Surfers trim their Internet sales
Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Sep 9, 2001;

Laura Bly Special to the Tribune;

Copyright 2001 by the Chicago Tribune)

FALL/WINTER CRUISES.

Internet-savvy passengers on Crystal Cruises' ships aren't out of touch while they're out at sea. The Los Angeles-based line has offered onboard computer classes and e-mail access since 1997 and just launched a "personal Web site service" that lets landlocked friends and family sail along at the same time.

But do-it-yourselfers who try to purchase their trips through Crystal's own site (www.crystalcruises.com) are dead in the water. Like many of its competitors, Crystal doesn't offer online booking-- preferring instead to direct prospective passengers to a list of nearby travel agents.

"We still see buying a cruise as something that requires a more personal touch. People have a huge number of questions, and [travel agencies] have the infrastructure to provide that level of service," says Crystal Cruises spokeswoman Mimi Weisband.

Indeed, while a growing number of airlines and hotels are encouraging customers to book direct through the Web, Internet cruise sales remain waterlogged.

Online and off, some 95 percent of cruise passengers buy through travel agents rather than the cruise lines themselves. And despite a major push by online giants Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity and cruise-only outfits like Icruise (www.icruise.com), Cruise411 (www.cruise411.com) and Cruise.com (www.cruise.com), the Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix predicts just 1.3 percent of U.S. cruise bookings will be made via the Web this year, versus 13 percent of U.S. airline sales.

With good reason, says Anne Campbell of CruiseMates (www.cruisemates.com), one of several online publications aimed at cruise enthusiasts.

While a growing number of agency Web sites tout the ability to select and buy a cruise without placing a phone call or sending an e- mail and waiting for a reply, "there's a huge difference between booking a cruise and an airline seat or hotel room [online]."

"I've been on close to a hundred cruises, and I wouldn't do it," says Campbell, citing the often-sizable price tags and complexities of such variables as cabin categories, dining options and shore excursions.

And in most cases, notes Campbell, rates are the same whether passengers point and click or pick up a phone.

That said, half of all passengers now research their cruises online first, notes the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org), an industry trade group.

What's more, the Internet has been a "big influencer" for the 78 percent of American travelers who've never taken a cruise, says analyst Kate Rice of PhoCusWright, a Sherman, Ct.-based online travel research firm.

"The Web is a dream-maker, [and] streaming videos of parasailing can obliterate stereotypes of passengers beginning to line up at 11 p.m. for the midnight buffet," says Rice.

Some advice:

- Get a good overview by checking out such information-rich sites as CruiseMates, Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com) and About.com's Cruises Guide (cruises.about.com), where you'll find news updates, cruise line and ship reviews, message boards and advice on the best ways to land a bargain.

- Check prices at multiple online agencies. Several sites, such as Cruise.com, Cruise411, Expedia, and Travelocity, include a comparison tool that let you rate potential cruises side by side. Cruise.com and Icruise, meanwhile, have a "beat your quote" feature that lets you try to push your best deal even lower.

- Willing to travel at the last minute or are flexible about dates and ships? Consider online auctions such as All Cruise Auction (www.allcruiseauction.com), SkyAuction (www.skyauction.com) or Bid 4 Vacations (www.bid4vacations.com), or a site that specializes in last- minute deals, such as LastMinuteTravel.com (www.lastminutetravel.com). And don't forget to sign up for e-mail notification of special deals.

- Many cruise line sites include 360-degree photos of cabins and public areas, deck plans, and details on ports of call and shipboard and entertainment. Celebrity (www.celebritycruises.com), Princess (www.princesscruises.com) and Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com) even let you book shore excursions online before you leave home.

- Several cruise line sites, including those of industry leaders Carnival (www.carnival.com), Princess and Royal Caribbean, let you locate nearby agents by typing in your zip code.