When you're ready to purchase your cruise, you can either go directly to the cruise line you've chosen, or you can book a cruise with a travel agent. Bookings can be made online or over the phone with either the cruise line or the travel agent. With travel agents, you can often also meet face-to-face. Travel agents come in many varieties, including the traditional curbside store like Liberty Travel and AAA; online websites like Expedia, Cruise.com and CruiseDeals.com; and franchises like Cruise One and Cruise Planners, which are made up of small home businesses all operating under the same name.
Yes, there are differences between booking directly with the cruise line versus using a travel agent. Most specifically, travel agents are known for giving more personalized service than cruise lines, though some cruise sales representatives can be attentive and helpful.
The main difference between the two is that cruise line sales reps know only what they've been taught about their own brands; most have not sailed on the cruise ships they're booking, and none will answer questions about other cruise lines if you're looking for help deciding between lines, for instance. Travel agents -- cruise specialists, in particular -- have been onboard many cruise ships and can offer first-hand advice, like which cabins to avoid because they're under the main theater or across from a crew-only access door. A good travel agent will also get to know your travel style and guide you to the cruise line, ship and even room type that are best for you.
While the bulk of a travel agent's income comes from commissions paid by the cruise lines, most travel agents also charge a small service fee ($15 to $30) for their time and effort, though not all do. Most travel agents who do choose to charge for their service are worth the expense, as they tend to be the most educated and well-traveled in the industry. High-end travel agents, like those that belong to the Virtuoso or Signature consortiums, will typically charge more, but they're less likely to sell mainstream cruises like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Consortiums -- and there are several travel agency consortiums out there -- are groups of agencies that pay a yearly fee to participate in a large selection of shared programs and resources.
That depends on what you mean by saving money. Generally speaking, the prices that travel agents can provide are the same as what the cruise lines offer. Travel agents are prohibited from rebating their commissions -- in order to lower pricing or give significant onboard credit rewards -- by almost every single cruise line. Some agents still practice rebating, but if they're caught by the cruise lines, they could lose their selling privileges.
There are some exceptions to the same price rule, however. Agents often have access to group pricing (buying cabins in bulk at lower per-room rates), which the agency consortium or franchise group they belong to has been able to negotiate with the cruise lines. Along with group pricing, they might have special perks to offer like onboard spending money, prepaid gratuities, a free bottle of wine or comped dinner in a for-fee restaurant. Even if the price is the same, these additional perks are often where the savings come in. Prepaid gratuities, for instance, can save you hundreds of dollars, depending on how many people are in your cruise group.
Beyond the excellent advice and onboard perks cruise sellers can provide, one of the greatest things about working with a travel agent is she or he will have your back if something goes wrong. Because a cruise line is typically an enormous entity, making sure you're satisfied is not always the most important thing to a cruise line sales rep. While the line would love to have you back as a repeat customer, its reps won't lose sleep if you move on because of a bad experience. Travel agents, on the other hand, have much more of an incentive to keep you coming back, as their customer list is significantly smaller than the cruise line's. If something goes wrong with your booking or on the ship itself, a good travel agent will be on the phone with his or her contact at the cruise line immediately to try to get everything fixed.
Travel agents also can help with any special arrangements, whether it's organizing a wedding ceremony in a port of call, ordering gluten-free meals, or dealing with accessibility or medical issues. They can also help with pre- or post-cruise travel, such as booking hotels and flights or arranging tours.
Some travel agents also will monitor your cruise fare and, if the price drops, alert you to the difference and try to get you a refund, onboard credit or an upgrade.
One thing to note about booking through a travel agent is that if you want to ask any questions about your upcoming trip or your booking, you will have to speak with the specific travel agency that booked your cruise. Cruise lines will not talk to you if you have booked through a travel agent. This can be frustrating if your travel agent is out sick or on vacation, or if the travel agent has made a mistake and is not fixing it. As in all professions, some agents are more helpful and easier to work with than others. In rare instances, when working with a travel agent becomes impossible, cruise lines usually will try to get the booking transferred to them.
Under normal circumstances, you may only transfer a booking from the cruise line to a travel agent, and that transfer must be done within a certain timeframe after the booking is made. Generally, the transfer must be made before final payment is due and before the cruise is paid in full. Some lines have tighter deadlines. Keep in mind you can also transfer a booking made onboard a cruise ship to a travel agent, as well.
The level of service and interaction you can expect to receive from a travel agent after booking your cruise varies significantly. Some travel agencies will simply send you a booking confirmation letter within a day or two of booking and a payment reminder as the final payment date nears. Others will send information about your cruise line, ports you're visiting, packing lists and tips for an enjoyable cruise. Some will send out an agency-branded luggage tag or day bag. Upon returning home from your cruise, some agents may reach out to see how the trip was; a rare few may even send you a welcome home gift. If this type of service is important to you, make sure to ask about it before booking.
Outside of personal recommendations from friends and family, your best bet for finding a good travel agent is to visit the website of the cruise line(s) you're interested in. There you'll find a "Find a Travel Agency" search option, usually listed in the links toward the bottom of the homepage. You can also go to the Cruise Lines International Association's website and search the Cruise Expert Finder. You can search by geographic location if you want someone who lives near you or by expertise if you want someone who specializes in a specific line or type of cruise. Cruise Critic also recommends you look for agents with CLIA-accredited designations like ACC, MCC or ECC, as these indicate the agent has invested a lot of time and money into his or her cruise education. Also look for any training the agent has done with individual lines. Other affiliations that are good signs an agent is legitimate are affiliations with the National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies (NACOA) and the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
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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.