The Rise of E-Cruising

| Monday, 08 Oct. 2012

A travel agent makes a cruise booking over the Internet

CruiseMates came alive on the Internet way back in 1999. Preceding the Internet there were online services like Prodigy and AOL, which were eventually made obsolete, but in 1999 my partner and I attended the Seatrade conference in Miami where everyone was talking about the eventual impact of the Internet, then just beginning to pierce the consciousness of the great majority. For the most part, it was still little more than a convenient place to waste time chatting with mostly younger people you didn't really know.

But one person at that 1999 Seatrade convention, Rod McLeod, who has served a very distinguished career in many roles within the cruise industry, made a statement about the Internet that at the time actually shocked most of the people in attendance, "In ten years there will not a be a single cruise transaction that does not have an internet component."

It took awhile for what he said to sink in - that someday every single cruise would somehow involve the Internet; whether

it was just looking at deck plans, getting the latest prices or actually shopping, booking and paying for the cruise online.

McLeod went on to say that he did not know if people would ever buy cruises over the Internet (at the time e-commerce was still considered as safe as wrestling a crocodile), but he said "the potential of the Internet to dispense information about ships, itineraries, price and policies remains to be seen, but the possibilities are endless."

How do YOU use the Internet when making a cruise booking? Tell us here: e-cruise bookings

I don't know if anyone has ever given Rod a pat on the back for being so prescient, but I would like to do so (figuratively) right now. I recall later that same day as I was standing in a small array of Internet-connected computers when two (at the time) Carnival executives walked up and sat down, Vicki Freed and Bob Dickinson, so Vicki could show Bob the new Carnival Cruise Line web site. She had to type the URL a few times to get it right, and I recall helping her remember "what comes after http?"

When Bob saw the site he asked "so what does it do?"

"Right now it just shows the ships, but we are just getting started."

Bob shrugged with a "who cares" attitude and said "Okay, well, keep working in it."

Today the cruise lines have embraced the Internet more than even Rod predicted. I was just reading a chapter in Doug Ward's "2013 Berlitz Guide to Cruise Lines and Cruise Ships" called "E-cruising is in." Doug points out that many cruise lines today have "changed to online bookings and check-ins." He goes on to say, "That makes life difficult for anyone with arthritis or typing problems... and bad luck if your printer runs out ink. There's a lot to be said for letting your travel agent do it all for you."

Doug is referring to cruise lines having gone the route of airlines, where they no longer issue you a paper ticket. In today's cruise world a cruise booking gets a tracking number that one then uses to create and access "cruise documents" on your cruise line web site. Today's cruise documents are created from electronic forms where you fill in all of the pertinent personal information the cruise lines need to know to allow you onboard; including your full name, national citizenship, passport number and dates, emergency contact names and numbers, and flight numbers and times of arrival and departure for the port city.

On the Carnival web site today, for example, there are five different e-forms to complete before you are directed to "print your e-documents" which you will "sign and bring with you to the ship on boarding day". Once you have checked in online, you are then able to pre-book shore-excursions, restaurant reservations, and on some ships (Norwegian Epic from NCL, for example) even make showtime reservations.

One of things you even have to print out is your luggage tags. This is the most confusing part of the e-cruise experience - because it's the largest departure from the old document process.

In the old days a person with a confirmed booking number would received by post office mail a lovely document holder (in leather or faux-leather, as Doug points out) which contained the cruise contract and boarding tickets, a shore excursion brochure and luggage tags made from plasticized printing stock with actual adhesive that made them virtually impossible to remove. The luggage tags you print from your computer require cutting, folding and stapling to attach them to your luggage. Making this even more difficult, most people prefer to attach their luggage tags only when the bags are ready to go on the ship lest they get lost during the flight or by airport baggage handlers, but few people carry a stapler with them.

Furthermore, before you are allowed print out any e-docs (as they are now called) you must check a box saying you agree to the terms of the cruise contract -- thousands of words displayed on your computer screen in one long, mostly unbroken chunk of small text which most of us to scroll past to quickly find the "I agree" check-box so we quickly get on with the task at hand.

It is important for the cruise passenger to understand that all of your rights and limitations are enumerated in the cruise contract. Many people assume a cruise line is obligated to offer the same consumer protections as a domestic airline subject to federally-mandated "passenger rights," for example.

In fact, cruise lines are not subject to the same kinds of laws as domestic airlines. Most cruise lines are actually foreign corporations and the cruise contracts put limits on a cruiser's ability to file a lawsuit (should it come to that) that include requiring the plaintiff to bring the lawsuit in the state where the cruise line has its head office (Miami for the most cruise lines, California for Princess and Cunard and Washington for Holland America and Seabourn).

But getting back to the "Internet component," Doug recommends using a travel agent if you do not want to print out these documents yourself. But many travel agents will still leave it up to you to print out these documents unless you ask them to do it - preferably before you make the booking. But there are plenty of other reasons to continue to use a travel agent.

Without realizing the implications, most people have simply migrated to using the Internet for most of their cruise purchase decisions and actions, including accepting the terms of the cruise contract. The Internet is a very convenient invention - but I just want to make sure everyone understands that in exchange for this level of convenience there comes a tendency to gloss over some important details that you would be better off discussing with a travel agent first.

How do YOU use the Internet when making a cruise booking? Tell us here: e-cruise bookings

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