Planning Your Cruise

Booking Your Cruise

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Best Times to Book Choosing a Travel Agent What to Ask Your Travel Agent Booking Your Cruise Online

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Charting your cruising course doesn't have to be difficult, but it isn't as simple as booking airplane seats or reserving a hotel room. Even after you've settled on the cruise line, ship, and destination that are right for you, there will still be many questions to answer and details to get right (like, most pressingly, just when to book your cruise). First-time cruisers, who may want and need some additional insight and advice, may wish to stick to a traditional travel agent who is close at hand. However, more independent-minded travelers willing to go to bat for themselves might find that booking online is the best way to go, especially when it comes to pricing.

Best Times to Book

While miscellaneous cruise sales can spring up at any time of year, there are three prime times to lock in the best savings, and usually the best inventory, too:

  • Book Well in Advance: In addition to having a better choice of desirable staterooms, significantly discounted prices are available to those who place a deposit on a cruise from six months to a year in advance of sailing.
  • Book at the Last Minute: Cruise lines don't want to sail with empty cabins, and will sometimes offer unsold space, usually within 60 days of sailing, at deeply reduced fares.
  • Book During Wave Season: The cruise industry calls January through March "Wave Season," when it books a large number of passengers for the year ahead. Availability is often the best during this period, and some of the year's choice bargains can be booked during this annual sales push.

Choosing a Travel Agent

Whether it is your first or fiftieth sailing, one of the best advocates you can have for researching and booking a cruise is a knowledgeable, cruise-specialist travel agent. But how do you find a great cruise travel agent that you can trust? First off, look for signs indicating you're dealing with an agency affiliated with CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org). These agents have completed demanding training programs, including touring or sailing on a specific number of ships. They make it their business to know all they can to serve their clients' needs.

In addition, make sure the travel agency you've chosen belongs to a professional trade organization. In North America, membership in ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents (www.asta.org), indicates an agency has pledged to follow the code of ethics set forth by the world's largest association for travel professionals. In the best-case scenario, your travel agent is affiliated with both ASTA and CLIA.

What to Ask Your Travel Agent

When you've found a jewel of an agent, then what? Ask many questions. Whether you do that in person, over the phone, or by email is up to you. However, it's important that you get to know your agent and that your agent gets to know you. Above all else, be honest about your expectations and budget. Seldom can a travel agent who doesn't know you well guess what your interests are and how much you can afford to spend. Don't be shy. If you have champagne taste and a beer budget, say so. Do not hesitate to interview prospective agents, and be wary if they do not interview you right back. Agents can sometimes get you deals you won't find anywhere else, but the real reason to use a travel agent is for their expertise.

Need to Know

  • Tell your travel agent what you like.
  • Be honest about your expectations and budget.
  • Ask questions if anything isn't clear.
  • Don't let the agent push you into something you don't want.
  • Some agents deal only with certain lines.
  • Ask about group rates.

Recommended Cruise Travel Agents

AAAThis company isn't just for car travel; AAA can also refer members to local affiliated travel agencies.www.aaa.com

American Express TravelOffers a searchable database of cruise-specialist travel agents. 800/335–3342 ; www.americanexpressvacations.com

Avoya TravelIn business since the 1960s, Avoya (formerly known as America’s Vacation Center) offers a vast network of professional independent agents worldwide. 888/447–8459 ; www.avoyatravel.com

Cruise BrothersIn business since the mid-1970s, this is one of the largest family-owned, cruises-only agencies in the United States. 800/827–7779 or 401/941–3999 ; www.cruisebrothers.com

Cruise Connections CanadaThis is Canada's leading cruise retailer and one of the largest cruise retailers in North America. 800/661–9283 ; www.cruise-connections.com

CruiseOneOwned by World Travel Holdings, the world's largest cruise retailer, CruiseOne offers a best-price satisfaction guarantee. The company has more than 1,000 member agencies nationwide. 800/278–4731 ; www.cruiseone.com

Cruise PlannersThe company is the largest home-based travel agent network in the industry. 888/582–2150 or 954/344–8060 ; www.cruiseplanners.com

Cruises Inc.Another agency owned by World Travel Holdings, it offers a satisfaction guarantee. The company has more than 600 member agencies nationwide. 888/282–1249 or 800/854–0500 ; www.cruisesinc.com

Ensemble Travel GroupThis international network of 850 expert travel agencies has members in both the United States and Canada. 212/545–7460 ; www.ensembletravel.com

Vacation.comThe largest travel agent consortium in North America is a network of 25,000 travel agents across the United States and Canada. 800/843–0733 ; www.vacation.com

VirtuosoThe world's most exclusive association of upscale travel agencies books cruises. 817/870–0300 ; www.virtuoso.com

Booking Your Cruise Online

In addition to local travel agencies, both big-name travel sellers and mom-and-pop agencies alike compete for the attention of clients on the Web, and it never hurts to compare prices from a variety of these sources. If you know precisely what you want and how much you should pay to get a real bargain, by all means make your online reservations when the price is right. Just don't expect the personal service you could anticipate from an agent that you know. Additionally, most cruise lines allow you to book inventory directly through their websites, if you've made your choice and are ready to go straight to the source.

Need to Know

  • Online cruise sites are especially good for comparison shopping.
  • You may not be able to speak to anyone personally.
  • Don't hesitate to book directly through the cruise line if you know what you want.

Cruise Booking Sites

  • Cruise.com One of the largest websites specializing in discounted cruises offers a lowest-price guarantee. 888/333–3116 ; www.cruise.com
  • CruiseCompete This company allows you to get competing bids from top travel agencies, who respond to your request for bids with their best rates for your trip.www.cruisecompete.com
  • CruiseDirect.com This leading online cruise-travel company offers a price guarantee. 888/407–2784 ; www.cruisedirect.com
  • Cruise411 This online-only agency offers a huge inventory and low-price guarantee. 800/553–7090 ; www.cruise411.com
  • Cruises Only This is billed as America's largest cruise agency (it's a World Travel Holdings retailer); it offers a lowest-price guarantee, as well as a money-back satisfaction guarantee. Agents are available to assist clients around the clock. 800/278–4737 ; www.cruisesonly.com
  • Expedia This full-service online travel seller books cruises, too. 800/397–3342 ; www.expedia.com
  • Orbitz A major online travel agent that also books cruises. 888/656–4546 ; www.orbitz.com
  • Travelocity This full-service online travel seller has a 24-hour help desk for service issues. 855/201–7800 ; www.travelocity.com
  • VacationsToGo.com The company bills itself as the world's largest cruise agency, and specializes in great-value last-minute deals. 800/338–4962 ; www.vacationstogo.com
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