Years ago, booking a cruise meant a trip into town to your local travel agent who would make the booking for you while you sat on the other side of their desk. Nowadays, however, most of us are used to booking all of our flights, hotels and car hire online.
But what about cruises? A cruise is a much more complicated product than your standard vacation, with lots of extra things to think about, like cabin types, dining times and drinks packages. So, should you book a cruise online? This article explains the pros and cons.
If you decide that booking your cruise online is the best option for you, then read on for tips about how to book your cruise online for the best price, whilst avoiding the common pitfalls.
Can you book a cruise online?
Most cruises can be booked online, either on the cruise line’s official website or via a third-party website. Some cruises, however, can only be booked with the help of a real person.
Examples of cruises that cannot be booked online include ‘cruise and land tour’ packages, back-to-back cruises, cruises for large groups and cruises requiring wheelchair-accessible cabins.
There are three ways to book a cruise:
- Over the phone
- Face to face
Which method is the best will depend on the cruise that you are booking and your own personal circumstances.
Should you book a cruise with a travel agent or online?
A very common question that I get asked is – ‘Is it best to book a cruise with a travel agent or online?’
It’s a common misconception that booking online means booking directly with the cruise line and booking over the phone means using a travel agent. In fact, both cruise lines and travel agents offer options of online and telephone bookings.
The 9 different ways that you can book your cruise…
Booking directly with a cruise line:
- Online – On the cruise line’s website
- By phone – Call the cruise line
- In-person – When on-board a cruise ship
Booking with a travel agent:
- Online – One a specialist cruise travel agent’s websites
- By phone – Call the travel agent or fill in a form to request a callback
- By email – Some travel agents allow you to pay via a secure link
- In-person – In a high street shop or at a travel agent’s head office
Booking with a third-party:
- Online – If you live in the US, you can book cruises on sites like Expedia
- By phone – A call centre worker can complete your booking
Which is the best way to book a cruise?
If you’ve never cruised before, or have only a few times, then I would always recommend booking over the phone or face-to-face with a trusted cruise travel agent. They will have experience of many different cruise lines and can talk you through each decision to help you to choose and book the very best cruise for your family.
If you’re an experienced cruiser or have done enough research to know exactly what you want, then booking online could be a good idea.
Ask yourself – Have you done enough research to know what you want better than a cruise expert? If so, go ahead and book your cruise online.
Should you book a cruise online?
If you’re considering booking a cruise online, there are a few things that you should consider…
Pros of booking a cruise online
- Can book at any time of the day or night
- Compare fares in your own time
- There’s no pressure to book
- Can take your time to look at the details
- No hidden booking fees
Cons of booking a cruise online
- No personalised advice
- You need to do your own research
- You’re responsible for any mistakes
- You cannot hold cabins
- No chance to haggle
- Fly-cruise packages may be more expensive
Booking a cruise online offers a better experience for some people than others. For example, if you’re hard of hearing or have anxiety about speaking to people, then booking online could be a great option.
However, if you don’t have lots of spare time to spend on researching all the different options, then it may be better to hand this task over to an expert.
Where can you book a cruise online?
There are three places where you can book a cruise online:
- Cruise line website
- Cruise travel agent website
- Aggregator website
Not every option is available in every country. Aggregator websites like Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak and Priceline tend to be based in the US, with the cruises priced in dollars. Whilst you can book your cruise via a US-based company if you live in the UK and vice versa, I wouldn’t advise this.
Firstly, paying for your cruise in a foreign currency means that you’ll probably pay more because of the exchange rate and bank fees. Also, if you need to speak to a real person at any point before your cruise, you’ll have to telephone overseas, which could be expensive, particularly if you have to wait on hold.
If you live in the UK, the options to consider are booking with the cruise line or a travel agent.
What’s the best site to book a cruise online?
When booking a cruise online, most people go straight to the cruise line’s website. However, this isn’t always the best option.
If you’re not loyal to one particular cruise line, then searching on a travel agent or aggregator website will allow you to compare all the different options side by side.
Most good cruise travel agents will offer lower prices than you would get from booking directly with the cruise line. They can do this because they are given preferential rates, so even after they have taken a commission the price that you pay will be less.
