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The Value of a Professional Travel Agent

by Lisa Plotnick

 

Several weeks ago, I read the news that every cruiser dreads: Your cruise has been fully chartered.

 

Yikes! My long-anticipated, two-week cruise for next summer was not going to happen as planned. I needed to find another date—not an easy task when working within the limited time frame allotted for my husband’s vacation as well as a seasonal itinerary that runs infrequently. Fortunately, it all worked out and we are rebooked. What did I do to get this resolved? Nothing. At least not presently, as this was the result of a decision I made several years ago, one that has paid off numerous times.

 

You see, I have the good fortune of working with a professional travel agent, one who has the knowledge and experience to handle all issues pertaining to cruise vacations, no matter how unpleasant. While Internet boards were filling up with concerns posted by anxious cruisers who were bumped from our sailing, I remained stress-free—at least after the initial shock.

 

A common question I receive, both on the Internet board I manage and in person from friends and family, is how to make a cruise booking. Is it best to book directly with the cruise line? How about an Internet agency? Or, what if I want to use a travel agent? This is, clearly, a personal choice. Yet, the advice I offer, when asked, is to consult a travel agent who holds professional certifications from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

 

Before continuing, I must state a few caveats. First, by no means am I encouraging anyone to leave an agent with whom you have developed a relationship. In fact, professional travel agents frown at taking away business from trusted relationships. Second, a travel agent may not be the right choice for everyone. Many passengers are comfortable booking their own cruise vacations on the Internet, just as I am with making my own air and hotel arrangements. Finally, as it is the policy of NauticalNotebook.com to not accept or make endorsements, this article is for informational purposes only. (Hence, the lack of a direct link.)

 

So, for first-time cruisers and those who may be on the fence about what type of booking arrangement to consider, this is for you.

 

 

Why CLIA?

 

So, why the big deal about a CLIA agent? This may be answered in two words: training and experience. In addition to required coursework and exams, CLIA certification requires personal cruise experience on several lines and length of cruise, and ship inspections of five to nearly 15 different ships based on level of certification. This practical experience helps the CLIA agent select ships, as well as destinations, for his or her clients, after considering the clients’ personal preferences.

 

For example, my TA lets us know where it is advisable to take a cruise-sponsored shore excursion or where we can venture out on our own. (Who would have thought that something called Giant’s Causeway would turn out to be a highlight of our British Isles cruise? Our TA had been there and suspected that we’d enjoy it—and she was right.) CLIA agents know the questions to ask their clients to find the right fit.

 

CLIA presently offers four levels of certification programs:

· Accredited Cruise Counsellor (ACC): Requires 30 credits of mandatory coursework and exams, 50 credits of elective training (seminars, exams, conference attendance), personal cruise experience (one 2-6 night cruise, one of 7 nights or longer, on different cruise lines), and five ship inspections (on different ships).

· Master Cruise Counsellor (MCC): Requires ACC certification plus an additional 50 credits of mandatory coursework, 30 credits of elective training, personal cruise experience (two cruises of 7 nights or longer, on lines not used for the ACC), and three additional ship inspections.

· Elite Cruise Counsellor (ECC): Requires MCC certification plus additional training seminars, personal cruise experience (one of 7 nights or longer on a cruise line that was not used toward the ACC or MCC designations), and five additional ship inspections.

· Elite Scholar (ECCS): Requires ECC certification plus annual training courses, personal cruise experience (one of 7 nights or longer on a cruise line that was not used toward the ACC, MCC or ECC designations). This level must be renewed annually.

This is in addition to meeting requirements for number of bookings (increase incrementally from one level to the next) and working for a CLIA-affiliated agency.

 

CLIA also offers a number of other programs, including Luxury Cruise Specialist and Accredited Cruise Manager.

 

Locating an agent with CLIA certifications is a simple process. A search engine is located on the association’s Web page, http://cruising.org/vacation/welcome. Enter your ZIP code in the box marked “Cruise Expert Finder” to generate a listing of agents and agencies in or near your area.

 

You also don’t need to limit yourself to agents a short distance from your home. My TA, for example, lives and works 2500 miles away from me. I found her the old-fashioned way—word of mouth. You might also look for the CLIA certification logo in advertisements you see in your newspaper or on the Internet—which indicates the agency’s affiliation—and then ask for an agent who has earned at least the ACC designation.

