Question: I'm planning to take my first cruise — a seven-day Alaska voyage. I'm an Auto Club member and am wondering whether there are advantages to booking the cruise through the Auto Club instead of directly through the cruise line.
Answer: If you're hoping for an unbiased answer, you'll not find it from me. I would rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than book a cruise without a travel agent. Indeed, I have never booked a cruise, of the dozen or so I've taken, without an agent. I have, however, poked myself in the eye with a stick, and I do not recommend it.
Before asking travel agents, who aren't unbiased either, I asked by email a couple of respected cruise experts.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, called a ship trip a "complicated vacation choice full of moving parts.
"You're not only choosing the 'place' where you'll stay — all cruise lines gear themselves to different travel styles, and sometimes even within a cruise line the ships themselves can attract different types of passengers — [but] you're also picking an itinerary that could have, on an average seven-night trip, as many as four or five different ports, not to mention the city from which your ship will depart.
"Factor in pre-cruise flights and hotel stays — and I'm ready for a nap now." She suggests doing your homework (on CruiseCritic, of course) and then going to an agent and letting him or her "corral all the elements."
And here's what Stewart Chiron of CruiseGuy.com said: "There isn't one advantage to booking cruises directly with a cruise line. I also recommend people research online, but don't book online as the very best fares and discounts are not always available online."
Headache avoidance and financial incentives rank first and second on my own list of reasons. For more insider info on the finer points, I also asked travel agents.
Here's what Sonia Robledo, a travel consultant at European Travel International in Riverside, said: "I will tell you about the service — or lack thereof — on various shipping lines, and I will tell you whom you might expect to see as fellow cruisers.
"Some cruise lines are famous for having a much older clientele, some are famous for great children's programs, some are famous for older men in Speedos and older ladies who want to sunbathe without their tops on. Some cruise lines are fabulous but rather stuffy; some are designed for people who are more active and like more adventure. Most of us have boarded a lot of ships and can give you a pretty detailed account of what the clientele is and what the cabins look like."
She had me at older men in Speedos.
And then there's my own "glass half-empty perspective," or the expect-problems-with-your-pleasure mind-set, addressed by Marc Kassouf and Nathan DePetris, owners of Pride Travel in San Pedro and certified cruise consultants. They echoed many of the positive points of using an agent and also added this: "Let's not forget that travel agents also help during the trip if something goes wrong, and can follow up afterward to assist … clients. A professional travel agent is also a vacation concierge that handles all the details before, during and after a vacation."
Reading mail from unhappy travelers as I do, I know that some cruise lines can be difficult to deal with if there's a problem — and "difficult" is being charitable.
Kassouf and DePetris likened the booking experience to the DIY choices we make — representing yourself in small claims court, doing your own taxes or even booking a simple airline ticket. But, they added, "When you're booking a cruise, you really need the services of a professional. The only difference between tax professionals, legal professionals and travel professionals is that in most cases, travel professionals don't charge (or charge very little) since they get credit from selling the cruise or vacation package."
If there are reasons not to use a travel agent, I'm sure readers will let me know, and I look forward to hearing from them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, if you're looking for an agent who specializes in cruises, try http://www.asta.org/travelagent.cfm. Bon voyage!
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