'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
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
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
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
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