Reader G. writes:

“Can you do a post on how you go about booking cruises? Do you use a trusted agent? Or do it online? Can you explain your process in the near future? I am a complete newbie when it comes to cruises but I am determined to blow our Capital One points on a RC cruise in 2012.
Always put it off as traveling by air with miles and staying in nice hotels w/ pts seemed so easy:-)

One more question: Any RC to avoid? Any RC ship that is above the rest? They all look fine to me but, like I said, I am a newb.

Thank you.”

First of all, thanks for your question. This is one I get from friends from time to time, and I’m happy to discuss it here on the blog because I expect a lot of people have the same question. First of all, how do I book? Typically, I book our cruises with our travel agent. I haven’t always used a travel agent to book, but began exploring the possibility in advance of MrsMJonTravel and my honeymoon a few years ago. After seeking a little input on Flyertalk.com about thoughts on using American Express Platinum Travel Service, an experienced traveler commented to me that I should find myself a Virtuoso Travel Agent and stick with them. I did a tiny bit of research on travel agencies and discovered that Virtuoso catered to travel interests that typically mirrored my own. While I kind of suspect that I’m in the middle income range (at best) of a typical Virtuoso customer, I’m pretty certain that our “DINK” status affords us the opportunity to spend a higher portion of our income on travel than many. Rather than word of mouth, I simply submitted my information on Virtuoso’s website and I was contacted the very same day by the person whom it turns out we would be working with still today.

My thinking on travel agents has evolved over time. I certainly don’t need one to book an average 7-night cruise, but I always book through an agent. Frankly, I can list what I believe our next 2 or 3 “big” vacations will be in the next 3 years, and all of them can benefit from the services an experienced, and better yet, connected travel agent can provide. There is no way I would have been able to replicate on my own the experience we and our 4 friends enjoyed on our private tour of Ephesus, Turkey last year with a good Google search and a review on TripAdvisor. So…my advice, find yourself a good travel agent and work with them. If you have friends who have a trusted agent to refer you to, all the better.

There are a lot of online agencies out there, and not just the one’s you know…Expedia, Travelocity, etc. Some online agencies actually specialize in cruises. I’ve never used one, so I can’t comment positively or negatively. I sometimes see deals offered from online agencies that I doubt a typical agent can or will replicate, and I’m ok with that. From my perspective, if you are going to book with an “online” agency, you may as well just book direct with the cruise line.

Which brings me to the next way to do things…yourself. I don’t mind or fear doing things on my own, especially for simple trips. In fact, all things, being equal, I probably prefer some things that way. There’s nothing wrong with any particular method of booking your cruise, I’ve just found something that works for me. The cruise line websites I’ve used are not nearly as well developed at selling their product as your typical airline site. Most of them I’ve looked at are frankly, kind of clunky. That said, they usually work, and our first several cruises were booked directly with the cruise line. In fact, our next big cruise was booked directly with the cruise line, on board our last cruise. That’s an “in person” booking with the onboard booking specialist. In our case, our booking was immediately transferred to our travel agent to manage between now an the cruise next November. That’s a good way to do things because there are typically some perks provided, such as in this case, a $300 dollar on board credit, and we get the benefit of working with our travel agent throughout planning for the trip. Everybody wins. 🙂

Regarding your question about Royal Caribbean ships to avoid. I have to admit that I am a special case when it comes to cruising. I love all the ships, from small to large, Flowrider or no Flowrider. Royal Promenade or a simple 3 to 4 deck centrum…. I just like being at sea. That said, I am always a little leery of recommending someone take their first cruise on a ship like Allure of the Seas or the next smallest ships of the Freedom Class. But I have to admit, I’ve become something of a junkie for the Royal Caribbean ships that offer at least a spectacular Royal Promenade, lined with shops, bars, and entertainment. I would not say you should “avoid” any ship, just be aware that the older ships don’t offer the same number and quality of amenities that the newer and larger ships do.

I typically recommend that someone who has never cruised before begin with a shorter cruise….a test sail if you will. One of the best for that is the 4-night cruise aboard Majesty of the Seas from Miami. Majesty is not the newest ship in the fleet, but is well cared for, fully renovated this century, staffed with a great crew, and the ports of call in Nassau, Coco Cay, and especially Key West are great ones to get your feet wet with cruising. That’s by no means a recommendation you have to follow to do this right, just something to think about. If you take your first cruise on a ship like Allure of the Seas, I’m not sure anything else will ever measure up. Just sayin’. You won’t go wrong with any of the Royal Caribbean Radiance Class ships either. No matter what you decide to book for your first cruise, I hope it’s a great one!!

Thanks again for reading, and by all means, comment to the blog with additional questions.