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Today, practically everybody has a website, and the difference between so-called web-based cruise sellers and more traditional travel agencies is that the former rely on their sites for actual bookings, while the latter use theirs as glorified advertising space to promote their offerings, doing all actual business in person or over the phone. With a few exceptions, the cruise lines also have direct-booking engines on their own sites, but we don't recommend using them. Why? Because agents and web-based sellers may have negotiated group rates with the lines, be part of a consortium with whom a line is doing an upgrade promotion, or have other deals going that enable them to offer you lower rates.

Though it may sound peculiar, the cruise lines actually prefer that you book through third parties because having agents and websites do the grunt work allows the lines to maintain small reservations staffs and, simultaneously, maintain goodwill in a system that works -- something they have to consider because the vast majority of cruises are booked through agencies of one type or another. Typically, mainstream cruise lines report that about 70% of their bookings come from traditional travel agencies (for the luxury lines, about 98% use travel agents).

Which Offers Better Prices?

As far as cruise prices go, there's no absolutely quantifiable difference between the real-live travel agents (whether your hometown brick-and-mortar mom-and-pop agency or a big anonymous mega-agency) and Internet-based cruise sellers. For some years now, the major lines have been offering all agencies, large or small, the same basic rates, give or take. What may separate one agency from another are the extras that may be thrown in, from free bottles of wine to onboard spending credits.

Which Provides Better Service?

Because pricing is closer to being equitable across all types of cruise agencies than ever before, it's really service that distinguishes one agency from another. Most websites give you only a menu of ships and itineraries to select from, plus a basic search capability that takes into account only destination, price, length of trip, and date, without consideration of the type of cruise experience each line offers.

That's fine if you know exactly what you want, and are comfortable on the computer. If, on the other hand, you have limited experience with cruising and with booking on the web, it may be better to see a traditional agent, who can help you wade through the choices and answer your questions. For instance, a good agent can tell you which cabins have their views obstructed by lifeboats; which are near loud areas such as discos and the engine room; which ships and itineraries you should avoid if you're not looking for a party vibe; and, in general, what the major differences are between cabin categories. A lot of this kind of detailed information won't be found on the web -- you need to hear it from a person. To be better prepared before you call an agent, it's a good idea to do some research on the web first.

Keep in mind, though, that you need to find an agent who really knows the business -- and this applies to every type of agent: those who work out of their home or an agency office, those who work for large conglomerates and deal mostly over the phone, and those who staff toll-free numbers associated with web-based sellers. Some are little more than order takers: They may not know much more than pricing, and may never even have been on a cruise themselves. This system works okay for selling air travel, where the big question is coach or first class, case closed; however, a lot more variables are associated with booking a cruise. An experienced cruise agent -- someone who has sailed on or inspected a variety of ships and booked many customers aboard in the past -- will be able to tell you about special promotions (such as cabin upgrades), act as an intermediary should any problems arise with your booking, order special extras such as a bottle of champagne in your cabin when you arrive, and in general make your planning easy.

So how do you know if an agent is any good? The best way, of course, is to use one who has been referred to you by a reliable friend or acquaintance. This is particularly valuable these days, when agents are being pressed to squeeze more profit from every sale, making them less likely to take the time to discuss options. When you're searching for a good agent, it doesn't hurt if an agent is an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), or Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC), designations doled out by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry trade organization, after agents take classes and inspect a number of ships. Many of the cruise lines' websites list preferred agencies (generally broken down or searchable by city or state), as does the CLIA site (www.cruising.org). Many of the most reliable agencies are also members of agent groups, such as Virtuoso, Signature Travel Network, and Vacation.com. In the sections below, we list some of the best agencies and the major cruise-selling websites.

Be Savvy & Beware of Scams

With the number of offers seen by a potential cruise buyer, it can be difficult to know if an agency is or isn't reliable, legitimate, or, for that matter, stable. It pays to be on your guard against fly-by-night operators and agents who may lead you astray.

