Travel: Is it better to book a cruise through a travel agent? We say yes

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Going online to book an airline ticket or hotel stay is a familiar and fairly easy transaction. When you book a cruise, however — particularly your first cruise — you may want to reconsider the impulse to handle the transaction yourself through a cruise line website or an online advertiser with cheap prices. This DIY approach may not be the best way to find your dream vacation at sea.

In reality, it’s not that simple to book a cruise. You will likely run into a lot of questions to which you have no ready answer.

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That’s where specialized cruise travel agents come into play. Their expertise can help you avoid mistakes, whether you are a first-timer or a repeat cruiser checking out a brand you have not tried before.

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Why you should book through a cruise travel agent

You should consider booking a cruise through a travel agent because a knowledgeable agent can help you understand the nuances of a cruise purchase and help you make the best decisions for your vacation preferences.

When you book a cruise, you are making a vacation decision that goes way beyond a flight or hotel nights. Which ship you choose determines your dining and evening entertainment choices for the duration of your vacation. Which itinerary you choose impacts which destinations you’ll visit and what kind of shoreside activities will be available to you. It can be overwhelming to evaluate the options on your own if you’ve never cruised before.

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A travel agent will help you make choices about dining and cabin options. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises) © The Points Guy A travel agent will help you make choices about dining and cabin options. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

In addition, cruise fares can be hard to understand and compare. You may, for instance, see a fare listed online without the port charges, taxes and fees, which you only see after you give your personal details.

Plus, the price of your cruise includes accommodations, meals, entertainment and activities – and in some cases drinks, tips and shore excursions, Wi-Fi and other extras. There’s a lot bundled into some fares and not as much with others. A travel agent can help you determine what your cruise fare gets you. The cheapest base cruise fare does not always provide the best value or best overall vacation deal.

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You aren’t just booking general passage on a ship, either, as you will be asked to pick a specific cabin and when you prefer to dine. Making a mistake in these categories can ruin your cruise experience, as there are such thing as “bad” cabins and dining times (think noisy or claustrophobic cabins, dinner at 8 p.m. with cranky children, etc.).

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With cruises, you typically don’t pay for your whole vacation way upfront but rather put down a deposit, with final payment due at a later date. A cruise travel agent can ensure you don’t miss any due dates.

Remember, you may be a DIY type when booking airlines and hotels, but booking a cruise is more complex. If you enjoy doing your own research, focus on what to do and see in the ports of call. Read about different ships, cruise lines and itineraries. However, when it comes to booking the cruise, we recommend you still contact a travel agent who specializes in cruises to help you learn a few tips and avoid any rookie mistakes.

Travel agents can get better deals on cruises

If you’re concerned that working with an agent will make your cruise more expensive, don’t be. Cruise travel agents receive the bulk of their income via commission from the cruise lines. Their service to you is usually free, though some may charge first-time clients a minimal fee. It’s worth it.

In addition to sharing their expertise, the agent may have negotiated group space at lower rates with the cruise line, which may save you money on the cruise fare. The agent may also have first access to sale prices because the cruise lines notify their agent partners and loyalty club members first before they announce a sale to the public.

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Some cruise travel agents even throw in booking perks, such as a complimentary bottle of Champagne in an ice bucket, awaiting your arrival in your cabin.

How to find a travel agent for a cruise

Cruise lines prefer that you use a travel agent rather than going online and booking directly. They have small in-house reservation teams, and when you have a question while making a booking, good luck in getting an expert on the phone in a timely manner — particularly in a pandemic when the cruise line staff is busy fielding calls about cancellations and such.

Companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line provide online directories to help you find an experienced cruise travel agent near you.

a large ship in the water: Some cruise line websites can help you find experienced cruise travel agents. (Photo by Lorraine Boogich/Getty Images) © The Points Guy Some cruise line websites can help you find experienced cruise travel agents. (Photo by Lorraine Boogich/Getty Images)

You may also find experienced and certified cruise travel agents through CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association, which is the industry’s main marketing group. Asking friends who have cruised to recommend a travel agent is another good idea.

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You may get more personalized care from smaller agencies than from the huge online agencies, though websites such as icruise.com, Cruise.com and Cruise411.com also have experienced cruise agents. These larger online travel agencies can be a good option for those who prefer to make decisions and ask questions via chat. Just make sure you get the name and phone number of the representative for any follow-up questions.

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Questions to ask a cruise travel agent

In choosing a cruise travel agent, you will want to tap into the person’s specific expertise about the cruise line and ship on which you are considering sailing. Anyone can read a ship deck plan outlining ship spaces (which you can find online), but you are looking for people who really know their stuff.

Look for travel agencies that are cruise-only or a home-based agent who specializes in cruises. If you are using a full-service travel agency, ask for the cruise desk.

Here are some questions to ask a travel agent to determine their expertise:

  • How often do you cruise?
  • Have you cruised on the line I am considering?
  • Have you cruised on the ship that I am considering, or do you have clients who have cruised that ship and provided a review of their vacation?
  • Do you have firsthand knowledge about the cruise destination? The itinerary?

You will also want to ask the travel agent if they have a preferred relationship or negotiated agreement with any specific lines that could lead to special perks for you.

Be aware that not all agents work with all cruise lines; some may represent a few preferred suppliers or specialize in higher-end cruises. They get bigger commissions from their preferred lines.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but be aware if the agent seems to be putting you off the line you were originally considering, as this may be the reason. On the plus side, an agent who is a preferred supplier may have negotiated rates with the cruise line and be able to call in favors, such as that bottle of Champagne or asking for a cabin upgrade.

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You may be able to get a cabin upgrade with an experienced travel agent. (Photo by Jeff R Clow/Getty Images) © The Points Guy You may be able to get a cabin upgrade with an experienced travel agent. (Photo by Jeff R Clow/Getty Images)

You should also ask if the travel agency offers 24/7 assistance (usually an 800 number) in case you have last-minute questions or something goes wrong before or during your trip.

The cruise travel agent should have questions for you as well, to better understand your dream vacation desires. If you are calling a cruise agency for the first time, the agent should be interviewing you as much as you are interviewing him or her. The agent should be focused on helping you choose the cruise line, ship and cabin that is right for you. Making the correct choices is very important to your overall cruise experience.

Bottom line

Booking a cruise is a complex enterprise. A cruise travel agent will guide you through choosing your cabin and dining times, deposits and final payment, and options for shore excursions and specialty dining. If you need to cancel the trip, the agent will also help you through the refund process. You’ll have a lot less stress before and during your vacation if you book with an experienced agent.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

  • The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
  • A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
  • The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
  • A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
  • 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
  • 15 ways cruisers waste money
  • 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
  • What to pack for your first cruise

Featured photo by Erik Isakson/Getty Images.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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