Even in this era of information overload, there are times when a travel agent is almost a necessity. If you (1) are an inexperienced traveler or cruising for the first time, (2) do not have the time or interest to research the best cruise for you, or (3) have special circumstances like a large group cruising--then getting a good travel agent is probably a must.
Booking a cruise is much more complicated than buying a plane ticket or calling a hotel for a room. As with any vacation, there are many decisions you must make. It is important to find a travel agent professional who has lots of experience in cruising. After all, you wouldn't want heart bypass surgery from a psychiatrist! There are many cruise-only travel agencies, and many other full-service agencies have cruise specialists on board who sell nothing but cruises. Among other things, a good cruise specialist should be able to
- find the best deals, answer all your questions, and have general knowledge about cruise lines and the cruise industry
- lay out several options for you if you are uncertain, and provide brochures and information from different cruise lines
- tell you how you will get your baggage from the airport to the ship and back
- answer questions for those with special needs (on-board child care, dietary restrictions, medical conditions and
- answer questions about the cruise lines' cancellation and payment policies.
For first timers, a local agent you can sit down with personally is best. Ask frequent-cruiser friends, relatives, or co-workers who they have used. Most cruise travelers love to help those new to the cruise vacation experience. If that doesn't work for you, check out local travel agencies' ads in your Sunday newspaper and call agents to interview them over the phone or in person. You want an agent with lots of cruise experience and knowledge. One with personal experience about the cruise line you are interested in is a plus. Interview agents and find out which cruise lines they have traveled on and how much they know about food, cabins, entertainment, fellow passengers, facilities and common areas, or anything else that matters to you such as ballroom dancing or playing bridge. Look for someone who seems to be interested in getting to know you and wants to match your interests with the wide variety of cruise lines and destinations available to cruise travelers.
Ask if the travel agency is cruise-only or a member of a professional organization such as CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) , ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), or NACOA (National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies). The Web sites of these three organizations can provide recommendations on agencies.
The large cruise discount agencies can sometimes find deals not available to a local agent. The problem is that the person you are dealing with may be thousands of miles away and not even an experienced cruiser. If you (1) are willing to take the time to do the research yourself, (2) already know exactly which cruise you want, and (3) do not require any complicated air arrangements or air/sea transfers--then using an 800 number to book your trip can be easy and sometimes save you money.
A good local travel agent you have met in person may be easier to work with if you return from your cruise with a problem He/She will step up and help you resolve the problem and negotiate on your behalf with the cruise line. A large cruise discount agent might do the same, but the agent doesn't have as much to lose locally by not providing outstanding service.
Travel agents can serve as advisers, planners, and negotiators. However, remember that they make their money through sales commissions. As with any "sales" person, be aware of any travel agent who seems to be "pushing" one ship or one cruise line over others. It may be only because the commission is higher!
I'll have to admit that finding a good travel agent might not be as important today as it was in the past, especially for those of us who are Internet-savvy and think planning is one of the "fun" parts of traveling. Ten years ago a local travel agent was almost a necessity if you wanted to cruise. You would go to the agent's office, pick up some brochures to study, go back to the office to sit down and discuss bargains and possibilities, and then book the cruise. The first-time or infrequent cruise traveler had to almost completely rely on the travel agent for help and information. This is certainly no longer the rule! If you are willing to invest the time, you can do the planning yourself and design the perfect cruise vacation. Then you can contact an online discount cruise broker, a cruise line or a travel agency and book your dream vacation!