Most people are accustomed to booking travel online. It's easy to independently book flights, hotels and car rentals, but cruises are a different story. The booking process is more complicated -- you have to choose ships, itineraries, cabin categories and dining times -- so we often recommend that first time cruisers and experienced travelers alike use a travel agent instead of booking cruises online. Since most of us haven't used a travel agent in a long time (if ever!), we'll lay out for you the pros and cons of using a cruise travel agent versus online booking.
Booking a Cruise with a Travel Agent: Pros
The biggest advantage of booking a cruise through a travel agent is personalized advice from a knowledgeable source. A good travel agent will discuss your vacation preferences, budget and other travel needs and suggest which cruises will be the best fit. He or she can help you arrange flights and pre- or post-cruise stays, recommend in-port excursions and help with any special arrangements (think celebrations onboard or making arrangements for dietary and medical concerns). Travel agents might also thank you for your business with a small gift, such as a free bottle of wine in your cruise room or prepaid gratuities onboard.
Booking a Cruise with a Travel Agent: Cons
The hardest part of using a travel agent is finding a good one, especially if you don't know anyone who can recommend one. You might need to talk to a few before you find the right fit. If you pick an agent who is not very professional, you could waste time listening to bad advice or trying to track the agent down when you have a problem. Unlike when booking online, you can't book a cruise with an agent in the middle of night; you'll have to arrange times to talk during the agent's business hours. Finally, if you book your cruise with a travel agent, you'll have to carry out all communications with the cruise line through the agent, which can sometimes slow the process down if your agent is unavailable.
Booking a Cruise Online: Pros
The upside to booking a cruise online is you have many options and can do your travel research and purchasing at whatever time is most convenient to you. Cruises can be booked online through the cruise line directly or via a third-party online cruise seller. You can easily compare fares and special deals across multiple sites. You also can sign up for email alerts to inform you about last minute deals, price drops and limited-time promotions. Online sellers, as well as sites like Cruise Critic, can provide you with lots of information -- deck plans, cabin layouts and information about cruise ship amenities and in-port activities -- to help you book.
Booking a Cruise Online: Cons
If you book a cruise online, you take on all the responsibility for doing the research, making decisions and figuring out who to contact in case of a problem. No one is going to alert you to a factor you forgot to consider or remind you to book excursions (or, in some cases, alert you when your final payment is due). Also, if you book online through a cruise line's website, you might miss out on agency-specific promotions that could get you extra perks and savings.
Travel Agent vs. Online Booking: Bottom Line
You should book your cruise with a travel agent if you're a first time cruiser, have a lot of special requests or want to get the best deals. At Cruise Critic, we tend to think that most people should use a travel agent for the best experience. This could also include researching fares online and then calling up travel agent representatives who work for an online retailer.
You should consider an online booking if you're an experienced cruiser, know exactly which sailing and cabin you prefer and are savvy about finding the best deal. You should also book online if you're the kind of person who enjoys the research process and wants to use Web-based resources to plan the perfect cruise.