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Where To Buy Your Cruise

Written by: Kuki

The most perplexing problem about cruising may be where to buy one. There is an almost incalculable number of places to purchase cruises. It’s gotten so I’m almost surprised they’re not sold from vending machines in shopping malls, hotels, etc.

Aside from the cruise lines themselves, the only place to buy cruises is from a Travel Agent.

Do the above two statements confuse you? Are they contradictory? While they may be confusing, they are not contradictory.

Aside from the cruise lines, any entity that can sell you a cruise is a Travel Agent. Whether it’s major, well-known national brands such as Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, AAA, etc.,  Internet web sites, or one of the ever growing number of home-based neighbourhood agents, affiliated or simply working with travel agencies,  or travel agencies with walk in offices (known as “brick and mortar agencies“), they are ALL travel agents.

So, from the literally hundreds of thousands of choices, how is one to know which is the best choice? Of course, there is no answer to the question, but discussing it may end pointing people in the right direction.

A crucial point everyone needs to understand in the relationship between customer, cruise line and travel agents, is that the cruise lines pay the travel agent (on a commission basis).The customer does not pay the travel agent, nor do they pay anything extra if they use a travel agent.

The exception is some travel agents who may charge or attempt to charge a surcharge or premium above what the cruise line charges for the cruise fare. It’s important to know that those travel agents exist, and important to know I recommend you run, not walk, away from any agent or agency whose business model includes those types of charges.

With the exception of those who exercise such policies, I freely admit I am a fierce advocate for the use of trained cruise travel agents. That is because I am a fierce advocate for the cruise passenger, and their ability to get the best price and service available, and have someone to advocate for them to the cruise lines if there’s problems which aren’t dealt with well during your cruise.

Personally, I find it disturbing that cruise lines sell cruises directly to the public. I have several reasons to back up my objections.  The order takers at the cruise lines work for the cruise line, are just that.. order takers. They are not trained travel agents, and in most cases know very little about the cruise business. They know their job is to simply sell cruises on the ships belonging to the line that signs their pay-checks, without even giving thought to if that cruise line is the best line for your particular circumstances. And that premise, of matching clients to appropriate cruise lines, is the very basis from almost the very first page of travel agent training.

Interestingly the cruise lines refer to the Travel Agent network as their travel partners. Yet, it is to the advantage of the cruise lines if you book your trips directly with them, as in those cases they are not paying commission on those bookings.

If they would share an equal portion of the money they don’t have to pay out in commissions with their customers I might be less cynical of their intent to simply keep a bigger portion of the cruise fare to add to their coffers.

If I were an agent I would be very unhappy finding my “partner” won’t talk to “our customers” because they have booked with me. But that is another cruise line policy. They tell passengers booked through agents they are not allowed to talk to them because they are booked with an agent. One doesn’t need much imagination to determine who set that policy… and I suspect it’s very unlikely it was the travel agents. Once again my cynical side pops up, wondering if perhaps the cruise lines are trying to give the customer the impression that it’s much easier booking and working directly with the cruise line.

In the case of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, they are so concerned with their customers well being they do not allow travel agents to discount the cruise fares lower than they themselves sell it for.  This means agents who might discount from their commissions to possibly compete for some business are denied the ability to make that decision. It’s an odd policy because the amount the cruise lines receive for the fare doesn’t change, even if the travel agents discounted from their commission.

Unfortunately I have to say the flip side of this discussion- the travel agents – have their fair share of problems and issues….. And those issues help create a flow of dissatisfied customers racing to book their next cruise directly with the cruise lines.

There are many, many outstanding, diligent, hard working, well trained and well informed travel agents. However, it can be an arduous, daunting, and even intimidating, task for cruise customers to find them. During the past decade the Internet has certainly opened new avenues to finding the “gold plated” travel agent we all crave. One no longer has to book with a travel agency that happens to be within driving distance. If you’re willing to invest your time in research your chances of finding a terrific travel agent have increased dramatically. Word of mouth recommendations have always been deemed a most effective means of advertising, and with the growth of the Internet there are many more mouths to hear recommendations from.  Indeed one has to approach the overload of information with ears and eyes open wide.

As much of an advocate as I am for the use of travel agents, it is frankly one of the least regulated industries, that needs regulation. There are professional associations offering accreditation for training completed, and every expert advice column ever written on the topic recommends verifying travel agents memberships, probably justifiably. However, including the existing professional associations, there are no bodies regulating the actions of travel agents, other than the “laws of the land”. And that has allowed some less than qualified people into the industry. I think one of the by-products of these people selling cruises, resulting in customers unhappy with their services, if not worse, has also been to drive those unhappy customers to booking directly with the cruise lines to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Considering I railed against the cruise lines selling cruises earlier in this blog, this creates a conundrum on the topic. I do think that unless the travel agent industry creates a body to regulate themselves, with better licensing and higher performance standards that are enforceable they are going to find themselves losing more and more of their sales to the cruise lines. That surely would not be in the long term best interest of cruise consumers.

