The Insider: How should I buy my next cruise?

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a new Insider series on cruising. Here’s the first installation. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

Not so long ago, you had to pick up a phone and call your local travel agent to book a cruise. No longer.

Although 90 percent of all cruise vacations are still bought through travel agents, not all agents are the same. You can turn to a full-service, “bricks-and-mortar” agency or an online agency. Or you could deal directly with the cruise line, in some instances.

But which option is right for you?

Before deciding how to buy a cruise, you’ll need to go on a little fact-finding mission. Research your cruise online and ask friends about their past cruise experiences before phoning an agent or clicking on a cruise line site. Travel agents can help you narrow down your choices, but it really helps to have at least a general idea about what you want. Small ships or large oceanliners? Caribbean or Alaska? Upscale or “value”?

I’ve seen problems with every kind of booking method, so it’s impossible to ensure a trouble-free cruise by choosing one over another. The closest you’ll get to it is a human travel agent who knows you personally and who suffers from OCD. Well, I’m half-kidding about the obsessiveness, but that person better be good with details, because there’s a lot to track.

The case for a full-service agent.

A human travel agent who can take the time to sit down with you and talk about your cruise options is a tried-and-true way to buy a cruise. Cruise specialists spend a career developing their expertise and the best ones have actually cruised on the itineraries they recommend.

Benefits of an agent:

• One-on-one service and attention to detail. An good agent will make sure the cruise matches your personality type. The odds of a devoutly religious family ending up a rambunctious singles cruise under this scenario? Virtually zero.

• Special access to agent-only discounts. If the agency is a member of a larger group, like AAA, you’ll get deals no one else has, and they may be unbeatable. (But don’t take your agent’s word for it — trust but verify, as they say.)

• Access to possible upgrades and onboard credits. Again, these offers come by way of the relationships cruise agents have through their company or by being friends with their regional sales representative. Online agencies don’t have these kinds of relationships, at least not in the same way.

Drawbacks:

• If it’s a small shop, you may not have 24/7 support. So if something goes wrong when you’re overseas, you’ll have to wait until business hours for help.

• Agents are not free. You may be charged a fee to book airfare and make other arrangements, although the cruise itself is “free” (see next point).

• Agents are often incentivized by commissions and bonuses called “overrides” from cruise lines that reward them for booking a lot of itineraries with the same company (think of it as a kind of rewards program). An ethical agent will make sure the cruise is the right one for you, first and foremost. But some agents, sadly, go straight for the highest commission. Travel agents can make 10 percent or more in commissions and overrides from your cruise. I’ve heard of these kickbacks going as high as 14 percent.

The case for an online agent.

Today’s travel websites try to combine the best aspects of a full-service agency with the conveniences of modern technology. Often, they succeed.

Benefits of an online agent:

• You’re in control. You can shop around and find the best itinerary and discover ones you didn’t know existed. You can also book the cruise whenever you want to.

• You have 24/7 phone support through most of the online agencies. When something goes wrong, someone should always be there for you.

• Online agencies can negotiate ridiculously good volume discounts, which they pass along to you.

Drawbacks:

• It’s an online travel agency. Many of their phone agents are located in overseas call centers. They read scripts, they’re timed by their supervisors, and they really don’t care if you’re having a good vacation. No wonder offline agents call these operations “vending machines.” Also, they may try to steer you to the highest-commission cruises by displaying their favorite cruises first.

• Service, when it does come, can be slow and impersonal. It’s not uncommon to hear of people waiting upward of an hour for help before being hung up on.

• You may feel like a number. That’s because you are a number. You’re one of a million, literally. Online agencies are a volume business, so if you like to feel special and appreciated, you might want to book elsewhere.

The case for a direct booking.

Cruise lines have always been cautious about offering their products directly to consumers, fearful that they might offend the travel agency community on which they depend for distributing their product. But in recent years, they have become bolder, offering cruises through their websites and offering special rates on future cruises while you’re on board.

Benefits of a direct booking:

• You’ll probably get the deepest discounts and in some cases, a price protection that assures you that if the fare drops, you’ll get a refund. However, cruise lines are reluctant to undercut an agency with a lower fare.

• You’re dealing directly with the cruise line, so the company can’t blame an intermediary for anything that goes wrong. You’d be surprised at how often that happens. By the way, you can transfer your “direct” booking to your favorite travel agent if you want, giving you the best of both worlds.

