Our other articles in the section "First Time Charterers" have convinced you and you have decided to go on your first charter cruise. Now you are scanning all the offerings from all those charter companies and charter brokers in your favorite sailing magazine, and you are getting dizzy. There are so many of them, with so many different offers — how are you going to find out what is best suited for you? Well, let's try to sort out all this information.
There are 2 types of Charter Companies:
First tier (or first level) companies operate boats that are new to 4/5 year-old. Those companies offer, on the most recent part of their fleet, boats equipped with the latest hardware and gadgetry (A/C, generator, electric heads, Auto Pilot, GPS / Chart plotter, MP3 player, wifi, cellular phone, etc.). Obviously this goes with the highest prices, but if you are assigned a boat age 0-2, you are almost guaranteed to sail with a boat in as-new condition or close to it. Some companies let you specifically request a newer boat, at a slight premium.
Second tier companies operate older boats, which usually have come out of first tier companies' fleets. The fleets' age vary greatly, and some companies operate boats up to 15 years old. It does not necessarily mean that those boats are in bad condition; they're just older, with less modern equipment. Prices are in accordance, of course, and if you are very budget-conscious, this is for you.
Among those 2 categories, as in any industry, you'll find small and large companies. One is no better than the other. A small operation does not mean poor service. In fact, some small companies want to remain small in order to focus on giving the best customer service. In the end, as in any other business, what really counts is management's and employees' dedication to customer's satisfaction. Use Internet forums newsgroups and boating magazines (Cruising World, or Sail for example) to find out charter companies score cards and charterers' impressions.
Make no mistake: there are some horror charter stories. Although rare, most bad charters are caused by things like non-working refrigeration, faulty windlass, bad smells in the boat, etc. Large companies have more standardized fleets and maintenance programs, and they can replace a malfunctioning boat very quickly. Moreover, in case you get stranded during your cruise, they will send you a chase/service boat to help you. Check if this a service offered by the company. Dream Yacht Charter and the Moorings Company have a "4-hour Service Guarantee", and if they can't fix the problem in 4 hours, they will give you an extra charter day.
Thus, because your choice for your first cruise is crucial, and until you get more experienced in chartering, we recommend you select a large fleet for your first experience. You are less likely to encounter bad surprises.
TIP: Some astute and well-informed charterers know they can buy "Owner's time" at a significant discount, directly from boat owners whose boats are managed by some charter companies. Without getting into the details of the boats' Management Contract, just know that you can do this too. It is very simple to do and presents exactly the same guaranties as if you were booking a cruise directly with a charter company.Â
The first thing to understand is that whether you use a broker or not, your cost will be the same: the Charter Company, not you, pays the broker's commission so it won't make any difference to you.
If you intend to charter a bareboat OR a crewed boat with one of the big three above, you probably won't need a broker because you are at no risk of having a bad surprise in terms of quality and service.
If you feel more comfortable with a medium-size charter company, and especially if you plan to use a Second tier company, then you're probably better off with a broker, at least the first time. In effect, some of these companies are highly reputable, and precisely because they are smaller, they have somewhat a closer attention to details and to customers. We particularly like TMM (Tortola Marine Management), Horizon Yacht Charters, and BVI Yacht Charters, all in the Virgin Islands, and CYOA in the US Virgin Islands. Some other small companies can be less well managed or be financially struggling, etc. A knowledgeable broker knows all the industry's insights and will steer you in the right direction. A good broker will do everything he can to have you come back satisfied from your vacation.
If you are going for a Crewed Yacht cruise, then definitely you want to hire a broker. As we explained before, knowing the specifics of the crews is essential. That is the broker's primary job. Charter brokers supposedly know each individual boat and crew on their listings. Therefore, reputable charter brokers should make matching your party to a suitable crew an important part of their service.
A frequent example is cruising with kids: Some boats/crews are friendlier to, and better equipped for kids than others. Other examples are: nude charters and gay charters. The broker will know how to book you adequately. He/she will send you an initial selection of recommended yachts, based on the specifics you indicated. This package will contain the broker's independent, detailed description of the boat and crew, as well as each boat's brochure. The broker will then discuss the features that you like in both boats and crews, sending you more selections as necessary, until your final selection.
Where to find them: Again, buy magazines like Cruising World and Sail and they are all advertising there, in the charter ads.