Do I need a Travel Agent?

Whether or not to use a travel agent to book your next vacation is a topic that many people have very strong feelings about; both pro and con. There are more arguments on on-line travel forums regarding this topic than nearly anything else. So what's the fuss?

In times past, if you wanted to go on a vacation that was beyond going to grandma's house, the first stop was your local travel agent. The agent was swimming in beautiful, full color glossy brochures showing some of the most beautiful getaways on earth. Whether it was Borneo or South Florida, your travel agent had a color brochure ready for you. You took all of these back home and the family sat around the dining room table ogling at the destinations, the beaches and the gorgeous photos. Fights would break out over where to go. Somehow mom and dad would get everyone on the same page, go down to the travel agent's office and book a vacation.

These days this can still happen but the Internet has added an almost infinite set of choices to those at your travel agents beck and call. The choices are nearly endless. One can browse literally thousands of web sites both for individual vacations spots or for middlemen who broker their vacation needs including putting together a vacation package--an on-line travel agent so to speak. Some of these middlemen deal in very large numbers of vacationers and can offer a myriad of choices and prices.

So there are a few benefits to using on-line vacation middlemen:

  • A vast variety of vacation venues
  • Huge variety of packages including travel fare, lodging and meals
  • The possibility of very good prices
  • It is very hard to knock any of these benefits. If you have been dealing with a small, local travel agent, you will see immediate benefits in these on-line dealers. They seem to have it all placed on a silver platter served up to you as you want it. Many of these on-line dealers offer quite nice incentives ($$) to book through them; incentives travel agents may not be willing or able to match. Because of the sheer number of vacations booked through an on-line dealer, their ability to drive down costs can be passed to you, their customer.

    From the typical travel agent side this is actually hard to beat. Especially if you are working with a small, local agent. And if you do not mind doing the footwork, this is an excellent way to provide your family or friends with a super travel deal.

    It certainly sounds like doing your own research and booking on-line is the way to go. As the TV ads say, "But wait, there's more." Yes there is more, a lot more to consider.

    A good, well-represented professional travel agent has much to offer as well. They can also offer you the same benefits as the on-line vacation middlemen. They too have the same access you have to the Web and other travel consolidators to enable them to offer very low prices. But they do offer a few things the on-line folks normally cannot.

    First a local travel professional is local. They are there, right where you live. You can go sit down across from them and talk to them. Sure you can e-mail or call your on-line travel dealer, but chances are that you cannot go visit them in person. To many people, this is not a big deal. To those who want and demand personalized services, person-to-person contact is imperative.

    Another thing that a local travel professional offers is leverage in case of a problem. As you have always been told, there is strength in numbers. A good travel agent gives you that strength when working through an issue with your vacation. An on-line vendor can also give you this strength but most often does not.

    Let's look at an example. You decide to book a vacation with an on-line vacation dealer. They do a great job but you are not happy in some major regard with the vacation site/experience once you return home. You can call the on-line vacation dealer and lodge a complaint and you may get some resolution. You may get nothing, not even a call back from the dealer. Where do you go to get satisfaction? The same scenario with a local travel agent is slightly different. You can physically go to their office and talk directly with the agent or their superiors if you do not get a call back.

    The reality is that the on-line dealer views you as a single client. Of course they may help you work with the actual vacation issue, but their main job is to sell product. A good local travel agent's main job is to sell product as well, but with one major difference, you are local just like they are. The travel agent's business can be hugely affected by one local discontented traveler since the local travel agent's business comes from a specific customer base usually within a few miles of their office. On the other hand, the on-line dealer's business is much less affected by one disgruntled customer. The on-line dealer's customer base is literally all over the world. It is simply an issue of numbers.

    But here's where a local travel agent usually stands out. If the travel agent books a large number of vacations with the vacation site where you had issues, the travel agent can put enormous pressure on the site to make amends. The on-line dealer is usually not willing to back you in that way.

    Several years ago, I had an issue with a cruise booked by my local travel agent. Upon my return home, I discussed the issue with my agent who asked that I write a letter to the cruise line explaining my issue and ask for compensation. I did so and immediately received a "we are so sorry" canned reply from the cruise line. Under normal circumstances that was the end of the issue. My travel agent was incensed! Since my travel agency books hundreds of cruises a year with this cruise line, my agent contacted the cruise line via the travel agency's cruise line direct representative and discussed my issue. Within a few weeks I got a nice apology letter and monetary compensation directly from the cruise line.

    In this case, when the cruise line looked at me as an individual customer, I was treated much differently that a consolidated customer of an agency that books hundreds of cruises. Strength in numbers, plain and simple.

