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)

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