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When is a Travel Agent A Travel Agent?

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There seems to be wide spread confusion over what/who is a travel agent.

Before even trying to discuss this it’s important for everyone to know  there is no regulatory body of authority governing travel agents, other than the government, and it’s licensing divisions, and laws. And perhaps oddly, even laws governing those who sell cruises vary from state to state, and that is certainly true amongst other countries.

When researching the topic of travel agencies and agents, the most common advice people find is a recommendation to look for travel agents who are members of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) , as well as IATA (International Association of Travel Agents). While it’s true that both organizations offer various degrees of training, and various levels of certification to travel agents, that is not a requirement of membership. The only requirement is to purchase a membership.  There are training requirements to achieve some of the further designations these organizations offer.

When it comes time to book your cruise I certainly do recommend looking for a cruise travel agent with a CLIA designation, but one with, at a minimum, ACC (Accredited Cruise Councillor), or better yet, a MCC (Master Cruise Councillor).  Those with these accreditations have at least completed a training course, and at least some knowledge of cruises, as opposed to some other travel agents who quite possibly may have never stepped on a cruise ship.

However, even when dealing with CLIA trained agents, people should be aware that if they run into a problem with the travel agent, other than government agencies, you have no regulatory body to assist. CLIA and IATA are simply and truly just marketing arms for the cruise industry! They will accept complaints about member travel agencies, but frankly don’t have any ability to take punitive action, and therefore take no actions to assist in finding a remedy for your situation.

A very common question we see posted on our message boards is: “Should I book Online or with a Travel Agent”?

There’s no simple or direct answer to this question because “booking online” does not mean you are not booking with a travel agent. In fact every booking completed “online”, whether at some major travel selling web sites, such as Expedia, Travelocity, or Orbitz, or through online cruise agencies and/or consortiums of agents, are booked through some form of travel agency number or designation which authorizes them to sell cruises.

There is no way to know for certain, without asking, when booking through these online sites, whether the person you are booking with is a trained travel agent, or simply and order taker, who may have never seen a cruise ship. It’s truly up to the consumer to make that inquiry. Asking the question is, in my view, a very important step, before making any decision.

The days of simply checking prices online, and booking, are gone… if you are interested in seeing the lowest prices available. As we’ve reported many time, due to cruise line advertising policies, to find out what the best price is, even from online agencies, it takes a phone call or email inquiry!!

Another common topic posted on our message boards  is…”I always book directly with the cruise line”.  Some people believe that by doing so they are cutting out the “middle man”. They, and others, for other reasons believe they are saving money by booking directly with the cruise line.

The thing is the cruise lines sales people, referred to with various titles including “cruise/vacation planners” are rarely trained as professional travel agents. They are order takers. Some are knowledgeable about the brand they are working for. Others may have only been onboard a ship or two for lunch.

Much too often I hear tales of misinformation provided by those booking cruises for the cruise lines. And most importantly, from my view point, if a problem arises either before or during your cruise, the cruise line’s order takers will be of little assistance. After-all , they work for the cruise line you’re having the problem with. That is unlike a Travel Agent, whose job is to work for you.

Some people prefer to book directly with the cruise line so they can have direct access to make changes. That’s fine IF you are willing to pay more for that right. Inevitably, with a bit of searching for travel agents you can get a better price, or additional perks…. Though it is true that once you book with an agent, all your change requests, etc. must be routed through them.

The topic becomes even more confusing when you realize there are many Travel Agents, who aside from having land based store front offices (referred to a “brick and mortar), also have an online presence. They work to sell to their customer bases in their local areas, but these days many also work to sell their products online. So, while many potential cruise shoppers may ask the “online VS travel agent” question, there may be no differentiation. They can be, and these days, often are both.

If you interpret the “online VS travel agent” question to mean using a local storefront agency in your own community vs. an agency located elsewhere, then more questions arise.

Does your local agency have any travel agents who are trained and experienced in selling cruises? Can they provide pricing equal to the pricing you can find online? Do they have a history, and stability? Do they have a working knowledge of the cruise lines? Are they knowledgeable, and in a position to offer good advice to assist you in making your decisions.

