On the big MSC Divina, my balcony cabin at the aft end provided a rare sense of privacy and easy access during a week’s winter voyage in the Caribbean from Miami.
Four cabins away from mine was a door that led to a little-used outside stairway which became my nearly private entrance and exit. Using the stairs, I could walk up to the ship’s buffet restaurant or to a top deck swimming pool, and down to an entertainment area, without encountering more than a few of the other 4,000 passengers aboard.
Did you know that all cabins in the same rate category, on the same ship, are not alike, and that views, balcony sizes and the conveniences of location may vary substantially?
That’s the kind of information that knowledgeable cruise travel agents pass along to their customers.
With so many cruise lines and so many ships now sailing the world’s waters, expertise is a valuable tool when choosing a voyage, a vessel, a cabin or even a restaurant for a special meal.
Every cruise line executive — I have interviewed dozens during the past three decades — would recommend publicly, or at least privately, that you book your next sea vacation through a knowledgeable travel agent who specializes in cruises.
Why? Because experienced cruise travel agents know stuff that you may not know, such as when to book a bed for sleeping under the stars on SeaDream I or II (reserve on first day, ask for most private) and finding a cabin like mine on the MSC Divina.
Cruisers, especially first-timers at sea, will learn much more from a knowledgeable cruise travel agent than if they buy directly online based on a price list or from cruise line representatives who will tell you only about their own ships.
With all the new ships, new activities and entertainment, and new restaurant choices, choosing the elements of a cruise vacation can be complicated. Ships are not like so much of the homogenized budget travel industry, where chain hotels and restaurants, rooms and menus, all seem to look alike.
“Cruising is more complex than regular travel planning,” says Stewart Chiron, who is affiliated with a travel agency and is an expert known in the industry as the Cruise Guy.
Travel agents who specialize in cruises, he says, have first-hand knowledge and experience aboard ships; can ensure that vacationers choose the right ship, cabin type and get the best price; and can advocate on customers’ behalf with a cruise line should issues arise.
“Consumers may want to test a travel agent’s knowledge of cruising,” he says. “Ask questions like ‘How many cruises have you been on?’ If an agent has never cruised, it may be a good idea to find someone else. An order-taker isn’t what consumers need.”
One of the lose-lose problems in the cruise business is when unhappy customers end up on the wrong ship, or in the wrong cabin, while an experienced agent could have steered them elsewhere. Most cruisers whom I talk to are quite positive about their voyages. The ones who complain tend to have chosen the wrong ship for the kind of vacation they were anticipating.
I remember meeting two couples from New Jersey on a Windstar ship in the Mediterranean Sea. They said they were having a lousy time, something I would have thought was impossible on a Windstar cruise in the Med. But this ship was missing production shows, slot machines and the late-night disco parties that the folks from New Jersey had expected. They had bought the wrong cruise.
Says Chiron: You might call an experienced travel agent after reading a Carnival Cruise Line ad and end up cruising on Seabourn (same owner) because that line provides the food and service that you were really looking for. Or, the other way around: Parents traveling with fun-seeking teenagers would not be a happy family on a luxury ship designed for adults only.
Travel agents tell me that some passengers would move down the hall to save a few dollars; others gladly would pay a few dollars more to get a better location. You may need a quiet cabin so you can sleep early, far from the pulsating sounds of the disco. Carnival Sunshine, for instance, offers “night owl” discounts for certain cabins close to the disco. If you intend to be out and about every night until the disco closes, you might want to take the discount.
Cabin private balconies on some ships provide privacy from the eyes of fellow passengers; others are tiered in a way that you probably would want to remain fully clothed.
“It’s all about the experience,” says the Cruise Guy.
Sometimes, it’s also about the money. Cruises booked through travel agents do not cost more than the same cruise as advertised in print or online by cruise lines. Agents who specialize in cruises also know about special deals that are not advertised. While cruise lines do pay travel agents a commission for booking your cruise, that commission does not change the rate that consumers pay.
The key is information for making wise choices. I remember talking one February with a cruise travel agent during an inaugural event for a ship that had set high rates during its first winter season in the Caribbean.
“Are there any bargain rates for this ship?” I asked her.
“If you want a discount on this ship, book now for a year later,” she said. “Next March is what I am recommending to my customers.”
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com