When you surf over to a cruise agency's Web site, or dial up their 800 number, you may be dealing with one of the top cruise-only wholesalers in the country, a local franchisee of a large full-service travel agency, or a very knowledgeable cruise specialist at a small travel agency. Or, it may be a novice working off of his or her kitchen table.
So, how can you tell the difference and find a good, reputable travel agent or agency -- and avoid a bad booking experience?
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Unfortunately, agents tell us that the travel industry is not well-regulated, and just about anyone can just print up business cards, hang out a shingle and start selling travel. The majority of states do not require any type of registration, certification, licensing or consumer protection measures for travel agencies, although this is beginning to change. Bottom line: It is crucial to know who you are dealing with.
Your best bet is to talk to friends, co-workers, relatives and associates and ask them if they know of a good, reputable, local agent who specializes in cruises. (And, of course, read our feature article on Finding a Good Travel Agent.) But here are a few more tips for avoiding cruise travel scams -- and spotting a less-than-reputable agency and protecting your investment before it's too late.
Pay with a credit card. For your best protection against either a dishonest seller of travel or possible supplier bankruptcy, always pay for your cruise fare -- both the initial deposit and the final payment -- with a major credit card such as Mastercard, Visa or American Express. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you are entitled to protection (via a chargeback of disputed fees to your account) if a merchant fails.
Important note: This protection may not apply to those using debit or check cards; it's important to confirm policies with your issuing bank before you charge.
Ensure your money is in the right hands. After you've made a payment, review your credit card or bank statement and make sure that any applicable charges originate directly with the cruise line, not with the travel agency. That way, you'll know that the cruise line has definitely received your money. If you must pay by check or money order, it should be made payable to the cruise line -- not to the agency or to an individual.
Get proper confirmation of your booking. Insist on getting the actual cruise line's confirmation numbers, not just a confirmation number from your agency. Not only will you then know that your information and money is in the right hands, but you'll also be able to pre-reserve shore excursions, restaurant reservations and spa appointments (where available) on the cruise line's Web site.
Purchase travel insurance -- but do so wisely. Cruise Critic has long advised travelers to purchase travel insurance directly from respected third-party insurers rather than the cruise lines themselves, as the latter's policies do not protect customers should the cruise line go out of business. Do note, however, that most insurers provide financial insolvency protection for cruise lines as well as airlines, hotels and tour operators -- but not travel agencies. Learn more in our Travel Insurance Primer for Cruise Travelers .
Check up on an agency before giving them your business. Ask if the agency belongs to any of the following organizations: ARC, IATA, ASTA, ARTA, CLIA or NACOA. A legitimate agency should belong to at least one or two of these groups. Check, too, with the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been registered about the agency. You may also want to contact the attorney general's office in the state where you live and the state where the agency is based.
Remember: If it sounds too good to be true... Be very cautious about dealing with any travel company that says you've won something or sends you a certificate in the mail for a trip that sounds too good to be true -- because it probably is. Never give out your credit card number to a telephone solicitor (unless you have initiated the call and you know the company that you are dealing with) and never send cash, checks or money orders to a travel company that you do not know (unless all of the details of the trip are supplied to you in writing first).