Paradise Cruiser, also keep in mind that price isn't everything. Our TA has gone to bat a number of times for us and our cruising companions. So, service is another factor we consider important, and it does not come at any extra cost. Industry knowledge is also important to us, even as seasoned cruisers, which is why I always recommend a TA that has CLIA certification.
Rich C -
I totally agree it is very tasteless for people to discuss what they paid for their cruise at the dinner table. Or at any time for that matter. I would most likely not believe what someone told me they paid anyway. People have a tendency to embellish things, saying they paid a certain rate, leaving off of course the port fees, government taxes , and fuel surcharge. It's futile to compare prices when there are so many variables involved in the cruise buying process. For instance, to compare two people's cruise rates who bought their cruises nine months apart, is comparing apples and oranges.
It is the height of tackiness to ask what someone paid for their cruise, their air, whatever. As CF notes, you can't believe them anyway since the whole reason for asking you is so they can play "Topper" (reference the character in Dilbert).
Actually I've never been asked what I paid for a cruise. But if I ever am, I plan to say something like "who cares, it is only money and I've got plenty".
Dave is right that individual travel agencies also have the ability to have group rates on many different sailings, either because they booked groups themselves or because they have access to hundreds of group sailings through a consortium or marketing association to which they belong. These group rates also include whatever perks the larger agencies get.
I've been on a lot of cruises, and have never once heard anyone discuss how much they paid for their cruise. I've never heard anyone discuss with their airplane seat mate how much they paid for that airline ticket, or discuss the hotel rate with their next door neighbor.
In the last several years, cruise lines have worked very hard to make available the same pricing structure to all agencies, large or small. Lisa is right that the important thing is working with a compatible, knowledgeable travel professional who knows his or her stuff. Some can offer price breaks and value added amenities that the cruise lines themselves don't offer.
All this info sound OK, so on my next purchase I'll ask them point blank if there are an specials or group rates available at the moment. I give the same local TA lots of business so they shouldn't mind a little legwork.
Rich, great plan! Loyalty to your agent is something I commend you for. It's sorely lacking today in so many areas of life. Great service is hard to come by in many industries, have you had to call the so called "Service" centers for your computer, dish or cable service lately? I had a virus on my work computer recently and had to call HP. What a joke! They seem to be hiring people and requiring that as a condition of employment they not be allowed to think or solve problems. They read from a script and then transfer you endlessly if you ask something not on the script. You can never seem to get to an actual human who is allowed to use their brain, common sense or any problem solving skills. When I called one of the dish services I was speaking to someone in Bopal. I hung up and stuck with cable although thier service is apaulling as well (The reason I was calling the dish folks). Thank goodness the travel industry has still got a wealth of good agents and options. I actually don't know of many bad options when it comes to booking a cruise. Even the agents at the cruiselines seem to be steadily improving. I seldom get someone anymore who is incompetent, something I couldn't say not too long ago.
In answer to the original poster, we have used VTG several times and always check their website first. We also used cruise compete which led us to Best Price Cruises who we used once so far. Our exeprience has been positive, but we have not yet encountered a problem that needed to be solved so I can't comment on how issues are dealt with. We have also dealt directly with the cruise line but find their prices more expensive.
Our basic problem is that we have only one local TA and she has made some errors, like booking airfare home the day before the cruise ended.