• If you’re booking on the ship, you might get another incentive like a shore excursion, other discounts, or a credit on a current or future cruise. Cruise lines are nothing if not creative with these offers.

Drawbacks:

• You’re dealing directly with the cruise line. So you have no one to turn to when something goes wrong except the cruise line — unless, of course, you transfer the booking to an agent.

• The aggressive onboard sales agents sometimes force you to make a decision about a future vacation before you’re ready. It’s a high-pressure sales pitch on the high seas.

How do you buy a cruise, then? In the end, there may be no correct answer for everyone. If, for example, you’re taking your extended family on an anniversary cruise, you’ll probably want to find a cruise specialist who has some experience in large groups. On the other hand, if you’re just traveling with your sweetie, and you’re flexible, online might be the best option.

(Photo: add1sun/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • IGoEverywhere

    This is the first article that you have written that upsets me. You really were writing to be writing and don’t have a lot of knowledgable facts. As far as agents needing to be being objective, you were on track. Commissions – you are so wrong that I am horrified. If a “bricks and mortar” travel agent sells an $3000.00 cruise cabin and makes 15% commision, it is less than 6% when finished. No commission on air, taxes, government fees, transfer, tips, or NCF’s. I see a $180.00 commission as huge amount, but that’s not the customers’ worry. Pure cruise companies that have groups every week set their own $$$, but that is their incentive. There are companies picking up tips, insurance, sightseeing, but they have no time for anything accept give me your credit card. I guarantee that a 10 minute conversation with them will be alot. Booking on line sounds great if you are a knowedgable cruiser, but a Celebrity cruise line customer is not an NCL customer ever, but might fit into the Holland America profile. You should not talk about financial incentives until know what you are talking about completely. You are a straight shooter that I really like reading, but please in the future do a bit more research before you put it out to the public.

  • Rosered7033

    I use an agent that doesn’t seem to fit into any of the above categories.  We generally find our cruise, book it with the cruiseline because of the price protection (it’s just easier to call the cruiseline myself to refare, rather than calling an agent), and when it is close to the final payment, or when I feel the price will no longer drop, I transfer to an agent that I have only ever dealt with on the phone.  I found her agency by asking other frequent cruisers who they use, and if they were happy with their choice.  The first two I asked (who were in no way related to each other) gave me the same name.  What are the chances of that?

  • Lindabator

    Just a note – the cruise lines DO NOT offer lower prices than you can get with an agent, and special discounts or amenities are ONLY available with many agencies, and NOT the line directly.  As a brick-and-mortar agent, I also recommend the future cruise booking while onboard the ship, just let them know you want to use the same agent/agency that booked this cruise – and we can ensure you get the best deal and STILL keep the specials you earned while onboard.  PLUS take care of all the other details like air, transfers, hotel, visa, etc.  That’s why we have so many repeat and referral clients!  :) 

  • Lindabator

    If you can call the cruise line for refaring, you can just as easily call the agent – and she may just have perks you can ONLY get when initially booking with her.  :)

  • Rosered7033

    I usually do talk with the agent when I book to see what her rate is, and if the agency is offering any specials on that particular cruise.  She lets me know if there’s anything extra I can get.  And not that I want to take the TA out of the loop, but I have more time (and more motivation!) to check prices.  It’s hard to keep the posting brief but get in all the essential info, so there are some things that I didn’t get into above.

  • Stuart Falk

    No surprise that most of these comments are posted by agents trying to protect their business. My experience (and I have gone on over 50 cruises) is that the vast majority of travel agents are not only uninformed (give them a geography test) but are primarily motivated by commission overrides rather than representing the best interests of a client. (This is particularly true of the online agencies that advertise on Cruise Critic, which itself is more interested in pleasing their advertisers than in offering objective editorial content (and in the same vein moderates their bulletin boards with a heavy hand).

    So, what to do? If you know what you want, check out the online fares with several competitive agents (trying to ascertain the name of the consortium to which they belong and which might (or might not) negotiate some extra benefit, such as an onboard credit.

    However, if the cruise line will match the fare directly – or comes anywhere close, book directly with the cruise line.

    And whatever you do, DO NOT, buy trip cancellation or medical insurance through a travel agent (just out for additional commission) or the cruise line, but buy it independently, after comparing prices and benefits online (i always go through my insurance company USAA, which outsources this, but offers specially negotiated coverage).

