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What do you look for in a Travel Agent?

Written by: Rita

I recently attended a class in Fort Lauderdale for travel agents new to the industry, and my eyes were opened to many things.  I think I came away from the class with more questions than answers, to be totally honest.

Sure, the mechanics of booking cruises, working with clients, customer service, etc. can be learned, but how about all the other things that almost seem intuitive?

So, I thought I would come to the CruiseMates community for answers. I tend to think this community probably has better answers than the travel industry does.

So, here’s my questions:

What do you look for in a travel agent? Is your primary concern one of price or of service? Do you have a regular travel agent, or do you book each cruise with a different one — often the one that will give you the best price? If you do have a regular agent, why do you stick with her?  Does she offer superior service to the point that, within reason, you wouldn’t care if another agency was offering your cruise at a lower price? And, if your agent’s price is initially higher, would you give her the chance to match a lower price you obtained elsewhere before pulling your booking?

The reason I ask these questions is because I’ve discovered that the cruise lines give ALL agents pretty much the same price for a cabin.  Sure, some agencies can possibly have group space reserved on a certain sailing, but those group prices are pretty much the same.  The bookings only accrue certain amenities not available to a single booking.  For example, maybe all the cabins in the group will get a bottle of champagne in the stateroom and a $50 per cabin onboard credit.  Where the differences seem to come into play with price is that some high volume agents may offer ”discounts” that come out of the commission they would make on the booking.  Some cruise lines have disallowed this practice, but some still do permit “rebating.”  And on the surface, this discounting sounds like a great idea.  It seems a good way to increase bookings for your agency, and since a lot of bookings with the same cruise line often results in a higher rate of commission paid to the agency, the “rebate” the agent gives her client should result in the same basic amount of commission for the agent anyway.  But do you get the same degree of service from the large discount agencies?  I honestly don’t know, but my experience says no.

The problem I’ve noticed with the large discount agencies is one of service.  It seems they are primarily order taking mills, and that they are pretty slim on personal service.  But, of course, my experience is rather limited.  Maybe some of you have better experiences  If you use a large discount travel agency, are you happy with the service you get from them?

The reason I ask this is because I booked a couple of cruises through one of the “biggies” in the industry and got what I thought was a good rate for my cabin.  However, I was still a relatively new cruiser at the time, and could have really benefited from some saavy advice.  I made two bookings with this agency, both in the same year.  Both bookings were with Princess, by my own choice.

The next year, when I wanted to book another cruise, a message board friend referred me to her travel agent.  When I got that agent on the phone and told her I was a solo cruiser wanted to book a sailing on Princess, this agent seemed a bit taken aback.  She told me that Princess gives absolutely no break to solos — 200% single supplement, so why would I want to sail Princess?  I was shocked.  I never knew that.  In fact, I was still a relatively new cruiser with little “inside” knowledge of the industry.  I only wished my previous agent had told me that.  I only wonder how great her knowledge of the industry really was.  Maybe she didn’t even know there were other cruise lines that wouldn’t charge me a 200% single supplement.

Right there, with that one piece of advice, this travel agent earned my loyalty.  She made me aware that I was wasting my money — spending more for a cruise than I needed to.  She then proceeded to ask me some questions, trying to determine what I looked for in a sailing, and then steered me to another cruise line where I could get a better deal as a solo, yet still get the type of cruise I was looking for.

So, what’s more important to you?  Is price the guiding factor?  Or, do you prefer dealing with someone who offers personalized service and whose knowledge of the cruise industry you have confidence in?  Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?  Have you been fortunate enough to find a travel agent who offers BOTH discounted prices AND excellent service?

The next question I have regards loyalty.  Are you “married” to your travel agent.  In other words, do you prefer to make all of your bookings with her, not even shopping with others?  If so, has this relationship been one you’ve developed over the course of years and many bookings with her?  Do you stick with her mainly because she is comfortable for you to deal with?  Do you just have a great rapport with her, such that you don’t care if you are paying a little bit more?

Or, are you a person who prefers to get the best deal possible, and don’t care which agent you book with, just as long as you are getting the best possible price?  Do you consider each cruise a separate transaction, shopping it around with many agencies, rather than sticking with one particular agent?  Have you been successful in this strategy or have you often met with frustration dealing with some of these agents, either because of service issues or perhaps simply because they were difficult to communicate with?

Finally, how do you feel about “brick and mortar” travel agencies versus long-distance ones? Do you prefer dealing with an agent whose place of business you can just walk into when you want to make a booking?  Or, do you usually make your bookings online or over the telephone, with a travel agent you’ve never met face to face?  Do you feel one type of travel agent is better, or doesn’t it matter to you?  Do you feel that dealing face to face with an agent is somehow more satisfying than via the internet or on the telephone?

