Beyond frustrated or why I hate Costco

Frustration.jpgOn Thursday a very nice young lady called the agency and said she had driven by and seen our sign and could someone help her with some questions she had about taking a cruise. Actually, the cruise wasn’t for her, it was for her 70+ year old Mom and Dad and two of their friends who would be visiting her this summer from Japan. They wanted to take a cruise-tour to Alaska and since she (nor they) had ever cruised, she wanted to come in and discuss it. I told her “we are here to help.

About two hours later she came in and we had a very nice talk. I found out a bunch of stuff about what her parents and their friends were looking for in the way of a cruise. I told her that I thought I had all the info I needed and that I would have some options for her before this weekend was over.

This morning she e-mailed me some additional comments and we went back and forth with questions and answers until she used that horrid word that I have learned to hate…Costco.

I have a huge love-hate relationship with Costco. I have been a member forever. We probably spend thousands of dollars there every year. We get all our gas there, we get most of our grocery staples, most of our meat, all our paper goods and a bunch of other stuff from them. Heck, my son has worked at Costco for almost 20 years. But when someone mentions them when talking about travel, it drives be nuts. Especially someone like this young woman.

Her question was typical, “I see that if I buy the cruise from Costco, they will give me a Costco gift card for $350. Can you match that with a discount?” The answer is no, we can’t. And we shouldn’t. Costco uses travel as a loss leader and another way to serve their membership. It’s the way Costco pretty much does everything. The prices are lower to us because they make much of their money selling memberships and they make a bunch more selling prime space in their stores to companies. You know that big line of products on the left when you go into a Costco? The companies that make those products pay Costco to be there. As well they should. It’s prime real estate and the fact that their product is there and not on a shelf in the back means they will sell a BUNCH of extra product.

But Costco should not be in the travel business. Not because they compete unfairly (which they do) but because the people you are dealing with when you buy travel from them don’t have a clue about what they are selling.

If you think about it, Costco people seldom have a clue about what they are selling  product-wise. My son is in the “Majors” department. That’s the one that sells TVs, computers, etc. He knows that stuff. He ought to after almost 20 years. But if you go into his department when he isn’t there, you might end up talking to a new employee that started last week about exactly which TV or computer you are going to buy. Now this if just fine if you know exactly what computer you want. If you know how much RAM, whether you want a traditional hard drive or an SSD or one of many decisions you need to make to buy a computer. If you are ready to make the purchase and have done all your research and you feel like you are an expert—buy it. But if you have no clue about computers, and if you are a smart buyer, you either wait until my son is there (LOL) or you go someplace that knows about computers.

This is even more true when it comes to cruises. If Costco wants to sell car rentals and flights and hotels, that’s fine. Those things really don’t have many variables, while cruises do. If you are going to rent a car, you rent a car. You know what a Ford or a Honda are. If you want to book a hotel and you see a Hyatt on an online website, then you pretty much know what you are getting (although a good travel agent would know about good restaurants and sights near a hotel that was just as nice.)

When you buy a cruise from Costco you are buying it either online or from someone on the phone. If online then you better know exactly what you want stateroom-wise, exactly which ports you want to go to, exactly what perks you are getting, which dining plan you want, etc. Cruises have hundred of variables. But if you don’t, you are in trouble. And this nice young lady who came in to buy her parents a cruise said exactly that, “I don’t know anything about cruises.” If she decides to buy one from Costco online, she will be in trouble.

Let’s say she decides to make a phone call and talk to someone instead of buying her travel online? Will she talk to someone who knows all about cruising? Probably not. In fact my guess is that she will probably talk to someone who has NEVER been on a cruise. Not one. Sure, they may have read some brochures or studied the websites of the cruise lines they sell but have they sailed 20+ times? No. They work in a big phone room (you can’t go to your local Costco and book a cruise—you can only do it online or on the phone), where the next person who calls gets the next employee who is free to answer.

