"If you build it, they will come."
That advice, which prompted an Iowa farmer in the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams" to plow over his corn field and build a baseball diamond, has become the mantra of many high-tech startups promoting electronic commerce on the Internet. And the cruise travel industry has also embraced this "shop by computer" concept.
Indeed the Internet can be a wonderful source of information to help you plan an exciting holiday, obtaining ship and stateroom descriptions, itineraries, tips on sites to see, passport and visa requirements, shore excursion, shopping, weather and local interest information,but is it the right place to book your dream vacation?
Cruise lines are investing over US$15 billion to build at least 50 new ships in the first half of this decade in addition to the over 300 vessels already in service. Each of these ships offer different amenities with unique ambiance and often this kind of information can only be understood and communicated by face to face discussions with a cruise expert to avoid turning a terrific vacation into a mediocre experience.
There is a common misconception that because something is offered for sale on the Internet, it will be an exceptional or a major saving for the consumer. More often than not however it is the ease of completing a transaction that is the major benefit for certain types of travel.
Do not assume that pricing on the Internet will automatically be the lowest. Often local agencies will have agreements with the cruiselines that allow them to offer exceptional "not to be advertised" specials.
Sometimes there are "residents specials" which are applicable only to residents of a particular country, state or province. Most cruise lines offer price protection to the consumer should the fare for your category of stateroom be reduced. A good agent will watch for reductions and ensure you receive the adjustment. Using an electronic service may not provide the same protection or make available specific specials applicable to your requirements.
Arrangements unique to your vacation such as special dietary requirements, handling disabilities, and providing meet and greet services, may be overlooked booking on-line and there may be no way to get answers your very specific questions.
On the other hand booking your frequent flyer points travel directly with the airlines or even obtaining a air ticket can be a simple process with little risk if you are dealing directly with the airline's booking engine. Above all make sure about who you are giving your credit card to.
Where are they located, and how long have they been in business? Can you get references? Are the web transactions secure? Is the currency my currency? How will my documents get to me and are there additional charges that have not been itemized? What happens if I do not receive the tickets?
Now for the good news! As a research tool, the Internet is second to none. Most cruiselines have sites that provide detailed information on their offerings. Carnival Cruise Lines at www.carnival.com offers comprehensive information on their ships, itineraries and even the shore excursions available for each sailing.
Similar sites are available from Princess Cruises at www.princess.com or Royal Caribbean International at www.rccl.com where you can print a custom information brochure in full color if you wish!
The official trade organization of the cruise industry is the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org). They work in partnership with nearly 21,000 affiliated travel agencies throughout North America to ensure the highest caliber of cruise sales expertise and service for cruise vacationers.
This is a fun place for exploring what cruising is all about and CLIA provides links to all major cruiselines, frequently asked questions, vacation planning information and even a cruise expert locator to find an Accredited Cruise Counsellor near you.
If you would like to create a printed mini-guide to your vacation destination, you may wish to visit www.fodors.com. The creators of the famous travel books allow you to create your own mini-guides to a destination covering transport, lodging, dining, currency, health, and more in a personalized format.
The Columbus World Travel Guide (www.wtgonline.com) is a resource often used by travel agents for complete information on almost any destination in the world. This site will give you history, maps, visa and passport requirements, how to get there, public holidays, political structure, useful addresses, accommodation, business profiles, climate, social profiles and much more.
There are also links to other very useful areas on the Internet such as Mapquest, Yahoo Weather, Traveller's Health Services, World Tourism Offices, the Government Travel Advisory and Information services as well as links to ship bridge cameras offering live pictures from their vessels.
Having both a computer and travel background, I am excited by the potential of the Internet as a comprehensive research tool. My practical side reminds me that there is no such thing as a "free lunch". It is not how much you save but what you get for what you pay!
Sid Kaplan has extensive experience in the travel business. He owned and operated a large retail cruise only agency in Canada and his wife has 25 years experience working for major cruise lines. Their website is http://www.cruisevacationsguide.com which offers advice and tips to those look to create memorable cruise vacations.