Why a travel agent can be your best cost-free asset in booking a cruise.
Our final secret is not really a secret, just something that needs clarification. A cruise should cost you the same amount whether you book it directly with the cruise line or through a travel agent. Some people think travel agents cost more, that they charge service fees, or that they will steer you to the cruise line they prefer instead of what is best for you.
All of those things are possible; however most travel agents, especially ones that specialize in personalized service and have a long track record of satisfied clients, will give you exemplary service and it won't cost even an additional penny. The reason is they survive on repeat business, and so their first concern is your satisfaction with the cruise you buy from them. If they steer you to the wrong cruise line for you, you won't go back to them. If you find out you could have gotten the cruise for less you won't go back.
What are the advantages? A travel agent will be your advocate if anything goes wrong. If you miss a flight they will get on the phone to book a new one. If you have a dispute with the cruise line they have a lot more pull to fix things than you do, because they do more volume buying with that cruise line. They can get volume discounts or other perks which they might pass on to you - depending on how loyal you become to them. Simply put, travel agents sell about 85% to 90% of all cruises because they know what they are doing. The cruise lines like it that way, because cruising is a complicated product to sell and the big lines don't have time for a lot of hand holding.
Ask people who cruise a lot for their recommendations for a cruise agent. Call and talk to the agent personally. An agent who is right for you will have time for you, but frankly some agents may be out of your league if you are just booking your first three-day cruise. Don't take it personally if an agent says he is too busy to help you and recommends that you book a three-day cruise on your own - in fact, those are the agents who really know their cruises and mostly cater to the most knowledgable cruise buyers.
There is no shame in being a first-time cruiser, but you are going to have the most questions and the agent is going to make next to nothing from the sale of that cruise. So, if you feel ignored be sure to tell them who referred you to them, or just go with your gut feeling. If you really do not like a travel agent after awhile you can call a different agent and ask her to take over the booking. Whoever gets your final payment into the cruise line will be your agent of record and get the commission.
By the same token, if you are a beginning cruiser please do not pick a travel agent's brain and then go and book the cruise yourself online. If an agent has helped you make a decision, at least ask him the price of the cruise and book it through him. Now, this assumes the agent is giving you the right price (same as the cruise line or better). If not, move along.
After this section you will have read 10,000 words on cruise secrets. I took my first cruise in 1983; 10 days at sea from Los Angeles to Tahiti. I worked on five different cruise ships, three cruise lines. I have worked for ultra luxury, premium and mainstream cruise lines and I enjoyed all of them in unique ways. As a cruise reporter I have taken well over 100 cruises and visited all continents except Antarctica.
Cruising delivers a lot of bang for the buck. Most first-time cruisers say "if I had known how good it is I would have started cruising much sooner." The real bang comes from the attentive service. You are not "stuck on a boat," you are in the lap of luxury with no responsibilities except relaxation and enjoying the food and activities as you sail to exciting destinations.
Cruising is complicated, but you will learn quickly on your first cruise. Don't hesitate, book that first cruise and see what you like about it. If the first one is not perfect do your research and change cruise lines. The variety of cruises available to you means there is something out there for everyone.