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Booking a cruise online: The secrets to success

SmarterTravel

Step into the realm of online cruise booking, and you are immediately bombarded with a myriad of choices. You can purchase your cruise through one of the popular, all-encompassing travel sites, such as Orbitz or Travelocity, or you can check one of the multitude of cruise-only sites, such as Cruises411 or Cruises.com. You can go directly to your favorite cruise line’s website or check out AAA. Or, you could decide to forego online booking altogether and call your travel agent or the cruise company’s own sales agents. But how do you know which sites are legit, and where you can get the best deals?

This overwhelming number of choices can befuddle anyone, from a first-time cruiser to an experienced world traveler. So we’re here to assuage your confusion and give you the information you need to decide which type of booking, and which sites or companies, are right for you. Over the next few months, we’ll bring you a series of features that explore the different types of sites and discuss their unique benefits and style, so you’ll be able to book your next cruise, online or off, with confidence.

NLG: The power behind the scenes

If you’re going to book a cruise online, you need to know about NLG (formerly the National Leisure Group) because, as of November 2003, it has become North America’s largest provider of cruise vacations. Though you will never have visited NLG’s website, nor can you book a cruise through them, they own or license their inventory to 38 cruise-booking sites. NLG’s flagship sites are Cruises Only (www.cruises.com and www.1800cruises.com) and the Vacation Outlet (www.vacationoutlet.com), but NLG also provides the cruise inventory and deals for sites such as Orbitz, Yahoo! Travel, priceline, Hotwire, CheapCaribbean.com, CruiseCheap.com, and seven of the airline-affiliated cruise sites.

Thomas Gerace, Senior Vice President of Marketing at NLG, explained to us how his company operates. “Because of the volume of cruises we sell, we can negotiate NLG-only exclusive vacation alternatives, such as special rates or value-adds like shipboard credit or free transportation between the airport and the ship,” he told us. “Sometimes these specials will be available across all of our sites, and sometimes we’ll negotiate special deals for specific partners.”

Ordinarily, all of the NLG-affiliated sites have access to the same base inventory, meaning you know you’ll get a competitive rate at any of its 38 sites. And as NLG has access to all of each cruise line’s available itineraries, you don’t have to worry that you’re missing out on sailings that might only be available through the cruise line itself. In fact, Gerace explains that due to NLG’s high volume of sales, it will buy blocks of inventory for heavy travel periods (Christmas, school vacation weeks, etc.) in advance, so when the cruises claim to be sold out, the NLG sites may actually have availability.

But if you can get similar prices at all of NLG’s sites, how do you choose among them? The only real way to distinguish between the sites is by specialty. While some sites are generic cruise sites, others are specialty sites, such as BJ’s Vacations, Priority Club Rewards Cruises, American Airlines AAdvantage Cruise, and The Knot Travel Desk. This means that sometimes the special offers relate back to the sponsoring company.

For instance, you can earn frequent flyer miles when you purchase a cruise through AAdvantage Cruise or the other airline-affiliated cruise sites, and BJ’s Vacations recently had a promotion that rewarded cruise bookings with a BJ’s gift-card pack, worth $200 in savings at BJ’s Wholesale Club. If you’d prefer your special offers to be cruise-related, then stick to sites such as Cruises Only and Ship ‘n’ Shore. Or, if you know your cruise destination, you could try sites like CheapCaribbean.com, which focus on travel within a certain region.

Given NLG’s top position in the marketplace and its ability to negotiate deals, you can rest assured that the prices you find from Cruises Only, Vacation Outlet, Orbitz, or any other of NLG’s licensed sites will not only be competitive, but could be a special deal you won’t find anywhere else. But as no one site has all of the best prices all the time, be sure to shop around before you hand over your credit card.

NLG makes the booking process easy

If you’re thinking about booking with an NLG site, you will find that it’s quite easy to go through the booking process. If you’re comfortable with online bookings, you’ll find a variety of tools to help you. All of the NLG sites feature ship maps so you can look at the categories and select the exact stateroom you prefer, a perk that most travel agents don’t provide, according to Gerace. Sites also include 360-degree ship tours, both professional and passenger ship reviews, and search tools with multiple options so you can look for a cruise based on a variety of criteria.

Gerace explains that if you have questions or do not wish to book online, “our cruise-focused sites feature expert agent competency, and our agents are knowledgeable about the different experiences provided by different cruise lines.” He also adds that you can call an agent at any point and they will walk you through all or part of the online booking process. That way, you can get expert advice, but still process your sale online. Soon NLG will even have agents who are experts about certain trip types and destinations, so you can get the most informed answers to your cruise questions.

NLG’s mission

As the cruise industry expands and the cruise lines try to differentiate their sailing experiences from each other, NLG wants to be the company known for matching your interests with the cruise that’s right for you. Gerace says that NLG wants to spread the word about “what it means to cruise, to break down the myths held by the 85 percent of the traveling population that has never cruised.”

It seems that NLG is achieving its goals by providing helpful information on its sites and through its cruise agents, and by offering incentives to cruise in the form of special discounts and offers on its affiliated sites. As you look into booking your next cruise, you could find a great deal anywhere, but you will know that chances are high that you will find good deals, or at least good information, at one of NLG’s affiliated travel websites.

How does NLG compare?

Next month, we’re going to look at non-NLG-affiliated cruise sites to see how their prices and customer service compare. Stay tuned for part two of our series and the scoop on where you should be booking your next cruise.

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