I’ve touched on a very complicated topic this week, and I’ve only touched on a bare minimum of the details involved, but perhaps all our readers can offer further insights, and offer recommendations on finding all of the terrific travel agents, and ways to make sure they succeed and stay in business.

A closing thought…ever wonder why there are few if any websites with reviews of travel agents? Who would advertise to support them?…. hmmm…. maybe the cruise lines.

- A View From the Kuki Side of Cruising -

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Comments

Comment from Mike M
Time August 19, 2009 at 9:35 am

Kuki:

This is definitely a conundrum.

I cannot understand why people book directly with the cruise line. It personally irritates me that the cruise line does not give the customer a discount if they book directly with them. The cruise line is giving a travel agent 10%-17% commission but the customer receives nothing for booking with them. Granted the cruise line has associated costs with having their own booking personnel and call center but it has to be a profit center or they wouldn’t do it.

On the other side of the coin I cringe when I talk with some agents or read their postings. These people have NO clue of the realities of cruising but they pass themselves off as cruise experts. I agree that there needs to be a TRUE regulatory body to make sure that the agent that cruisers talk to know the difference between their butt and a ship in the water.

I have found that the best way to find a good travel agent is to ASK A SEASONED CRUISER who they book with. They wouldn’t continue to book with someone who continually screws them unless they have masochistic tendencies or is just an idiot.

On the last note I want talk about a cruise line that only did their own bookings and “limited” their interface with travel agents. That cruise line was Renaissance cruises. A great cruise line but they drew the wrath of the travel agent community because they bypassed them or provided them with low commissions. The agent community banded together and helped drive Renaissance into bankruptcy. They did this by not mentioning them. Spreading some really ridiculous lies about Renaissance on message boards and other Internet venues while having never sailed the line. The line of “My clients have said…….” and then report some complete untruth such as the food was worse than dog food and the ships were filthy.

So: The agent community needs to be regulated but they are a well organized group. Second the cruise lines need to decide to either sell their own product or have agents do it.

OK: I’m done rambling. :)

Take care,
Mike

Comment from Dave Beers
Time August 19, 2009 at 1:21 pm

I always advise new cruisers to look for a cruise specialist who is affiliated with CLIA, and has one of the CLIA accreditations of ACC, MCC, or ECC. Those agents have met a standard which required study and effort and they maintain it. Thus they are self-regulating.

It is a shame that so many people think using an agent costs them extra (excluding those with service fees). I’ve had people argue with me that booking directly is cheaper because “there is no commission”. They get quiet when I ask them to explain why the price with an agent is the same as the one they got with the cruise line.

To expand on what Mike said, new cruisers need to stop and take a look at us seasoned cruisers and who we book with. Just looking at my large pool of cruise friends, a vast majority of us use an agent. I suspect this is true in many cases.

Comment from Kuki
Time August 19, 2009 at 2:02 pm

Dave,
While CLIA does offer training, and their designations to mean the agents have reached various levels of training…. MOSTLY CLIA is a marketing arm of the industry, and has NO interest or ability to regulate any of the agents they do accreditize.

Write CLIA with a complaint about a travel agent member and all you get is a shrug of the shoulders.

While the training is good, the lack of a regulatory “hammer” or even a desire to regulate is missing.

Comment from Peg
Time August 19, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Inviting my own bashing…but…although I have absolutely no qualms with travel agencies (they have been very beneficial to me in other modes of transportation), there are some benefits with booking cruises directly online. You can take your time, you don’t have to travel to speak with your agent, and, here it comes, the price of all cruises might be lower if commissions weren’t paid out. (?)

Ducking for cover. :(

Comment from Kuki
Time August 19, 2009 at 3:27 pm

PEG.. don’t have to duck for cover. I would agree IF the cruise lines lowered the price to compensate BUT they DO NOT!

When booking with them, they supply less service for MORE money. They just pocket the savings, rather than sharing with the customer.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time August 19, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Wow…

Kuki, it is GOOD to see you fired up about something.

First, I want to clarify that the cruise lines do not undercut the price the agents charge because it would drive the agents out of business. The agents would be extremely upset if the cruise lines cut their rates for booking direct. A lot of people thought they saw the day when agents would be pushed out of the picture a long time ago – and if cruise lines listened to Wall Street they would have been years ago. TG the cruise lines understand that Wall Street people generally do not have a clue. But there was real concern when RCL had Jack Williams as president sinc he came from the airlines and was pivotal in what they did to agents.

But the cruise lines NEED cruise agents. Think about all of the marketing and education of consumers that goes out from cruise agents – much like the work we do here at CruiseMates (except we don’t earn commissions on any cruises – but that is not my point) I suspect most of the people who book direct are either VERY experienced cruisers, or they so inexperienced they dont realize what an agent can do for them.

I still don’t think the cruise lines are at the point where they are making mad profits from their direct sales, but I suspect there are not the loss the lines claimed they were awhile back. STILL, 90% of sales still come from agents and any business would be crazy to disenfranchise that size of sales channel.