  • Get a referral. A recommendation from a trusted friend or colleague (or from this website) is one of the best ways to hook up with a reputable agent.
  • Use the cruise lines' agent lists. Many cruise line websites include agency locator lists, naming agencies around the country with which they do business. These are by no means comprehensive lists of all good or bad agencies, but an agent's presence on these lists is usually another good sign of experience.
  • Beware of snap recommendations. If an agent suggests a cruise line without asking you a single question first about your tastes, beware. Because agents work on commissions from the lines, some may try to shanghai you into cruising with a company that pays them the highest rates, even though that line may not be right for you.
  • Always use a credit card to pay for your cruise. It gives you more protection in the event the agency or cruise line fails. When your credit card statement arrives, make sure the payment was made to the cruise line, not the travel agency. If you find that payment was actually made to the agency, it's a big red flag that something's wrong. If you insist on paying by check, you'll be making it out to the agency, so it may be wise to ask if the agency has default protection. Many do (Note: The only exception to this is when an agency is running a charter cruise -- for example, a music cruise with special entertainment.)
  • Always follow the cruise line's payment schedule. Never agree to a different schedule the travel agency comes up with. The lines' terms are always clearly printed in their brochures and usually require an initial deposit, with the balance due no later than 75 to 45 days before departure. If you're booking 2 months or less before departure, full payment is usually required at the time of booking.
  • Keep on top of your booking. If you ever fail to receive a document or ticket on the date it's been promised, inquire about it immediately. If you're told that your cruise reservation was canceled because of overbooking and that you must pay extra for a confirmed and rescheduled sailing, demand a full refund and/or contact your credit card company to stop payment.

Agencies & Websites

Of the approximately 17,000 U.S. travel agencies (including home-based), 15% sell 90% of all cruise travel in North America; about 10% to 15% of those are considered cruise only. Agencies come in all shapes and sizes, from small neighborhood stores to huge chain operations. Like banking, telecommunications, and media, the travel industry has been rife with consolidation over the past decade, so even that mom-and-pop travel agency on Main Street may turn out to be an affiliate of a larger agency. When it comes to home-based agents, they may or may not be affiliated with a national group such as CruiseOne or SeaMaster Cruises. It's better if they are, so they have access to more resources and competitive rates. Use a home-based agent only if he or she has been doing this for a long time.

Even though you'll get similarly low rates from both traditional and web-based agencies these days, we can't stress enough that service counts for something, too. There's value in using a travel agent you've worked with in the past or one who comes highly recommended by someone you trust. A good agent will be there for you if problems arise.

Traditional Agencies Specializing in Mainstream Cruises

To give you an idea of where to begin, here's a sampling (by no means comprehensive) of both cruise-only and full-service agencies that at press time had enjoyed solid reputations selling cruises with mainstream lines such as Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, and Norwegian. A few are affiliated with the big chains; most are not. While all have websites to promote current deals, the agencies listed primarily operate from a combination of walk-in business and toll-free telephone-based business.

  • Cruise Holidays, 7000 NW Prairie View Rd., Kansas City, MO 64151 (tel. 800/869-6806 or 816/741-7417; www.cruiseholidayskc.com)
  • Cruises Only, 10 Harbor Park Dr., Port Washington, NY 11050 (tel. 800/278-4737; www.cruisesonly.com), part of World Travel Holdings, the largest cruise retailer in the world
  • Just Cruisin' Plus, 5640 Nolensville Rd., Nashville, TN 37211 (tel. 800/888-0922 or 615/833-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com)

Another way to find a reputable travel agency in your town is by contacting one of a handful of agency groups or consortiums, which screen their members. The two following groups, whose members specialize in mainstream cruises, both maintain websites that allow you to search for local agencies with your postal code or city: TravelSavers (tel. 800/366-9895; www.travelsavers.com) is a group of more than 1,000 agencies, and Vacation.com (tel. 800/843-0733; www.vacation.com) is the largest group in the U.S., with some 6,000 members.

Traditional Agencies Specializing in Luxury Cruises

This is a sampling of reputable agencies, both cruise only and full service, that specialize in selling ultraluxury cruises such as Cunard, Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, and SeaDream Yacht Club.

  • All-Travel, 2001 S. Barrington Ave., Ste. 315, Los Angeles, CA 90025 (tel. 800/300-4567 or 310/312-3368; www.all-travel.com)
  • Cruise Professionals, 130 Dundas St. E., Ste. 103, Mississauga, ON L5A 3V8, Canada (tel. 800/265-3838 or 905/275-3030; www.cruiseprofessionals.com)
  • Landmark Travel, 12 S.E. 8th St., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316 (tel. 800/547-0727 or 954/523-0727; www.landmark-travel.com)

If you're looking for a top-of-the-line cruise, definitely use an agency that's a member of one of the following agency groups whose members specialize in luxury cruises. Agency members can pass on lots of great extras to clients, from cabin upgrades to private cocktail parties. Members are extremely knowledgeable and it's not unusual for someone from the agency to sail on board the cruise to assist clients. Virtuoso (tel. 866/401-7974; www.virtuoso.com) is a consortium of more than 300 member agencies nationwide, including some on the list above. To find an agency in your area, call the toll-free number, or e-mail travel@virtuoso.com. Another group is Signature Travel Network (tel. 800/339-0868; www.signaturetravelnetwork.com), with about 200 member agencies across the country. Call to find an agency in your area, or e-mail info@signaturetravelnetwork.com.