For the uninitiated who've never spent a holiday at sea, choosing your first cruise can be a minefield. After all, where on earth do you start? There are so many different factors to consider, the whole prospect can seem bamboozling. Should you opt for a large ship with lots of facilities or a smaller, more homely vessel? Where should you go? Is it better to depart from Australia 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 the internet can be invaluable in helping to gather a good base of information to get you started, it can't always steer you in the right direction if you're looking for guidance.
So 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, most cruise passengers still book through travel agents. In fact, some cruise lines report that as many as 95 percent of their customers book through travel agents, while the average level throughout the cruise industry tends to be around 75 percent. Specialist cruise agencies have grown in number over the last decade, as the cruise market has expanded, and their adverts often dominate the weekend travel sections of national newspapers. These agencies are dedicated to all things cruise, and make sure they are up to date with the latest developments in this burgeoning market.
The 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 first-hand advice on what the vessels are like. Best of all, such specialists will also 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 companies, and sell a range of cruise lines across the board, they can give you a broad viewpoint and recommendations accordingly. And they don't charge for their services either as they are paid by the cruise lines for the packages they sell.
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 sit down and 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 laidback ambience? What are you looking for in a cruise ship? Good agents will be able to match you to the ocean-going equivalent, whether it's the likes of Royal Caribbean International for a resort-style experience; P&O Cruises for a large hotel-style sailing or Seabourn for an upmarket boutique ship voyage. You can discuss what sort of itinerary you would like, be it from Australia, Asia or further afield, such as Europe. The agent will be able to explain what best suits your requirements and advise you on specific facilities on the ships, and details about the itineraries you favour.
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 on the Internet or elsewhere. In addition to special rates, other benefits such as cabin upgrades or onboard spending money 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. More imaginative travel agents are also coming up with special one-off packages. These can range from a simple cruise-and-stay that may include a few nights in New York with a transatlantic cruise, to a more complex trip to the ruined Inca city of Macchu Picchu followed by a South America cruise. The options are limitless, but the benefits of such unique packages are two-fold. Not only do they save you from having to put together such 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 speciality restaurants, whether it is better to make a reservation before sailing. They can additionally cover issues such as gratuities and excursions. The agent will also be able to arrange travel insurance, if required, 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: This can cover any number of issues, from dietary requirements and the need to arrange special meals, to wedding arrangements for couples wanting to get married. Disabled travellers, and particularly those with mobility issues, can also be assisted by agents who can help to advise on the most accessible ships and book suitable cabins. Concerning all these issues and more, a qualified agent should be able to make proper arrangements for you or suggest how to handle the matter yourself.
Establishing Relationships: Booking with a travel agent 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 doesn't tend to 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.
Customer Service: Agents can provide something that no computer ever can -- the personal touch. You can ask as many questions as you want and, in conversation, pick up many small off-the-cuff details 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. And the contact needn't end once your holiday is over. Any good agent will strive to maintain the relationship and will alert you to deals and sales, or even suggest future trips they feel might be suitable.
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) Australasia which has an army of accredited travel agents who have signed up to its training courses and events. Its website at www.cruising.org.au contains details of its cruise line members and a link to find its travel agency members. Check that any agency you use is a member of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), or displays the ATAS accreditation sign. For more information, the ATAS website is a good source of reference.
Inventory/Niche: Even within the general cruise market, there are niche sectors such as luxury cruises, river cruising or expeditionary voyages. Look for agencies that specialise either in these specific areas or sell the cruise lines relevant to them. They will generally have a more comprehensive knowledge of these sectors. For instance, if you're looking for an adventure cruise to the Russian Arctic, you may not want to book with an agent who specialises in selling mainstream cruises aboard 4,000 passenger mega-ships.
Consultation: The most proficient and professional agents will ensure they sit down with customers 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 (favoured entertainment and activities, dining preferences) and your budget.
Cruise Line Connections: Ask whether the agent has preferred status with any cruise lines or whether they belong to any travel consortiums that would enable them to obtain benefits, such as better deals or upgrades. But beware -- some agents may push a particular line too aggressively for your tastes. You don't want to fall into the trap of being sold the wrong cruise, simply to boost the agent's sales figures or commission.
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 Plan A Cruise Month, which takes place in 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: You will find many different agencies throughout Australia. These include travel giants such as Flight Centre and Helloworld to small one-branch independent agencies who may be affiliated to travel consortiums and cruise-only agencies of varying sizes. There are pros and cons to all of them. For instance, you may receive more personal service from an independent agent, but better deals from larger companies that have more power to obtain cheaper priced cruises thanks to the high volume of bookings they turn over. It's simply a matter of shopping around to see what size best fits your needs.
How To Find a Cruise Specialist
The easiest way is to pop into any high street where you will generally find at least one or maybe a handful of travel agencies. Alternatively, you can search for cruise retailers online. If you want to find agencies that are registered with travel organisations, here are some bodies that will help to locate the nearest ones to you.
CLIA Australasia: The homepage of CLIA Australasia has a list of travel agencies under an agent search function that enables you to find accredited CLIA-trained agents in Australia or New Zealand by name or location. You can also see the top 200 consultants, based on their education and experience.
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents: The [AFTA website also offers an agent search tool. Although the organisation represents all types of travel agencies, you can find cruise specialists here too.
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 will do their best to help. Their websites generally list telephone reservations numbers prominently on the home pages if you want to speak to someone. Alternatively, many websites also have a step-by-step online booking process and have the capability to calculate the price and, in some cases, even add flights into the equation. Those customers that take the direct route tend to fall into two groups:
You're Experienced: They have cruised before, they know the ropes, and they know exactly what they want -- even down to the cabin number in some cases! Most online cruise retailers 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).
Independent Cruisers: They are used to doing their own thing and are very adept at using the resources to plan their trip from start to finish. For such travellers, it keeps them fully in control and it's all part of the fun.