Those who have followed me for a while know that I was an adamant proponent of do-it-yourself when it comes to making travel plans, at least for myself. In Part 1 of my foregoing series, I called myself a control freak and most of those who know me best wouldn’t disagree. As I also mentioned in that post, though, I have recently changed tactics and used a travel agent to book my most recent cruises.
Why, after so many years of doing it all myself, would a long-time OCD DIYer do that? Well, first a little background about why I swore off TAs in the first place: All of my previous experiences with travel agents had been frustrating ones. From an agent getting my personal information wrong on the airline reservations to one who booked me and my husband in seats many rows apart on the plane so I wouldn’t have to sit in a middle seat (without asking if maybe I preferred to sit in a middle seat to be next to him), it seemed they never, ever got it right.
However, the most annoying part wasn’t the wrong guesses and the sloppy typing. It was that when you book through a TA, you give up the ability to fix the problems the TA created. If you call the travel provider to try to straighten out the mistakes, they tell you that you have to go through the TA. If the TA is out of touch, or “too busy” to handle it promptly, you may lose out on getting it fixed at all.
In the travel business, timing is everything. The low price or the empty seat that was there this morning may no longer be available this afternoon. A TA who takes days to respond to your problem can cost you money or cause you to spend a flight – or an entire vacation – fuming because his/her screwup would have been easy to rectify if it had been done at the time you discovered it.
So after a few of those snafus, I stayed happily (well, mostly happily) independent for many years. Oh, it was a lot of work checking and comparing and trying to catch openings and sales when they occurred, and I didn’t get the nice incentives that many agents offered their clients, but despite subtle and not-so-subtle pitches from a myriad of friends who had gone into the TA business, I smiled and nodded and told them that I’d recommend them to people who would be more comfortable letting a professional handle their bookings, but I liked to do my own.
And I did like it, for the most part. I got pretty proficient at it. too. I became particularly expert at finding the best deals with the two travel providers I used most: American Airlines and Carnival cruise line. I knew just when to look for flights to be released that I could grab with my reward miles, and when the “sweet spot” (lowest fares) were likely to occur for flights I was paying for, and which cruise ship cabins were best and which to avoid on each ship, and how to swoop in and nab one of the best “special” cabin types that sell out almost instantly, and how to get fare reductions or onboard credit when prices dropped.
Then one day, I decided I wanted to try out a new cruise line. MSC was bringing a new ship to the U.S., and the more I read about the cruise line, the more I liked the sound of it. I was growing a little tired of the same basic layout and itineraries on Carnival, was outgrowing its “fun ship” party hardy mentality, and was very attracted to the more relaxing, more sophisticated, more upscale experience offered by MSC in their “ship within a ship” Yacht Club concept.
I had many really great cruises on Carnival (mostly thanks to the great people on board with me), but in May of last year, my nagging dissatisfaction culminated in a cruise on Carnival Sunshine that was a big disappointment. That was when I made the decision that it was time to try something different.
I decided to step outside my comfort zone and book the new Seaside. But when I started perusing the company’s web site, I found that it wasn’t just the international flavor of the ships that was very different from Carnival. So was the booking process, and the web site was (even according to some of MSC’s biggest fans) the furthest possible thing from user-friendly. I decided this was one instance in which it would make sense to use a professional.
I first contacted one of the TAs I had sailed with several times. Quite a few of my friends had used her services and were happy with her. The problem was that she, too, was used to booking Carnival cruises, and MSC was a whole different animal. After attempting to get information on doing group bookings, she recommended that I go with an agent who was used to working with MSC. I did, booking as part of a group that consisted of a number of other people who usually sailed on Carnival.
Several of the people with whom I frequently cruised (I call them my BCFFs, or Best Cruise Friends Forever) also expressed interest in going on this cruise and in fact a couple of those couples booked it around the same time I did. But most of them ended up deciding to stick with Carnival, and the ones in that circle who had booked later cancelled or moved their bookings to a different sailing for various reasons.
I found myself booked solo on a brand new ship on a brand new cruise line, without the close support group I was used to having around me when I cruised by myself. I even considered cancelling it myself, but something kept me from doing that. I’ve never minded being the guinea pig, trying out the new things first; after all, I’m a long-time software beta tester. But at that point, I was glad that I had booked into a group through an agent.
Although I didn’t know most of the people in the group, at least I was part of “something bigger” and my TA would be on the cruise with me so I had a resource if something went wrong. And over the months leading up to the cruise, as we all discussed the cruise on Facebook, we got to know each other. I made new friends. I no longer felt that I was venturing into this uncharted territory all alone.
In the meantime, I was becoming more and more attracted to the Yacht Club idea. I wanted to learn more about it, so I joined a Facebook group dedicated to MSC Yacht Club cruisers. There I met a subset of MSC cruisers who shared many of my preferences for a pampered, semi-luxury cruising experience. That group, led by yet another TA whom I had met on one of my previous Carnival cruises and who was already a Facebook friend, was a little smaller than the general MSC and Seaside groups I had joined, and was more intimate and congenial. I felt that I really “clicked” with some of them.
In particular, I came to really admire and respect the TA and her husband who were the group admins. She worked hard to make the group useful and keep it friendly, and she knew more about MSC than any TA I’d talked to (including some who had actually sailed on its ships more times than she had). When questions came up, she would research and make calls and dig as deeply as she had to in order to get an authoritative answer. And unlike some TAs, she was happy to help those who, like me, were booked with a different TA. I ended up booking two more cruises on Seaside and one on MSC Meraviglia through her – before I even sailed on my first MSC cruise. That’s how much I trust her and the information that I got from her and others in her groups about the ships.
And that’s where I am now, ready and anxious to board the Seaside in just five more days and excited about the subsequent cruises, where I won’t be solo. My husband was so impressed by the pictures and videos and what he heard about MSC that he’s planning to go with me when I sail again on Seaside and then on Meraviglia in the Baltic – even though he swore after our last Carnival cruise together in 2016 that he would never go on a cruise again.
MSC seems to be a great cruise line for people like us, but much more than some lines, you can really benefit from having a TA handle its bookings for you. I got lucky; both of the TAs that I’m using for my MSC cruises are good ones. And it’s really nice to let someone else spend the time on hold on the phone with the cruise line reps so I don’t have to. Maybe, in my old age, I’m finally learning how to let go and let somebody else help.
Note: I didn’t include the names of any of the TAs with whom I had bad or good experiences because that’s not the point of the article. It’s about how my personal experiences with TAs have shaped my own travel decisions, and why I made a conscious effort to make a change.