Of course this means when you call back because you need to make a change or something is a problem, forget trying to deal with the first person you talked to (“Can’t I talk to Joe, I really liked him so much when I called last time.”), that person may not even work there any longer. If the turnover at the Costco travel phone room is anything like the turnover at your local Costco, who knows who you will be talking to and what their level of expertise is. And imagine that this nice ladies parents (who, according to what she told me, speak Japanese predominantly) have a problem in boarding or anywhere along their way and they try to call Costco for help. They will get connected to the next person who answers the phone. Then they will get to explain their problem all over again. If they book with us and there is a problem, they will call me. I will know their circumstances and I will deal with the situation. And if I am not here, Mark

I have written before about my friend Seth Wayne. Next to Rick Steves he is probably Seattle’s number one travel expert. When it comes to cruising he even knows more than Rick. Before Kathleen and I got into the travel business he pretty much did not use a travel agent. He and I had discussions about this and his feeling was that he knew more than 95% of the travel agents he had met. As his friend and someone who he discusses travel with a lot, I agree with him. But that isn’t true of all travel agents and he knows that. That’s why when he found a travel agent who knew as much as he did, he started trusting him with his travel instead of booking it all online. (That would be me.)

You see Seth could book online if he wanted to because he is an expert. He knows if he is going to book a cruise, exactly what he will get from a particular cruise line (after 65+ cruises he should) and he knows exactly what to ask for if he buys it online. I have a lot of friends like Seth because we travel and cruise so much. They know what they want, they could book their travel themselves. But they don’t anymore—I do. Because they know that besides knowing as much as they know about travel, I have the time to look at all kinds of options and catch things they might miss. Not because they don’t know those things but because they are so busy they would have missed them. Sometimes they catch things I miss and they call me and I get them what they caught.

This nice young lady who called me actually told me, “I don’t know anything about cruising.” Should she book online or with Costco? You tell me. Will her parents have a great cruise if she books online or with Costco? Maybe. Will it be as good a cruise as it would have been if I booked with my expertise and the combined expertise of my fellow agents in our office? Probably not. If they have a problem, will they have someone they have met face-to-face to stand up for them, to fix things, to make things right—NO!

When I started this rant, I thought this will help with my frustration but it hasn’t. I have e-mailed the young lady and told her we needed to talk before I did any options for her parents. I had to do this because after being burned recently by a prospective client who had me do hours of research to find just the right cruise for her husband and his father, they went off and bought it at Costco. That is crushing. And I have resolved to never do that again. So as soon as someone mentions the C word, I stop working altogether until I can have a discussion with them. That’s where I am now. I have tried to reach her to no avail and have left her messages and e-mails but have not heard back.

Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing. —Ann Landers

You aren’t bothering me…really

IMG_4119Over the last few days I have been working with two different clients on two different trips. One has me looking for a Caribbean cruise, first for next Christmas and then when that proved way too expensive and hard to find, one in February of 2020. The other was looking for a short cruise to Cuba.

I did most of the planning by going back and forth with e-mails. They would ask questions, inquire about alternate cruises, ask about travel insurance, different types of staterooms and other types of questions. I would send replies with new options for them. In all, I would guess that I exchanged at least 10 long e-mails with each of these wonderful folks.

But the one thing that both of them had in common was that they started every e-mail by apologizing for asking for so many options, for so many changes. On almost every e-mail reply the first line was, “Sorry to be bothering you with this,” or “I hate to ask you about a different option.” I just want to make one thing clear…you aren’t bothering me.

I have had this happen before with close friends. One of my best traveling buddies asks me about airfare and always starts by saying, “only when you have time.” Another very close friend spends a lot of his time looking at travel arrangements to have me book them. When I ask why he did all the research he said, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

If I was bothered by people asking me to find out about different types of travel, I wouldn’t be doing this as my “funtirement” job if I didn’t love looking for travel. I am at a point in my life where I don’t really have to do this job. And I really do love it…most of the time.

Sometimes because I look so hard for different options, I find something truly important. As an example, in looking for the Cuba cruise for these clients I discovered that if they went to Cuba after March 18, the overnight cruises were much shorter than after. The March 18 cruise (and those before that one) have an overnight in Havana. They arrive at 8:00 am on day 1 and then don’t leave until 3:00 pm on day 2. After the March 18 cruise, they arrive at the same time but leave Havana at 6:00 am on day 2 so even though they get a full day and an evening on the island, they don’t get a second day.

