Getting the Best Price and Booking Your Cruise on the Internet
Sep 1, 2001 (Updated Sep 3, 2001)
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Booking a cruise isn't quite the same as booking an airline ticket on the internet. There are more variables involved, such as determining the location of your stateroom, the time you intend to eat your meals and with whom you will be cruising, like an other couple or family members, for example. Sure, you can log onto the cruise line's website, and book your self a cruise, but a website's function is to make your reservation. Having a brochure is helpful, but it can't answer all of your questions or address your concerns; only a live person can do that, and if this your first cruise, I strongly recommend you take the time to contact a cruise-only travel agent.
Buying travel, and cruises in particular, over the internet has become commonplace. More and more people appreciate the convenience of shopping at home, but are you getting the best price, and how should one go about selecting the "right" site, as there are so many out there to choose from? Is it better to book a cruise directly with the cruise line, or with a travel agency specializing in cruises?
Booking a cruise over the internet is easy, but it won't guarantee you'll get the best price. If price is important to you, use the web for research, and price comparison, but in the end, contact several cruise-only agents by phone for your final price and booking. You'll find hundreds to choose from on the net. Many offer regional promotions, so calling one from Florida and a couple from the east and west coasts and your state is a good idea. Cruise lines that do business in Florida (which is nearly all of them) offer promotions to larger agencies near their home ports (like Miami or Fort Lauderdale). I have often found the best deals at these agencies. But the largest of cruise-only agencies are tough to beat, as they deal in such high volumes. Vacation Superstore, for example, has huge contracts with Carnival.
If you do decide to book your cruise on your own, realize you will most likely NOT be guaranteed the lowest price. Just know that you might be able to find a lower price if you shop several agencies. The convenience of doing it yourself has its price.
Is it better to book a cruise directly with the cruise line, or with a an agency specializing in cruise travel? With the exception of NCL, who has set prices and regularly offers internet specials, there seems to be no advantage as of yet to booking a cruise directly with the cruise line. I have a feeling that will begin to change in the years to come; as travel agents commissions get smaller and smaller, more cruise business will go the way of the airlines. Prices tend to be about the same as what many local travel agents can offer. On the other hand, large cruise-only agencies can pass along volume discounts, special promotional offers made only for them, and group space, that local agents don't have access to, and cruise lines reserve only for their most loyal agents. These same agencies are looking for your business, and will often have a policy to beat your lowest bid by 10%. In general, you could save yourself a couple hundred bucks by making a few phone calls instead of booking your cruise on your own.
Companies such as Travelocity and Expedia, deal in large volumes. I have found their prices to be significantly lower than what's usually offered at the cruise line's website. On the other hand, they tend to be higher than cruise.com, mytravelco.com, twtravel and 11thhourvacations.com. as well as others. While they make it easy to book a cruise online, 7 times out of 10, you can do better by checking prices at other internet agencies.
If you do go it on your own, be sure to reconfirm your booking with the cruise line's customer service number, or with the internet agency's customer assistance line a week or two later. Inform the agent of any special requests, and make sure any promotions offered to you are in writing. Check your documents immediately for mistakes, and contact the necessary agent for corrections. Often people looking to save money will book the lowest category stateroom, without realizing that they may end up with a room with bunkbeds. It's important to get ALL your questions answered before booking a cruise over the internet.
Royal Caribbean, NCL and Carnival all have excellent websites. NCL is the only one with real-time updates during business hours. All three are easy to use, and for the most part, accurate. But mistakes do occur, so it's important to verify your reservation with an agent. Royal Caribbean and NCL will provide you with a more upscale cruising experience and slightly better food, when compared to other lower priced, mass-marketed cruise lines (Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean tend to be most popular mass-marketed cruise lines) . Carnival tends to attract a younger crowd, and more emphasis is placed on entertainment and nightlife than cuisine. Carnival's cabins are slightly bigger, but Royal Caribbean has much better entertainment, and NCL now provides "Freestyle Cruising" with casual open seating options at every meal. Princess, Holland America and Celebrity are slightly more expensive, attract a more mature crowd, and offer better cuisine. All have excellent child care and visit the most popular ports of call. Remember, cruises are NOT all-inclusive vacations. Gratuities (about $10 per person/per day), drinks and shore excursions are all extra. Some snacks and dinners in specialty restaurants are also extra, not to mention bingo, the casino and other diversians, such as the art auction, wine tasting and spa treatments.
To get an idea of what you're in for, I suggest you read a few reviews, pick up brochures and talk to people "in the know" such as a qualified travel agent or friend who has taken a cruise.
Remember, not all internet agencies doing business are reputable, so it pays to do a little research. Always put the cost of your cruise on a credit card, and any promotional offers, such as ship board credit, should be noted on your invoice. Travel documents are your responsibility, so make sure you check out what you'll need in order to travel. Good luck with your travel plans!!