So, you've been persuaded to take your first cruise. Or, if you're already a cruise convert, to branch out and try a different cruise line, or ship. Either way, getting informed advice and making the choice can be something of a minefield. Should you opt for a large ship with lots of facilities or a smaller, more intimate vessel? Where should you go? Is it better to depart from the UK or fly to an overseas port and sail from there?
The wide choice of cruise lines, cruise styles and cruise ships -- plus all the destinations they sail to -- makes the task of choosing the right cruise seem even more complicated. And while online research can be invaluable in helping to gather a good base of information, it can end up feeling overwhelming.
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Who Can Help?
Travel agents, and particularly specialist cruise travel agents, play a vital role in matching customers to the right ships. Unlike many other sectors of the travel industry where travellers confidently book direct -- low cost flights, for example -- most cruise passengers still book through travel agents; more than 75 percent, according to the trade association CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association). Not all travel agents are cruise specialists, though, and unless you have a really compelling reason to stick to one agent, it really is worth seeking out an expert.
Specialist cruise agents may have an online presence only, so you'd only deal with them over the phone or via email, or they may have a website and an actual shop, like The Cruise Village in Blackpool or Barrhead Travel, an agency chain that's particularly strong in Scotland. Others attract business by print advertising as well as online; the adverts of Reader Offers Limited or Imagine Cruising often dominate the weekend travel sections of national newspapers, for example.
Specialist cruise staff will have completed specialist training courses to ensure they have in-depth knowledge of the different cruise lines. They will also have been on many of the ships on day tours or cruises, enabling them to give firsthand advice on what the vessels are like. Best of all, specialist agencies will have access to discounts or special offers that you may not be able to find elsewhere.
Some cruise agents also put together special packages, combining a cruise with hotel stays and other experiences such as rail trips, festivals or other events. It's also worth remembering that because cruise agencies are not owned by cruise lines, and sell a range of cruise lines across the board, they ought to be unbiased, although some do earn bigger commissions if they give a particular cruise line a lot of business. Agents will either work on commission from the cruise lines, or by buying cruises at a net price and packaging the cruise with other elements, like a flight, or by charging you a handling fee but, either way, they should be transparent about how they earn their money.
Note that some cruise products -- Noble Caledonia, for example -- are direct sell, or mainly direct sell, which means they don't distribute their cruises through travel agents. You can, however, still ask your agent to handle the booking for you.
Why Book Through a Travel Agent?
Saving you time and money on the one hand, while providing information and peace of mind on the other. This is how travel agents sum up their service. But below are some examples of specific areas where they can help.
Choosing a Cruise: With so much to consider, the best starting point is to chat to sales staff about the type of holiday you normally take. Do you like large hotels buzzing with activities or small, chic properties with a more laid-back ambience? What are you looking for in a cruise ship? Good agents will be able to match you to the oceangoing equivalent, whether it's the likes of Royal Caribbean International for a resort-style experience; P&O Cruises for a large British hotel-style sailing or Seabourn for an upmarket boutique ship voyage. You can discuss what sort of itinerary you would like, be it from the UK, from a Mediterranean port or further afield, such as the Caribbean.
Offering Special Deals: The best specialist cruise agents have close relationships with the cruise lines and often get special prices or packages that may not be generally be available elsewhere. In addition to special rates, other benefits such as cabin upgrades, onboard spending money, paid-for crew gratuities or free port parking (on ex-UK sailings) may also be included. Agents might also add in their own special extras, such as a bottle of Champagne or airport transfers, to sweeten the deal. If you've seen a deal advertised by a cruise line but prefer to book through an agent, ask the agent if they can match the offer.
Creating Packages: More creative travel agents are coming up with special one-off packages; Imagine Cruising, for example, ties in cruises to special events like the Singapore Grand Prix, as well as arranging private concerts for its guests on cruises with stars like Katherine Jenkins and Elaine Paige. Others will tailor-make cruise-and-stay packages that may include a few nights in New York with a transatlantic cruise, to a more complex trip to the Inca city of Machu Picchu followed by a South America cruise; Cruise 1st has several examples on its website. The options are limitless, but the benefits of these packages are twofold. Not only do they save you from having to put together a holiday yourself, but if anything goes wrong, you will be protected under package travel regulations.
Making the Booking: Agents know their way around the cruise line reservations systems and can make the whole process much easier for you. They can go into further detail on aspects such as accommodation -- the type of cabin you would like and the benefits of booking a specific deck or location on the ship. They can advise on dining arrangements -- whether to opt for flexible dining or fixed dining and, if there are specialty restaurants, whether it is better to make a reservation before sailing. They can additionally guide you through the process of issues like gratuities and booking excursions. The agent will also be able to arrange travel insurance, if required (although you should really shop around for this), and will collect payment for the cruise (usually a 10 percent deposit at the time of booking and the full amount up to 15 weeks before departure). In addition, the agent can assist with other travel plans, such as pre- or post-cruise stays, flights and transfers.
Special Requirements: A cruise expert will help you with anything from dietary requirements to wedding arrangements on board. Travellers with mobility issues can also be assisted by agents who can help to advise on the most accessible ships and book suitable cabins.
Establishing Relationships: Booking with a travel agent, even if you only deal over the phone, gives your transaction a personal touch -- you have a resource for asking questions and someone to contact if something goes wrong during your travels. But your relationship with an agent shouldn't end after one trip. The agent will keep you in his or her database, alert you to deals or sales and can even suggest future trip ideas.
