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Cruise Columnist
Let's Make a Deal

by Brent Betit

If there is anything better than a great cruise, it's a great cruise for half what the guy in the cabin next door is paying. We're all confirmed capitalists, familiar with the expression "what the traffic will bear" (remember Economics 101?), and we'd like nothing better than to believe there is a bargain behind door number three. Or one. Or anywhere. Let's make a deal. Throw in a Ginzu knife. Batteries not included. Some restrictions may apply.

I'm just like everyone else. I like a deal, too. So I thought I would spend a few days on that marvelous contraption, the Internet, and scout out some great deals for my good friend Joe Cruiser. And where better to find a deal than on some of those famous reverse auction and regular auction sites?

Believe me, there are plenty of sites, and no lack of hype. I surfed for days, trolling through Auctions Unlimited, Auctions Buy Us, AuctionTrader, Barter-n-Trade.com, Bet and Buy, Bid Bonanza, bid4it, BidAway, Bidfarm, Bidhit.com, BidShack -- and those are just a few of the A's and B's. I'll bet you think I'm making this up. I wish I were.

There are literally tens of auction sites out there. Maybe even hundreds. But after spending innumerable hours visiting more of them than I care to recall, another expression comes to mind: "the lights are on, but nobody's home." Except for a few mega-sites like Ebay and Egghead, there ain't much going on out there, folks.

Though the names will be changed to protect the embarrassed, I visited one site (let's call it Hey-U-Bidder.com) and was impressed with the slick, user-friendly design, the sexy "come hither big 'Nethead fella" graphics, and the promise of everything under the sun starting at one buck. The only problem is, it was like walking around in an empty mausoleum. After furiously clicking through most every category, I found exactly one item up for bid. Something to do with Elvis.

Okay, so maybe I picked the wrong site(s). Or the wrong fifty of 'em. I'm not a quitter. So I visited a reverse auction (let's call it Hey-U-Sucker.com), where for the low, low price of $5.00 (refundable if I didn't get any response) I could fill out a user screen detailing precisely what I wanted for a cruise, including cabin quality, cruise line, itinerary, date, and shoe style (I picked blue suede shoes in keeping with the Elvis theme, of course), and within moments I would receive, from three bona fide travel agents, rock bottom quotes on my dream cruise vacation. All right, I made up the part about the shoes. But everything else is true.

The site's rules stated that only the first three responding travel agents could submit a price to my inquiry. First come, first served. Very American. Here's what I asked for pricing on: "7 day or longer cruise roundtrip from a Florida port for 4 with balcony.

We wish to book a 7 day or longer cruise with balcony suite leaving anytime after August 6, 2000 and returning prior to August 20, 2000. Preferred cruise lines are Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, or Holland America. Will consider others except Carnival. Travelers:, Jill, Jack, Johnny, and Joe Schmoe. Price to include all fees, port charges, and taxes. No air is required. Any itinerary will be considered."

Lo and behold, I got three responses in almost as many minutes! The only problem is, the first two of them read something like:

Proposal #1:

"Please send me an email and I will respond tomorrow. RCCL has closed for the evening."

Also, do you want the least expensive balcony room? Do you want a room the cruise line labels as a suite or any room with a balcony? What color shoes do you wear? Why is the sky blue? Does the rain in Spain fall mostly on the plain? I'm really, really desperate for business, here, so drop me a line.(sic)

Proposal #2:

"Our Agency concentrates in providing the best value & service to discriminating travelers. We only do leisure travel. This means that we don't spend most of our time on a computer booking airline reservations for corporate accounts. The benefit to our clients is that we can spend more of our time planning leisure trips and researching the best values for you. You may not be aware of this, but 98% of travel agents spend 95% of their time booking airline reservations! This means that they only have time to check one or two sources for their leisure travelers, and usually take the first price provided. While those 98% of travel agents only spend 10-15 minutes per leisure client, we spend an average of 12-16 hours planning each trip and researching the best values. And, since we are Members of a large consortium of Agencies called "Zippity-Doo-Da Travel Group", we have the largest buying power of any agency in the market. This buying power, along with our insiders knowledge and contacts, allows us to guarantee the best possible prices and values for our clients."

Pardon me, but I didn't see any prices in the above, did you? Did you know that 98% of cruise travelers spend 43% of their time asking where they can get 50% off retail list? Well, this isn't the place.

The other feature of this site is that the travel agents are never given your email address or phone number (that's worth the five bucks all by itself). The responding agent's tactic therefore appears to be to get you to respond to their inquiry, thereby supplying them with your contact information -- and not to provide you with "rock bottom reverse auction pricing." In other words, think of this site as a big trawler's net for travelers. Try not to be their next tuna.

I did receive one quotation, as follows:

Proposal #3:

"We are a full service agency with an 800 number, 24 hour service and excellent credentials and references. We can offer you a great cruise experience, doing the Western Caribbean on Royal Caribbean's brand new Voyager (the ship with the ice rink and rock climbing wall) in a Balcony Suite sailing on Aug 6 for a total with all port charges and taxes of $5587.00."

Not bad, I suppose, but I wanted to see what a real, live cruise-only travel agent could do, given precisely the same pricing request. And here's what I got:

"Dear Mr. Schmoe,
I have found 6 cruises which fit into your dates and requirements for accommodations. They are all 7 day cruises with 4 of them having EASTERN Caribbean itineraries and 2 having WESTERN Caribbean itineraries.
All prices include all 4 people, all port charges, taxes and government fees, no air or ground transfers or insurance.
8/12/00 - 8/19/00 Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas EC round trip from Miami to Labadee, San Juan, St. Thomas and CocoCay
Category D deluxe outside with balcony (199 sq ft) $4627.00
8/6/00 - 8/13/00 Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas round trip from Miami to St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau
Category D deluxe outside with balcony (199 sq ft) $4797.00
8/13/00 - 8/20/00 Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas round trip from Miami to Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios
Category D deluxe outside with balcony (199 sq ft) $4882.00
8/12/00 - 8/19/00 Holland America Line's Zaandam round trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau, San Juan, St. Thomas & Half Moon Cay
Category B mini suite with balcony (284 sq ft) $5249.00
8/13/00 - 8/20/00 Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas round trip from Miami to Labadee, Ocho Rios & Cozumel
Category D1 deluxe outside with balcony (199 sq ft) $5307.00
8/12/00 - 8/19/00 Celebrity Cruises Century round trip from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Maarten & Nassau
Category 2 deluxe outside with balcony (240 sq ft) $5392.00
If you need further information, please let me know. I cannot guarantee that the above rates and accommodations will be available until I hear back from you about which, if any, of these cruises you would like to book."

Have we learned any lessons here, folks? If you receive Yahoo! magazine, you're probably familiar with their monthly feature "Old Way / 'Net Way," which compares how long it takes to complete a task the old fashioned way, or the same task via the Internet. In Yahoo!Land, the 'Net Way frequently wins.

Yes, it is relatively easy to buy a discount book on the Internet, or even to purchase a pizza, or a computer, or find that old high school friend. But when it comes to a purchase that involves personality, interests, finances, and even dreams (hey, do I have to spell it out? -- I'm talking C-R-U-I-S-E here), I'll stick with a real, live person every time - even one I first found on the Internet.

If you're feeling adventurous, and you can leave tomorrow, and you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various line's itineraries and typical discount pricing, there's a good chance you might get a real bargain on a cruise at Egghead. Bear in mind, though, that I've also seen cruises go at auction for about 30% more than they'd cost by booking through a travel agency -- so be careful out there. Oh, and one more thing. Some restrictions may apply.

Line

Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

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, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.


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