How to Find a Good Cruise Travel Agent

How to Find a Good Cruise Travel Agent
by Kelly Ranson and Erica Silverstein, Cruise Critic - May 12, 2009

So, you've decided to go on a cruise—perhaps your first venture on a vacation at sea—and you're a little overwhelmed. You have to consider how much you're willing to pay, whether to book an inexpensive inside cabin or splurge on a suite, and which cruise line and ship are right for you. Add dinner seatings, shore excursions, and cabin location to the list, and planning a relaxing getaway suddenly seems like a second job.

In the age of the Internet, many people assume that online is the only way to book travel. But, as booking online can often be confusing, a travel agent may be just what you need. In fact, according to the Cruise Lines International Association's (CLIA) 2008 Cruise Market Profile Study, nearly 75 percent of cruise travelers book their cruises through travel agents.

One of the most important things to know is that agents—in particular, cruise specialists—have been onboard the ships and can really give you first-hand advice about different cruise options. They have done a great deal of research through familiarization trips and cruise-line seminars, so you don't have to do the work yourself. Even better, agents often have access to special discounts or perks—or know best where to find them—and as the cruise lines pay their commissions, you don't pay more for their services and expertise.

Still undecided, or unsure where to find an agent to help you? Here are a few tips to get you started.

Reasons to Consider a Travel Agent
If you're used to booking travel independently, consider these reasons why you might want to make use of a travel agent to book your next holiday at sea.
Choosing a Cruise: For your first cruise, you may need help in matching your lifestyle and budget with a cruise line and destination. Choosing a cruise is not the same as picking a hotel or flight, as there are many more options to consider.
For example, do you want to cruise close to home from ports like New York, Miami, Galveston, or Seattle, or are you willing to fly to Europe for Mediterranean and Baltic sailings? Would you be happier on a large ship—such as Royal Caribbean's 154,407-ton, 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas—or on a smaller, more intimate ship—like Seabourn's 10,000-ton, 208-passenger Seabourn Pride? Do you prefer a casual and lively vibe, as is found on Carnival Cruise Lines, or a more formal atmosphere, such as Silversea's?

Remember, you won't just be using the ship as a home base, like you do with a hotel; it will be your home, restaurant, and entertainment venue for a week or more. The right ship and itinerary can make your vacation that much more enjoyable—and an agent can help you determine the best selection for your tastes. In addition, an agent can answer any questions or assuage any apprehensions you might have about taking a cruise for the first time.

Shopping for Great Deals: Contrary to what you might expect, travel agents may actually be able to get you better deals than Internet retailers or even the cruise lines themselves. The best travel agents have access to discounted group rates and exclusive cruise pricing that's not found anywhere else. In addition, agents occasionally give you extra value on your booking—such as prepaid gratuities, a free bottle of Champagne, or onboard credit—to sweeten the deal. And if the price of your cruise drops after you book, a good agent will notice and refund you the difference in fare. Finally, as cruise lines pay agent commissions, you don't have to worry about paying extra for their planning services.

Booking the Trip: Once you've chosen your cruise and, with the agent's help, matched your style with your vacation goals, you've got to book the trip. Again, it's a bit more complex than you might think, but a good agent will make the process go smoothly—from securing the right cabin type and location to booking the dinner seating that will suit you and your party. Your agent will also be able to sort out travel insurance, if required, and will collect payment for the cruise (usually a deposit at the time of booking and the full amount 60 to 90 days before departure). In addition, the agent can help you with the rest of your travel plans, such as pre- or post-cruise stays, airfare, and transfers.

Special Requirements: If you have special needs of any kind—whether it's help in arranging a wedding ceremony onboard, ordering gluten-free or kosher meals, or dealing with accessibility issues—a qualified agent should be able to make the proper arrangements for you or advise you on how to handle the issue yourself.
Establishing Relationships: Booking with a travel agent gives your transaction a personal touch—you have a resource for asking questions and someone to contact if something goes wrong during your travels. But your relationship with an agent doesn't tend to end after one trip. The agent will keep you in his or her database, alert you to deals or sales, and can even suggest future trip ideas.