Cruise lines often offer incentives to book like free onboard credit or free gratuities, but some cruise travel agents will offer extra incentives on top of this.
The best place to book a cruise online will depend on where in the world you live and which cruise you want to book. It’s wise to compare the online prices from a few different websites before you decide.
What to look for in a good travel agent
Not all travel agents are equal – and this applies to both telephone and online bookings…
The best travel agents for telephone bookings
There are specialist cruise travel agents who will spend as long as is needed on the phone to help you to plan the perfect cruise. If you don’t know exactly what you want, they will ask you questions to help you to decide.
These guys are highly experienced, have been onboard lots of cruise ships and have a good knowledge of lots of different cruise lines. They will work alongside you to help you to plan your perfect cruise.
Travel agents to avoid
Some travel agents are just call-centre workers who are trained to input orders. You tell them exactly what you want and they tick the boxes on their computer.
These guys want to do as many bookings as possible to meet their targets. If you call them and you don’t already know what you want, they will offer you whatever makes them the most commission. They’re instructed to try to upsell you to a balcony, without considering if you would be actually happier with the cheaper inside cabin.
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The best online booking systems
The best online booking systems are easy to use. They have tips to help you make decisions throughout your booking journey. For example, if you’re asked to choose ‘Select Fare’ or ‘Saver Fare’, it will explain exactly what’s included with each. There will be a telephone number to call should you need to query anything.
I have attempted to book cruises using several different travel agents websites and have found that the Pure Holidays website is very user-friendly, making it easy to compare prices for the various fare categories and cabin grades.
Online booking systems to avoid
Some online booking systems offer a frustrating user experience. They may be slow to load or crash. You may see the price change with no explanation or see codes that you don’t understand.
Some third-party and travel agent websites can be tricky to use to complete an online booking. Unlike cruise line websites, third-party websites have to handle bookings with several different cruise lines. They have to pull data from different places and in different formats, so they sometimes struggle to clearly communicate all the options.
How to book a cruise online
If you want to book a cruise online, you’ll first need to choose your cruise in terms of the ship, the date and the itinerary. Then, you’ll need to know the answers to the following questions:
1. What fare do you want?
Certain cruise lines like P&O Cruises and Cunard offer a choice of different fares. Some fares let you choose your cabin number and give you free perks, but you’ll pay for the privilege. You may have the option of a ‘Saver’ fare, which is cheaper, but your cabin number will be assigned to you.
If you get a choice of free perks with your cruise, you’ll need to decide which is the most valuable to you. Do you want a free coach transfer to the port, free car parking or some on-board spending money?
2. What is your cruise loyalty number?
Most cruise lines have loyalty programs which offer discounts and perks for repeat cruisers. If you’ve sailed with your chosen cruise line before, you’ll need to enter your loyalty number when you book your cruise online.
The easiest way to find your loyalty number is to search your emails for a message from the cruise line that has it in. If this doesn’t work, take a look at these cruise line specific instructions.
3. What cabin do you want?
As a minimum, you’ll have to know if you want an inside cabin, outside cabin, balcony or suite. Unless you go for the ‘guarantee’ option, where your cabin number is assigned to you, you’ll be expected to select exactly which cabin number you want.
To do this, take a careful look at the deck plan and make sure you don’t pick a bad location like right above the nightclub! I have a handy checklist to help you pick a good cabin location.
4. What dining time do you want?
Depending on your cruise, you may have an option of early, late or flexible dining. There are pros and cons to each, which you can read here.
Personally, I would always go for the flexible dining time as this avoids having to either rush to get ready or wait around with hungry children. I also like to meet new people each evening on shared tables, although this may not be an option for the immediate future due to social distancing requirements.
The bottom line
Booking a cruise online can be a great idea, but it’s not for everyone. If you don’t need any help with choosing your cruise, then booking online can be a quick and easy way to book your cruise without having to wait on hold or speak to anyone.
Using a specialist cruise travel agent is generally a good idea and this should be cheaper than booking your cruise directly with the cruise line. Some travel agents have better online booking systems than others, but if you run into difficulties there will be a telephone number that you can call to complete your booking.
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