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Europeans save big by booking in U.S.

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Q: I checked the fares for a Caribbean cruise I was interested in on Costa Cruises’ American Web site and found the fares to be much lower than the ones advertised on the U.K. site. Is it legal for U.K. residents to book a cruise through an American travel agent to take advantage of the lower fares?
— Amanda Smythe, London

A: There is no law forbidding the practice of foreign nationals booking their travel through U.S. agents. As you point out, there is often good reason to do so. A quick check of Costa Cruises’ U.S. and U.K. Web sites in February 2008 revealed some significant savings for U.K. travelers. For example, a Category 1 inside stateroom on the March 8 Western Caribbean sailing of the Costa Mediterranea showed a fare of 514 pounds, or approximately $1,010 on the Costa Cruises U.K. site; on the U.S. site, the fare was $569, or about 289 pounds. Moreover, cruise lines sometimes offer special promotions on one Web site that may not be available on their other Web sites. For example, Costa is currently offering a kids-sail-free promotion on its U.S. Web site, along with some stateroom upgrades; neither of these offers appears on the U.K. Web site.

I spoke with a Costa representative and asked if it was OK for a U.K. traveler to book a cruise through a U.S.-based agent — at U.S. fares — and was told it would not be a problem. Indeed, many foreign travelers are looking to cash in on the favorable exchange rate with the weak U.S. dollar.

“When I work with clients from Europe, Australia or elsewhere, they tell me the U.S. prices are far more attractive than any offer they get there,” says Denver-area travel agent Amber Blecker of Blecker is well versed in booking foreign cruise clients. She says the important thing for foreign clients to understand is that when they book through a U.S.-based travel agent, they will need to book airfare and hotel rooms separately from the cruise; in Europe, air, hotel and cruise bookings tend to be bundled. “Most are happy to do so when they realize the savings,” she says.

So, why aren’t more foreign travelers cashing in on U.S. travel deals? Blecker says it’s because they like the convenience of getting a bundled travel product that includes air travel, hotels, cruise and insurance. Foreign bookings also entail some additional credit-card transaction fees; these vary by credit card but can range from 1 to 3 percent in additional charges when the bookings are paid in U.S. dollars.

But the big issue is travel insurance. For the most part, travel insurance policies sold by U.S. travel agents cover only U.S. and Canadian residents. Those wishing to book from abroad will need to seek out an insurance policy in their own country.

There are other considerations. For example, the U.K.’s strongly urges U.K travelers against booking through U.S. agencies, pointing out that under those circumstances the travelers would not be protected by the European Union’s consumer protection mandate (also known as the “European Travel Directive”). According to the association, if the U.S. booking agency went out of business, or if the cruise was canceled, the U.K. consumers might have trouble getting their money back.

Blecker says there is even a bigger issue — the cruise lines. While Costa doesn’t appear to object to foreign bookings from U.S. agencies, some lines like Princess Cruises and P&O Cruises do. Blecker says that under longstanding accords between travel agents and these cruise lines, the agents will book clients only in their home country. Finally, Blecker points out that some lines may not recognize bookings made in the U.S. as qualifying for special programs like frequent–traveler points, member-only savings and stateroom upgrades. The loss of the value of these perks must be balanced against any savings from the foreign booking.

My advice? If you have a question about booking through a foreign agent, call the cruise line and get an authoritative statement of their policy. Foreign travelers who are willing to overcome a few hurdles can truly reap the big rewards of a weak dollar.

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