In this day and age, it's generally easy to go DIY when it comes to travel planning. Putting together your own itinerary and making your own bookings gives you the most control – and sometimes results in the best savings. But there are sill a few instances when seeking help is a good idea. Even seasoned travelers will tell you that booking a cruise is one of them.
Before we launch into the various ways an agent can help you, a quick thing to note: When we say "cruise agent," we mean an agent who solely specializes in cruises or works for a cruise-specific agency. Some agencies we work with here at ShermansTravel include CruisesOnly, Cruise.com, and Online Vacation Center, just to name a few, and cruise lines will often have their own agents (though, obviously, they'd only be able to provide help with that line's offerings and partners). Working with an agent usually won't cost you a thing. Agents are compensated via commission, but don't worry – the close relationships that they form with cruise lines are exactly what might score you extra perks. Keep reading for more.
A cruise agent can...
1. Find your ideal cruise. Do you know the difference between Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line? How about Princess Cruises and MSC Cruises? Crystal and Oceania? The point is that each cruise line has its own vibe, decor, and amenities that cater to different crowds. Finding one that meshes with your travel style will make all the difference. Even within a single cruise line, there can be many different ships and itineraries. In fact, Angie Ranck of World Travel Holdings, the parent company of cruise agency CruisesOnly, explains that there are more than 410 ships on market, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). A cruise agent will be able to make recommendations based on the type of experience you're looking for.
2. Get you the perfect stateroom: So you've finally figured out where you want to go and which cruise line you want to book with. You might even know a few basic stateroom categories – interior, balcony, suite. But if you've ever tried to book online, you've probably realized that it's not as simple as choosing a general cabin type. That's because there can be as many as 21 cabin sub-categories on a single ship. For example the "balcony" category is broken into many subcategories, with subtle differences between them, from the quality of the view to the cabin's placement on the ship. A cruise agent can help you sort through what it all means.
3. Nab exclusive deals: Agents are privy to deals that cruise lines might not publicly advertise. Ranck says that larger agencies might even have promotions of their own that can be used on top of a cruise line's existing offers. Even smaller agencies might be able to score additional upgrades and perks, thanks to the business that they bring to the cruise lines.
4. Access special rates: Agents will often "reserve" a block of cabins on cruise ships, meaning their clients – you – can enjoy group rates even if they're traveling with one or a small number of companions. And if you are celebrating a family reunion or other special occasion, some agencies, particularly larger ones like CruisesOnly, even have departments dedicated to groups that can help plan onboard events and arrange for special amenities.
5. Take advantage of industry trends: If you're flexible with your schedule, a cruise agent can tell you the cheapest time to travel. Unless you have the time to monitor deals on cruise websites daily (and sometimes even hourly), this is a hugely valuable service. Agents are also in the know about cruise line promotions and discounts. An agent can even help you determine where to splurge, and where to cut corners.
6. Navigate onshore excursions: Cruise ports are home to tour operators that offer many of the same activities, from dolphin experiences to city tours, but the cruise lines will only offer tours through a few that they have relationships with. Cruise agents aren't limited in this way, and can often help you book a better experience – or price. If you need an opinion on which activities are great, and which are overrated, they're usually happy to oblige.
7. Deal with the logistics: One thing many first-time cruisers don't consider: How will they get to the ship? Agents know which airports are the best choice, both in terms of price and convenience. Similarly, they'll be able to work with you to plan out a connection time that makes sense.
8. Handle the boring stuff: Do you need a passport or visa for the cruise, or for your journey before or after? Should you get travel insurance? Even if you go in knowing exactly what documentation you need, cruise agents can still help you manage and organize your paperwork.
9. Troubleshoot: As Ranck puts it, having an agent essentially means "gaining an advocate." This isn't just limited to making special requests onboard; if you run into snafus, like a missed connection or have a bad cruise experience, an agent can help you get to the next port, get you home, and seek appropriate action. "A dedicated travel agent will take your issue to heart and go the extra mile, not only in planning your vacation, but in helping you to resolve any issues that may arise," she says, adding that some agencies are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
10. Keep it simple: A cruise vacation involves many aspects of booking, from the ship itself, to excursions, to airfare, to port extensions. An agent is someone who can take care of it all – and will likely already know which problem you're trying to solve, so you won't have to explain yourself over and over again.
Bonus: Tips for Working with an Agent
Looking for an experienced agent? Certification from CLIA is a good thing to look for. Or, ask friends and family for recommendations. When you're communicating with an agent, be honest if you're just browsing or comparing prices; a good agent will understand. And if you feel like an agent is too aggressive, or pushing options that don't interest you, try a different one. Finally, know that not all agents have access to all cruise lines, so having a general sense of what you're looking for, and your budget, is a good idea before you pick up the phone.