  • I had a cruise agent for years who had booked me on several cruises.  The last cruise she booked was for myself, my girlfriend and my girlfriend’s parents.  About 2 months before the cruise we had to cancel due to a medical issue with my friend’s mother. 

    After that, my cruise agent didn’t have the time of day for me or my girlfriend.  She snottily told my girlfriend that she was busy and didn’t know when she’d have time for her.  When I sent her an email requesting information about a 5 day cruise, she basically let me know that it was beneath her to book such a short cruise.  Later when I asked her if she could look into a 14 day cruise for my husband and myself, she never replied.

    After this experience I went straight to the cruise line itself and booked my cruise.  No more agents for me.

  • Rosered7033

    I agree with you about the insurance – a person must be an informed consumer to get the coverage that will work, or, as Christopher said, have a close friend with OCD that will help make the decision.  However, I don’t understand your statement “No surprise that most of these comments are posted by agents trying to protect their business.”  Are you referring to comments made within the article, or the eight or so comments on Christopher’s article?  It doesn’t seem the comments here are from TAs, so I’m confused.

    Overall, I think Christopher covered the possibilities succinctly with the bullets.  To go much further into detail tends to make the eyes gloss over. 

  • Rosered7033

    That TA had no business dealing with people, if that was the attitude.  There are plenty of good, hungry agents that will work with you – sometimes it takes using a few to get the best fit for you.  I’ve dealt with 6 different agencies (4 local, one online “Travel Vendor”, and a smaller online agency), over 10 years, and have finally found that the smaller online agency is responsive to my cruise needs, and another local agency works with me on other vacation trips.  If I ever feel like I’m not appreciated, though, I would be looking somewhere else.  BTW, I am not a person who casually changes things in her life – when I find something that works for me, I’m very loyal and it takes a lot for me to change.

  • TonyA_says

    From what I’m reading here, most people use travel agents just to compare prices or “get a deal”. IMO that’s the last reason to use a travel agent. A TA is suppose to complement you (your knowledge or lack thereof). If you can’t use the advise of a travel agent then you need to book your own travel or deal with a booking agent who simply takes orders. There are travel [agents] professionals who are knowledgeable and passionate in what they do. Most of them also travel extensively like you do. Please don’t try to use a broad brush to paint the whole industry.

  • bodega3

    Yes, please book with the cruise line becaue you aren’t someone who would be a good client. 

  • TonyA_says

    Linda, don’t forget to tell people here that YOU can and do work with overseas DESTINATION MANAGEMENT companies that can make life a lot easier when traveling to countries where English is not the main language.

    I suppose that there is a decent amount of travelers (especially to Europe) who cruise IN CONJUNCTION with touring other places. They are going to need flights, hotels, rental cars, transfers, rail tickets, land tours, etc. Putting all these together for a marvelous vacation (itinerary) is an art, often times needing team work with other travel agents. You can do that. Good luck to those who think Expedia will help them.

    The biggest mistake people can do is to think good travel agents are booking or pricing clerks. You can blame the OTAs for that. They (the OTAs) are really nothing but self-service vending machines.

  • DChamp56

    I’m astounded that there’s no mention in this article about doing some of your own research!
    Cruisecritic dot com has an astounding forum where you can check every cruise ship there is, and see reviews from real customers. You can also meet some of your upcoming cruise-mates and talk about good/bad things to do with people who’ve done this cruise before.
    I’ve gotten great information through those forums that’s saved me time and money.
    Find the cruise you like, and shop the price before going to a T/A.
    After 20+ Cruises, I think I have a few good ideas myself, which I’ve written down and keep for friends/family going on their first cruises.
    While I won’t go as far as travelagentman, I will say there’s quite a bit missing from your article here. Its’ a disservice to your readers to not mention that when you book on-board for your next cruise, you get discounts/specials you can’t get anywhere else, AND the credit can go to your T/A.
    I’ve been reading you for 4+ years, and this is only the second time I’ve written a comment, but I felt it was needed.
    JMHO

  • Colin Bailey

    Guess we are very lucky to have an AAA travel agent who is a friend and lives in our small rural town but who works out of Wichita KS.
    He has just booked our 4th cruise for our family party. Its great to be able to sit down with someone to discuss all the details.
    Also we have had wonderful past experiences with airlines in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s when the worst seemed to happen and the airline solved the problems so smoothly.

  • scot2512

    Just because you have gone on 50 cruises doesn’t make you a travel agent.     I have had 30+ years as an agent and still continue my education on travel companies, cruises and destinations.       I’ve also put together lots of bookshelves and desks which makes me a carpenter under your analogy!

