel agent gives your transaction a personal touch -- you have a resource for asking questions and someone to contact if something goes wrong during your travels. But, your relationship with an agent doesn't tend to end after one trip. The agent will keep you in his or her database, alert you to deals or sales and can even suggest future trip ideas.
How To Select a Travel Agent
So how do you find the right travel agent for you? Look for the following:
Training and Credentials: Many agents become accredited cruise counselors through CLIA's Cruise Academy or take courses through the different cruise lines to become more expert at selling their products. Inquire whether the agent has attended any of these training programs. In addition, you can look for affiliations with the National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies (NACOA), Better Business Bureau (BBB), American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or even the American Automobile Association (AAA).
Cruising Experience and Knowledge: Question the agents on cruising trends or up-and-coming destinations, and ask them to explain the differences between cruise lines. Find out how many cruises they've taken that year and with which lines they've personally cruised. The more knowledgeable an agent is, the better advice you'll get. If the agent has rarely cruised, you might want to take your business elsewhere. In addition, you might want to look for an agent who is a cruise specialist -- either at a cruise-dedicated agency or within a larger general agency -- to get the best service.
Inventory/Niche: If you're interested in a specific type of cruising (such as river cruising or luxury travel), look for agencies that specialize in the line or type of cruising you prefer. They'll often have more complete knowledge of your choices than a generalist. For example, if you want to cruise one of Europe's rivers in an intimate barge or riverboat, you may not want to book with an agent who specializes in selling holidays on 3,000-person mega-ships.
Interview: The best cruise agents will do a thorough job of interviewing potential clients to find out which ship, line and itinerary would be the best fit. In that initial interview, they should ask you what kind of vacation you normally take (beach, city, active, for example), who is going (family, couple, singles), your travel style (entertainment and activity preferences, dining habits) and your budget.
Cruise Line Connections: Find out if the travel agent has preferred status with any cruise lines or whether he or she belongs to travel consortiums that would enable him or her to get you better deals, upgrades, etc. But watch out -- some agents will push a particular line too aggressively for your tastes. You don't want to get caught in an agent's agenda if the cruise line isn't right for you.
Special Offers: Look for agents offering discounts, free perks and other incentives. If you don't see a sign or advertisement, always ask -- the agent may have fabulous offers the cruise lines won't let him or her publicize. In addition, ask if the agent can meet or beat the best price you've seen elsewhere.
Size: You can book a cruise through a huge travel retailer with branches around the country, a local cruise agency or even a home-based agent who will talk cruising with you at your local coffee shop. You'll find pros and cons of working with the different types of agencies; for example, you might get more personal service from an independent agent but better deals from a large company with a high volume of bookings. Shop around and see what size fits your needs best.
How To Locate an Agent
If you'd like to book a cruise through a travel agent, you can pop into a downtown storefront or search for cruise sellers online. If you want to look for agents registered with travel organizations, here are some resources for finding agencies near you.
Cruise Lines International Association: You can search for a CLIA-certified travel agent on the organization's Web site. Use the search tool to locate agents in your area with a variety of levels of CLIA training.
American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA): Use ASTA's consumer Web site to locate a travel agent who has agreed to conduct their business activities in accordance with the organization's code of ethics. Select "cruises" or "cruise lines" under Specialties to find agents that focus on selling cruise travel.
When To Go It Alone
Using a travel agent isn't always necessary. Here's how to determine if it's okay to book on your own.
You're Experienced: If you have cruised before and know exactly what you want -- the cruise line, destination, duration and cabin -- booking on the Internet can be quite easy. Most online cruise retailers have comprehensive search functions, as well as pages that list their best or newest deals. Many also offer additional resources, such as deck plans, photos and reviews. A step-by-step process will guide you through the booking and payment procedures. (See our Online Reservations article for more.)
You're Independent: If you're a do-it-yourself type, and you have the time and inclination to thoroughly research your own trip using resources like Cruise Critic, then go right ahead. For many of us, planning is half the fun of taking a trip.
--by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor, and Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor