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A good travel agent can help you navigate the sea of cruise types: from big ships to small ships and family ships to adult-oriented ships. A travel agent can also suggest cruises that match your personality while also offering insights on itineraries, cabin selection, and dining options.

A reputable agent can also be there to help you if something goes wrong before the cruise ship ever leaves the dock. If you book a cruise with an online discounter, which doesn't typically have the resources to offer customer service and hand-holding, you'll be on our own if issues crop up.

I asked Charlie Funk, co-owner of Nashville-based Just Cruisin' Plus (www.justcruisinplus.com), about the benefits of using a travel agent. Veterans of the cruise industry, Funk and his wife Sherrie opened the first cruise-only travel agency in Tennessee in 1988. Decades later, their agency is still going strong. Over the years, the Funks have won a number of industry service awards, have both sat on various travel industry advisory boards, written books on travel agency operations, and are nationally-known lecturers and instructors.

Q: Were any of your clients affected by the recent natural disasters?

A: We had clients headed to Venice when the volcanic ash cloud disrupted air travel. We had clients booked at a resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama, who canceled due to oil deposits washing ashore. We also had clients in the air to Santiago, Chile, to start a cruise when the earthquake hit in February. Their flight was diverted to Lima, Peru, and then returned to Atlanta. In this case, they had booked their air arrangements with the cruise line, spending almost $11,000 on the whole package, but the cruise line was of no help when trouble struck. The cruise line told them flat out: "You're on your own." Our clients would have to call the airline or their insurance company on their own to try and rebook their flights. Further, they were told if they weren't on the ship they would be subject to up to 100% cancellation penalties.

Q: What was your role in helping these stranded travelers?

A: We were the travelers' advocate in all three cases. Had it not been for us, the outcome would have been far worse. In each of these cases, we got involved to resolve the issues and make sure the client was put at ease. In the latter example, Sherrie and I spent hours on the phone with the cruise line, the airline, and client's insurance company Travel Guard (a major travel insurance provider) to try to get our clients to Santiago for their cruise. We sat on hold, literally over an hour at a time on some calls, trying to get information for our clients. Though the cruise line told us there were no seats on any flights to get our clients to the ship on time, we kept tabs on the airlines. When the Santiago airport reopened, we did find two seats on the first flight from Atlanta to Santiago. Our clients made it to the ship in time. Basically, our role was resolving the problems and keeping stress off the client.

Q: What will the typical cruise line or airline do for you if you don't have travel insurance and a natural disaster or other unforeseen situation arises?

A: With some cruise lines and airlines, absolutely nothing. In some ways, it's a crap shoot. Now, if you buy comprehensive travel insurance through a company like Travel Guard, they will assist you in rebooking flights and cruises and/or refund most or all of the money you paid for the flight and/or cruises.

Q: I assume it's the best scenario to use a travel agent and buy travel insurance?

A: Of course. The travel agent is the client's advocate and works with and through the insurance company to coordinate new air schedules or stay current on flight rerouting or delays. We help keep the client informed, thus relieving them of the burden to do so on their own. Generally the outcome is far more satisfactory both financially and emotionally.

If you use a travel agent, but don't buy insurance, it is incumbent on a professional travel agent to assist the client. However, here's when the ambiguity comes in. The caveat is some online travel agencies that discount heavily. Online travel agencies that only sell cruises online and don't maintain walk-in offices may not have a way for passengers with issues to contact them, or they may just decline to help the passenger. Why? An online discounter has such tight margins that they can't justify spending the time and money on problem resolution. Translation: you're on your own. If you have no insurance, there is very little likelihood of even partial recovery of the cruise fare unless the cruise line is culpable.

Q: So booking online is a no-no?

A: I could gather enough information on the Internet to perform a rather complex surgical procedure on myself or another, but would likely not do so. It is true that one can spend several hours on the Internet and find the very cheapest fare for a given vacation. Maybe it goes OK; maybe it doesn't. But one has to ask: "Is your time totally worthless and of no value to you?" Use the Internet for travel research, but book with a travel professional for the customer service.

Q: How about booking a cruise directly with the cruise line?

A: If you see a cruise advertised for $399, for example, and call the cruise line directly to book it, the potential problem for inexperienced cruisers is not knowing if this cruise line is a good fit for them or not. The cruise line is not going to ask them about their personal likes and dislikes and is never going to suggest that they would be happier with another (and more appropriate) cruise line. If I go to the Ford dealership, they aren't going to tell me that what I really need is a Nissan. The risk is that the traveler goes on the cruise and it's nothing like what they wanted -- and they never cruise again.

Q: When is the best time to book a cruise?

A: Tuesdays are often the best day of the week to book a cruise when several of the major cruise lines "top off" sailings or promote sailings that are lagging in booking progress for whatever reason. On the preceding Thursday or Friday, we send out advance notice via e-mail blasts of such Tuesday sales. In terms of how much in advance you should book a cruise, if exact travel dates, type of accommodation, and location on the ship are not important to you, waiting until 60 to 75 days prior to departure may sometimes yield a lower price.

If a specific ship, date, itinerary, location on the ship, and/or type of accommodation are important to you, always book as far in advance as possible with a travel professional, preferably one that is local so you can sit face to face with them if you need to. Have your travel agent monitor pricing and get it adjusted if there is a price decrease as the cruising date nears.

Q: What should you always do before booking a cruise?

A: Ask if the travel agency charges a service fee. Also, you should always pay with a credit card, and except in a few situations, the credit card payment should be processed only through the cruise line's account, not the agency's account. Further, I don't recommend traveling without trip cancellation or interruption insurance. And if the policy you're looking at is dirt cheap compared to another, read the description of coverage or ask your travel professional what you're giving up with the lower premium -- weigh the price versus the value.

Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Cruise Forum.