If you're an experienced traveler, you probably already have a regular travel agent with whom you do significant business. They serve you well and meet your travel needs on a regular and perhaps even frequent basis. If you're considering a first cruise, however, you should know that your regular travel agent might not be the one who has the skills and experience necessary to recommend and sell you the best cruise vacation.
Think of it this way: you probably already have a general practitioner (doctor). You go to her for a variety of reasons, and she is generally able to take care of a broad range of health issues pretty well. But suddenly, you develop a need for a specialist -- someone to take care of a more serious or more unusual health issue.
Full-service travel agents are general practitioners, with broad travel experience. They generally do a great job when recommending and booking hotel, air, and packaged land vacations. Though they may very well be perfectly capable of selecting or recommending cruise vacations, chances are they haven't kept up with industry developments in the way that a specialist has the time and motivation to do.
Cruise-only travel agents do one thing well. They are travel industry specialists, who usually stay current with cruise industry developments, cruise line and ship details, new ship launches, incentive programs, and other specials. You wouldn't visit your G.P. for neurosurgery. You may want to consider whether a full-service travel agent can accommodate all of your travel needs equally well.
Having said that, "shopping around" every time you decide to cruise is also not an entirely productive approach. Selecting a good cruise travel agent should take a little time, but like any solid business relationship, sticking with a good TA once you have chosen one makes sense for a number of reasons:
If they are good agents, they get to know you. They develop a file of your travel likes and dislikes, your interests, your favored lines and ships, and other details. Imagine having to rebuild a relationship like that every time you book a cruise -- and it's important that they do get to know you, as you will be relying on their judgment regarding your cruise interests. Unless you are a cruise expert yourself, sooner or later you're going to "take a chance" on a line you don't know anything about. Who would you rather have help you select that mystery cruise line? -- a stranger, or someone who knows you pretty well? If you are a good client, and demonstrate your loyalty through multiple bookings, you may just find that when a special fare arises, you'll get a call or an email. It's nice to do business with someone you know and trust.
Speaking of trust, there are a number of books and articles that suggest you should put your prospective TA through an elaborate third degree interrogation before you book through them. Suggested questions range from shoe size to annual business volume (OK, I'm just kidding about the shoe size bit). I'm not suggesting that you should be casual in your choice, but you must also remember that a good TA deals with dozens of requests every day, and though they may deserve your business, they may not have the time to jump through elaborate and unnecessary hoops to get it.
There are really only a few things you need to know:
Has your prospective TA cruised frequently before? Have they taken a cruise on, or do they employ someone who has taken a cruise on, the line(s) they are recommending?
Are they pleasant and responsive when you call or visit?
Have they requested background information on you before they started making recommendations? Do they have a seemingly legitimate business that has been operating for awhile?
Though it's no absolute guarantee of quality, most reputable agents belong to some sort of industry association that typically provides education, training, and sometimes certification. There are a relatively large number of these:
In addition to belonging to one or more of these associations, you should ask the agency you wish to deal with if they have errors & omissions insurance coverage and if they are properly registered (if applicable) in the state, county and/or city where the agency is located.
Finally, there are literally hundreds of cruise brokers and discounters on the 'net. Many say they will give you a rock bottom price as long as you figure out all the logistics and select exactly what you want in terms of line, ship, cabin class, departure date, etc. Where do you think most people get that information? From another travel agent, who does the leg work only to lose the sale over a few saved dollars. This is not illegal, but it's a bit sleazy. If your TA does the work, they deserve the booking.
When I suggested earlier that you develop a business "relationship" with your TA, I meant it. As with any relationship, you may luck out with the first one you find, and I hope you do. But don't forget the immortal words of Titanic Thompson, the renowned hustler: "smart is better than lucky." Spend a little time, and make a smart choice. You can test your luck in the casino.
Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.
Brent is also the Executive Vice President of Landmark College in Putney Vermont, and we are proud to announce that Landmark College has received a U.S. Department of Education Title III (Strengthening Institutions) Grant. Landmark is one of only 32 institutions selected from among approximately 1,800 applicants for this highly competitive grant program and Brent and his staff worked with Senator James M. Jeffords and his staff at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions who provided substantial support, advice, and guidance during Landmark's two-year quest to gain funding within the grant program. Congratulations, Brent!
Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.
Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.
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