Today there are many consortiums, where travel agencies ban together to form an association in order to access better pricing, and possibly better commission structures. Yet they all still function as individual and separate business entities.

There are also large nation-wide franchised cruise travel agencies, which while they can include store front operations, also include outside (home based) travel agents, who pay a franchise fee, and a percentage of their commissions to the franchiser. There is no doubt that many of these home based agents are absolutely wonderful at their job, and very knowledgeable of the cruise industry. However, there are franchises available where little or no training is required.; Where the only requirement for becoming at travel agent, and selling cruises under the banner of the franchise name, is to pay the fee.

Personally, I am very price conscious. But that in no way implies I recommend shopping and buying a cruise from the very cheapest source you can find. Nor do I buy the argument which some of the more expensive travel agents try and make, that you should expect to pay more for your cruise so you can expect better service.

Over the years that I’ve been cruising, I’ve personally experienced the negative impacts of choosing to book my cruise through the wrong travel agent and/or order taker, and paid the consequences. How do you think I know that there’s no real regulatory body for the cruise industry? I’ve been there, done that, and sat in the corner with my dunce cap on.

Even so, and perhaps more so, because of my experiences, I highly recommend booking with an experienced, trained and accredited Travel Agent. I do believe it’s not that difficult to find travel agents who offer both great service, and great pricing. You don’t need necessarily need to look for the biggest, or the name brands you constantly see advertising for. No agency or agent is going to have the very best price each and every time, on each and every ship. You should interview your prospective travel agents, as you would if you were hiring an employee for your own business; looking at references, background, etc.
Look for recommendations from experienced cruisers you know and trust. Eventually you’ll come across the travel agent “made of gold”; the all star that you completely trust to take care of you, and advocate for you when problems arise. Then you can reward them for their great prices and service by recommending them to everyone you know, and then you’ll both be happy.

– A View From the Kuki Side of Cruising –

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Comment from Namvet4
Time January 28, 2009 at 10:17 am

“There is no way to know for certain, without asking, when booking through these online sites, whether the person you are booking with is a trained travel agent, or simply and order taker, who may have never seen a cruise ship. It’s truly up to the consumer to make that inquiry. Asking the question is, in my view, a very important step, before making any decision.”

Always, caveat emptor! Any voice on the phone can say, ” sure, I’m CLIA or IATA; sure I have been on this or that cruise ship”. But still a good point, if for nothing more than to let the voice on the phone know, that you know something.

Comment from bahamamomma
Time January 28, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Thanks for the information – I’ve just gotten a bit wiser and now have some tools to work with when booking future cruises! Thanks again.

Comment from beentravelin
Time January 28, 2009 at 5:07 pm

very insightful kuki.

Comment from Marc
Time January 29, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Kuki, good post. I believe that you never find out if you have a good agent until something goes wrong. When your agent can help you out of a pickle from half the world away, you have found yourself a good agent worth keeping.

Comment from Brad
Time January 30, 2009 at 5:05 am

I do agree that you really need to find a good travel agent to help you plan your vacation, unless of course you are one, due to the fact that it is complicated, especially with cruises where the prices can fluctuate constantly. I should point out that IATA/IATAN is primarily a marketing arm for international airlines. Also, as a travel student who is serious about selling travel, I need to warn everyone about agents claiming affiliation with known card mills such as YTB(aka Your Travel Business). Before you book through a home based agent, ask who their host agency is and research the host agency so that you know the money you are putting on your vacation will be going to that vacation in fact.

Comment from Kuki
Time January 30, 2009 at 10:18 am

There’s no doubt it’s about researching and informing yourselves…. and accepting responsibility for the decisions you make.

I said “interview them as though you were hiring and employ”. When I was employing people in business, even with all the checking, and thinking I was a good judge, I did make the “odd” mistake.

Comment from Trip
Time January 30, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I have always been in favor of doing business with a knowledeable ta. Having someone to be pro active for you in the event of any travel isues, is imperative. We found that out first hand years ago, when Clia was no help in handling the issues that arose with a group cruise.

Comment from thaitourde
Time February 20, 2009 at 2:57 am

Thanks for taking the time to explain this in a way thats so easy to understand.

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