As the chill of winter sets in on Long Island, the allure of hopping other islands beckons.
Though it might be easy to sit at your computer and book a Bahama or Caribbean trip online, there are several North Fork travel agents whose personal touch can make the difference between a ho-hum vacation and one that’s perfectly tailored to a traveler’s desires.
The best ways to hop islands, they say, is aboard a cruise ship, because it makes the journey so easy.
Kathy Richards has been a travel agent in Greenport for 25 years. She started with Greenport Travel on Front Street in 1985, and has stayed with the agency through several ownerships. Greenport Travel is now one of three branches of Cook Travel, which also has offices in Southampton and East Hampton.
A lifelong traveler, Ms. Richards had always been the go-to person when friends and colleagues wanted to plan a vacation, even before she became an agent.
“The person that owned Greenport Travel knew me and said, ‘Kathy, you travel a lot, you should be a travel agent,’ ” Ms. Richards said. “I didn’t even know what a travel agent was.”
But she knew right away that she would be good at the job.
“When I was 4 years old, my godparents talked my mother and father into going to a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. This opened up such a world for me,” she recalled. “There was an island in the lake and we would rent rowboats. All we had was cabins, but I thought it was the best thing ever. The next year, we went to Niagara Falls and I thought it was the best thing ever.”
Today, Ms. Richards is convinced that cruises are the best vacation concept ever, though her agency books all types of travel arrangements.
“It’s the best value for your money,” she said of a cruise. “You unpack once, it’s all inclusive, you can eat 24 hours non-stop and have all your entertainment. You can do nothing or be busy the whole time.”
From river tours of Europe to cruising the shores of Alaska to Caribbean winter getaways, there are all kinds of cruises and many travel agents on the East End, including Ms. Richards, know the ins and outs of all the options.
Gotta Go Cruises in Riverhead is owned by three East Enders: Cindy Clifford, Flo Kiss and Lain Johanson, all of whom are passionate about cruising.
“It appears to be so easy if you go on a website and look up a price” for a cruise, said Ms. Clifford. “But by the time you get all the way through the booking, the really attractive price leaves out the fundamentals: port charges, taxes. People will come to us and never go on the Internet again because it wasn’t what it appeared to be.
“We’ve been to a million destinations, been on a million cruise ships, we can say, ‘This will be a great ship for you.’ We’re like cruise line matchmakers,” she added.
For instance, Ms. Clifford said, on Carnival, “you’re looking for a fabulously fun time, a combination of Disney and Las Vegas,” while Celebrity cruises “are very contemporary, very forward-thinking. The food is spectacular and the service is spectacular.”
Royal Caribbean has created its own sub-industry, she said, with ships so large and advanced they’re like floating cities that accommodate more than 5,000 customers at a time.
Ms. Clifford added that, because of the increased capacity on many cruise lines now, cruise prices have actually fallen to the levels of 10 years ago.
“When we started 16 years ago, there were 25 ships in the industry. Now each of the cruise lines has 25 ships,” she said.
Both Ms. Richards and Ms. Clifford are also big fans of river cruises, which have become incredibly popular in Europe, Russia and China.
“These river cruises are just absolutely booming,” said Ms. Richards. “They’re more expensive, but they include excursions, meals and wine. People think that’s great. You get to see a lot in a week.”
Ms. Richards is sending a group up the Rhine from Amsterdam to Switzerland while the tulips are in bloom next spring. That’s Ms. Clifford’s idea of a dream vacation.
“River cruises are extraordinary and they’re much more culturally intensive,” she said. “You step off right into villages and they’re taking you to museums, and you pass monasteries and castles along the shore.”
“I really want to do the tulip cruise, but personally, it’s a difficult time to travel,” Ms. Clifford added. “I would like to go everywhere that I ever sent anyone.”