We also looked at another cruise that did an entire day in Havana and then sailed away at 5:00 pm and then did an entire day on the south side of the island in Cienfuegos from 8:00 to 5:00. But I also read a lot of reviews by other travelers that had been there that one of the things they loved the most was the evening time in Havana and this cruise didn’t give them that. And I found other options. They ended up getting the exact cruise they wanted along with all the visas and travel insurance they need.

I loved finding that kind of stuff. Digging to find the best thing for the clients. See the smile on my face. You aren’t bothering me…really

I like bothering people and stirring things up. –Tim Daly

Why we cruise?

img_0834Why do you cruise? This is something that always comes up. When we are with friends who do not cruise (like our next door neighbor who we love anyway) and we tell them that we cruise, we get a look. A look that is almost like we have told them we are swingers. Well, not that bad but close. And I know that I have a lot of non-cruiser friends out in the Twitterverse and in Facebookland so I want to address that today by telling you why we cruise. (WARNING: I may get verbose here.)

We haven’t always cruised. When we got together back in 1997 we did road trips (Yellowstone, Oregon Coast, etc.) and then we did our first big overseas trip to Italy in 2002 followed by the British Isles and Paris the next year…all on land and air. In the meantime, we tried cruising by going to Alaska on Holland America and a HORRIBLE Carnival cruise to Mexico. But what really got us into cruising was that while we were planning our European trips the value of the dollar changed dramatically. A hotel we had booked in Venice for $175 a night became $225 a night between the time we booked it and nine months later when we stayed there. The price of the room in euros hadn’t changed but the exchange rate between euros and dollars certainly had.

So we said, let’s try cruising again. Once you pay the price, you know the price and it stays that way. Our travel agent at the time, the amazing Norma Jean had told us we would HATE Carnival and not to go. She was right. It didn’t fit us. It was great for some but not for us. This time (three years later) she suggested Celebrity. So we booked the Panama Canal in 2004 and sailed. And we LOVED it! We met new friends—some we are still friends with today and had both an amazing time visiting four countries and seeing the canal as well as sea days with more stress-relieving relaxation than I ever knew I needed.

So that’s how we got started. Here’s why we still cruise and have done more than 25 since then and have four others already booked.

You only have to unpack once

This is the first reason that most people who cruise think of when they are asked why they cruise. When we did Italy we each carried 22 inch suitcases and we stayed in five different hotels. We lived out of those suitcases, then we packed them up and moved them on to the next place by air or by train. To be honest, it’s a pain. We did the same thing this last fall in our pre-cruise trip through Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. Five different cities, packing and unpacking. Then we got on the ship, unpacked into the closet and dresser and we were good to go! HEAVEN!

Your hotel moves every night

If you choose your cruise line well, then every night after you tour a city or an island you come back to a hotel that you love. You have dinner at that hotel, you sleep in the bed you slept in the night before and while you are asleep, the hotel moves to another city or island or town that you can explore the next day. And then you do it all over again. And if you get too tired touring the places on shore, you can stay on board, or there might be a sea day so you can relax. You can go to the spa, take a cooking class or just read a book knowing that the next time you wake up, you will be someplace new.

Cost is set

As I mentioned above, once you buy a cruise, you know what your vacation will cost. A bunch of cruisers just thought, “Not my cruise, I added a bunch of stuff.” And that is true. The cost of a cruise can go up after you sail…if you buy services or things that cost extra while you are onboard. But it is YOUR choice. You don’t have to have that manicure in the spa. You don’t have to go to the speciality restaurant, you don’t have spend an additional cent. A good travel agent should be able to tell you to within a $10 how much you will spend to take a cruise including the price, the gratuities, any tours you want to take or anything else you would like to do. If you go over that, it’s your choice.

Everything is included

So on those land-based vacations we took, we could budget for a certain amount for food. But then we would get to the restaurant and see something on the menu that was more than we had budgeted and since we would probably never get back to this place again, we spent the extra to get it. On a ship, everything you need to survive is included. And on some ships, everything you want to survive is included (think alcohol here).