How to Select a Travel Agent
So how do you find the right travel agent for you? Look for the following:
Training and Credentials: Many agents become accredited cruise counselors through CLIA's Cruise Academy or take courses through the different cruise lines to become more expert at selling their products. Inquire whether the agent has attended any of these training programs. In addition, you can look for affiliations with the National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies (NACOA), Better Business Bureau (BBB), American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), or even the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Cruising Experience and Knowledge: Question the agents on cruising trends or up-and-coming destinations, and ask them to explain the differences between cruise lines. Find out how many cruises they've taken that year and with which lines they've personally cruised. The more knowledgeable an agent is, the better advice you'll get. If the agent has rarely cruised, you might want to take your business elsewhere. In addition, you might want to look for an agent who is a cruise specialist—either at a cruise-dedicated agency or within a larger general agency—to get the best service.

Inventory/Niche: If you're interested in a specific type of cruising (such as river cruising or luxury travel), look for agencies that specialize in the line or type of cruising you prefer. They'll often have more complete knowledge of your choices than a generalist. For example, if you want to cruise one of Europe's rivers in an intimate barge or riverboat, you may not want to book with an agent who specializes in selling holidays on 3,000-person mega-ships.
Interview: The best cruise agents will do a thorough job of interviewing potential clients to find out which ship, line, and itinerary would be the best fit. In that initial interview, they should ask you what kind of vacation you normally take (beach, city, active, for example), who is going (family, couple, singles), your travel style (entertainment and activity preferences, dining habits), and your budget.

Deal watch: A line-by-line list of World's Largest Cruise Night sales

More than 1,310 cruise-selling travel agents are holding events this week as part of World's Largest Cruise Night -- the industry's annual selling extravaganza. A line-by-line list of sales and special offers that cruise lines are offering in conjunction with the events:

-- Amawaterways. The river cruise line is offering up to $1,000 per cabin discounts on select November and December cruises; up to $500 per cabin off on select April and May sailings. Valid on new bookings made between October 1-31.

-- Avalon Waterways. The river cruise line is offering 50%-off airfare on all 2010 air-inclusive European river cruise vacations. Booking window is October 1-31.

RELATED ITEM: World's Largest Cruise Night kicks off with sales
ALSO ONLINE: The next major cruise hub will be in ... Detroit?
ALSO ONLINE: Top bands to headline first VH1 music cruise

- Azamara Cruises. New bookings for individual travelers on 2010 European sailings made today through Friday are eligible for onboard credits of $300 to $500 per cabin, depending on cabin category.

-- Carnival. The industry giant is offering "cash back" of $70 to $200 per cabin on bookings for select 2010 voyages from a variety of North American homeports.

-- Celebrity Cruises. New bookings for individual travelers on select sailings made today through Friday are eligible for onboard credits of $50 to $200 per cabin, depending on length of sailing.

-- Costa Cruises. Passengers receive a $50 onboard credit per cabin on Caribbean and European sailings through December 2010 booked today through Oct. 31.

-- Crystal Cruises. Vacationers will receive a $100 per person discount on most 2009 and 2010 departures booked today through Nov. 7.

-- Cunard Line. Passengers will receive onboard credits of $50-$300 per cabin, depending on sailing and accommodations, plus a waiver of the deposit on a second person in the booking.

-- Disney Cruise Line. Passengers will receive $50 to $100 onboard credits when booking sailings that take place between Jan. 3 and Dec. 19, 2010.

-- MSC Cruises. Passengers booking select sailings in the Caribbean on MSC Poesia will receive shipboard credits of up to $200.

-- Norwegian Cruise Line. Passengers will receive onboard credits of up to $250 per cabin, depending on cabin category, on more than 300 sailings around the world.

-- Regent Seven Seas Cruises. The luxury line is offering $100 per passenger in shipboard credits for seven-night or longer cruises in 2009 and 2010 with bookings made between now and Nov. 14.

-- Royal Caribbean. The mass-market line is offering travel agents a choice of offering their customers up to $200 off per cabin, onboard credits of up to $100 or special amenities. Bookings must be made by Friday.

-- SeaDream Yacht Club. Passengers who book during the month of October will receive a $100 per cabin spa credit.

