Book direct or use a Cruise travel agent?

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Book direct or use a Cruise travel agent?

Should you book direct with the Cruise Line or use a Travel Agent to handle the booking?  This question gets asked a lot on the cruise discussion boards.  Here are some things to consider:
The advantages of booking with a cruise travel agency:
1.  Group rates.  Cruise travel agencies are able to block out groups of cabins on many sailings.  This allows them to offer discounted pricing that is lower than the standard rate.  The Cruise Line will give the agency "points" for each group booking.  The points can then be used by the agency to add special perks for those bookings.  This can include onboard credit, free photos, wine in cabin, etc...
2.  Secret sales.  Cruise travel agencies sometimes will be given "secret" sales.  Cruise Lines know that many customers price watch.  In order to fill ships and avoid booked customers calling to rebook at lower prices, they will sometimes offer top secret sales to Cruise travel agencies to fill the staterooms.  Cruise travel agencies usually aren't allowed to advertise these promotions in print, but they can approach their own customers directly with the deals.
3.  Experience of agent.  When you call a Cruise Line directly you sometimes do not receive accurate information.  This is because Cruise Lines will sometimes hire many people at low wages to work in the call center, but don't always provide the best training.  Many of those working in these centers have never been on a ship.  On the flip side, Cruise travel agencies tend to provide much more detailed training programs to their agents.  For example, Cruises Inc. and Cruise One require a week long training course for all new agents as well as touring of at least 3 different ships.  Many Cruise travel agents also become CLIA certified.  This means that they have taken additional cruise courses provided by the Cruise Lines International Association and have sailed on at least 2 different cruise ships. 
4.  Control.  You retain total control over your booking and you have an agent to take care of your needs.   If you want to make a change, the agent will handle it for you.  You don't have to wait on the phone for a hour to deal directly with the Cruise Line.  Just send your agent a email and they will take care of it for you.   In fact, when the Cruise Lines call center is closed your agent can still handle many of the changes you may have directly through online access to the Cruise Line database.   For those who like to book their own spa appointments, shore excursions, specialty dining, etc...  the Cruise Line provides online tools for you to do that regardless of which agency you booked with.
5.  Broader scope.  A Cruise travel agency doesn't represent just one Cruise Line, but many.  Therefore, the agency can help make comparisons for you from one Cruise Line to another.  This opens the door to more possibilities as you are shopping around for a cruise. 
6.  Looking out for your interest.  A Cruise travel agency will make sure that you have all the proper documents for your cruise.  They will take the time to walk you through what you need to know before boarding.  They will follow up with you after the cruise to make sure that everything went okay.  If you should have a emergency on your cruise, they will also be there to help make arrangements for you to fly home.
There are a lot of benefits to using a Cruise travel agency to help you with your bookings, but not all agencies are equal.  When deciding on the best Cruise travel agency to work with consider the following elements:
1.  Will they charge a fee for booking with them?  Will they charge a fee for changes?  This fee will be in addition to what you would pay if you booked directly with a Cruise Line.  The Cruise Line is already paying the agency 10 to 20% commission for the booking, and therefore the best agencies are the ones that won't charge extra fees for handling your booking.
2.  Are they CLIA certified?  (Look for the sample image to the right)  Work with agents that have cruised before and have been certified by the CLIA.  This means that they are more involved with selling cruises and want to exceed in the industry.
3.  Can you reach them anytime?  Be sure to work with an agency that is open on weekends.   If you are working directly with a particular agent, find out who their back up is and how to reach them. 
4.  How long have they been in business?   The longer the agency has been in business the more experienced and invested they are. 
The bottom line is that if you utilize a Cruise travel agency to handle your booking you will have a better chance of a successful cruise.

Steve Millay, ACC

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