Agents also have relationships with the cruise lines. If an agent sells a lot of one particular line, they may have clout with that line, should you have a special requirement. And speaking of relationships -- if you end up loving your cruise so much that you book the next one while you're still on board, usually taking advantage of a tasty incentive, don't worry. You're not being unfaithful to your travel agent. Just ask the cruise line to refer the booking to them, and they'll handle it in the usual way.
Customer Service: Agents can provide something that no computer ever can -- the personal touch. You can ask as many questions as you want and get the inside track on cruising from their own experiences. Peace of mind is another big factor, as having a personal contact is very important if you need assistance either before your trip or while you are away. A good agent will assign you a personal cruise consultant who will be your point of contact right through your booking process.
Consumer Protection: Travel agents who are members of ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) are bound by a code of conduct that covers issues like advertising claims, fair terms of trading, changes to bookings and complaints. In addition, they offer financial protection on package holidays in the event of a company failure. If your cruise line were to go bust, there is a process to follow to get your money back. Companies selling you a flight-inclusive deal should also by law have ATOL protection (Air Travel Organiser's License) so that you won't get stranded overseas in the event of a company failure.
Extra Perks: Some agents, like Reader Offers Limited's Cruise Miles, offer their own loyalty schemes, by which you can accumulate points for money off future bookings. Others offer finance schemes with low interest, or very low deposits; Cruise 118, for example, allows you to pay a £1 deposit and the balance of your cruise by direct debit, interest free. Some organise cruise ship visits for their customers, as well as cruise shows where you can chat to cruise line representatives. These include The Luxury Cruise Company and Iglu.
How to Choose a Travel Agent
So how do you find the right travel agent for you? Look for the following:
Training and Credentials: One of your first ports of call should be the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) UK & Ireland, which has more than 4,000 accredited travel agents who have signed up to its training courses and events. CLIA members complete almost 100 online learning modules, which are supplemented by podcasts, video and industry events. Check that any agency you use is a member of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), or displays an Air Travel Organiser's Licence (ATOL) sign. For more information, the Civil Aviation Authority's website will tell you all you need to know about ATOL protection.
Experience: Agents can't be expected to have sailed on every ship, although some companies come close; Bolsover Cruise Club's staff, between them, claim to have spent over 10,000 nights at sea, so should know a thing or two, while Cruise Direct employs 120 cruise specialists, who sell nothing but cruising, and have in-house experts in both luxury and river cruising. But, any good specialist will have received training by individual cruise lines and by CLIA that should help them to match the right client to the right ship. Ask them to explain the differences between the various cruise brands. Find out how many cruises they've been on in the last year and which ships they've cruised on.
Inventory/Niche: Even within the general cruise market, there are niche sectors such as luxury cruises, river cruising or expedition voyages. Look for agencies that specialise either in these specific areas or sell the cruise lines relevant to them. For example, rivervoyages.com is a specialist river cruise agent while Mundy Adventures sells several niche expedition products and The Cruise People are experts in cargo and freighter voyages, as well as selling mainstream cruises. Ponders Travel has a whole division dedicated to selling cruises on the tall ships of Star Clippers, while Bolsover Cruise Club is the UK's biggest agent for P&O Cruises. Some companies only deal in luxury, among them Mundy Cruising, The Luxury Cruise Company, The Cruise Line and Six Star Cruises.
Consultation: The most proficient and professional agents will ensure they sit down with customers (or spend time on the phone) and talk to them in-depth about which ship, cruise line and itinerary would best suit their requirements. In that initial consultation, they should ask about what types of holidays you normally favour (beach, city, active, for example); who is going (family, couple, singles); your travel style; and your budget.
Cruise Line Connections: Ask whether the agent has preferred status with any cruise lines or whether they belong to any travel consortia that would enable them to obtain benefits, such as better deals or upgrades. But beware -- some agents may push a particular line too enthusiastically for your tastes. For instance, agents working for TUI are most likely to offer Marella Cruises, which is an excellent product – but belongs to their parent company.
Special Offers: Keep an eye out for agents offering discounts, free perks and other incentives -- especially at the start of the year during the so-called 'Wave Season'; and CLIA's National Cruise Week, which takes place in September or October. Even if you don't see any signs or adverts, make sure you ask -- the agent may have some excellent offers that the cruise lines will not let them publicise too widely. Plus, ask if the agent can match or beat the best price you've seen or have been quoted elsewhere.
Size: Travel agents in the UK range from chains like TUI and the Thomas Cook Group to small independent agencies or big online agents like Iglu and Cruise.co.uk, or networks of individual experts like GoCruise. There are pros and cons to all of them. For instance, you may receive more personal service from an independent agent, but larger companies could have better deals because of the volume of business they give the cruise lines.
Where to Find a Cruise Specialist
CLIA's website, cruiseexperts.org, has a search facility to find the cruise specialist nearest to you.
What About Booking Independently?
With so much information about cruising on different cruise line websites, consumer forums and informative portals such as Cruise Critic, it's never been easier to research your cruise holiday. And if you want to go it alone and make your own booking, you will find that cruise lines are happy to help, either on the phone or via a step-by-step online booking process. Often, this allows you to add flights.
Most cruise lines have comprehensive search functions, as well as pages listing the best or newest deals. Many also have additional resources such as deck plans, photos, reviews and blogs. While some sites will guide you through the booking and payment procedures, others still require clients to go through the final booking step in person so you may have to give final confirmation over the phone (See our Online Reservations article for more). But even if you intend to book direct, it's still worth shopping around online just in case you come across an agent offering an irresistible deal.