While the average traveler is as comfortable reserving a flight online as he or she is buying a book at Amazon, cruise sales are still largely the domain of travel agents. Only 8 percent of passengers book cruises online. But now that you can buy cruises through online agencies such as Expedia, and the meta-search engines Kayak and SideStep make it easy to do research, it's time to reevaluate your approach.
1. Start With Kayak
The website provides a great overview. In one of our searches, for a three-to-five-night Caribbean cruise in March, Kayak retrieved 65 results. Winnowing the options by price, style of cabin, departure port, and other factors is easy and quick. We clicked on Western Caribbean, and the list narrowed to 62 cruises within seconds; then we clicked on Miami as the departure port (20 results) and selected Carnival Cruise Lines (11). Under each of the results were price quotes from four consolidators: CruisesOnly, Cruise411, Cruises.com, and Vacation Outlet. For now, SideStep's cruise feature is in beta- testing stage and just searches CruisesOnly, making it less useful.
2. Search Consolidators
Kayak doesn't sell cruises--or flights, hotels, or car rentals, for that matter. Instead it scours the Internet for prices and then links customers to booking sites. When you go to one of these sites, the offers are sometimes a little different--often for the better. For instance, Kayak displayed a Royal Caribbean cruise priced at $449 through Cruises.com. But only after switching to Cruises.com did we discover that the price quote came with special freebies: either a three-night hotel stay or a two-day car rental. Certain last-minute deals sold through consolidators also never make it to Kayak. So while Kayak may be a sensible place to begin, it falls short of giving you all the information necessary to make an informed decision.
3. Call a Travel Agent
Websites are good for gathering the basics in a hurry, but you can only do so much online. If you have questions--about what kind of people a ship attracts, the dress code at dinner, or whatever--the best resource is a knowledgeable travel agent. One agent, after matching Cruises.com's $449 price on Royal Caribbean, also warned about a detail no website made clear: At that rate, the cabin wasn't pre-assigned, meaning that it could be in an especially loud location over the engine. Agencies may also have exclusive access to perks, like complimentary upgrades or airport transfers. Most agents don't tack on a service charge for cruises, but you should be sure to ask.
4. Use CruiseCompete
The first three steps should give you a good idea of which cruise you want, as well as what kinds of offers are available. Now it's simply a matter of finding the best value. Enter your dates, preferred ship and stateroom type, and other details at CruiseCompete, a website that passes along your request to dozens of consolidators and online agencies--which in turn e-mail you their best prices.
5. Evaluate the Offers
Nowadays, there's rarely a dramatic price difference between travel agencies, consolidators, and even the rate direct from the cruise line. Still, it's fairly common to find the same cruise selling for $20-$30 less at one source or another. Comparing apples to apples is essential, so before booking anything, double-check that port charges, taxes, and any service fees are covered in price quotes. Look closely at the extras included in one offer or another, which may make the difference. All things being equal, go with your gut: Book whichever way makes you feel most comfortable.