Cruise travel agents have been taking it tough since the explosion of Internet. But today, there are many indications they are making a comeback.
Have in mind that cruise travel agents can add a huge amount of value to your cruise vacation, but only in case you choose the right one.
When you book a cruise, it's a good idea to work with a travel agent specialized in cruise vacations. It can be overwhelming to shop for cruises, and it's quite easy to make a mistake if you do not have expertise specific to cruising. The good cruise travel agent can help you define what is the best fit and find the best deal on that cruise.
7 Reasons for Using a Cruise Travel Agent
It's quite easy to book a cruise on your own by going directly to the cruise line or using a last-minute cruise auction or a website (like Expedia) to book your trip. However, there are many advantages connected with using a cruise travel agency. A good cruise travel agent works in client's best interest in several ways:
- Choosing a cruise: For your first ever cruise vacation, you may need some help in matching your budget and lifestyle with a cruise line and itinerary. Choosing a cruise is quite different from picking a flight or hotel, as there are more options to consider. Do you want to sail close to home from ports like Miami, New York, Seattle or Galveston, or are you willing to fly to Europe for Baltic and Mediterranean voyages? Would you be happier on a big Royal Caribbean ship, or on a smaller, more intimate vessel operated by Seabourn? Do you prefer the casual and lively vibe found on Carnival Cruise Lines, or the formal atmosphere of Silversea? Remember that you will not just be using the cruise ship as a home base - it will be your restaurant and entertainment venue for one week or more. The right cruise ship, cruising season and itinerary can make a vacation much more enjoyable, and a cruise travel agent can help you choose the best selection for your taste.
- Booking the voyage: After you have chosen your cruise and, with agent's help, matched your personal style with your trip goals, you have to book the cruise. A good cruise travel agent will make the whole process go smoothly, from securing the right cabin category and location to booking dinner seating that suits you and your party. The agent will also sort out travel insurance and collect payment for the sailing (a deposit at the time of booking; the full amount 60-90 days prior to departure). In addition, a good cruise travel agent can help you with the rest of your plans, such as pre- or post-cruise hotel stays, airfare and transfers.
- Willingness to educate: As there are so many options available, making sense of available information can be confusing for those who are new to cruising. Vacationers shopping on their own might choose to book a party boat just because of a good price when they actually wanted a relaxing experience, or might book a quiet cruise when they are looking for an active experience. It can be really difficult to avoid such mistakes without firsthand knowledge of the different lines and ships.
- Knowledge of options: A good cruise travel agent will have good knowledge of the options available to the customers and work with his clients to help find the cruise vacation that fits their budget and style. This can help travelers save money and time. New cruisers appreciate personalized attention in answering questions and helping them plan all ins and outs of the cruise.
- Advocate for you: If you work with a cruise travel agent, you have an experienced advocate on your side to work closely with the cruise companies and resolve any issues that might come up before or after your voyage. For example, when you have pre-cruise service issues related to itinerary changes, your agent will be able to contact with the cruise line to resolve the issue while keeping you informed.
- Making an informed decision: The key to choosing the appropriate cruise travel agent is to find someone you feel personally comfortable with. It's perfectly acceptable to ask how many voyages your agent has been on, with what cruise lines, and on which ships. Because lines differ widely in general atmosphere and types of service, it's important to communicate with an agent familiar with the specifics of your planned cruise. Booking with an agent gives any transaction a personal touch and you have a resource for asking questions and a person to contact if something goes wrong. A good relationship with a cruise travel agent doesn't end after one trip. He or she will keep you in the database, alert you to sales and can suggest future cruise ideas.
- Access to the best deals - cost considerations: Contrary to what many vacationers expect, cruise travel agents may be able to get better deals than Internet retailers and even the lines themselves. The best cruise travel agents have prime access to exclusive cruise pricing and discounted group rates that is not found anywhere else. Agents occasionally give extra value on your booking like prepaid gratuities, onboard credit or a free bottle of Champagne. And in case the price of your voyage drops after you book, a good cruise agent will refund you the difference in fare.
Let’s say that you have decided to book and assume you're extremely knowledgeable about voyages, and know exactly what you are doing. You’ve picked the cruise line, know what itinerary you want and know every room on every ship in line’s fleet intimately - which one offers the best layout, location and value. However, if you book directly with the line, you're not going to get as good a deal and are losing money by doing it yourself. It’s a simple business proposition as your trip may bring the line just a total of US$10,000. But your cruise travel agent books dozens of cruises per year and represents say US$300,000 in revenue, and the line might do a little bit better. You may get an onboard credit or one class cabin upgrade, because the cruise company needs to keep its best customers (your agent) happy.
How to find a cruise travel agent?
When selecting a cruise travel agent to help with your vacation plans, verify knowledge, credentials and preferred status with cruise lines. The best agents are those with actual cruising experience, personalized service and access to group pricing on a wide variety of itineraries and lines.
- Training and Credentials: Many travel agents become accredited cruise counselors through the Cruise Academy of CLIA or take courses through different cruise lines to become expert at selling their product. Inquire whether the cruise travel agent has attended any of these training programs. You can look for affiliations with ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), BBB (Better Business Bureau) or NACOA (National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies).