-- Silversea Cruises. The luxury line is offering a $100 per passenger shipboard credit (maximum $200 per cabin) for new bookings made between today and Nov. 14 for seven-night or longer sailings in 2009 and 2010.

-- Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. Passengers will receive a $100 savings on all 2009 and 2010 cruises when booked between today and Oct. 21.

-- Windstar Cruises. Passengers booking today through Nov. 14 will receive a $50 per person shipboard credit for selected sailings on Wind Surf, Wind Star and Wind Spirit between January and March, 2010.

I recommend Sandals and Beaches Resorts

Hi everyone! Well I just returned from a jam packed 3 day trip to two wonderful properties in the Caribbean and I wanted to tell you about it!

'Beaches' resort in Turks & Caicos - All I can say is WOW! What a FABULOUS vacation destination! This place has it all! As with all Sandals properties, it is all-inclusive which means all your drinks, meals, activities, are all included in one price. How cool is that?? Beaches in Turks & Caicos has something for everyone, and is a great place for a family vacation, honeymoon, destination wedding, family reunion, girlfriend getaway, anniversary, birthday, etc - you get the idea!

This resort has 16 wonderful restaurants to choose from, a beautiful 12-mile stretch of soft sandy beach with calm ocean for swimming/ snorkeling, 4 huge pools with swim-up bars, activities throughout the day and evening for everyone, and I mean everyone! If you have kids, they will love this place! From the little ones up to teenagers, there is something fun to keep them busy! There is a waterpark with slides, a lazy river, and splash pad + lots of activities planned each day. If you want to get away from the kids, there are plenty of places for the adults to enjoy themselves too. At the beach, there is a myriad of activities to keep you busy if you want. Or you can just chill on the comfy padded beach chairs sipping your pina colada and enjoying the beautiful ocean breeze! You can do as much or as little as you like!

So where are the Turks and Caicos islands you may ask? Well, it is only about a 4 hour flight from Chicago, 1 hour from Miami, and 2.5 hours from NY so very easy to get to. It's an unspoilt destination that many people haven't even heard of, so if you like to be ahead of the game and go someplace different, then I would definitely recommend it!

'Sandals' Royal Bahamian in Nassau - this is a wonderful 'couples only' resort in beautiful Bahamas. This Sandals resort is considered one of the Caribbean's most elegant resorts, and has been voted as the top Spa resort in the Caribbean as well. There are 9 dining options to choose from, very spacious rooms, and they even have their own PRIVATE offshore island. Yes, that's right, a private island only for the guests of the resort! And it's romantic too! Imagine having a candlelit dinner on the beach, with the sound of the waves lapping onto the shore. And after dinner, relaxing with your loved one on the comfy beach bed as you watch the sunset. Ahhhhh, beautiful! It's a wonderful, romantic resort with lots of options to do as much or as little as you want. And since all the food and drinks are included, you don't have to worry about always having money or a credit card with you.

And of course, I should mention how wonderful and accomodating the staff are at all the Sandals properties. They are very well trained and of course want to make sure everybody has the best vacation experience. There is comfort in knowing that when you travel to a Sandals property, you will be very well taken care of and they will do their best to accomodate you and any request you may have.

I will post some pictures on my Facebook page so please take a minute to check those out too. I think once you see and experience the all-inclusive luxury of the Sandals properties, you may never want to go anywhere else but Sandals! They have many other different hotels in other parts of the Caribbean as well - St Lucia, Jamaica, and their newest resort is in the Exumas Islands of the Bahamas and will be opening in January (Again, WOW - pure luxury at this new resort). If you would like any further info on any of the properties, would like a brochure, or if you are ready to book your next vacation, please let me know!!

October Cruise Month!

Happy National Cruise Vacation Month! Keep an eye out for great cruise deals throughout October in celebration!

FYI - there are also lots of Early Booking Discounts if you are looking at a vacation for 2010 or 2011. Also, many new ships coming out in July. Stay tuned for more updates!

