(eTN) – Many of us have become our own bank tellers, gas station attendants and grocery clerks. And since about half of all travel purchases are made online now, it’s safe to say quite a few of us have become our own travel agents as well.
But booking a two-hour flight or a midsize car for the weekend is one thing. Buying a cruise vacation is another. I recently researched this topic for Consumer Reports and found that while the Internet has remade the face of airline ticket distribution, the overwhelming number of cruises are still booked the way they were before there was a World Wide Web: through travel agents.
Some experts question if this will change significantly any time soon. “I don’t see booking direct in a big way,” says Fran Golden, travel editor for GateHouse Media and author of Frommer’s Alaska Cruises. “The vast majority of cruise passengers still book through agents, whether on the phone or with online agencies.”
These days, it can be fairly hard to mess up an online booking for a domestic round-trip flight or a one-night hotel stay. But a lot can go wrong if you don’t know how to book a cruise. Golden explains why that is: “First-time cruisers really should book through experienced travel agents because there’s a lot they need to know. Even the terminology can be confusing.” If you don’t know inside rooms from outside rooms, or early seatings from late seatings, you probably should find a travel agent.
Denise LoMonaco of Wantagh, N.Y., found this out last summer. She and her husband and their two teenagers were taking a cruise and she booked directly with Royal Caribbean. Although she specified a cabin for four, they were given a cramped three-person room and then a small rollaway bed. She visited the onboard customer relations representative and recalls his response: “The first thing he asked was what travel agency did I use to book. He was shocked I did it myself.” Things worked out for the LoMonacos when they were given a second room at no extra cost. But she says, “Next time I’ll use a travel agent.”
Many consumers clearly agree with LoMonaco. Last year, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) conducted a survey of 2,482 Americans and found 79% use agents to book at least part of their cruise vacations. Perhaps the more important news for the travel agency community is that 95% of this group is satisfied with the level of service. The online travel industry’s “looking vs. booking” phenomenon is particularly pronounced among those shopping for a cruise. The CLIA survey found 86% of cruisers said they would use the Internet for planning purposes, yet only 49% would book online.
So retail agents remain the preferred channel for both cruise lines and their passengers. In fact, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), 87% of all cruises are sold by agents. But no matter how high the exact number, there’s still a fairly sizeable chunk of cruise buyers — let’s call it 10% to 15% — who are booking on their own. Since January is the busiest month for selling cruises we thought it would be helpful to speak to those who have tried going it alone.
How to book
No doubt many of the shoppers who were more successful doing it themselves have some cruise experience and some of them may be true experts. But self-bookers have several channels to choose from:
Online through a third party site
An obvious option for those bypassing brick-and-mortar travel agencies is to buy through an online travel agency. The Big Three travel sites all offer cruises, with a variety of booking tools. Of them, Orbitz has the greatest variety of suppliers, with 18 available lines compared with 11 for Travelocity and eight for Expedia. All three sites prominently display toll-free lines to contact “cruise experts.” CheapTickets provides a 24/7 toll-free cruise desk as well. Even the two leading opaque travel sites — Hotwire and Priceline — both offer transparent cruise bookings.
Some readers are convinced the mega-sites are the way to go. As one suggested, “The best way is to look for options and prices on a site like Expedia but then get familiar with the ship on the actual cruise company site…The price for [two cruises] was cheaper by a few hundred dollars each on Expedia than the actual cruise line’s site.”
One reader who has bought six cruises online wrote: “I’ve always booked my own cruises via Expedia or Travelocity/Yahoo Travel…Most of the cruises I’ve booked have been last minute deals or really good prices that I had to take advantage of before they went away…Luckily for me, nothing has happened. I’ve had positive experiences.”
Then there are the many cruise specialty sites available on the Web. Sorting through them can be difficult but CruiseMates is a good source; its Online Cruise Shopping Mall provides updated deals from many reliable sites.
One reader who uses such sites offered some valuable advice: “Over the course of several months, there were two price drops on our identical cabin class, and the [site] we booked through honored the drop to a lower price both times and refunded us the difference—down to the lowest price of $679. Don’t be afraid to ask for the lower published price!”
