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Will you get good value from online cruise sites?

Would-be cruisers are simultaneously lured by low prices and great deals and confused about which site to give their business. You may have wondered whether these online businesses deliver on the promise of low prices, give you the tools to make an informed purchase, have reliable customer service, or even if they’re legitimate in the first place.

Before you run to your nearest travel agent in frustration, read our advice. We interviewed representatives from large travel sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity and small cruise-only sites such as Cruise Value Center, Cruise411, and icruise, to find the truth about these online retailers. We found out how they get their inventory and fabulous deals and what their customer service is like, both online and off. In short, you should feel comfortable booking with any of these companies, but a little savvy will go a long way toward ensuring that you get what you want from your booking and cruising experience.

How it works and why it’s cheap

Online cruise sites, whether large or small, operate in a similar way to travel agents; the companies all have relationships with the individual cruise lines and can negotiate rates based on the amount of business they bring to the line. They have access to the cruise lines’ inventory systems, so when you check prices and availability online, you are seeing real-time information direct from the cruise line for all of their available cruises.

Sometimes you might find availability only through an online seller. That is because some companies, such as Cruise Value Center, will buy cabins at a discount a year or two in advance. Not only can the company then offer those cruises to the consumer at discounted rates, but it might end up having available inventory when the cruise line itself is sold out. According to Mark Kammerer, Vice President of Cruise for Expedia, this strategy of purchasing “risk inventory” is not common because “the cruise industry is in a capacity-expansion mode.” A risk-inventory model demands that businesses have a good idea about future market prices, but the industry expansion makes predicting prices very difficult.

The deals, then, come in one of two ways. Larger sites, such as Expedia and Travelocity, use their sheer volume of sales as leverage to negotiate better rates and special promotions directly with the cruise lines. Kammerer told us, “We work hard to get the most competitive rates because that is the hallmark of Expedia.” These companies have built their reputations around bringing low prices to consumers, and their cruise sites are no exception.

More cruise deals:

Last-minute cruise specials from Cruise Value Center

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The second way seems to be employed mostly by the cruise-only sites. These sites more obviously operate like travel agents in that they get commission from the cruise lines for the cruises they sell. In order to lower prices for the consumer, the agents will take less commission for themselves and pass the savings on to you.

Jared Smith, Vice President of icruise, explained the concept to us with a hypothetical example. “Say a Carnival cruise costs $1,000, and say that icruise will get a 15-precent commission on that sale, or $150. Icruise can choose to give some of the commission back to the customers, reducing the cost of the cruise by up to $150.” In that case, if icruise decided to split the commission with its customers, keeping $75 and giving $75 to you, you would pay only $925 for a $1,000 cruise. For that reason, Smith says, it makes no sense to book directly through a cruise line because the travel agent, whether online or off, can always cut you a better deal.

And online retailers very much want to get you that deal. Jeff Kivet, CEO of Cruise Value Center, claims that his site “always has discounted prices,” and Dave Lucas, President and CEO of Cruise411, “guarantee[s] that our prices are the lowest, and we’ll match or beat a lower price.” In any case, with additional offerings of shipboard credit or cash back from many of these companies, you have a very good chance of finding the best savings online.

The online experience

While many cruisers agree that there are great deals to be found on the Web, many are concerned about what they perceive as a difficult booking process. Cathy Dooling, Cruise Marketing Manager for Travelocity, explains that “people see cruise as a very complex product to book online.” They’re nervous about choosing the right ship, the right cabin category for their budget, even the right cabin location. To answer these concerns, cruise websites have created technology and tools to take you step-by-step through the booking process, giving you the resources to find the answers to any questions you have along the way.

Travelocity, for instance, has a wealth of information on its site to help you choose the cruise that’s right for you, before you even begin the booking process. You’ll find traveler reviews of cruises and destinations, articles and FAQs for the first-time traveler, even description of cruise line personalities. Expedia’s cruise site has descriptions and ratings of each ship in a cruise line’s fleet, while Cruise411 provides professional reviews from Cruise Critic and photos and deck plans for each ship. All of this information is easily accessible from the websites’ homepages.

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Once you begin booking, these sites have done their best to make sure that you get all the information you need to book the cruise that’s best for you. Not only will you be able to see cruise itineraries and which dates have the best prices, you will also be able to pick your cabin category and specific cabin using deck plans, room type descriptions, and photos. You can add airfare, airport transfers, and even hotel stays if you plan to spend a few extra days in your cruise’s departure city.

