The most perplexing problem about cruising may be where to buy one. There is an almost incalculable number of places to purchase cruises. It's gotten so I'm almost surprised they're not sold from vending machines in shopping malls, hotels, etc.

Aside from the cruise lines themselves, the only place to buy cruises is from a Travel Agent.

Do the above two statements confuse you? Are they contradictory? While they may be confusing, they are not contradictory.

Aside from the cruise lines, any entity that can sell you a cruise is a Travel Agent. Whether it's major, well-known national brands such as Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, AAA, etc., Internet web sites, or one of the ever growing number of home-based neighbourhood agents, affiliated or simply working with travel agencies, or travel agencies with walk in offices (known as brick and mortar agencies), they are ALL travel agents.

So, from the literally hundreds of thousands of choices, how is one to know which is the best choice? Of course, there is no answer to the question, but discussing it may end pointing people in the right direction.

A crucial point everyone needs to understand in the relationship between customer, cruise line and travel agents, is that the cruise lines pay the travel agent (on a commission basis).The customer does not pay the travel agent, nor do they pay anything extra if they use a travel agent.

The exception is some travel agents who may charge or attempt to charge a surcharge or premium above what the cruise line charges for the cruise fare. It's important to know that those travel agents exist, and important to know I recommend you run, not walk, away from any agent or agency whose business model includes those types of charges.

With the exception of those who exercise such policies, I freely admit I am a fierce advocate for the use of trained cruise travel agents. That is because I am a fierce advocate for the cruise passenger, and their ability to get the best price and service available, and have someone to advocate for them to the cruise lines if there's problems which aren't dealt with well during your cruise.

Personally, I find it disturbing that cruise lines sell cruises directly to the public. I have several reasons to back up my objections. The order takers at the cruise lines work for the cruise line, are just that.. order takers. They are not trained travel agents, and in most cases know very little about the cruise business. They know their job is to simply sell cruises on the ships belonging to the line that signs their pay-checks, without even giving thought to if that cruise line is the best line for your particular circumstances. And that premise, of matching clients to appropriate cruise lines, is the very basis from almost the very first page of travel agent training.

Interestingly the cruise lines refer to the Travel Agent network as their travel partners. Yet, it is to the advantage of the cruise lines if you book your trips directly with them, as in those cases they are not paying commission on those bookings.

If they would share an equal portion of the money they don't have to pay out in commissions with their customers I might be less cynical of their intent to simply keep a bigger portion of the cruise fare to add to their coffers.

If I were an agent I would be very unhappy finding my partner won't talk to our customers because they have booked with me. But that is another cruise line policy. They tell passengers booked through agents they are not allowed to talk to them because they are booked with an agent. One doesn't need much imagination to determine who set that policy... and I suspect it's very unlikely it was the travel agents. Once again my cynical side pops up, wondering if perhaps the cruise lines are trying to give the customer the impression that it's much easier booking and working directly with the cruise line.

In the case of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, they are so concerned with their customers well being they do not allow travel agents to discount the cruise fares lower than they themselves sell it for. This means agents who might discount from their commissions to possibly compete for some business are denied the ability to make that decision. It's an odd policy because the amount the cruise lines receive for the fare doesn't change, even if the travel agents discounted from their commission.

Unfortunately I have to say the flip side of this discussion- the travel agents - have their fair share of problems and issues..... And those issues help create a flow of dissatisfied customers racing to book their next cruise directly with the cruise lines.

There are many, many outstanding, diligent, hard working, well trained and well informed travel agents. However, it can be an arduous, daunting, and even intimidating, task for cruise customers to find them. During the past decade the Internet has certainly opened new avenues to finding the gold plated travel agent we all crave. One no longer has to book with a travel agency that happens to be within driving distance. If you're willing to invest your time in research your chances of finding a terrific travel agent have increased dramatically. Word of mouth recommendations have always been deemed a most effective means of advertising, and with the growth of the Internet there are many more mouths to hear recommendations from. Indeed one has to approach the overload of information with ears and eyes open wide.

As much of an advocate as I am for the use of travel agents, it is frankly one of the least regulated industries, that needs regulation. There are professional associations offering accreditation for training completed, and every expert advice column ever written on the topic recommends verifying travel agents memberships, probably justifiably. However, including the existing professional associations, there are no bodies regulating the actions of travel agents, other than the laws of the land. And that has allowed some less than qualified people into the industry. I think one of the by-products of these people selling cruises, resulting in customers unhappy with their services, if not worse, has also been to drive those unhappy customers to booking directly with the cruise lines to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Considering I railed against the cruise lines selling cruises earlier in this blog, this creates a conundrum on the topic. I do think that unless the travel agent industry creates a body to regulate themselves, with better licensing and higher performance standards that are enforceable they are going to find themselves losing more and more of their sales to the cruise lines. That surely would not be in the long term best interest of cruise consumers.

I've touched on a very complicated topic this week, and I've only touched on a bare minimum of the details involved, but perhaps all our readers can offer further insights, and offer recommendations on finding all of the terrific travel agents, and ways to make sure they succeed and stay in business.

A closing thought...ever wonder why there are few if any websites with reviews of travel agents? Who would advertise to support them?.... hmmm.... maybe the cruise lines.

- A View From the Kuki Side of Cruising -