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.

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