You may think you know every aspect of the cruise experience, but when cruising returns after the COVID-19 pandemic, you are likely to discover much has changed. Cruising is about to get a whole lot more complicated; even if you are a frequent cruiser who does everything yourself, in the post-pandemic era there is significant reason to turn to a travel agent for your next cruise booking.
When deciding to cruise in the next few months, or even years, you will need to know about everything from mask-wearing and social distancing requirements onboard to the rules of each port you visit, and more. Equally important are the health requirements to get onboard and what are your options if there's a coronavirus outbreak.
"The situation changes so rapidly, it's hard enough for a professional to remain well-informed and we deal with all this every day, multiple times a day," says Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel in Chicago, a Virtuoso agency. "There really isn't any advantage to booking directly with a cruise line."
Here's how to find a travel advisor to help you navigate back to sea.
COVID-19 has enhanced the need to work with people who are knowledgeable about cruising and are up-to-date on the latest rules and regulations. When considering an agent or agency, look at their website for affiliations and certifications. You want the website to look both professional and cruise-focused. Especially in these times, you want to avoid someone who has only been on a couple of cruises and doesn't have insight or relationships with cruise lines.
Expertise is assured if agents are members of the Cruise Lines International Association and Certified Cruise Counselors. Search for a CLIA agent here (https://cruising.org/cruise-vacationer/cruise-travel-guide/find-a-travel-agent).
Members of the American Society of Travel Advisors adhere to an ethics code and you can search the organization's database for those listing cruise expertise (https://www.travelsense.org/advanced-search/).
Agents that are members of Virtuoso, Signature or Ensemble have access to the consortium's extensive cruise programs.
The cruise lines themselves offer travel advisor certifications, which means the agent has completed sales training -- and has particular insight into that line (or several lines). Many cruise lines have preferred agent search engines on their websites, too.
Your travel advisor should be familiar with the type of cruise you are planning to take. If you're looking for a river cruise in Europe, for instance, it might not help that the agent has done 64 ocean sailings on Royal Caribbean.
Interview the agent as you would any other professional you are hiring. Ask what cruises they have been on and where they have traveled. You also want to assure the agent is a good communicator and someone you feel you could turn to in a crisis.
Beyond that, ask how frequently they are in contact with the cruise lines you are considering. In the coronavirus era, you want someone who can pick up the phone and reach someone at the cruise line, and know what questions to ask.
You'll most likely meet the agent on the phone or via Zoom or FaceTime, because most agents are working from their homes due to COVID-19.
Cruise bookings right now are a moving target, with rolling cancellations and future cruise credit offers. The travel advisor should be finding and reading information frequently, keeping up with the changes taking place.
"Ask the agent, 'If we were to work together, how do I know you will keep me informed and that you have the right information?'" Clabbers advises. "The answer should be, 'Because of my contacts with the cruise lines and by looking regularly at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the World Health Organization, CLIA and other trusted sources."
Cruise lines are issuing memos and bulletins to agencies. Consortiums and big agencies are creating their own information-sharing methods.
Cruise Planners franchises, for instance, have access to a new centralized information hub with data on all cruise cancellations, refund policies, future cruise credit policies and health and safety protocols, says COO and co-owner Vicky Garcia. Webinars via Zoom, featuring cruise line and CLIA executives and other experts, provide the agents further insight, she says,
A reality of the times is a lot of cruises are being canceled, which means lots of people are trying to rebook or collect their refunds. Other cruisers are simply getting cold feet and also trying to make changes. You want an agent who will take control.
Calling a cruise line yourself is likely to be a nightmare, the situation made worse by recent layoffs and furloughs at the cruise lines themselves. In fact, some lines are notifying passengers not to call their reservation centers at all and telling customers that they should wait for the cruise line to contact them.
A travel advisor can save you sitting on the phone for hours. He or she can also talk you off the ledge and explain, for instance, why it might be better to wait on canceling until the cruise line offers a future cruise credit (which might be for 125 percent of what you paid).
Agents might charge a small fee, as compensation for the extra work they are doing, but based on saved time and reduced frustration, you might find it's worth it.
With all the future credits being redeemed, plus pent-up demand for cruises, finding space for next year is getting tricky -- especially because, with social distancing, many ships might not sail at full occupancy. And not all ships are expected to come back at once. Another value of experienced agents in the post-pandemic world: They'll know what's available.
Some cruise lines have opened up itineraries for 2022 and even 2023 earlier than usual too. Your travel agent can work with you to find a cruise that fits, within your own personal time frame of when you feel comfortable to get back to the sea.