In today's world, the possible avenues for booking your cruise are almost endless. You probably have a number of local travel/cruise agents; you could pick from hundreds of Internet and e-mail based agents; and in most cases you could book directly with the cruise line.
To some people - especially first-time cruisers - the simplest, most direct route might seem to be booking directly with the cruise line. But in many cases, this could be your worst choice, depending on the cruise line's policies. It certainly won't save you any money, and you might get a lower level of customer service than a qualified travel agent could offer.
Many people believe that by dealing directly with the cruise line, they cut out the expense of a middleman. But when it comes to cruising, this is never the case. The cruise lines depend on travel agents to sell their product, and so it is the cruise lines who pay the agent's commission, not the customer.
Travel agents still account for roughly 90 percent of all cruise sales, so the cruise lines abide by an unspoken agreement not to under-price the agents. The direct sale prices the cruise lines quote are identical to, or even higher than, the rate a travel agent will quote you. And the cruise line will make more on that direct sale than they would if you booked through a travel agent--- because they are not paying commissions on that sale.
Why do we say direct-booking prices from the cruise line are the same as or higher than a travel agent's? In addition to the percentage commission a travel agency receives from the cruise line, the lines also offer agents various extra incentives, bonus commissions and value-added perks, giving the travel agents more pricing leverage and the ability to offer you discounts below what the cruise lines quote. This flexibility makes the travel agent more willing to discount the cost of a cruise in order to get your business.
This system may not seem to make great sense, but those are the facts. The cruise lines are holding on to the travel agent community by not under-pricing them, but with direct sales, the cruise lines are in competition with the agents. And some cruise lines are becoming somewhat predatory about capturing a bigger piece of the cruise sales pie. This is causing a lot of friction between some travel agents and certain cruise lines.
Here is an example. When you book a cruise through a travel agent, the cruise line gets your personal contact information. The next thing you know, you are flooded with direct mail from the cruise line offering past-passenger discounts, or discounts on specific sailings. What they don't tell you is that travel agents can offer you the same perks, plus several other types of discount offers.
Understanding Cruise Agents
Once you decide to book through an agent, you still have to find a good cruise agent who's ready to compete with the cruise lines for your business.
If a travel agent quotes you a price that is not the same as, or lower than the cost of booking directly, or doesn't offer incentives like free insurance, or even a pre-cruise hotel room, they are choosing not to compete -- a choice some agents do make. They hope to attract uneducated consumers. This not the kind of agent we recommend, unless the service is so fantastic you don't mind missing out on a few perks.
A travel agent's job is to serve as a liaison between you and the cruise line. They get their commission from the cruise line, not you, but they represent you to the cruise line. You have every right to expect they will look out for your best interests before, during, and after your cruise -- especially if you have problems that you need represented to the cruise line.
There are many superb and well-trained travel agents, but there are also many who know little to nothing about cruising. They may have been wonderful to work with when planning your business travel, or land vacations, but the might not have the specialized knowledge about cruising to supply you with equally good service in that area.
That's why I recommend seeking out an agent who holds industry certification as an Accredited Cruise Counselor or a Master Cruise Counselor. Agents must meet certain training criteria to receive these designations, including having cruised on and toured a certain number of ships. There is no guarantee that someone with these designations will necessarily supply top-notch service. But it does guarantee they have at least some knowledge about cruises.
Using Your Intuition
It's important to feel out a prospective travel agent to see if you can build a rapport with them. This can be done even when you're dealing with an Internet agency, through phone calls or e-mails. Face-to-face meetings are not necessary. The correct answers to your direct questions are what count.
Before you even ask for a price quote, probe the knowledge and personality of the agent you may be putting in charge of your hard-earned vacation. If you get the right feel about this person, you then ask for a price quote.
A price comparison is the logical place to start assessing your agent's abilities: Is the quote the same as or lower than the cruise line's? If it is the same (as it will be in many cases), will the agent add any perks to sweeten the deal, such as free travel insurance, hotel stays, or limousine service? If so, you are off to a good start.
But price alone may not always be the best factor in determining which agent to book through. We want the best price, but we also want assistance and service when we need it.
This is where things can get blurry. Some agents have told me they charge more to enable them to supply great service. It does sound reasonable that an agent would want to be paid for the time it takes to "go the extra mile" and supply exceptional service. However, there is nothing guaranteeing the service for dollars spent.
I have seen cases where the best service was supplied by the agent submitting the lowest priced quote. This is when you have to rely on your good judgment to evaluate which agent will deliver what they promise. Getting recommendations from friends certainly doesn't hurt.
Over the years, I've seen much discussion about whether it's best to use a local travel agent, who you can see face-to-face, vs. an Internet or e-mail based agency. In my view, there is no clear answer. Many Internet-based agency are simply extensions of "brick and mortar" agencies. In most cases, you are still dealing with real people rather than machines, so the answer again becomes your judgment and trust in the agent you hire.
What Qualifies a Good Cruise Agent?
Even if you are an experienced cruiser, when you call an agent requesting a quote on a specific ship and sailing date, a professional agent should ask some questions to determine whether your choice actually fits your expectations. If they spend some time asking about your interests and what you value in a cruise, they are showing a genuine concern about your happiness with the decision you are making. This is a good sign.
Once you submit your deposit, make sure the agent has submitted it directly to the cruise line rather than into the agency's account. This insures your cabin is held by the cruise line. Even if the agency goes out of business, your booking still exists with the cruise line. You should receive a booking number from the cruise line right away, which you can verify by going to the cruise line web site.
The agent should ask your preferences regarding early or late dinner seating, and also the size of table and number of fellow diners you prefer. The agent should also make note of your ages, and whether you will be traveling with children. Passing this information on to the cruise line allows the line to match you with more suitable dining companions.
The agent should send you a written confirmation from the cruise line of your deposit, along with acknowledgement of any special requests you've made.
A good agent will suggest you buy travel insurance. It's sometimes a hard sell to get people to spend the extra money, but a good agent will know it's essential to have in case an accident or tragedy strikes.
Today's cruise market is displaying very volatile pricing. A good agent will monitor prices, just in case the cruise line should drop the price on your sailing, and pass along any savings to you. That said, there is nothing wrong with monitoring the pricing yourself, because even the best agent can't check each customer's bookings on a daily basis.
A short while before final payment for the cruise is due, the agent should notify you via phone call or e-mail that the date is approaching.
And here is where a good travel agent can really shine: If you encounter a problem during the cruise, a good agent will immediately take your problem to the cruise line to seek a remedy. Their connections with the company, and ability to climb the corporate ladder, will normally get a satisfactory solution much more quickly than any letter-writing campaign you can mount after the fact.