    Now I do not support lodging complaints at every whim and bump that you my encounter on a vacation. But significant, real issues do occur from time to time and a travel agent can be just that, "your" agent in dealing with the vacation provider.

    Some say that you can find better "deals" and pricing on-line. Still others swear travel agents have better pricing. In the pricing arena you may find an on-line vacation vendor with better pricing simply due to the volume of bookings they generate. Here the strength in numbers game is on the other shoe. However, pricing may be better at a travel agent due to a consolidation deal struck between the travel agency and a vacation provider. As you can see, the deal really depends on what each entity has worked out with the particular vacation provider. I have found that by searching the Internet, one can find great pricing, take that deal to your travel agent and see what the agent can offer. This way you get the best of both sides.

    So which is best, you continue to ask? The real answer is your personal choice. If you feel that you are the type of person that prefers to "go their own way" and deal directly with on-line vacation vendors, by all means do so. There are many extremely reputable vendors out there providing impeccable service at a great price.

    On the other hand, if you are not as adventurous or want the comfort of letting the travel agent do most of the work, go straight down to your local travel agent and discuss your vacation needs with them. Again there are many extremely reputable travel agents providing impeccable service at a great price.

    Go ahead, book on-line or with a local travel agent. Both are the right answer. The choice is yours!

    August, 2009

    How to Choose A Stateroom

    Probably one of many misunderstood issues in cruising is the selection of the cabin you live in for the duration of the cruise. There are those that contend the time you spend in your cabin is minimal, so you should not care what kind of cabin you reserve. Others feel that the cabin can make or break your cruise. Frankly I fall into that category. Do not let anyone tell you the type of cabin is not important.

    First let's look at cruise ships in general. Older cruise ships had hundreds of nooks and crannies where designers jammed cabins. In 1982 my wife and I sailed on the Mardi Gras, one of Carnival's original ships originally built in 1961. This was our first cruise and we had an inside cabin neatly tucked underneath a stairway beside the elevator. It was a very cozy cabin (with bunk beds!) for a very inexpensive price. One of the selling points of this ship was that is had fine wood appointments, a shining example of old-world cruising. The fine wood was beautiful throughout the ship. But what that really meant was that the stairs are made of wood. And when you have a cabin under the stairs and people walk up and down stairs at all times of the day and night... well you get a bit of noise... a lot of noise... tons of noise. Add to that being beside the elevator shaft and this was a disastrous cruise. Thank goodness it was only for three days. It took me twelve years to get the wife back on a cruise ship.

    Modern cruise ships, those built expressly for vacation cruising, have a much more purposeful layout. Rather than placing cabins around the inter-workings of the ship, the inter-workings of the ship were placed around the cabins. The result is more uniform, spacious cabins and significantly better deck plans. Crew areas are purposely away from customer cabins as well as areas such as stair wells and elevators. This is not to say that all modern cabins are acceptable to all cruisers; they most assuredly are not. That is were the selection comes in. What should you look out for when deciding on your cruise cabin? Let's take a look at several factors that I use to make my choices.

    You have decided on the cruise line and the ship you want to sail upon. To many that is a big decision in itself, not one for this discussion. The first thing I do when deciding on a cabin is get the deck plan. Go to your cruise line website and download the deck plans for your ship. If you cannot download them, print them out. This way you can spread the plans over a table and see the overall layout of the ship. You can also overlay the plans to see how the ship "stacks up" or what is over/underneath what.

    Next you need to decide the category of cabin you wish to reserve. Each cruise line breaks their cabins in to levels or categories. Categories are based on cabin size, location, inside cabins, outside cabins, with windows, with portholes, with balconies and even cabins with windows that you can't see out of because of an obstruction. These categories vary from inside cabins to extremely opulent grand suites, some even two levels with the Oasis of the Seas from Royal Caribbean entering service. So naturally you would expect to pay more for a better cabin based one of the above criteria. Now to make matters even more confusing, each cruise line has their own categories and sub-categories, some as few as two to others with more than twenty! The basic rule of thumb is the better the cabin, the more it costs.

    How are you supposed to figure this out? First...Don't panic. Actually most cruisers let cost weigh heavily in their choice. You can look at the prices and quickly determine what you can and can't afford. Let's not worry about the Royal Owner's Suite with the hot tub on the balcony if it is way beyond what you have to spend. Simply look at the price ranges and what you want to spend and it becomes fairly easy.

    Now that we have our category we are ready, right? No, not quite. Here's where cruising experience comes in. Let's say you chose a Category D4 balcony cabin. (The D4 does not mean anything, on its own. For this discussion it is just a label.) Take your deck plans and determine which decks have D4 balcony cabins. The chances are that D4 cabins are on several decks. That is great. You can push the other deck plans away for now.

