A Cruise Agent who is certified by CLIA and various cruise lines and has lots of actual cruises under their belt is almost always going to be the best bet for a top cruise experience. The reason for this, they generally know the product far better than someone who just reads a brochure and takes orders. Many of the large on-line agencies are of the order taker style where the agent has never even been on a cruise.
I saw this first hand on a pre-inaugural sailing on Royal Caribbean where in chatting with some of the agents aboard I learned many had never cruised before, and those who have only cruised one or two times before. I was pretty shocked to hear first-hand how little cruise experience many agents have. That is one reason I specialize in cruise sales because that is where I have tons of foot on deck experience.
In order to become CLIA certified an agent must sail on a short cruise and a week-long cruise, and they must be with different cruise lines. That is just to start. Those who want to add a Luxury Certification need additional cruise experience as well. This helps to ensure the agent actually knows the product they are selling. By experiencing various cruises and destinations an agent understands how the process works from checking-in at the terminal thru getting off the ship at the end of the cruise.
Trained and certified agents come in a couple of varieties. First are those who have completed a training course from only one or maybe more cruise lines with no additional training or experience. They are in fact trained and certified by the line, but often have no practical cruise experience which is important to have in addition to the certification. CLIA certified agents are the other kind, where not only do these agents have a certification based on diversified training and usually certifications from more than one cruise line, these agents have to prove that have sailed on cruises and inspected ships. (Ship inspections can be difficult to arrange, especially if you don’t live near an active port, hence many of the CLIA certified agents actually cruise to get all their ship inspections.)
To be fully certified by CLIA, agents must take and pass a number of classes, take at least two cruises at their own expense, and inspect at least five additional ships. Thus a CLIA Cruise Counsellor will have been aboard at least 7 different ships from 2 different cruise lines. Many cruisers never set foot on 7 different ships so that helps show that CLIA wanted to ensure the agents are educated. On the ship inspection days typically a Manager from the ship will spend 2-3 hours touring the group of agents around the ship before they stop for a lunch break in one of the dining venues to taste the food aboard.
I have seen these groups touring the ship to get that elusive ship inspection. It is an educational experience, but personally I prefer see the agents sail on at least seven ships and two lines to get the certification. I’ve been on 13 different ships and two lines in the process of getting certified by CLIA. I have far more than the minimum training requirements and am well on the way to higher training certification levels. Also, I have the highest training certification available from many of the cruise lines with whom I deal.
So, you think you want to book a cruise; who do you call? It is best to find an agent that has a CLIA certification and ideally is also certified by the various cruise lines as an expert on their products. This type of agent is more prepared to help you find a cruise that best fits what you want, not just tell you about the deals their agency wants to push. Thus, with an experienced agent you will likely end up having a more enjoyable cruise vacation. Ultimately it is your vacation and your choice. I however prefer where possible to deal with experts in their fields when spending my hard earned money.