However, cruise packages are no different than airline seats or hotel rooms, so the basic rules of booking travel online still apply:
• Avoid sites that don’t provide privacy and security policies;
• Be wary of sites that don’t provide contact information and/or communicate solely via email;
• Always use a charge card for your protection.
Online directly through the cruise line
The websites of most cruise lines include tips and links for finding a travel agent. So what you’ll find is a mixed bag of options. As Golden says, “Some lines do sell directly but they do encourage you to use a preferred agency. There are a few more people who are booking themselves but it’s still not a lot.”
But the option to book directly exists as well, and in many cases this can include airfare. For example, Carnival features its 800 number prominently on its home page and those who click through on the “Find a Cruise” feature can book online as well. On the other hand, Holland America allows you to price a cruise, and even email the details to friends and family, but booking it means you’ll need to call a travel agent or request that the cruise line call you.
The booking tools vary from cruise line to cruise line. Cunard’s “How to Book” page offers three options, which are contacting a “travel professional,” calling Cunard, or sending an email request. Conversely, on its home page Disney Cruise Line lists the same three options — but in reverse order: “Book Online or Call (800) 951-3532 or Contact Your Travel Agent.” In addition, rather than providing an email request, Disney allows you to book via the site.
Some branded cruise sites have their fans. Says one repeat booker, “My wife and I have taken three cruises on [Royal Caribbean] and always do the entire process using RCCL’s excellent site…It is very easy to price shop on the site, noting that booking a week earlier or later can be hundreds of dollars cheaper. The site also allows me to change rooms as often as I want until I get the just right room. We also use the site to book shore excursions, print our boarding passes, and even order wine to be delivered to our suite.”
Another reader who has booked three family cruises on his own in recent years wrote: “I found that I could get a better deals on my own so I use many different websites in doing the research on prices and availability. I have booked directly from cruise lines, and have booked cruises directly with Disney, Royal Caribbean, priceline.com, and vacationstogo.com.”
One thing to consider is to use these various channels in combination. For example, you can browse for prices on a third-party site, search for availability on a cruise line’s site, and then book through that line’s reservations center.
A reader who has booked six cruises herself suggested this: “One trick that often works is to book your room in advance, and then the week before sailing, call and demand the difference between what you paid and the last-minute prices that almost always are released in the weeks shortly before the sail date. Even if they say no, they will sometimes give you an upgrade as compensation.”
Even if you’ve already decided to buy direct, it’s important to remember that booking a cruise is not only a high-ticket item, but it can also be a very complicated purchase. So even if you’re experienced, it makes sense to consider using the option of the company’s reservations staff. They may be able to advise you about subtle nuances not apparent via the website. In addition, cruise blogs suggest unadvertised deals can sometimes be had by phone.
Some readers prefer this method. As one pointed out, “I’ve booked my own cruise twice with Royal Caribbean. They’ve been very helpful and I’ll definitely use them again…I’d advise others to plainly ask the cruise operator they speak with about any discounts. Bottom line is bottom line—they want the rooms filled.”
Another reader wrote: “My friend was a past guest of Carnival so he called and talked to one of their cruise planners and she was great to work with, making sure everything was covered. As a past guest, my friend was able to get my single booking at a discount for the other couples traveling with us…After the trip was booked, Carnival’s cruise planner was just as happy to answer any questions we had as she was to help us with the reservations.”
Even so, calling a cruise line usually is not like calling a major airline; you won’t find across-the-board 24/7 coverage and you may encounter unusually long wait times. Golden explains, “The bottom line is, [travel agents are] their distribution chain. They don’t have extensive reservations staffs—they have small ones. They don’t want to anger the agency community.”
If all this seems too daunting, perhaps you should visit an old-fashioned travel agency. The best recommendations can come from family or friends, but if you’re stumped, visit CLIA’s site or the site for the National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies. Both organizations feature agents who are cruise experts; ask for the MCC accreditation, which means the agent is a Master Cruise Counselor. However, many cruise specialists are somewhat like auto dealerships that feature selected brands, so always inquire about their preferred supplier agreements to know which lines they promote.
Obviously a lot comes down to personal choice. As one reader noted, “I have booked our last three or four cruises myself online. I have gotten great deals that way…Someone who is very particular should probably book with a travel agent. Someone who hasn’t gone on a cruise before may also benefit from a travel agent.”