It’s the white elephant in the room when dealing with a travel agent. Are they earning a commission and how is this affecting the price of my cruise? It’s time to set the record straight once and for all!
Any cruise line executive will tell you they rely on the travel agent community to fill their cabins. Simply put, cruise lines can’t do it themselves. With more than 70,000 beds a day to fill across 70 different cruise lines, they just don’t have the infrastructure to provide passengers with the support they need for a seamless booking process. Travel agents are their foot soldiers and in return they reward them with a commission.
Does this mean that it’s cheaper booking direct with one of the cruise lines? No, not at all, as that would mean ostracising the travel agent community whose support they rely on. Cruise lines keep their pricing the same, regardless of the method you decide to use. In fact, on occasion it may even be cheaper to book through an agent because cruise lines run special promotions in conjunction with particular agency networks.
Cruise pricing is dynamic, which means fares will rise and fall over time according to availability, much as it does with an airline. If you do find a cheaper price offered by the cruise line, a travel agent will most likely honour it. They will approach the cruise line and access the new fares or may even consider reducing their commission slightly to match the new price. It’s not an ideal situation for an agent, after all, they are operating a business -- and nobody wants to work for free. But in the end, the agent’s ultimate goal is to make you their client for life and not just process this one transaction.
Will you get a better level of support by booking directly with a cruise line? Not necessarily. During the course of your booking process you will be dealing with different members of their reservation team who are not familiar with you or your booking. On the other hand, your personal travel agent knows you and your likes and dislikes and will work to represent you along the way. For example, your agent will know if you are celebrating a special occasion on board and magically organise a bottle of champagne to help you celebrate on the day. Would you want to wait 20 minutes on hold to a reservation department yourself to organise this when an agent can simply make this happen?
Let’s look at the bigger picture. Think of your travel agent as your travel butler. Wouldn’t we all want a butler to help us get through the day? Your agent does exactly that, guiding you through your holiday to ensure you get exactly what you pay for -- a memorable holiday experience without any hassle. They are your representatives when things go wrong, when you need support or just some simple advice.
Two years ago I had to travel Busan, South Korea on business for a week. While I was enroute, the respiratory disease MERS was taking hold and 24 hours after I landed the country was starting to shut down, including the airports. My conference was cancelled and I had to find a way to get home in a hurry. A quick call to Jean, my travel agent, and I was out of there before I got stuck. At the time I was completely unware of the effort that she put in to get me on one of the last flights out of there, something that I would never have been able to do myself, stuck halfway around the world with limited internet and phone access. I’ve been in the travel industry for more than 20 years and you can never predict when you need support. Jean is my extra insurance policy to protect me when I travel, and that’s something I’m more than happy to pay for.
One last thing to consider: Is a cruise specialist agent different to a regular travel agent? Well, I may be biased, but yes! I know the extensive cruise-specific training they do through the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA Australasia). I also know that every Aussie, Kiwi or Asian agent that has a CLIA accreditation has actually been on a cruise because that is part of the program criteria. Agents without CLIA accreditation may have never been on a cruise. I know CLIA-accredited agents are engaged with what’s happening in the industry, that they work with key networks (especially important if they need support) and that they understand all the little things that will make a difference to your cruise holiday. So next time you are ready to book a cruise, make sure you look for a CLIA Cruise Accredited Agent -- they are your cruise butlers.
--From The Inside is a monthly column by Peter Kollar, head of international training and development, CLIA Australasia.