Dooling told us about some services that Travelocity provides to make your booking process even easier. Colorful icons denoting special offers appear next to prices in all search results so you can easily compare sailings to find the best deal; click on the icon for a pop-up window explaining the terms of the deal. The site’s IntelliDeck technology lets you take a virtual tour of the ship so you can make the most informed decision of which stateroom to choose. While you’re booking, you will see the cost to upgrade from the category you’ve selected to a better category, so you can decide if an upgrade will fit into your budget. Plus, Travelocity is the only company that lets you choose flight times and specific carriers for your air add-on, allowing you to pick flights to suit your schedule or a specific carrier to maximize frequent flyer miles.

Of course, other sites have their own special tools to help you book, and these websites work hard to demystify the cruise booking process. If the site you’re using to book your cruise doesn’t answer all of your questions, you can always open another browser and look elsewhere for answers.

The offline experience

But if you get really confused while booking or would feel better asking questions to a “real person,” all of these cruise sites have phone numbers you can call and dedicated cruise agents to answer your questions, walk you through the online booking process, or just book the cruise for you.

You don’t have to worry that the person on the other end of the line will be an uninformed call-center representative who thinks a Carnival cruise is a boat with a Ferris wheel. Everyone I talked to assured me that not only were their agents dedicated cruise specialists, but that they had all undergone training with the cruise lines and/or destination specialists and had cruised several times before. The people on the phone are travel agents and can knowledgeably answer your questions, from “Where is the best place for my family to cruise?” to “How do I pick a cabin with your online system?”

If you come up with additional questions after you book or run into any problems while traveling, these companies also have customer-service numbers that you can call at any time for additional help. Though you won’t have the same face-to-face relationship as with a travel agent, operators are standing by to help you. Just remember to tuck the customer-service number into your carry-on bag before you leave home.

There is one caveat to using a cruise site’s travel agent to book your cruise: Some sites, such as Cruise Value Center and Cruise411, will not give you as good a discount if you book through a phone agent rather than online. Expedia, Travelocity, and icruise, however, guarantee that you will find the same price with an agent as you will online. If you’re unsure of a website’s policy about telephone bookings, just call the reservations number and ask. It never costs to ask questions, so you can gather up your answers and then finish your booking online.

Make the system work for you

Ultimately, you should feel confident that you can book a cruise with any cruise website. These online companies are not going to take you for a ride, nor will you be left without resources when you encounter a problem with the booking process or your travel experience. However, using a little travel savvy and booking with your eyes open will save you loads of frustration.

The first thing to realize is that ridiculously low fares are in short supply. An eye-popping fare will almost always be for a three-day cruise or only available on select sailings. You should also ignore exclamations about savings up to a certain percent as the low prices are always compared to the brochure rate, an artificially high price that no traveler actually pays. It’s up to you to decide if you want to plan your travel around cheap fares, or settle for a good but not amazing price on a cruise for your preferred dates to your preferred destination. It is possible to find a great deal on the cruise you want, but you may have to shop around and be flexible.

The second thing is to remember taxes and fees. Often, that amazing fare you see advertised is the base rate, before taxes and fees (not to mention airfare, shore excursions, etc.) are added in. Taxes and fees can bump your cruise price up by $100, so be sure to include them in your budget and in your price comparisons between sites. Which leads us to our next point: Always shop around. The site that gave you the best deal last time might not be the same site that has the best price this time.

Third, be realistic about how you’re booking. The impression I got from looking at the various sites and talking to representatives is that large sites, such as Travelocity and Expedia, can offer free customer service and cleaner online navigation as they have more resources, but they’re not hungry enough for business to offer ridiculous deals (though they do have good rates). The cruise-only sites, such as icruise, Cruise Value Center, and Cruise411, are more likely to have the jaw-dropping prices, but due to limited resources, other aspects may not be as outstanding.

And finally, protect yourself if you’re nervous. Check to see if the site you wish to use has the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) logos on its site. The approval of these organizations means that the site is an honest business and has members trained in selling cruises by CLIA. Plus, pay with a credit card that will refund your money for purchases never received.

All of the sites mentioned here, and the numerous other sites out there on the Web, want to make the online booking process as easy as possible, and they want to get you the best deal possible. Booking a cruise online is as simple and safe as booking airfare and hotel on the Web; you just have a few more choices to make. But if the deals are out there, you might as well take advantage of them, and have more money to spend on shore excursions, tropical drinks, and other luxuries on your next cruise vacation.

The cruise sites put to the test

If you’re wondering how these online sellers compare with the cruise lines’ own websites, look for the next installment of our series, coming in April. We’ll take a look at the deals offered by the cruise lines and compare their prices with those found on other cruise websites.

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