Internet-savvy passengers on Crystal Cruises' ships can stay in touch while they're at sea. The Los Angeles-based line has offered onboard computer classes and e-mail access since 1997.
But do-it-yourselfers who
try to purchase their trips through Crystal's own site,
http://www.crystalcruises.com, are dead in the water. Like many of its
competitors, Crystal doesn't offer online booking, preferring to direct
prospective passengers to a list of travel agents.
"We still see buying a
cruise as something that requires a more personal touch," says Mimi Weisband, a
spokeswoman for Crystal. "People have a huge number of questions, and [travel
agencies] have the infrastructure to provide that level of service." About 95%
of cruise passengers buy through travel agents. And despite a major push by
online giants Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com), Expedia (http://www.expedia.com)
and Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com), and cruise-only outfits like
Icruise (http://www.icruise.com), Cruise 411 (http://www.cruise411.com) and
Cruise.com (http://www.cruise.com), the Internet research firm Jupiter Media
Metrix predicts that just 1.3% of U.S. cruise bookings will be made via the Web
this year versus 13% of U.S. airline sales.
With good reason, says Anne
Campbell of CruiseMates (http://www.cruisemates.com), one of several online
publications aimed at cruise enthusiasts. "There's a huge difference between
booking a cruise and an airline seat or hotel room [online]. I've been on close
to a hundred cruises, and I wouldn't do it," says Campbell, citing the
often-sizable price and the complexities of such variables as cabin categories,
dining options and shore excursions.
And in most cases, Campbell notes,
rates are the same whether passengers point and click or call. Still, half of
all passengers research their cruises online, notes the Cruise Lines
International Assn. (http://www.cruising.org), an industry trade group. What's
more, the Internet has been a "big influencer" for the 78% of American travelers
who have never taken a cruise, says analyst Kate Rice of PhoCusWright, an online
travel research firm.
"The Web is a dream-maker, [and] streaming videos
of parasailing can obliterate stereotypes of passengers beginning to line up at
11 p.m. for the midnight buffet," Rice says.
Here's a strategy for smooth
* Check out such information-rich sites as CruiseMates,
Cruise Critic (http://www.cruisecritic.com) and About.com's Cruises Guide
(http://cruises.about.com), where you'll find updates, reviews, message boards
and bargain-hunting tips.
* Compare prices at multiple online agencies.
Cruise.com, Cruise411, Expedia and Travelocity include a comparison tool that
lets you rate potential cruises side by side. Cruise.com and Icruise have a
"beat your quote" feature that lets you try to push your best deal even
* Are you willing to travel at the last minute, or flexible about
dates and ships? Consider online auctions such as All Cruise Auction
(http://www.allcruiseauction.com), Sky-Auction (http://www.skyauction.com) or
Bid 4 Vacations (http://www.bid4vacations.com), or LastMinuteTravel.com
(http://www.lastminutetravel.com). And don't forget to sign up for e-mail
notification of special deals.
* Many cruise line sites include
360-degree photos, deck plans, sample menus and information on ports and
shipboard activities. Celebrity (http://www.celebritycruises.com), Princess
(http://www.princess cruises.com) and Royal Caribbean
(http://www.royalcaribbean.com) let you book shore excursions online.
Don't rule out "bricks and mortar" agents. Several cruise line sites, including
those of Carnival (http://www.carnival.com), Princess and Royal Caribbean, help
you locate nearby agents by ZIP Code.