I am a travel agent. Staff shortages are hurting cruises – but here’s why now might be the perfect time to sail.

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  • Joanna Kuther works as travel agent and has been on over 100 Cruises.
  • Kuther told Insider that despite the lack of staff, now might be a great time to book a cruise due to cheaper fares and added perks.

This narrated essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Joanna Kuther, a travel agent who has been on over 100 cruises. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I set foot on my first cruise when I was 18 and loved every minute of it. Since then I have sailed at least 100 times. I have traveled everywhere from Florida and the Caribbean to Italy, Greece, Malta and the Greek Islands.

My love for cruising led me to work as a cruise consultant from 1989 to 1992. At the time, we were selling cruises by phone and mail from physical businesses.

With the rise of the internet, more and more people have started to book their own travel online

In a short time, the travel agency business model became obsolete, forcing physical sites like mine to close.

It was then that I turned to operations and human resources, the field in which I still work today. For 20 years, I have been director of operations in an engineering and architecture firm. Many of my responsibilities are similar to working in travel, as both roles involve keeping people happy and guiding them in the right direction while making sure they are equipped with all the tools they need to to succeed.

I love working with people, so I feel like I have the best of both worlds working in travel and operations.

These days people are looking for travel agents like me

Everything is still closed. There is so much information online it can be overwhelming, so people return to travel advisors for advice.

In 2010, while on a cruise, I decided to take up travel consulting on the side. I partnered with a home agent and opened my own home business, Port side trip, where 80% of my job is selling cruises.

In terms of bookings, 2019 should have been my best year yet. I had about 200 cabins booked for 2020 sail. Then COVID-19 hit and everything was canceled, temporarily bringing the entire cruise industry to a standstill.

In 2021 I didn’t sell any cruises because I wasn’t sure the industry could bounce back

But in September, I hopped on Royal Caribbean’s first return cruise, the Oasis of the Seas from New Jersey to the Bahamas, for seven days.

The first noticeable difference was the quietness of the ship.

While this particular ship normally holds around 4,000 passengers, an employee told me there were only around 900 at that time. There were no crowds or queues. Some seasoned cruisers may have missed the liveliness of a full ship, but this was probably a nice introduction to newer cruisers.

Since then I have sailed on Celebrity, Carnival and Richard Branson’s new Virgin Voyages cruise line.

I’m much more comfortable resuming bookings, but not everything is smooth yet

One of the main reasons for the decline in capacity is that, like many areas, the cruise industry is plagued by staff shortage. This has led to new passenger reservations, the temporary closure of restaurants and sometimes even the total cancellation of departures.

When cruise lines reopened after their pandemic pause, their first priority was to work closely with the CDC to follow strict guidelines so they could keep sailing.

I don’t think cruise lines anticipated a crew shortage and how this type of setback would affect business

One of the main contributing factors is the backlog in getting visas approved, which can currently take up to six months, according to TravelPulse. Because the ships don’t usually sail under the American flag, they have different labor laws, which is why so few Americans work on cruise ships.

Additionally, a number of rooms are reserved in case passengers or crew members test positive for COVID-19 and need to quarantine.

A few weeks ago, I was sailing Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas from New York to Bermuda. The Italian restaurant, which usually operates with five chefs, was down to two. The number of servers went from 10 to six and they had no buses.

Everything took longer than usual; some orders came out wrong, others cold or not at all, and it was clear the staff were struggling.

The truth is that the pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives. You cannot expect to get on a boat and leave it behind.

Carnival Cruise Line recently closed two of its restaurants through June to relocate staff, and Norwegian Cruise Line shut down sales of its Pride of America cruises through October.

Reservation changes and cancellations often trigger an influx of customer calls. Cruise lines need to hire more staff to cover the phones, but that takes a lot of training, so it’s a constant game of catching up.

There are days when you may be put on hold for four to six hours before you can speak to a customer representative on the phone. I know this because my co-workers share screenshots of their marathon times.

Most cruise lines have callback and chat features in place to try and keep up with demand.

Despite the challenges, it could still be a good time to sail

You may be able to get a good deal with many benefits. Many cruises are all-inclusive at this point. You can pay one price and get all your drinks and wifi included. If you don’t like crowds or don’t like being pushed into a room with thousands of people, now is the time to take advantage of the reduced capacity and lower rates.

Travel agents hold weekly webinars with cruise line management, and we are privy to a lot more information than the general public. I recommend hiring a cruise specialist who can tell you what to expect so you can get the most out of your cruise. Travel agencies can advise you on things like finding a port to drive to instead of flying or booking a specialty restaurant as they tend to have better service.

The most important things you can do for your peace of mind before booking a cruise are to arm yourself with as much information as possible, be patient, and set your expectations accordingly. It can help make or break your trip.

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