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.
• 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.