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Find the RIGHT Cruising Travel Agent For You

by Linda Coffman

You think you've found a jewel of a Travel Agent, then what?

First off, I'm not a travel agent. When I want to book a cruise, what do I do? The same thing you should... research, research, and more research.

I've used several travel agencies over the years and through trial and error, I discovered that when planning a costly cruise vacation the last thing you want is an agent who has A) never been on a cruise, B) calls a cruise ship "the boat" or worst still, C) quotes BROCHURE rates.

So, how do you find a cruise travel professional you can trust? First off, look for signs indicating you're dealing with a Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) affiliated agency. Preferably, your agent should be certified as an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC) or Master Cruise Counselor (MCC) by CLIA. Those agents have completed a demanding training program, including touring or sailing on a specific number of ships. They've make it their business to know all they can to serve their clients' needs.

You think you've found a jewel of an agent, then what? Sit down and talk. Get to know one another. And above all else, be honest about your expectations and budget. Seldom can a travel agent guess what your interests are and how much you can afford to spend. Don't be shy. If you have champagne taste and a beer budget, SAY SO.

Take a moment to look around the agent's office. Are there racks containing a wide variety of cruise line brochures? Do you see trade magazines and newspapers? If so, those are both good signs. Some agencies have "preferred" suppliers and prominently display only their products. If you have done your homework and know what cruise you want to book, be wary of an agent who tries to change your mind without very specific reasons. The agent who makes it a point to read industry magazines and newspapers is an informed agent, one who is likely to keep up with the latest trends and who can assist you with up-to-the-minute data.

The bottom line is that you can't beat the traditional Travel Agent for service and responsiveness.

What about making your reservation directly with the cruise line? Or booking with an Internet agency that boasts the lowest prices? Or by calling one of those cruise "brokers" on their toll-free numbers? 

Contrary to what conventional wisdom might suggest, cutting out the travel agent and booking directly with a cruise line won't necessarily get you the lowest price. Cruise line reservation systems simply aren't set up to deal with tens of thousands of direct calls from potential passengers; however, they will usually take your reservation and ask if you'd like to assign it to a travel agent. Without an agent working on your behalf, you are adrift on your own. If the cruise line lowers their fare, it will be up to you to discover it and request the lesser amount yourself. A good agent will do that for you.

A pricing factor to consider is that many cruise travel agents belong to consortiums. The consortiums book blocks of cabins on a number of ships, thus enabling them to pass along "group" savings without the hassle of putting together a group. Just because a travel agency is small doesn't mean they can't get you the bargains offered by bigger "name brand" agencies. Don't be afraid to ask if there are any such deals available. If you are flexible, it's possible to save hundreds of dollars. 

It never hurts to check online for pricing and availability.

In addition to travel agencies you might find locally, there are many hard-working, dedicated travel agents with web sites on the Internet. From large agency conglomerates to mom-and-pop agencies, all are competing for cyber-savvy clients' attention. It never hurts to check pricing from a variety of sources. As a rule, the Internet and 1-800-number brokers will do a decent job for you. They offer discounted fares, but not always the lowest, so it pays to check around. If you know precisely what you want and how much you should pay to get a real bargain, and if you don't mind dealing with an anonymous voice on the phone, by all means make your reservations when the price is right. Just don't expect the personal service you get from an agent you know. And be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on the phone if something goes wrong.

Prices have dropped dramatically since I booked my first cruise almost twenty years ago. For instance, three years after our first sailing in an outside Atlantic deck cabin on the SS Norway, my husband and I were able to book a Norway Owner's Suite at two-for-one rates for a mere $100 more than the first cruise. My travel agent, knowing us and our love for that ship, secured that deal for us. Not only that, but when I expressed concern over crimes against tourists in Miami at the time, my agent made sure we had a limo available to take us from the airport to our hotel, then to the ship, and back to the airport... arranged through the cruise line at no additional charge. Now, THAT is personal service.

The bottom line is that you can't beat the traditional travel agent for service and responsiveness. 

Cruise Lines International Association -- Use their search function to find a travel agent near you.

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