To some, researching and booking a cruise is a fun and stress-free experience, complete with happy memories and even new friendships. If this concept sounds utterly foreign to you, you've probably been spending too much time searching the Web and puzzling over pricing. What you need is a travel agent.
It's a common misperception that travel agents can't get the same low prices you can find yourself on the Internet. That's true—at least in some cases—when you're talking about airfare, but when it comes to booking a cruise, travel agents can often find better pricing and provide more personal service than any website. The secret to their success? Cruise lines are actively courting them.
A good travel agent understands the complicated cruise booking process and can direct you to the right cruise line, itinerary, and cabin type for your personality. The result: satisfied customers almost guaranteed to cruise again (a win-win for all involved). It should come as no surprise, then, that the cruise lines offer their best agents discounts and incentives to pass on to clients to keep those bookings coming in. They also pay commission, so agents don't have to charge you more in order to take a cut.
In addition to saving you money, the best agents can act as consumer advocates should something go wrong. They'll also turn the planning process into an enjoyable experience and take the burden of research off your shoulders.
Many Web-savvy shoppers turn to the Internet for low cruise prices, but it's the travel agents who have access to the unpublicized deals and upgrades. "Pricing is comparable across the board," says Matt Cervone, owner of Just Cruises & Vacations, "but legitimate agents have relationships with cruise lines that get them offers not available on the websites." These unpublished promotions can range from discounted pricing to free or cheap upgrades and onboard credit. Agents also know about military, senior, and location-based discounts that might not be easy to find online; they also have access to reduced single-supplement prices.
In addition, many agents book their customers on "guarantee rates," which means guests don't pick a specific cabin but are guaranteed a stateroom in a certain category or above. These fares let guests risk getting a less desirable location in order to have a chance at an upgrade. "Cruise lines really look at how you've booked when they assign upgrades," says Jo Ellen Kamen, CTC, a leisure specialist at Go Travel. "I can't remember the last time one of my clients didn't get upgraded." High-volume travel agencies will get first crack at those better cabins, while individuals who booked via the Internet will be the last in line.
Travel agents also get access to special deals by belonging to consortiums, such as Ensemble Travel or Virtuoso, which negotiate extra benefits with travel providers on behalf of their clients. The member travel agencies can pass these bonuses on to their customers, offering them perks like free airfare and shipboard credit. Some agents even surprise their clients with a bon voyage gift, such as a free bottle of champagne.
Another way a travel agent can save you money is by being a fare watchdog. Some cruise lines will refund your money or give you shipboard credit if the price of your cruise goes down after you've booked. "I monitor cruises from the initial deposit to the sail date for price adjustments," says Kamen. If the price drops, she gets that money back for her clients. You may not have time to check the cruise fares every day, but a good travel agent will do the job for you.
Stress-free trip planning
"Going on the Internet can be time-consuming and terribly confusing," says Cecily Macdonald, owner of Nautical Adventures. "Travel agents have resources available so they don't have to search for the answers."