USATODAY
01/19/2001 - Updated 04:34 PM ET

Virtual voyager

'Real-time' cruise bookings underwater on the Web

By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

"Launch 22,500 ships with the flick of a wrist!" urges mytravelco.com, one of at least a dozen travel agency and cruise line Web sites touting do-it-yourselfers' newfound ability to book high-seas trips in "real time."

So, I flicked - and fumed.

When I clicked to get a rate for an inside cabin on a South American sailing of Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream, the response was "online pricing unavailable."

After waiting more than five minutes for an online chat with a "live agent," I abandoned my computer to call mytravelco.com's toll-free reservations line - and was asked for my phone number so the agent could check with the cruise line and get back to me.

The seas weren't much smoother at NCL's own site, which promised "access to the NCL mainframe system located in Miami, Florida," from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET "365 days a year."

Alas, my query generated a "general application error" and an invitation to "visit again during our regular operating hours" - despite the fact that I'd made my request shortly before noon on a Sunday morning.

While online purchases of airline tickets and hotel rooms continue to escalate, Internet cruise sales are waterlogged. Online and off, more than 95% of cruise passengers buy through travel agents rather than direct through the cruise lines, and only 2% of passengers in a recent survey commissioned by the Cruise Lines International Association said they'd booked their trips via the Web.

With good reason, says Anne Campbell of CruiseMates, 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," Campbell says.

She cites the big-ticket nature of the product, the complexity of such variables as cabin category, dining options and shore excursions, and the fact that with a few exceptions such as Web-based cruise auctions, prices are the same whether passengers book online or by phone.

But over the past six months, a growing number of sites - including such well known players as Expedia, Travelocity and Yahoo Travel - have been trying to boost the ranks of Web buyers by letting them reserve a cabin and pay for the cruise online, rather than place a request and wait for a return e-mail or phone call.

One booking site, Cruise411 .com, offers real-time reservations through seven major cruise lines and boasts that 25% of its sales are completed without handholding from a human agent.

For experienced passengers who know exactly what they want, the 24-hour-a-day opportunity to tap directly into cruise inventory "could be a real benefit," says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter.

For everyone else, Driscoll contends, the Web's key advantage continues to be information - from deck plans, sample menus, 360-degree cabin photos and unvarnished ship reviews from fellow passengers, to e-mails about last-minute bargains.

Consistent with cruise lines' stalwart loyalty to travel agents, the handful of lines that offer direct booking seems to approach the concept with all the elan and enthusiasm of a sailor assigned to walk the plank.

At industry leader Carnival, which launched online booking in 1999, would-be buyers must register before getting prices for specific sailings, and direct Web sales represent "less than half a percent" of the company's bookings, says spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.

Renaissance Cruises, meanwhile, deep-sixed its own consumer booking engine and now advises buyers to call an agent or the line's toll-free number.

Even sites that tout side-by-side comparisons and advice from cruise experts are studded with reminders that users can always pick up a phone for help.

"It seems (passengers) still want the personal interaction of someone saying, 'You've made the right decision,'" says Don Walker of mytravelco.com, the online incarnation of cruise seller Travel Services International.