Planning is easier

This is my favorite. As a travel professional I have done complete land-based trips for clients that you could not fit a single day of the plan on a sheet of paper. There were so many variables. Train tickets, hotel reservations, restaurant reservations, tours, shopping time, etc. When I plan a cruise, I book the cruise, check the ports, book a tour in each one and I am all set. I know where I am going and how I am going to get there. Yes, I could do all that and keep track of it all while I was traveling on land but it’s just too much hassle. I will take a cruise any day.

Easier to disconnect if you want to but also easier to connect if you have to

You have such a better choice with cruising when you want to be able to disconnect from work, your home or the world in general. If you don’t want to hear from anyone, you turn your phone to airplane (cruise ship?) mode and you are all set. The same can be said if you need to stay connected. It’s easier to stay in touch on a ship. There’s WiFi where you need it, you don’t have to search a city for a Starbucks.

It’s a super value

Cruising can be an awesome value. I just had a client come in looking for a longer (more than 20 night) cruise with a base fare of $100 per person, per night. I wasn’t sure I could get him anything that low but lo and behold, I found him a 35 night South American adventure up the Amazon for $97 per night per person. Try going from Buenos Aires to Fort Lauderdale with 25 stops in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Aruba and five other stops in the Caribbean by air, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants for that price. Good luck!

Cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes

So you might want to cruise but you don’t think you want to be on Behemoth of the Seas. We get that. There are cruises on ships that have under 100 passengers and cruises on ships with more than 5,000. There are cruises where the ship itself is the destination. There are cruises where the destination is everything. There are cruises where you could be busy every second and ones where you can do nothing but relax for 22 hours a day (you have to eat sometime).

Friends

I saved this one for last because while it is not the reason we started cruising, it is the reason we still cruise. We have made about 90% of the close friends we have in our lives while on or planning a cruise. My two best friends in the world are both Bobs and I met them both on cruises. We have sailed with both Bobs numerous times and we have cruises planned with them in the future. Because of cruising we have friends in England (hi Paul and Gail), Italy (hi Marcello), New Zealand (hi Charlotte, Warwick and Daniel) and Toronto (hi Tim and Perry) and lots of other places. We have been to see some of these folks, we have toured with others, we share memories on Facebook with others.

Both Kathleen and I worked in jobs where there weren’t a lot of people nearby (in my case, my nearest coworker lives more than 65 miles away) or in our age range (most of Kathleen’s coworkers were 20-30 years younger than her) so we have made almost all our friend cruising.

Plus, cruising is a great way to get together with friends without anyone having to host or cook or clean. Many times we have considered renting a cabin or a condo with a bunch of people but then who has to do that stuff. Sure you can share expenses but what about dietary wants and needs. Or handicapped access for someone in your group. If you all go on a cruise together, everything is taken care of for you. It’s been a while (other than a working cruise to Alaska last year) when we have not sailed with at least 10 people that we have sailed with previously. We are part of two groups of cruisers (The Martini Mates and The Silhouetters) who cruise with each other all the time. It’s awesome. We stay in touch on a daily basis on Cruise Critic (more about that in another post), Twitter, Facebook, texting and e-mail. That’s how we plan all those cruises.

So that’s why we cruise. We don’t believe it’s for everyone, but we do think everyone should try it. When we did that Panama Canal cruise in 2004, Kathleen was worried that this Type-A personality guy would go nuts on the six sea days (frankly, so was I) but I now LOVE sea days. And when people ask me my favorite cruise destination, I always have the same answer (always will)—the ship.

Traveling Friends

Just a quick post on New Year’s Eve (or New Year’s Day depending on where you are). Which brings me to the subject of this post. Kathleen pointed out on Twitter this morning that we must be travelers because so many of our friends that are travelers. As I write this we have a bunch of our closest friends (who we met while traveling) who are celebrating the New Year in Ushuaia, Argentina (Hi Tim and Perry), Sydney, Australia (Hi Seth and Jason) and Agra, India (Hi Bob and Holly). We are here at home…having dinner with our next door neighbors who are also world travelers and will be off to Italy for the umpteenth time in just a few months.

If you travel, I guess your friends are travelers too. I like that. Our best wishes for a wonderful 2019 to all our traveling friends even if you are home and safe tonight. And for those of you who don’t travel—you should!

“To Travel is to Live” – Hans Christian Andersen