In today's world, the possible avenues for booking your cruise are
almost endless. You probably have a number of local travel/cruise
agents; you could pick from hundreds of Internet and e-mail based
agents; and in most cases you could book directly with the cruise line.

To some people - especially first-time cruisers - the simplest, most
direct route might seem to be booking directly with the cruise line.
But in many cases, this could be your worst choice, depending on the
cruise line's policies. It certainly won't save you any money, and you
might get a lower level of customer service than a qualified travel
agent could offer.

Many people believe that by dealing directly with the cruise line,
they cut out the expense of a middleman. But when it comes to cruising,
this is never the case. The cruise lines depend on travel agents to
sell their product, and so it is the cruise lines who pay the agent's
commission, not the customer. 

Travel agents still account for roughly 90 percent of all cruise
sales, so the cruise lines abide by an unspoken agreement not to
under-price the agents. The direct sale prices the cruise lines quote
are identical to, or even higher than, the rate a travel agent will
quote you. And the cruise line will make more on that direct sale than
they would if you booked through a travel agent--- because they are not
paying commissions on that sale.

Why do we say direct-booking prices from the cruise line are the
same as or higher than a travel agent's? In addition to the percentage
commission a travel agency receives from the cruise line, the lines
also offer agents various extra incentives, bonus commissions and
value-added perks, giving the travel agents more pricing leverage and
the ability to offer you discounts below what the cruise lines quote.
This flexibility makes the travel agent more willing to discount the
cost of a cruise in order to get your business.

This system may not seem to make great sense, but those are the
facts. The cruise lines are holding on to the travel agent community by
not under-pricing them, but with direct sales, the cruise lines are in
competition with the agents. And some cruise lines are becoming
somewhat predatory about capturing a bigger piece of the cruise sales
pie. This is causing a lot of friction between some travel agents and
certain cruise lines.

Here is an example. When you book a cruise through a travel agent,
the cruise line gets your personal contact information. The next thing
you know, you are flooded with direct mail from the cruise line
offering past-passenger discounts, or discounts on specific sailings.
What they don't tell you is that travel agents can offer you the same
perks, plus several other types of discount offers.

Understanding Cruise Agents

Once you decide to book through an agent, you still have to find a
good cruise agent who's ready to compete with the cruise lines for your

If a travel agent quotes you a price that is not the same as, or lower
than the cost of booking directly, or doesn't offer incentives like
free insurance, or even a pre-cruise hotel room, they are choosing not
to compete -- a choice some agents do make. They hope to attract
uneducated consumers. This not the kind of agent we recommend, unless
the service is so fantastic you don't mind missing out on a few perks.

A travel agent's job is to serve as a liaison between you and the
cruise line. They get their commission from the cruise line, not you,
but they represent you to the cruise line. You have every right to
expect they will look out for your best interests before, during, and
after your cruise -- especially if you have problems that you need
represented to the cruise line.

There are many superb and well-trained travel agents, but there are
also many who know little to nothing about cruising. They may have been
wonderful to work with when planning your business travel, or land
vacations, but the might not have the specialized knowledge about
cruising to supply you with equally good service in that area.

That's why I recommend seeking out an agent who holds industry
certification as an Accredited Cruise Counselor or a Master Cruise
Counselor. Agents must meet certain training criteria to receive these
designations, including having cruised on and toured a certain number
of ships. There is no guarantee that someone with these designations
will necessarily supply top-notch service. But it does guarantee they
have at least some knowledge about cruises.

Using Your Intuition

It's important to feel out a prospective travel agent to see if you
can build a rapport with them. This can be done even when you're
dealing with an Internet agency, through phone calls or e-mails.
Face-to-face meetings are not necessary. The correct answers to your
direct questions are what count.

Before you even ask for a price quote, probe the knowledge and
personality of the agent you may be putting in charge of your
hard-earned vacation. If you get the right feel about this person, you
then ask for a price quote.

A price comparison is the logical place to start assessing your
agent's abilities: Is the quote the same as or lower than the cruise
line's? If it is the same (as it will be in many cases), will the agent
add any perks to sweeten the deal, such as free travel insurance, hotel
stays, or limousine service? If so, you are off to a good start.

But price alone may not always be the best factor in determining
which agent to book through. We want the best price, but we also want
assistance and service when we need it.

This is where things can get blurry. Some agents have told me they
charge more to enable them to supply great service. It does sound
reasonable that an agent would want to be paid for the time it takes to
go the extra mile and supply exceptional service. However, there is
nothing guaranteeing the service for dollars spent.

I have seen cases where the best service was supplied by the agent
submitting the lowest priced quote. This is when you have to rely on
your good judgment to evaluate which agent will deliver what they
promise. Getting recommendations from friends certainly doesn't hurt.

Over the years, I've seen much discussion about whether it's best to
use a local travel agent, who you can see face-to-face, vs. an Internet
or e-mail based agency. In my view, there is no clear answer. Many
Internet-based agency are simply extensions of brick and mortar
agencies. In most cases, you are still dealing with real people rather
than machines, so the answer again becomes your judgment and trust in
the agent you hire.

What Qualifies a Good Cruise Agent?

Even if you are an experienced cruiser, when you call an agent
requesting a quote on a specific ship and sailing date, a professional
agent should ask some questions to determine whether your choice
actually fits your expectations. If they spend some time asking about
your interests and what you value in a cruise, they are showing a
genuine concern about your happiness with the decision you are making.
This is a good sign.

Once you submit your deposit, make sure the agent has submitted it
directly to the cruise line rather than into the agency's account. This
insures your cabin is held by the cruise line. Even if the agency goes
out of business, your booking still exists with the cruise line. You
should receive a booking number from the cruise line right away, which
you can verify by going to the cruise line web site.

The agent should ask your preferences regarding early or late dinner
seating, and also the size of table and number of fellow diners you
prefer. The agent should also make note of your ages, and whether you
will be traveling with children. Passing this information on to the
cruise line allows the line to match you with more suitable dining

The agent should send you a written confirmation from the cruise
line of your deposit, along with acknowledgement of any special
requests you've made.

A good agent will suggest you buy travel insurance. It's sometimes a
hard sell to get people to spend the extra money, but a good agent will
know it's essential to have in case an accident or tragedy strikes.

Today's cruise market is displaying very volatile pricing. A good
agent will monitor prices, just in case the cruise line should drop the
price on your sailing, and pass along any savings to you. That said,
there is nothing wrong with monitoring the pricing yourself, because
even the best agent can't check each customer's bookings on a daily

A short while before final payment for the cruise is due, the agent
should notify you via phone call or e-mail that the date is approaching.

And here is where a good travel agent can really shine: If you
encounter a problem during the cruise, a good agent will immediately
take your problem to the cruise line to seek a remedy. Their
connections with the company, and ability to climb the corporate
ladder, will normally get a satisfactory solution much more quickly
than any letter-writing campaign you can mount after the fact.