Susan Ervin and Geraldo Flores were supposed to fly to Rome today to set sail on a two-week Mediterranean cruise aboard the Azamara Quest. But then their travel agent went missing, leaving the fate of their floating vacation in doubt.

Their story is an important cautionary tale about booking through an intermediary, and contains valuable lessons for anyone who works with a travel agent.

Ervin picks up the story, which came to me by way of Jane Wooldridge at the Miami Herald:

My travel agent is missing in action. My last communication from him was on July 31 telling me he had my materials to board the cruise, but I have not heard from him since.

Could you help me figure out if we are on the passenger manifest? If yes, how do we board the ship on Saturday? If we are not on the passenger manifest, could we purchase this same cabin today for departure on Saturday?

Jane and I contacted Azamara on Ervin’s behalf. We heard back from the cruise line within a few minutes. Here’s what Michael Sheehan, from parent company Royal Caribbean, learned:

The original booking for Susan Ervin and Geraldo Flores was made on Jan. 31, 2008. The initial deposit for their sailing was made on Feb. 4. The initial deposit was $900. That left a balance due of $7,124.

The booking was canceled on Aug. 9, 2008, after no further payment was received by us. Credit cards used for the deposits were refunded on Aug. 12.

In other words, Ervin didn’t have a cabin. Royal Caribbean generously agreed to hold a similar stateroom until the end of the day for her, at a similar rate.

By yesterday afternoon, Ervin had contacted the cruise line and rebooked her cabin. She is boarding a plane to Europe as I write this.

What about the agent? His assistant contacted her late yesterday as well, offering to fix the booking. “Her call was too little, too late,” she said.

So how could this have been prevented? I asked Sheehan.

What struck me as odd is that the customer let this go until the very bitter end – she is supposed to fly to Europe tomorrow.

Most people would be talking to their travel agent a lot if they did not have their documents well in advance of their sailing. It is very odd that this couple seems so unconcerned – until the day before they had to depart.

I guess the point is that one’s travel agent should be providing them with good service and keeping them well informed about their sailing – what monies might be due and when – and then getting the travel document to the customer well in advance of the sailing.

For whatever reasons, this travel agent let things lapse and the booking was canceled after a $900 deposit was paid. Thankfully, we were able to get the customers in to the same type of stateroom for a similar price.

Ervin is grateful to Royal Caribbean for helping her. She wanted to be sure I said that. And I agree, the cruise line was really helpful in fixing her trip.

How could Ervin have prevented this?

When your agent stops responding to your inquiries, call the cruise line (or tour operator, or whatever company you’re supposed to be booked on) directly. It can give you the status of your reservation and figure out a way of delivering the tickets.

This is particularly important now, during a weak economy, when there’s a better chance that some travel agencies might go out of business.

And finally, do your due diligence when selecting an agent. I’ve always recommended the services of a competent travel adviser. Those are not exactly a dime a dozen.

I think Ervin needs to find a new agent for her next cruise.