December 13, 2000
A survey by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) reveals that just two percent of travelers actually book cruises online. That’s in spite of the fact that cruisers, according to its study, are more Internet-savvy than other travelers in using the web for research and opinion seeking. But wait. The two-percent online booking figure would actually seem quite generous since the technological capabilities to actually book – and confirm – a cabin on a specific cruise haven’t been available until recently. Today, just a handful of travel agencies of the virtual, as well as clicks-n-bricks variety, such as Uniglobe.com, Cruise 411.com and Icruise.com, say they offer the service. Our own survey, based on actually trying to book a cruise on one of these sites, was illuminating. One, it’s a time consuming process (we averaged about 40 minutes per site), far more so than simply calling an agent. Two, you don’t have access -- in real time, anyway -- to all cruise lines aside from the majors. And finally, it helps -- greatly -- to know exactly which cruise you are interested in (say Celebrity Mercury’s May 11 Inside Passage itinerary as opposed to “we want to go to Alaska this summer, sometime, on any ship”). Our experience: * Uniglobe.com’s Cruise Control is an 8-step process. It offers the biggest variety (14 lines, from Carnival to Crystal). There’s 24/7 toll-free sales support. The process works pretty smoothly; but we had enormous difficulty in actually finalizing the deal, often receiving a “we’re sorry but we cannot complete your request at this time.” * Cruise411.com can do online booking for fewer cruise lines (seven, limited to majors like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity though you can call and book up to 23 more lines) but it has bells and whistles like “cruise compare,” where you can actually see, on one screen, up to four different cruises-of-choice. Loved the booking process -- also an eight step deal but it’s really easy to make unusual requests, including, in this experiment, a veranda cabin on the Carnival Spirit, a pre-voyage hotel stay at Miami’s Eden Rock, and a request for an anniversary acknowledgement. Alas, there was a problem at the final stages in terms of booking the cruise. * icruise.com is the only one to handle budget-oriented lines like Regal, Commodore, Crown and Mediterranean Shipping Cruises but it’s the hardest to maneuver. You choose by ship rather than itinerary. Then, when picking a cabin, you’re required to click on a deck to find a category that fits your price range, which is odd because many cruise lines scatter categories on different decks. The biggest problem: no toll free support phone line, just the “opportunity” to have a live online chat with a sales rep. And, even stranger, when you get to the end, instead of a “real-time” confirmation you get this: “Reservations confirmed within 24 hours.” Other travel agency web sites, like Cruise.Com, are planning to launch their own real-time booking services, says that company’s Dan Bohan, who anticipates Cruise.Com will launch it early next year. But he’s waiting until the kinks are smoothed out. “Ultimately,” he says, the most successful online agencies will be determined by “who has the best shopping engine.” Just not quite yet.