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 These unpublished promotions can range from discounted pricing to free or cheap upgrades and onboard credit.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.”
A good travel agency has lots of experience under its roof. The agents go on many cruises and ship tours each year, attend seminars and classes on the various cruise lines, and follow industry trends. They can tell you which ships are a little rough around the edges, and which cruise lines would be a good fit for your interests.
Travel agents will make sure you avoid beginners’ mistakes, as well. They’re knowledgeable about passport and visa requirements, and will help you get your travel documents in order. “It’s very important to remember that if you miss the ship [on a Caribbean island, for example], you can’t fly back without a passport,” says Macdonald. You might not know that bit of passport law, but a travel agent will make sure you’re covered for any situation that may come up. An agent may also recommend appropriate travel insurance and help you navigate the confusing legalese of the various policies.
Inexperienced travelers can often make mistakes when making their pre- or post-cruise travel arrangements. “Some people who book their Europe cruise online don’t book the air travel right and miss the ship,” says Kamen. Travel agents are well versed in booking transportation, accommodations, and packages and can help you sort out the nuances of getting to and from your ship. They can also offer alternatives to the cruise lines’ pre- and post-cruise land packages if you want to save money or travel on a different itinerary.
Say your flight to the cruise port gets delayed or canceled, and you fear you might miss the ship. If you’ve booked online, you’re pretty much on your own. But if a travel agent arranged your trip, he or she can work on your behalf to make alternate arrangements and solve the problem. Your travel agent is your consumer advocate.
A travel agent also has more power to fix a booking mistake. If you accidentally book your cruise for the wrong week, you may have a tough time changing the reservation or getting your money back. A travel agent has a relationship with the cruise lines, and can often fix mistakes with little trouble.
How to find the right travel agent
You can find a travel agent through the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), and Vacation.com, but Cervone recommends walking into a local agency. He says, “You want to develop a relationship with an agent, so go on instinct. Find someone who knows what they’re talking about.”
Look to see if the agent has CLIA accreditation or is a Travel Institute destination specialist, proving she’s taken courses in selling cruises and travel to specific locations. You can also ask if the agency is a member of a travel consortium or is a key account with any of the cruise lines—those relationships not only prove the dedication of the agency, but its ability to get extra deals for you. Finally, you may want to ask if the agency has a dedicated cruise person or department, and how many years of experience the agents have.
Above all, you want to look for an agent that is interested in building a relationship with you. The agent should spend some time asking you about your interests in order to find the best fit for your vacation. He or she should return your calls or emails promptly and stay in regular communication with you between trips.
Ultimately, you don’t have to give up your Internet addiction. By all means, keep checking the Web for great deals and low prices. The next time you find an enticing offer, why not run it by a travel agency? The agents might be able to offer you the same price plus a little personal service, or show you why the deal isn’t as great as you thought. Speaking to an agent doesn’t commit you to booking with that person. Think of it as another step in your research plan—one that might net you better deals and service than the ‘Net.