Purchasing a cruise can be done online or via phone, either directly through whichever cruise line you've picked or through a travel agent.
Yes, there are differences. Travel agents generally have a reputation for providing more personalization and better all-around service than cruise lines, though some lines' sales representatives can be helpful and attentive.
The biggest difference between the two types of booking is that cruise line sales reps are only allowed to give information about ships from their line. They won't be able to discuss other cruise lines, should you still be deciding which one is right for you. Many sales reps also don't cruise frequently and, therefore, don't always have as much information as a travel agent might.
Generally speaking, there are no cost savings to be had by booking directly with a cruise line. Price parity is of particular importance to cruise lines, so booking prices across all sales channels tend to be pretty much the same. You may however, in certain circumstances, be offered additional perks or lower deposits directly from cruise lines. This is particularly true if you book your next cruise while on a cruise by sitting down with the onboard sales agents.
Without a middleman involved in the process, you are free to contact the cruise line any time you have a question about your booking. This gives you complete control over your booking; when booking with a travel agent, only the agent may contact the cruise line to ask a question related to your booking. Some online services are only available when you book through the cruise line. These might include making online payments and managing dining choices on some cruise lines.
A lack of knowledge by most cruise line sales reps is the main drawback you'll encounter when booking your cruise directly with the line. Very few phone sales reps have ever been on a cruise, let alone the cruise line and ship you're booking.
While they have probably taken classes provided to them by the cruise line, their knowledge of the ships, shipboard life and ports is extremely limited. You'll need to do a lot of research on your own before and after booking to make sure you get the exact experience you're hoping for.
Cruise line sales reps also have very little leeway for providing extras like onboard spending money, in-cabin gifts (like bottles of wine) and other amenities. The only perks they can provide are those being offered and advertised by the cruise line.
If you booked directly through the cruise line, you may be able to make changes or cancellations on the line's website, but in many cases you'll need to call your cruise line sales rep if you need to change or cancel your booking. In most cases, changes are allowed, with little to no charge, if the changes are made in advance of the final payment due date. For more about changing or canceling a booking, read What to Expect on a Cruise: Booking a Cruise.
Regardless of whether you've booked online or spoken to a cruise line sales representative, your booking will be assigned to a person you can call with future questions and concerns. That person may be called a personal cruise consultant, cruise vacation planner or some similar title depending on the cruise line.
This person will be able to help you with making cruise restaurant reservations, putting in special requests, booking airport transfers, etc. But you're not restricted to only speaking with this person. Because the cruise line "owns" your booking, you can speak to whichever representative answers the phone when you call the line's 800 number.
Many cruisers develop relationships with their reps and will call the same one to book a subsequent cruise, but customers may also use whoever is available right away for informational questions.
The level of service and interaction you can expect to receive from the cruise line after booking pretty much depends on what level of cabin category you've booked. All booked passengers will receive a confirmation email within a day of booking and should receive an emailed payment reminder as the final payment date nears. Passengers in suites typically receive documents through paper mail, including cruise detail and itinerary booklets, luggage tags and packing lists.
The more expensive a cruise line, the more likely you are to receive paper documents in the mail, occasionally with a leather or pleather document or passport case, though this has become more of a rarity than the norm. Upon returning home, most cruise lines will send you an email asking you to take a survey about your experience. You can also expect to receive weekly sales emails, too, though you can always opt out.
Unless your cruise line offers an automatic payment plan that you opted into, like Carnival's Easy Pay, it will not automatically charge the credit card on record (used for the deposit) for final payment.
Instead, cruise lines are supposed to send an email a few days before final payment is due to remind booked customers to make that payment. But we've read of numerous instances where people did not get an email and subsequently didn't pay on time, only to find their cruise had been canceled. In such cases, the line almost never reinstates the booking.
Cruise Critic recommends marking the final payment date down on your calendar. It's better to rely on yourself for a reminder than someone else.
Most cruise lines will allow cruisers to book their airfare and airport transfers through them. Some, but not all, also have pre- and post-hotel stay programs. Keep in mind, the airfares that cruise lines offer might be more expensive than what you'd get on your own, and schedules can be considerably limited. Some lines allow you to pay extra for more flexibility.
One of the benefits of cruise line-booked airfare is that if you have travel delays, the line is responsible for getting you to the ship. For more on cruise line airfare options, read Cruise Line Air Packages: Pros and Cons. Airport-to-cruise terminal transfers can be booked through the cruise line's online cruise planner or over the phone with your cruise line sales rep.
Although it isn't required, travel insurance is always a good idea. Of course, you don't want to think about anything going wrong on your vacation, but the list of things that can negatively impact your trip is extensive. If you become ill, your travel companion or the cruise line changes plans, the weather doesn't cooperate or your luggage is lost, you'll be responsible for covering any associated costs if you don't have insurance.
If you don't purchase coverage from the cruise line, you can obtain it from a third-party provider. For a complete explanation of travel insurance, check out Cruise Critic's Travel Insurance Primer for Cruise Travelers.
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The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.
Updated January 08, 2020