I feel your frustration! I encountered the same thing many years ago when we were looking for an agent. Thought we found a good one only to have her leave shortly after we started the process. Quite frankly, never thought about a home-based agent because, as most people think, they're not real agents. But when it came time for us to find something we enjoy doing, the more I researched, the more I realized that home-based agents were among the most friendly and easy going people we met. Didn't take long for us to know this is what we wanted to do.
Good thing about a home-based agent, besides the fact that they are 'real' agents just like any of these big companies, we have more time to work with each client and more time for research. Plus, we're never on set times for opening and closing - we're always available for our clients no matter when it is. I've conducted business at 2:00am EST with a client from the West Coast. He was surprised I answered the phone. But I was up and we talked for an hour finding him a great cruise.
And most home-based agents belong to a consortium. For example, we're a Cruise Planners/American Express Travel agent. As I always say, we have the best of both worlds. We have the backing of a major corporation with huge presence in the industry and a great deal of respect among all the major cruise lines. Yet, we're also a small mom & pop company, so we can provide our clients with the personal service not usually given by the big impersonal online sites or chain stores.
And based on facts I once read, the average agent working for the cruise line or these online sites: 1) work in a call center; 2) have worked there less than 6 months; 3) is not a certified travel agent; and 4) has never been on a cruise or to any of the ports. So they are nothing more than an order-taker who is there to sell you something as quickly as possible so they can get on to the next person. They have no first-hand information to offer, so they're basically useless.
When looking for a good agent, ask alot of questions. It's like interviewing anyone else for a job. They're going to work for you, so you want somebody who cares about you as a client and not just another number.
Look for a 'cruise specialist'. As with any profession, a specialist is always better than a generalist. Find one who's been on a lot of cruises on many different cruise lines to many parts of the world.
One thing, many many agents think that having those fancy initials after their name, such as CTC (certified travel counselor) or MCC (master cruise counselor), etc, makes them appear to be a more professional agent. That's not the case. Those initials mean they spent a great deal of time going to classes to learn how to be a better sales person, period. Doesn't necessarily mean they know how to be a better travel agent because a good agent doesn't 'sell' travel. A good agent helps a client find the right vacation for them to purchase with their hard-earned money!
And when talking with them, if they start 'recommending' things, run the other way. Remember, what one person loves, another will hate, so just because the agent liked a specific cruise doesn't mean you will. They are there to help you find the perfect cruise for you, not the perfect cruise for them. If they seem in a hurry, find another one. They should never be in a hurry to assist you. You should be their first and only priority.
Check out their website. Is it all perfect with no personal information anywhere to be found? If so, they're just paying to have it and don't care anything about the information they're providing to their clients or the impression they're making. At the same time, the website should not look like it was put together by someone with no professional IT experience.
And lastly, if an agent says their company will charge your credit card (instead of the cruise line), or they request cash or checks, run away quickly! And once you do make a reservation, they should immediately provide a confirmation direct from the cruise line and preferably an invoice from their company as well. Then don't hesitate to look on the cruise line's website to confirm your reservation.
Bottom line is that a good reputable agent should be like your last one; somebody whom you trust, someone you feel comfortable with, and someone who cares about you as a client. Often times, your gut is the one to listen to the most.
We've been discussing alot of these things in another post that you might want to read for more information; Travel Agents Know the Best Cruise Secrets
Let us know if you have any questions and we're happy to help.