 

This is not to say that an agent who has not met CLIA’s rigorous requirements for certifications is not a good agent. I emphasize that for first-time cruisers, the clear experience and expertise of a CLIA agent is a great starting point.

 

 

Some Final Thoughts

 

My recent experience was not the first time I needed to rely on my travel agent’s expertise to resolve the situation. I leave you with a few more of these instances.

 

·    The first occurred on our very first cruise, a honeymoon cruise back in 1990. Two nights prior to our departure, we were bumped from our hotel on the Walt Disney World (WDW) property to make room for additional attendees of a conference. (The hotel had been booked through the cruise line, which had a Disney affiliation at the time.) WDW made arrangements for us in another hotel, yet this was not on the Disney property and would necessitate us taking shuttle buses to the various parks, rather than our anticipated walk to EPCOT. Now, this was a long time ago, so I don’t recall the details, yet the change in hotel alone was not sufficient for our TA. She was able to get a few added amenities for our inconvenience, such as discounts on dining and merchandise. (Still, all of these years later, we have not returned to WDW, although we have cruised more than 30 additional times.)

·    Another instance took place in 1996, on a Southern Caribbean cruise out of San Juan. Back then, it was common for airfare and hotels to be booked as part of the cruise package. To maximize our time in San Juan—a city we had been to just once previously, as a port of call—we decided to arrive the morning of the day prior to the cruise. (It was also common then to arrive the same day as the cruise departure. This is no longer recommended.) When our TA received our air tickets a few weeks before the cruise, she noted immediately that our arrival was for 9:00 pm, not the pre-noon time we had requested. She was able to argue successfully that the line did not deliver as promised, and we found ourselves on an 8:00 am flight that arrived in San Juan at noon. And, we had a fantastic day of touring.

·    As for a situation that was confined to the ship itself, I turn to the story of our travel companions on a 2005 cruise to the Mexican Riviera, who had booked with the same CLIA Master Cruise Counsellor as we had. Our friends had booked a specific cabin on this cruise—one that they’d had previously and enjoyed—and specified that they did not wish to be considered for an upgrade. Their cruise documents were in order. Yet, when they arrived at the embarkation pier, they learned that their cabin—an aft balcony booked nearly one year out—had been reassigned to another party. They were moved to a cabin one category above on a higher deck, but its midships location was far less desirable to them. Their pleas to return them to the cabin they had booked were ignored, despite their standing in the line’s loyalty program. So, while still at check-in, our friends called our TA, who immediately took on the problem (and had to deal with supervisor upon supervisor to do so). After a series of calls—all handled by the TA—our friends’ initial reservation was restored. Throughout the cruise, our friends kept telling us that this was an argument that they would not have been able to win on their own.

·    And, to show the flip side, I share our 2003 experience of a transatlantic crossing SNAFU. By this time, our then long-time travel agent had retired, so I went with an Internet agency. (I’m an expert, after all, right?) All went smoothly until we received our air arrangements a week before the crossing. The crossing was from Southampton to New York, and we lived in Boston. So, we needed pre-crossing air from Boston to London, which was—and still is—a very common non-stop route. Imagine our surprise when our tickets showed a departure from a New York airport! I called the TA, who didn’t return my calls. So, I then pleaded my case to the cruise line, which wouldn’t talk with me initially as they were authorized to talk to my TA only. To the credit of the cruise line, they were able to set up a three-way call that included the TA. The TA felt this wasn’t a problem, as she thought that New York and Boston were close enough. (They aren’t.) We managed, with the cruise line’s help, to get a flight from Boston—yet, due to the late date, we had to forfeit the business class seats that came with our accommodation on the ship. Needless to say, this is the last time we used this agency.

 

Now, this does not mean that you will always have bad or inattentive service with an Internet agency or non-CLIA agent. In fact, we’ve gone this route several times before discovering our current TA and, other than the instance noted above, all went well. Still, having the security of a knowledgeable agent to go to bat for you if needed—all for no extra cost—is an essential part of my cruise planning.

 

And now, with our next cruise vacation salvaged, I will examine shore excursion options. And, when I have any questions, I will know who to ask.