What's the best way to book a cruise -- through a travel agency, over the Internet or by calling the cruise line directly? We went shopping for a berth on a 10-day Panama Canal sailing in mid-March on three specific ships: the Crystal Harmony, Holland America's Maasdam and Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas. In each case, we asked for the cheapest outside cabin -- per person, double occupancy, including port tax.
Note: We consider the "best deal" to be more than the absolute cheapest price. Other factors are quality of service, availability of free amenities (upgrades, shore excursions, onboard credits) and -- of course -- a reasonable fare.
McCabe-Bremer Travel Agency, McLean/D.C.
Crisply knowledgeable about various distinctions between cruise lines. Cruise catalogues were sent next day. Thanks to the agency's affiliation with API, a national consortium, this agency, of all that we tried, offered the best group discounts on Holland America (though the cruise line itself offered a cheaper fare) and special amenities (free shore excursion and special cocktail party on Crystal).
PHONE: 703-905-9100, 1-800-747-8401
Royal Caribbean: $1,749
Cruise Holidays of Rockville
Travel agent Dick Norpp responded promptly to our request for information, asking questions to discern cruise preferences, from cuisine expectations to budget. Knowledgeable and cruise-weathered, he was able to point out strengths and weaknesses of the different lines -- and actually dug out a better bargain (Celebrity Zenith's $1,549).
Holland America: $2,335
Royal Caribbean: $1,941
Omega Travel's cruise.com
In essence, this is a travel agency hiding behind a computer screen. The Web site is well-designed but flaunted phony bargains (one ad promised 72 percent off selected Crystal itineraries; when queried by phone, cruise.com's travel agents said it didn't exist). E-mail messages requesting quotes were ignored ("If we're busy, we just don't have time to get to e-mails," said agent Jake Perry). Some calls to agency sales reps requesting quotes were not returned. Prices were among the highest we were quoted.
WEB SITE: www.cruise.com
Holland America: $2,336
Royal Caribbean: $1,770
Crystal (1-800-820-6663): We waited on hold for over 10 minutes; a sales rep then tried to refer us to a travel agent, but provided the price when pressured. No extras offered.
Holland America (1-800-426-0327): A sales rep mechanically provided the price, though there was no questioning. Competitive with travel agency quotes.
Royal Caribbean (1-800-327-6700): Oddly, it was more expensive to book directly through RCCL than through other methods. The RCCL sales reps were nonetheless excellent, offering prices on obstructed-view cabins, volunteering deep discounts for add-on air fares.
Holland America: $1,989
Royal Caribbean: $1,949
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