September 16, 2001


Laura Bly:
Electronic Explorer
Cruise Sites Float All Around the Internet
 
Internet-savvy passengers on Crystal Cruises' ships can stay in touch while they're at sea. The Los Angeles-based line has offered onboard computer classes and e-mail access since 1997.

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

"We still see buying a cruise as something that requires a more personal touch," says Mimi Weisband, a spokeswoman for Crystal. "People have a huge number of questions, and [travel agencies] have the infrastructure to provide that level of service." About 95% of cruise passengers buy through travel agents. And despite a major push by online giants Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com), Expedia (http://www.expedia.com) and Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com), and cruise-only outfits like Icruise (http://www.icruise.com), Cruise 411 (http://www.cruise411.com) and Cruise.com (http://www.cruise.com), the Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix predicts that just 1.3% of U.S. cruise bookings will be made via the Web this year versus 13% of U.S. airline sales.

With good reason, says Anne Campbell of CruiseMates (http://www.cruisemates.com), one of several online publications aimed at cruise enthusiasts. "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 and the complexities of such variables as cabin categories, dining options and shore excursions.

And in most cases, Campbell notes, rates are the same whether passengers point and click or call. Still, half of all passengers research their cruises online, notes the Cruise Lines International Assn. (http://www.cruising.org), an industry trade group. What's more, the Internet has been a "big influencer" for the 78% of American travelers who have never taken a cruise, says analyst Kate Rice of PhoCusWright, an 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," Rice says.

Here's a strategy for smooth online sailing:

* Check out such information-rich sites as CruiseMates, Cruise Critic (http://www.cruisecritic.com) and About.com's Cruises Guide (http://cruises.about.com), where you'll find updates, reviews, message boards and bargain-hunting tips.

* Compare prices at multiple online agencies. Cruise.com, Cruise411, Expedia and Travelocity include a comparison tool that lets you rate potential cruises side by side. Cruise.com and Icruise have a "beat your quote" feature that lets you try to push your best deal even lower.

* Are you willing to travel at the last minute, or flexible about dates and ships? Consider online auctions such as All Cruise Auction (http://www.allcruiseauction.com), Sky-Auction (http://www.skyauction.com) or Bid 4 Vacations (http://www.bid4vacations.com), or LastMinuteTravel.com (http://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, deck plans, sample menus and information on ports and shipboard activities. Celebrity (http://www.celebritycruises.com), Princess (http://www.princess cruises.com) and Royal Caribbean (http://www.royalcaribbean.com) let you book shore excursions online.

* Don't rule out "bricks and mortar" agents. Several cruise line sites, including those of Carnival (http://www.carnival.com), Princess and Royal Caribbean, help you locate nearby agents by ZIP Code.