Beaches WonderFall Event - Book now to save up to 65% at Beaches Jamaica or Turks & Caicos

This Fall Turns Into WonderFALL with More Fun and Savings at Beaches Resorts

When it comes to family vacations, no other resort in the world offers more than Beaches Resorts. Beaches is The Luxury Included® Family Vacation, where everyone in the family can enjoy endless fun in the sun…and best of all it’s all included!

For a limited time only, save up to 65%* and get up to 1 night free on new bookings made before before October 1, 2009.

Exclusive WonderFALL** Events:

A WonderFALL Family Reunion
Beaches has created a Caribbean-style Family Reunion.
Inclusions: Private Family Picnic, Group Dinner, 5”x 7” Family Photo, Family Reunion Concierge
Plus, this fall, get room category upgrades, a complimentary Catamaran Adventure and more!^

Make a WonderFALL Difference in the Community
We are dedicated to helping island children learn to read, preserve the environment, and improve the local community. Help us promote literacy throughout the Caribbean by donating a new or gently used book during your fall vacation.

Decorate your Bag-O-Treats
A Fall-o-Ween party with music and merriment—plus of course, trick or treating. The Crayola® WonderFALL Art Project lets kids decorate their own special bag with lots of glitter, markers and more…creating the perfect sack to rack up handfuls of sweets!

Little Tyke Monster Jam Session
Scratch DJ Academy® brings a new version of jammin’ to the Caribbean for the entire family. Parents and kids get into the groove together with golden oldies like Hot Potato and more–remixed for today with an upbeat new sound.

Dive-In Movies
Watch a movie with the whole gang under the stars amidst the cool waters of our gigantic pool and plenty of popcorn

All Meals and Gourmet Dining
Unlimited premium brand drinks & cocktails plus anytime snacks
A wide selection of land and water sports including tennis & Scuba diving
Supervised kids camp
XBOX® Game Garage
The Caribbean Adventure with Sesame Street. Kids get to interact with some of their favorite
Sesame Street characters like Elmo, Zoe, Cookie Monster, Grover and Bert & Ernie
Certified Nannies Service & Nursery
All Tips & Hotel Taxes
Roundtrip Airport Transfers

*Up to 65% offer applies to new bookings of min. 3 nights made before October 1, 2009 at select resorts and specific room categories for travel now through December 19, 2009 and January 1 - December 17, 2010. Blackout dates apply.

**WonderFALL Events are valid on new bookings only for travel now through November 30, 2009. All events, appearances and dates are subject to change. Beaches Resorts is a proud sponsor of Sesame Street.

^Character Breakfast available at additional cost.

^^Resort dive certification course available at additional cost.

^^^Family Reunion special activities based on a 5-room minimum booking on a 3-night minimum stay. Not combinable with any other discount. Certain restrictions apply. Not applicable to group weddings.

Offer may be changed or withdrawn at any time without notice. Not responsible for errors or omissions.

Free night offer applies only to adult rates, (children do not receive the free night). Valid for new bookings of 7 nights made before October 1, 2009 for travel between Now- November 30, 2009. Maximum 2 person limit for offer. Promotion is combinable with Beaches consumer savings for Single Parent Fun Months, Sandals Select points and Free Weddings where applicable. Offer is not combinable with any other free night promotion or resort's credit nights. May not be applicable for group bookings. Offer can be changed or withdrawn at any time.

MSC Cruises - Winter Getaway!

Winter Getaway Sale
Over 60% Off 7 Night Caribbean Cruises

Don't miss this great opportunity to getaway from the blues of winter and into a world of blue skies and sunshine. Take in the beauty of the Caribbean on a seven night cruise aboard one of the newest ships to sail the Caribbean MSC Poesia. Discover the secrets of ancient Mayan civilizations and underwater reefs teeming with colorful fish, explore pastel villages, lush rainforests. Onboard discover the perfect blend of European charm and modern Italian elegance. Come sail with us to extraordinary destinations departing from an array of exotic ports in true European style, on a Winter getaway you will not soon forget at a value you'll appreciate forever. Special fares start from just $399*
Call me to learn more: 1.312.339.2208

Sending thoughts and prayers to the people in the beautiful Bahama Islands, and all those in the path of Hurricane  Dorian along the east...