Should you book your own cruise or use a qualified travel agent? It depends on the quality of your advice.
The number of people choosing to book their own cruises online seems to grow every day. But the reasons why a person would choose to book their own cruise directly with the cruise line depend upon various factors that should be understood before the cruise is booked.
One main and justifiable reason why people book a cruise on their own - directly with the cruise line - is that they are confident in their choice of a cruise line and ship, when they want to sail, and what kind of accommodations they prefer.
The question is how they arrived at these answers, if they are not experienced cruisers. Our neighbors just took their first cruise ever on Oasis of the Seas and had a fantastic time, and they booked it directly with Royal Caribbean. But this is good decision making because they were guided by cruise-experienced friends who were going on the same cruise.
The key distinction for whether you should book your own cruise directly with the cruise line is the quality of cruise experience guiding that choice.
If you do not have enough cruise experience you may not realize that each cruise line offers a unique and distinct style of cruising. A Royal Caribbean cruise can be vastly different from a Carnival or a Norwegian (NCL) cruise - because the ships of each of these cruise lines are all based on different cruising styles. Furthermore, the ships within the fleets of each of these cruise lines can vary a great deal. An 80,000-ton ship built in 1994 is a far different experience than a ship twice the size built after 2000.
Describing the Various Cruise Lines
Just to illustrate my point; Carnival ships offer "Fun Ship" cruises with a highly interactive crew that "entertain" in everything they do, similar to Disney employees who are always "in character." Carnival dining room waiters dress up in costumes and sing and dance on various nights, for example. The whole ship is a stage and all the crewmembers its players. But the professional entertainers are on a very strict schedule, so if you want to see a certain show you must show up in the right place on the right night.
Royal Caribbean cruises are different; the focus is more on the ship and less on the crewmembers. The entertainment is very good, but it is only performed by the professional entertainers on a certain schedule. The dining room waiters are just waiters, not performers. The ships, however, are bigger and more "high-tech" than other cruise lines, so they offer more in sports activities and DIY dining opportunities than Carnival.
Norwegian is different from the first two lines by offering a much more diverse cruise experience, but the scheduling of events is far more "free-form." The ships have over a dozen different restaurants, many carrying a special surcharge. The entertainment is repeated often during the week, so the scheduling of each cruiser's experience is much more "free-style" - they dine when and where they want (and pay accordingly) and they may see any given show on almost any given night, with some exceptions of course.
There are many more differences between all cruise lines, both big and small, but you would not understand these differences unless you are an experienced cruiser all of these cruise lines. So, if you are set on booking a cruise on your own directly with the cruise line, you either have to begin with a lot of research to make sure the cruise experience is what you expect, or you have to get expert advice from someone.
Some of the biggest complaints we get in reader reviews have to do with trying a new cruise line for the first time. A cruiser may be very experienced with one cruise line, or more, but when he tries a different cruise line for the first time he is disappointed in ways he didn't expect.
So, summing up, people who book directly come in two camps - either they know exactly why they want to book a particular ship - or else they are merely rolling the dice.
Using a Travel Agent
If you go to a certain cruise line web site you may find all kinds of options; destinations, big and small ships, etc. But still, they are only showing you are the ships in their own fleet. Let's look at the different cruise lines:
If you go to Carnival.com you have a choice of 24 ships; with a great variety of ships, itineraries and prices.
However, you are not seeing the ships of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Oceania or even the other cruise lines owned (but independently managed) by Carnival Corp. the parent company of Carnival Cruise Line; Cunard, Holland America, Seabourn, and Princess. All together, the ships you DON'T see when you choose to shop for a cruise at a singular cruise line web site is in the hundreds, and many of them may be as good or better than the deals you see presented at one cruise line web site.
Where can you see the entire fleets of all cruise lines in one place - here in CruiseMates is one example.
But travel agents also offer access to all the cruise lines in one stop - and there even more than I listed above. Good cruise-oriented travel agents also know about all of the special offers on tap from each of these cruise lines - something you may not know unless you happen to subscribe to the newsletters of each cruise line.
A travel agent is going to help you select the best cruise ship for you - out of the hundreds of possibilities. Even better - the price will be the same as what you will pay if you book directly with the cruise line because the cruise line pays the travel agent commission - not you.
Now - the question arises, "How do I know the travel agent is steering me to the line that's best for me, rather than the one that pays him the best?" It is a fair question, and the answer is a question, "how good is this travel agent?"
A really good travel agent depends on repeat business; I mean he depends on it. Therefore, he is going to find you the best ship and deal possible in hopes that you will be so satisfied that you will come back to him for your next cruise.
There is nothing wrong with asking a travel any questions, such as
(1) Can you please give me three suggestions you think would fit me and the people going on the cruise we are planning? I suggest asking for a detailed "top pick" and maybe two more quick suggestions of ships you could research on your own.
(2) Feel free to ask him how busy he is - a very busy travel agent is usually a good travel agent.
(3) Ask how many cruises he has taken - it is vital to know the quality of the advice you are receiving.
Last Word - if you go to a travel agent and you are satisfied with the price and selection - please use his services. Many people go to a travel agent and pick his brains, and then they book online just because they can. They didn't mean any harm, but in fact such action is very detrimental to the business of the travel agent they consulted. They depend on that commission for their livelihood.
Plus - I will tell you this honestly, if the travel agent is good, if you do not use him you may forget how to contact him. This happened to me. I used a travel agent to book a hotel room for me in Las Vegas. For the price of a regular room she got me a 1200-foot suite with a monstrous flat panel television (before they were common) - a hot tub and more. Guess what, somehow I lost her name, and I would LOVE to be able to go back to her for my next trip to Las Vegas.
My advice - find a great travel agent and stick with him!