- Cruising Experience: Question the cruise travel agents on up-and-coming destinations or cruising trends, and ask them to explain the main differences between cruise lines. See how many cruises they have taken that year and with which cruise lines. The more knowledgeable a cruise travel agent is, the better advice you'll receive. If the agent has cruised rarely, you might want to go elsewhere and look for a travel agent who is a cruise specialist to get the best service.
- Niche: If you are interested in specific types of cruising (such as luxury travel or river cruising), look for travel agencies specialized in the line or type of cruising you like. They will often have more complete knowledge, than a generalist would, of your choices. For example, if you choose to cruise one of the European rivers on an intimate riverboat, you may not wish to book with an agent specialized in selling holidays on 3,000-passenger mega ships.
- Interview: The best cruise travel agents will do a thorough job of interviewing their potential clients to find out which cruise line, ship and itinerary is the best fit. In the initial interview, they should ask you questions about the kind of vacation you normally take (city, beach, active), who is going (singles, couple, family), your travel style (dining habits, activity and entertainment preferences) and your budget.
- Cruise Line Connections: See if the cruise travel agent has preferred status with any lines or whether he belongs to a consortiums that would enable him to get you better deals and upgrades. But watch out - some travel agents will push a particular cruise line too aggressively. You don't want to get caught in agent's agenda if the line is not right for you.
- Special Offers: Look for cruise travel agents who offer discounts, free perks or other incentives. If you do not see any advertisement, always ask - the cruise agent may have great offers the cruise lines won't let him publicize. In addition, ask if your agent can beat the best price you have seen elsewhere.
- Size: You can book your cruise vacation through a major travel retailer with branches all around the country, local cruise agency or a home-based agent who may talk cruising with you at the local coffee shop. There are pros and cons of working with any of these different types of agencies. You might, for example, get more personal service from the independent agent but better deals from the large company with high volume of bookings. See what size fits your personal needs best.
How to locate a cruise travel agent?
You may find it beneficial to contact a travel agency that works primarily with cruises. These agencies have detailed knowledge about cruising and often have access to the best packages in cruise industry including exclusive deals that are available only to them. Cruise-specific agencies have online presence, but you can speak with their representatives by phone and even interact with a cruise travel agent in your local area.
- CruiseOne: In business for over 20 years, CruiseOne has the buying power of a major agency and personal service from independent consultants. You can use company's corporate website to locate a cruise vacation specialist by state, which is a great option if you prefer to work with an expert in your local area. As CruiseOne travel agents are independent franchise owners, you will receive services that vary based on who you're working with.
- CruisesOnly: Marketed as "America's largest cruise agency," the company has been in business for more than 20 years. If you work with this travel agency, you'll work with employees rather than independent franchise owners. Review cruises on agency's website or call the toll-free number to speak with an agent who can assist with your vacation planning. Customer testimonials on CruisesOnly website are very positive and praise the cruise travel agents' knowledge and readiness to help.
- CruiseBrothers: In business since 1972, the company has been helping its clients book cruise vacations for over 40 years. According to the agency's website, its "one of the largest family owned cruise agencies in the country." CruiseBrothers is operated by real-life brothers Steve and Russ Gelfuso. You can book a voyage and even land vacation packages through their site or use the toll-free telephone number to work with a travel agent with proficiency in cruising. CruiseChannel refers to CruiseBrothers as "one of the most respected cruise agencies in the country."
General Local Travel Agencies
General local travel agencies do not specialize specifically in voyages, but can also provide cruise booking services. This is a good option if you prefer to work with a local company. If you'd like to work with a general agency, search for one in your area that has a membership in and agents certified by CLIA (Cruise Line International Association) and that is affiliated with prime travel companies so they have access to the best packages. You can search for CLIA-certified travel agents on the organization's CLIA's website (www.cruising.org). Use the search tool to locate agents in your region with various levels of CLIA training.
You can also use ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents / www.asta.org) consumer to locate travel agents who have agreed to conduct their activities in accordance with organization's code of ethics. Select "cruise lines" or "cruises" under Specialties to find agents focusing on ship travel.
Following are two examples of general travel agencies with cruise expertise:
- Carrousel Travel (Minneapolis, MN) has several CLIA-certified travel agents who specialize in cruises. This agency is an American Express Travel representative, so they are associated with a powerhouse in travel industry. There are a wealth of positive testimonials on company's website from satisfied clients that praise the agency and its employees.
- Springdale Travel (Mobile, AL): Springdale Travel is a famous full-service travel agency that offers corporate and vacation travel booking, including cruises. The company has several CLIA-certified travel agents. As a branch of Tzell Travel Group, division of Travel Leaders Group - "America's largest travel agency company", Springdale Travel has access to an extensive network within travel industry.
One of the most important things about cruise travel agents is that they have been onboard the ships and can really give first-hand advice about various options. Travel agents have done a great deal of research through cruise-line seminars and familiarization trips, so you do not have to do the work yourself. And even better, travel agents have access to special perks or discounts - the cruise companies pay their commissions, so you don't have to pay more for their services.