    And I object to Christopher categorizing commissions and overrides as “kickbacks”   I spend a lot of time advising clients on destinations, walking them through online registration procedures,  researching tours et.,  for which I’m not paid.     How much “pro bono” work do you do?

     

  • john4868

    I wonder if Chris considers the royalties on his book as a “kick back?”

  • john4868

    The difference between using a TA and not is the difference between the “club” floor at a hotel and not except it won’t cost you any added money. If you want service, use a TA. If you want to be a number, book it yourself.

  • Lindabator

    Well, then you ARE getting the best of both worlds!  :)

  • Lindabator

    GREAT point!  And yes, having someone IN the destination we can contact at any time is a boon for our clients.  Thanks for bringing it up!

  • Lindabator

    Actually, wrong on most counts!  Cruise lines do not negotiate fares with you, or offer specials that agencies may have as part of a group or consortia.  And as for the trip insurance, we are AUTHORIZED SELLERS and offer TravelGuard or TravelEx to all our clients, and we have lower negotiated rates on the insurance due to the large volume we produce, so even buying direct from THEM is not going to be a lower rate, but actually a higher one.  And a booking doesn’t end just because a cruise is booked – I ensure my clients have all the proper documentation necessary, that they have a seemless pre and/or post experience, help them choose their shore excursions, ensure visas are obtained where necessary, and get them the best airfare rates possible.  If you honestly think the small amount we make on commission (no, NOT on the total price, just on the base fare) drives us to one company over another, you are mistaken.

  • Lindabator

    Good point!  As a travel agent myself, I can attest to the large number of UNCOMPENSATED hours monthly spent taking classes, going to seminars, going on ship inspections, site inspections, etc, just so I can offer my client the most up-to-date information and assistance.  The amount of time I take is why 90% of MY business is repeat/referral!

  • Lindabator

    So sorry to hear that – theose type of agents make my job all that much harder.  But consider this – just as you don’t just accept the first doctor, dentist, lawyer you meet, you may have to shop around for the agent who works best for you.  And that means you may want to talk to others about who they use, and see if that isn’t a better fit.

  • Lindabator

    Yep, and that agent will then be prepared upon your return to have some ideas in mind for that next trip!

  • Nigel Appleby

    We’ve been on 20+ cruises, booked some directly and air through on line agency or direct with the airline, and booked most through a travel agent. We now use a TA exclusively since I made a couple of goofs booking direct. We moved 2 years ago and lucked in to find an excellent TA; on our last cruise he got us a lower price than anywhere else, lower airfares than I could find anywhere, and lower hotel prices before and after than I could find. He made sure the timings all worked and kept checking to make sure there were no changes. After the trip he called to see how things had gone, any problems etc. We will definitelly book through him next time. Our son uses another branch of the same agency and won’t even consider going elsewhere or doing it himself.
    That’s our experience for what it’s worth.
    By the way I’m not a TA but a retired insurance brokerage owner/manager. Our travel and out of country medical policy is an endorsement to our house insurance and is very reasonably priced for an annual policy (up to 30 days per trip as many trips in the year as you like).

  • TouchyFeely

     Because he doesn’t want to pay for non-service?  Typical industry response.

  • TouchyFeely

     Those are what most people experience.  Why do you think most people don’t bother with TAs anymore?

  • TouchyFeely

     If a TA can offer something I can’t get without them then they are useless.   The last time I used one I had a problem and all they said was they couldn’t do anything and weren’t going to compensate me (it was their mistake).   I have no reason to think that any of you are different.  The stories I hear just don’t point to that.

  • scapel

    I use a TA. If I see prices that seem less than what I am paying I e-mail her and ask why. Usually there are resons I did not think of.
    I like the TA since keeps up with lots of things. I can go online with my booking number and check things if I want. I just feel secure with a TA who helps with insurance claims also if I have one. She also checks my dates and times etc. How many people do you know that book their own and book the flights on the wrong day. Expensive.

  • TonyA_says

    Simple, Don’t use one.

  • bodega3

    No typical business response.  He sounds lke a know it all and he uses Cruise Critic.  That alone says a lot.  No every person makes a good client and not every business is a good fit for a ctomer.

