I received a cruise newsletter for " cruise industry insiders," that noted a market study on cruisers' perceptions on the best way to buy
a cruise. I was surprised at how misinformed some people appear to be about cruise purchases, even in this day of readily available information. And so we want to clear the air.
Not everyone will like what we have to say, but since CruiseMates does not sell travel at all (even our group cruises are handled through an outside agency and unlike similar cruise communities, we don't care to profit from our readers) we have no stake in what we are saying other than our goal to give you the best possible advice on how to buy a cruise.
The study noted that only 78% of cruisers say they book "some" of their cruises with travel agents, down from 88% five years earlier. Most disquieting, 56% of people responded that they believe they can get a better price on a cruise if they book it on their own - without the help of a travel agent. Not true!
Here is the absolute truth: the best cruise deals come from cruise specialist travel agencies. These agencies can and will get you the same price you would get by booking directly with the cruise line every time, and they give you an added level of service you do not get by dealing directly with the cruise line. But best of all, in many cases they will sweeten the deal by offering you additional perks the cruise line would not give you. These are called "value add" inducements.
In the last few months both Carnival and NCL have announced "flat pricing" policies, catching up with the flat-pricing policy already in effect with Royal Caribbean for a few years now. This means that whatever price you see advertised directly from a cruise line will be the same price you see at a cruise agency web site. For the record, Regent, Oceania and other luxury cruise lines also have the same policy.
But you will only get additional perks by using a travel agent - not by booking directly with the cruise line. The cruise lines allow agents to use "value added" enticements like transfers, trip insurance, dinner reservations, bottles of wine - anything except cash. There is an official policy limiting these perks to $150 in value, plus the agents cannot advertise the cash value of these value-added inducements. What does that mean? That you have to call these agents to find out what they will do for you.
Many novice travelers have travel agent phobia. Don't. Successful travel agents make a living by acquiring loyal customers and selling in volume. Some people don't understand that the cruise lines pay the full commission of the travel agent, it is not charged to the customer at all. All of the customer money goes directly to the cruise line and the agent is then paid a commission by the cruise line after you sail.
Part of the new policy is that every cruise booked by a travel agent must be for the exact price set by the cruise line. So, every agency pays the same retail price as you would pay booking directly. Agents are later paid their commission by the cruise line in the form of a check after you sail. It's a tough business where cash flow is critical.
Another misconception is that travel agents will steer you away from what you want and towards the product where they make the most money. Let's answer that concern this way; First, if you don't already have a travel agent you trust you need to find one. Secondly, if do your research and know what you want before you book a cruise you won't be steered away.
Now, for the record, we have heard horror stories about a few agents charging a newcomer the brochure rate on a cruise. That is one reason flat-pricing works for you. If you are ever charged more for a cruise than the line is advertising you need a new travel agent. There is no acceptable excuse.
Travel agents are not paid commissions on airfare, however. Therefore, many agents invoke a service charge for selling you an airline ticket. This is fair, and this even includes the big sellers of air travel on the Internet.
For a detailed discussion on this topic and exactly what you should be paying a travel agent go to this forum: Travel Agent Fees.