- Joanna Kuther works as a travel agent and has been on more than 100 cruises.
- Kuther told Insider that despite staff shortages, it could be the ideal time to book a cruise due to cheaper rates and additional perks.
- This is her story, as told to writer Jenny Powers.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Joanna Kuther, a travel agent who’s been on more than 100 cruises. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I set foot on my first cruise at the age of 18 and loved every minute of it. Since then, I’ve cruised at least 100 times. I’ve 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 sold cruises by phone and mail from inside brick-and-mortar businesses.
With the rise of the internet, more people began gravitating toward booking their own travel online
Before long, the travel agency business model became outdated, forcing the brick-and-mortar locations like mine to shut down.
That’s when I pivoted into operations and human resources — the field I still work in today. For the past 20 years, I’ve been the director of operations at an engineering and architecture firm. Many of my responsibilities are similar to working in travel, as both roles rely on keeping people happy and guiding them in the right direction while ensuring they’re equipped with all the tools they need to be successful.
I love working with people, so I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds working in travel and operations.
These days, people seek out travel agents like me
Everything always comes full circle. There’s so much information online that it can be overwhelming, so people are returning to travel consultants for guidance.
In 2010, while on a cruise, I decided to return to travel consulting on the side. I partnered with a host agent and opened my own home-based business, Port Side Travel, where 80% of my work is selling cruise trips.
In terms of bookings, 2019 should have been my best year yet. I had roughly 200 cabins booked for 2020 sails. Then COVID-19 hit and everything got canceled, temporarily docking the entire cruise industry.
In 2021, I didn’t sell any cruises because I wasn’t certain whether the industry would be able to bounce back
But by September, I hopped aboard Royal Caribbean’s first cruise back, the Oasis of the Seas from New Jersey to the Bahamas, for seven days.
The first notable difference was how quiet the ship was.
While this particular ship normally holds about 4,000 passengers, I was told by an employee that there were only around 900 that time. There were no crowds or lines to contend with. Some veteran cruise-goers might have missed the liveliness of a full ship, but it probably was a nice introduction to new cruisers.
Since then, I’ve sailed on Celebrity, Carnival, and Richard Branson’s new Virgin Voyages cruise line.
I’m much more comfortable getting back to bookings, but it’s not all smooth sailing yet
A major reason behind the lower capacities is that, like many fields, the cruise industry is plagued with staffing shortages. This has resulted in rebooking passengers, temporarily closing restaurants, and sometimes even canceling sailings altogether.
When cruise lines reopened after their pandemic hiatus, their first priority was to work closely with the CDC to follow strict guidelines so they could continue to sail.
I don’t think cruise lines anticipated a crew shortage and how that type of setback would affect business
One of the big contributing factors is the backlog to get visas approved, which at present can take up to six months, according to TravelPulse. Because ships don’t typically sail under US flags, they have different labor laws, which is why so few Americans work on cruise ships.
On top of that, a certain number of rooms are reserved in case passengers or crew members test positive for COVID-19 and need to be quarantined.
A few weeks ago, I was sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas from New York to Bermuda. The Italian restaurant, which typically runs with five chefs, was down to only two. The server count dropped from 10 to six, and they had no bussers at all.
Everything took longer than usual; some orders came out wrong, others cold or not at all, and it was clear the staff was struggling.
The truth is the pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives. You can’t expect to get on a ship and leave it behind.
Carnival Cruise Line recently closed two of its restaurants through June to move staff around, and Norwegian Cruise Line closed sales on their Pride of America cruises through October.
Rebooking and cancellations often trigger an influx of customer calls. Cruise lines have to hire more staff to cover the phones, but it takes a lot of training, so it’s a constant game of catch-up.
There are days you can be on hold for four to six hours before you’re able to speak to a customer representative on the phone. I know this because my colleagues share screenshots of their marathon hold times.
Most cruise lines have instituted call-back and chat features to try and deal with demand.
Despite the challenges, it still could be a good time to sail
You might be able to get a good deal with plenty of perks. A lot of 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 getting shoved in a room with thousands of people, this is your time to take advantage of the smaller capacity and lower fares.
Travel agents have weekly webinars with cruise lines’ management, and we’re privy to a lot more information than the general public. I’d recommend using a cruise specialist who can tell you what to expect so you can make the most of your cruise. Travel agents can advise you on things like finding a port to drive to instead of flying or booking a specialty restaurant since they tend to have better service.
The most important things you can do for your own peace of mind before you book a cruise are to arm yourself with as much information as you can, be patient, and set your expectations accordingly. Doing this can help make or break your trip.