I actually think the agents were right about Renaissance. You almost make it sound like the travel agents did them in. That’s not true, the went bankrupt with almost no warning at all except what I heard from an agent about 2 months earlier (never mind that agent was once someone we all knew from all cruise sites, and he went to jail).

BUT anyhoo… the point is that Renaissance was done in by Ed Rudner, the founder and CEO. He was eventually ousted by Frank Del Rio and other board members, but he was calling the shots until it was too late.

He had some crazy ideas. At the end insisted that thy should base ALL 8 R-ships in Istanbul for supply-side efficiencies. He knew the Med was a great market – but for some reason he didnt see that 8 ships there might be too much.

Remember R also had a commitment to keep two ships in Tahiti full-time – that was a hard sell.

The agent thing also contributed a great deal – there was backlash and that and 9/11 broke the camel’s back, but it was also Ed Rudner who insisted on direct sales. He wanted to cut the agents out completely.

As a result, Oceania had to pledge to sell ONLY through agents before the agent community would sell their cruises just because the founders were from Renaissance, but they weren’t Ed Rudner.

BTW: Rudner started a travel agency out of Ft Laud after Renaissance collapsed.

Comment from Mike M
Time August 19, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Paul,

Your source was one of the agents who made many statements concerning the safety, cleanliness, quality of food and level of service of the Renaissance ships. He never set foot on one and basically called anyone who had sailed on a Renaissance cruise, and disagreed with him, a liar or “too easily satisfied.” I was neither.

Take care,
Mike

Comment from Kuki
Time August 19, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Paul..
I understand the cruise lines don’t want to (can’t) compete with their “agent partners” on price for fear of the backlash.
As you say a vast majority of bookings come from agents. In some ways, you’d think that would give them the clout to demand the cruise lines not sell cruises at all. But then that could be quite a gamble… though it would be fun to watch :)

As I mentioned the flip-side for the travel agents is it has become so easy to become a travel seller, that it’s an industry getting somewhat infested with people who just don’t have the knowledge to do the job well.

As I see it , both views create problems for the industry as a whole, and therefore the cruise consumers.

Comment from Mike Lawson
Time August 20, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Kuki, another good topic. normally I would agree with you regarding the travel agent. I have had a few issues with on line airline schedules. I had one with AA that changed no less than four times. I us a local travel agent for air, that way if there is a schedule change the agent will keep us informed. I normally do on line booking of cruises. The only time I have ever booked direct is with NCL for our September trip out of San Francisco. I wanted to book a room and the travel agernt talked me into a guarantee balcony. I was a little concerned but it turned out great. Not knowing the ship uor line I don’t think I could have picked a better spot. This will be our first time on NCL and another step toward my goal of trying all the cruise lines. I know you have a cruisemates trip planned for September. Any thoughs about next year? I think the only cruisemates cruise for 2010 is Snoozes Caribbean cruise January 17th. Nice to have you back, Mike

Comment from Tim Butler
Time August 20, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Our first cruise was booked with a Princess agent who my Cousin dealt with. My cousin had cruised many times and knew what to expect on a cruise while we had never cruised before.

My cousin got sick one week before the cruise and had to cancel so that left us to go it alone with no idea about what to expect. I wished we had used a cruise agent so we could of gotten some good info before that cruise. Unfortunately, many folks book cruises this way, by just letting their relatives or friends book the cruise for them. In circumstances like ours we were left to flounder in a situation where we could of gotten better information with a travel agent and enjoyed our first cruise so much more.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time August 21, 2009 at 11:46 am

There is no doubt the agents ganged up on Renaissance. I saw a lot of it, especially in RTC. I mentioned it because at the time I thought they were wrong, but it turned out they were right, Renaissance was on the verge of bankruptcy and they did end up not paying a lot of commissions.

Bottom line, you can “say” the travel agents ran them out of business, but the ones who trusted them also got burned.

My point is that the Renaissance bankruptcy was one where the only people who really saw it coming were the travel agents. I don’t recall any passengers or trade papers saying anything about it being in the air.

The TAs were the first to know because their checks weren’t arriving on time.

Comment from Debbie
Time August 28, 2009 at 11:01 am

I’ve enjoyed both your article and the comments. I’ve booked about a dozen cruises with on-line agents. In the course of doing this I connected with an agent who has been on about 70 cruises (some provided by the cruise lines). On one cruise that I wanted to book, he suggested one with a similar iterary, which turned out to be fabulous and a better deal. I only use two agencies now because I trust both of them. On a more humorous note, I did get a quote from a local travel agent once. She quoted me the full brochure price. I don’t ever see myself booking directly with the cruise line.

One of the things that we discovered in our earliest cruises is that cruisers are just dying to share their experiences and all you have to do to get us talking is say, “This is my first cruise.” I think the bottom line though, is do your homework. Visit the websites, read the blogs, review the articles and ask your friends.

Comment from alan
Time October 14, 2009 at 12:59 am

hi
we live in australia and find that an holland america cruise we like is much cheaper bought on the net from either america or england what are the pittfalls

regards

alan & jenny

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