And, on a related topic, what do you think is an acceptable amount of time for your travel agent to get back to you in response to an email or telephone message?  Is the next day acceptable, or do you expect ot hear back within the hour?  What about when your agent is on her own cruise?  Does she have someone backing her up in case you have a question or a problem with your booking?

I ask these questions because they are things I have been thinking about quite a bit lately.  And I can’t think of a better place to seek answers than right here in our CruiseMates community.  So, would you mind helping me out and giving me your thoughts?

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Comments

Comment from Paul Motter
Time February 25, 2009 at 4:10 am

Rita….

Great article. I have noticed that some cruise agents always get good deals on almost any cruise line (Nancy, who handles our group cruises is like that), but other cruise agents seem to get special deals on certain cruise lines. So if you want that cruise line you should go there.

Princess seems to be one cruise line where certain agents get a ood deal, and other agents seem to do better with Royal caribbean/Celebrity.

As you said, it is supposed to be a flat playing field, but in reality certain agents just seem to have an “inside track” at certain lines and can pull strings.

First and foremost, you can’t beat an agent with true cruise knowledge – such as singles supplments, transfers, check-in time, dining arrangements, etc. Any cruise agent should be an experienced cruiser first.

Comment from Manya
Time February 25, 2009 at 7:40 am

You KNEW I would need to comment!… As a ‘cruise specialist’, I draw mostly on my destination expereince (having lived in 5 countries and worked 20 + years in hotels and travel) in addition to my experience dealing with the cruise lines. I really do listen to the client and what they are looking for and often steer them in a direction they may not have thought of… For instance, looking at an 800 sq foot suite in lieu of 2 balcony rooms for 4 people (of course it depends on who you are traveling with) often at less than $1000 difference. You need to know your ships and cruiseline pricing structiures to think ‘outside the box’ . (some cruiselines do not discount 3rd and 4 passengers as much as some)

I often sit with potential passengers for hours reviewing possible cruises and travel plans… some return to book, others take my advice and knowledge and go and book it themselves online.

To those who ‘use’ agents and then deny them the benefit of payment for their knowledge and time in lieu of a bottle of wine or a coupon booklet, I have some choice words… if you want to book onlne knowing that you could be supporting a local agent and your local economy for relatively the same price, please do not use that local agent to pick up brochures, call for destination advice or to assist you when something goes wrong on your cruise and (surprise surprise) you can’t get that wonderful faceless bargain company to help you with a complaint letter.

In these times of belt tightening, if you are able to inject any $$ into your local economy (99% of the time, the price is the same), you really should try to book locally. Every city has agencies that are specialists in various aspects of the travel industry including cruises. Even experienced cruisers can sometimes learn something from a cruise specialist. I just returned from a 14 day Panama Canal cruise and sat with people that had cruised 20+ times… I ended up spending an hour with them sharing some tips for their next cruise that they had already booked to the Baltics in June… this was their 3rd trip there and they throught they ‘knew it all’ .

Sorry for the ranting and rambling. I am very passionate about my job and about the service I provide.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time February 25, 2009 at 9:00 am

I’ve used the same agent for over 12 years. Her service is the most important thing to me (well, her friendship too!). Usually her prices are the same as anywhere else, sometimes a bit higher, sometimes a bit lower. I am not going to book online just because they are offering the cruise for $20 less than my agent, yet there are people who will. Loyalty is important to me and I won’t trade it for chump change differences in price. My agent’s service trumps it. I don’t have to look for the price to drop after I make the booking. She does it automatically and gets the new price for me. She gets upgrades for me. She is an advocate for me. Does anyone think “1-800″ cruises will do that for you?

For someone to use the expertise and time of a “real” agent, knowing they plan to book online or with someone else, well, that is theft of services in my book.

Comment from Rita
Time February 25, 2009 at 10:07 am

In response to Paul’s comment … I was absolutely floored when I met a few people at the training class who had NEVER been onboard a cruise ship before. In fact, they were looking forward to the ship inspections in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, just so they could get onboard a ship … because they really had no particular desire to ever book a cruise on their own. I remember thinking, “how in God’s name can you be a decent cruise travel agent if you’ve never been on a cruise?” Yet, there were a couple there, from a large internet agency, who had been booking cruises for years without having ever been on a ship. I’m sorry … but it’s the same as as with any purveyor of high price goods … you need to be an enthusiastic customer as well before you can even hope to convince me to become one. That may be a silly attitude, but it’s just the way I feel.