    Look at each deck with D4 cabins. I find it helpful to circle the cabins with a red pencil so they are easy to find. Now we are going to look for things that can detract from the "value" of a D4 cabin. I always try to find a cabin on a deck with cabins above and below. You may have to go get those deck plans we just pushed aside. You do not want a cabin underneath or over a common area. Common areas are places that serve the entire ship such as bars, restaurants, shops and casinos. The new ships are quite a bit quieter than older ships but always remember what these ships are made from... metal; steel or in some cases aluminum. Both of these conduct sound very well even with good soundproofing. Imagine having a cabin above a disco or below a late night restaurant. No matter what that travel agent or booking agent says, you will hear the noise. You may hear other cruisers above and below you in their cabins but I guarantee you it will be nothing compared with a common area. So we have my first tip - get a cabin on a deck with cabins above and below if at all possible.

    There are those who steer clear of the front or bow of the ship. They usually cite the extreme noise of the anchor being lowered or raised. Most modern cruise ships do not use their anchors due to the seabed and coral damage this multi-ton hunk of steel can do. However there is a reason for moving back toward the center of the ship; movement. While modern cruise ships can control most the up and down motion with stabilizers, there will still be some slight movement. But be aware, moving back to the center of the ship will likely raise the cost of your cabin... remember what I said about location?

    The same can be said of the rear or aft of the ship. Not only is there the same movement that you may have in the front of the ship, but there is a vibration you will feel in an aft cabin especially if you are on a lower deck. That vibration is caused from the vibrations produced by the multiple, huge propellers that power the ship. Some cruisers love this vibration saying it helps them sleep. Others abhor it. But do you remember that location thing? Many of these cabins tend to cost less due to the vibration and the movement. To have the least effect of motion, the middle of the ship is best.

    Now there is something to add here regarding where your cabin may be in relation to the height of the ship. The generally the higher your cabin is the more you get away from the vibration and the better view you have. So...yes the price goes up. You may find that many of the larger cabins (suites) are in the front or rear of the ship. But they will be on a higher deck above the effects of the propellers. So this brings us to another tip which is really two tips in one - Fore and aft is generally less expensive but you do pay for it in motion or vibration and the higher your cabin, the more it may cost.

    Ship common or public areas are just that, they serve everyone aboard. Anyone and everyone aboard ship go there. As we briefly touched upon earlier, one of the areas many cruisers stay away from are common areas. These can be the stairwells and elevators or may be a bar or pool area. By nature, there is high traffic in these areas. People are coming and going at all times of the day and night. If there are many children aboard they tend to love riding the elevators and running everywhere they go. The newer ship designs segregate the common areas such as stairwells and elevators from the cabin areas. This is partly to quiet things down but also it aids the automated fire systems to work in cordoning off areas during fires. This design works for the most part but you probably do not want a cabin directly across from the egress area from the cabin hallway to the common stairway/elevator area. Each time someone leaves the elevator and enters the hall it is done just outside your door. Tip - Don't get a cabin just across from the stairway/elevator common areas due to the passenger traffic noise.

    Some people like to be near certain areas of the ship. We once sailed with a couple who wanted to be as close to the pool area as possible. I don't know why... they just did. If you do not want to walk the length of the ship to get to a feature that you know you will be frequenting, by all means try to get a cabin close to that venue. The designs of ships vary greatly. This is one that is more a personal choice than the others. Tip - If you want to be near something, you may want to book a cabin near that something.

    Now here's a quick word about inside vs. outside cabins. Again this is a personal choice matter. Inside cabins cost less than outside cabins. Outside cabins with balconies cost more than outside cabins with windows or portholes. Some cruisers love the cost savings of an inside cabin. They also like that since these cabins have no windows, they are very dark when the lights are out regardless of the time of day. So if you are late sleepers, you can snooze all day in an inside cabin and never know that sun came up.

    Outside cabins are very popular since you can actually see outside. If you have any problem with claustrophobia, an outside cabin is definitely for you. One of the most popular cabins throughout the cruising world today is the outside balcony cabins. Take it from me, they are wonderful. You get your own private balcony overlooking the ocean. You can sit out there and literally watch the world go by. Imagine having a quiet meal on your balcony with your cruise mate. I swear this will make you want a balcony cabin from now on.

    As you can see selecting a cabin for a cruise may not be as easy as you first thought. Please don't let anyone give you the old line about it being "only where you sleep" and "you won't be in the cabin much anyway." Your cabin will be your home away from home for the entire cruise. It is very important that you get it right. If you follow these rules and use your head, you can have that cruise of a lifetime without coming home and saying, "the cruise was fantastic but our cabin was not."

    July, 2009

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