  • cwilliam

    Travelagentman – how is Chris wrong regarding commissions?  Cruise lines do pay on average 10-15% commission.  He didn’t say that agents get that full percentage on everything including NCFs and govt taxes etc.  If the article indicated that agents were over-compensated by cruise lines I’d agree with you in that the dollar amount that is commissionable is much much less than the full cruise amount.  In my opinion Chris’s point is valid…in the hands of the wrong agent who’s getting 18% from cruise line A and 12% from cruise line B there’s the chance that an agent might push for a booking with the higher commission.  He’s not saying all agents or even most agents are guilty of this. 

    I think this was a great article if looked at objectively (not as an agent or agent-hater).  For a consumer who’s confused as to what method to of booking is best for them it’s a good overall explanation of the benefits and potential drawbacks to each method.

    Travel agents have to accept the fact (and I’ve been one for 20 years) that we are not the right choice for every consumer and need to try to stop converting 100% of the traveling public.  Let’s concentrate on current clients and referrals. Stop worrying about the others.

    I once heard Mike Marchev say “we want to work with people who want to work with us”.  I know I certainly do.

  • cwilliam

    Travelagentman – how is Chris wrong regarding commissions?  Cruise lines do pay on average 10-15% commission.  He didn’t say that agents get that full percentage on everything including NCFs and govt taxes etc.  If the article indicated that agents were over-compensated by cruise lines I’d agree with you in that the dollar amount that is commissionable is much much less than the full cruise amount.  In my opinion Chris’s point is valid…in the hands of the wrong agent who’s getting 18% from cruise line A and 12% from cruise line B there’s the chance that an agent might push for a booking with the higher commission.  He’s not saying all agents or even most agents are guilty of this. 
     
    I think this was a great article if looked at objectively (not as an agent or agent-hater).  For a consumer who’s confused as to what method to of booking is best for them it’s a good overall explanation of the benefits and potential drawbacks to each method.
     
    Travel agents have to accept the fact (and I’ve been one for 20 years) that we are not the right choice for every consumer and need to try to stop coverting 100% of the traveling public.  Let’s concentrate on current clients and referrals. Stop worrying about the others.
     
    I once heard Mike Marchev say “we want to work with people who want to work with us”.  I know I certainly do.

  • cwilliam

    TouchyFeely – I’m impressed with your knowledge of ‘what most people experience’.  I could say that most peoples’ experiences with TAs are fantastic but my statement would be as baseless as yours. 

    This article indicates that 90% of cruises are still booked via TAs.  If that’s the case it’s an unusually high number considering the horrible things that most people experience.

  • Lindabator

    If you REALLY think the commission levels are that high, you’re back in the 70’s my friend.  Cruise lines have found a million ways to cut our commissions, by moving the bluk over to NCFs (non-commissionable fares).  On top of that, they no longer issue documents, and when i book your dinner or show reservations, your spa appointments, your shore excursions, pre-register you for the cruise, issue the documents, etc…. they sure as he@@ aren’t paying me for that!  I do the job because I love travel, and enjoy sharing my passion with my clients – so do NOT assume you know anything about “all” of us travel agents – you don’t.  And as far as the insurance – we are licensed sellers of insurance – and always offer the best 3rd party options available – again – you don’t know what you are talking about!

  • Lindabator

    What non-service?  Non service is the do-it-yourself approach — believe me, my clients could NEVER call my approach “non-service!”

  • Lindabator

    Wow – are you out of touch!  Read any major newspaper today, and they will tell you that clients are returning to the travel counselor in DROVES – due to many of the problems Chris has shown on this site MANY times!

  • Lindabator

    Thank you!  Not only is supporting your local agent a great way to keep BUSINESS and JOBS in your own backyard, it gives you a local advocate – try that online!  :)

  • Lindabator

    Thank you, TonyA – this is probably one of the a@@holes i would need to fire – probably a gimme pig, as Chris has called them to boot!  HAHA

  • Rosered7033

    I use a TA for a number of reasons, but low on the list is to complement my knowledge or lack thereof.  If I made more trips to unknown  (by me) places, I’m sure it would rank higher, but for now need the peace of mind that comes with having an advocate (particularly when I’m out of the country) in case something goes wrong.  Example:  When the hurricane shut down NY transit last year (we arrived the night before), our agent also made calls to find out what the status of our cruise was, and was able to give us vital info, like the fact that the ship was leaving port hours before the original schedule.  She remained by her phone until she knew we had boarded, but I’m sure if we’d had a problem with getting to the ship, she would have been lining up a ride for us too.