Comment from Rita
Time February 25, 2009 at 10:24 am

Manya,

There should be a special place in hell for people who do what you refer to … come to one agent and take several hours of their time gleaning their best advice, and then take the booking to an online discounter who maybe offers them a few dollars cheaper price. It’s just not right and I can’t imagine how anyone who does such a thing could sleep at night.

However, that said, I find that when you do good things, they always tend to come back to you in the end anyway. That customer who “wasted” your time and booked elsewhere will either come running back to you for her next booking because she had such a horrible experience with the online discounter, or she will tell a friend how good you were to her, and that friend will contact you for a booking … one that is for a far more elaborate cruise than the original client was even contemplating.

What is it they call it? “Karma?” It always comes back.

Comment from Oliver
Time February 25, 2009 at 7:55 pm

I think it comes down to a few different questions you need to ask yourself. To me it is simple. If you are not opposed to doing research about the ship or place you are going then book your trip for the lowest price available. Me personally, i enjoy finding out everything about a ship and a port of call and it would not pay for me to use an agent. In that case I would book with a order taher or agent mill if you please. If you want someone to do all the work for you and you dont want to learn and research on your own, then go to a “brick and mortar” agent.

Comment from Dave Wagner
Time February 26, 2009 at 7:41 am

I really didn’t know what to look for when I 1st started cruising, I guess I started off looking for the best deal (yes, cheapest price). Then I called a TA who changed that, I discovered honesty was really important. This TA told me that he knew another TA who could get me a better price with a certain cruiseline then he could. I went with the other TA that 1st time but since then the original TA I called has gotten my business. He could have just taken my business, my money but instead he showed he cared about his clients and was more about honesty then about just raking in the money. This TA is named George Leppla and because of his honesty with a brand new cruiser he earned a lifelong client.

Comment from Linda Rich
Time February 27, 2009 at 7:58 am

My question is-how do you find a good TA? We usually go with a big internet group, but get very little service. I usually end up getting my own deals and keeping up with what I need. I would love to work with a TA that gives me good quotes, but also info. Thanks.

Comment from Rita
Time March 4, 2009 at 4:42 pm

A note to Linda Rich –

And that is the $50,000 question. I would guess finding a good TA is all a matter of trial and error in most cases. You could always get referrals from friends and others you trust who have had good experiences with someone … but basically it comes down to trying someone out with one trip, and seeing if their service is satisfactory to you. If it’s not, then you don’t give them your repeat business.

I once dealt with a TA who I believe was relatively new to the field and really didn’t have much inside knowledge. She really didn’t have the answers for my questions, which was fine, but where she dropped the ball was in the fact that she didn’t offer to find out. I knew early on that I would have to “stay on top of her” in order to make sure my trip went seamlessly, and after that one trip I never used her again. Then I got a referral for another agent from an internet friend, and her service was perfect. I used her right up until I opened my own agency through CruisePlanners.

Of course, there are some people who prefer to do it themselves, and that is fine. If you feel confident in your ability to root out the best price from all the websites out there, and then to book online, then I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. The only thing I question in my busy life is why wouldn’t I take advantage of all of the help I can, by using a travel agent and tapping into her knowledge, when using her isn’t costing me a dime? Of course, if she is unable to get me good prices, then I would have to decide if her help/expertise is worth it … but assuming she’s getting me comparable prices, I just can’t imagine having someone to do the work for me … especially since I don’t have to pay her a dime. The cruise line will compensate her.

Blue skies …

–rita

Comment from Pegi
Time March 5, 2009 at 8:27 am

I really like and admire my Sears travel agent. I’m sure that she has lots of other customers to look after but she always makes me feel like I am important to her.
She takes considerable time to research the different cruise possibilities and then presents me with different options. Even if I don’t like any of her choices, she doesn’t take offense…she just keeps on looking!
Sometimes I spend time on the cruise ship websites looking up possibilities myself and then I e-mail her questions about those cabins or destinations and she gets right back to me. She also updates me with any new weather or shore excursion information before I leave for the cruise.
She also delivered my tickets personally after business hours to the coffee shop,so I didn’t have to take time off to drive into her office.
I wouldn’t even think of making holiday plans without her advice!

Comment from Amber
Time March 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm

It is because of customers who want to use all of my time to research their options for them and then go book online that I started collecting a “plan to go” deposit. I apply it to their booking, but it is non-refundable if they choose to go somewhere else.

Some people will just not pay it, but I do not waste my or their time. My business has doubled since I started doing it. All of my clients got a letter of my intent to implement with an offer to waive the fee on their first booking by a certain date.

I have totally dropped the lookers from my business and now only deal with the bookers.

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