"Could you provide me with the names of one or more travel agencies with the experience and expertise to make arrangements for an extended South American cruise?" A reader posed that question last week. And although I don't know any travel agencies in my reader's area, I can provide some guidance about choosing a cruise agency, generally.
These days, somewhere around half of the cruise bookings are made online, with the remainder booked through bricks-and-mortar agencies. Each has its advantages:
*Online booking gives you a bewildering variety of options: Most of the cruise lines take bookings on their own websites; the giant online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity feature cruises; dozens of cruise-only agencies claim discounts; last-minute specialists deal with near-future sailings; specialized agencies focus on niches that range from small ships to European waterways to freighter travel to cruises for solo travelers to ferry trips. My list of Internet "favorites" includes around 100 cruise line and agency links, and it's far from complete. The upside to online booking is the tremendous range of options and -- often -- access to the best discounts.
*Conventional travel agencies, too, range from cruise specialists to all-round agencies that handle cruises in their mix. You also can choose between big-chain agencies, which often enjoy some volume discounts or other advantages, and independent agencies that may provide a more personal touch. In either case, a local agency gives you a personal contact to help with your planning -- and a go-to person if you encounter some kind of problem.
If, like my reader, you are most interested in finding a local agency, your challenge is to find one that will suit your needs particularly well.
In this kind of inquiry, always start by asking any previous cruisers you know about any agencies they've used. If you can't find someone with a personal recommendation, begin by checking the two nationwide organizations that provide online search engines to help you locate agencies in your area:
*The American Society of Travel Agents provides a locator on its site (www.asta.org), which you can search either by area or specialization. ASTA affiliation can be valuable because ASTA is, to my knowledge, the only trade association in the travel industry that maintains a consumer affairs department. The problem with using ASTA as a locator is that so many members list themselves as experts in practically every aspect of travel.
*The Cruise Lines International Association mounts a locator of agencies that employ one or more agents with specialized cruise training (www.cruising.org).
Another approach is to check the websites of one or more cruise lines, most of which provide a locator for recommended agencies. When you do, use the locator of the cruise line you're most likely to prefer or at least of a line in the same general category: mass-market, upscale, small ship, river cruise or whatever else.
After you identify one or more candidates, you might want to interview two or three to get a personal feel for an agency and its agents. And before you enter any negotiations with an agent, get a pretty good idea about pricing by checking a few of the online sites. Even when you intend to use an agent, you need to have a general idea about what's in the marketplace.
Also, read up on the ports of call you might want to visit, either online or through a good guidebook such as Berlitz, Fodor's or Frommer's. And be wary if an agent tries to overload you with shore excursions: You're often better off arranging your own tours, after you arrive, or buying through a third-party source such as Viator (www.viator.com).
All in all, a good local agent can be a big help in arranging a cruise that suits your requirements. For the most part, individual agents have access to as many good deals as the online counterparts. And you can't duplicate the personal service online.