MIAMI -- What exactly is a level playing field?

For Carnival Cruise Lines, the level playing field means the same price for all retailers most of the time, with exceptions for limited-time, "value-add" promotions to agents in return for advertising and exposure.

This definition differs from that of Monique Freeman, an independent agent who owns A Time to Travel in Middletown, N.Y., who thought it meant the same price for all retailers all of the time -- until Carnival mistook her for somebody else and quoted her a lower rate.

Freeman said she was mistakenly quoted a AAA rate on a June cruise to nowhere from New York that was $20 cheaper than the regular rate.

"Carnival is a good product," she said. "But I've seen the ad [that says] it's not treating me any different than these bigwigs. But it is."

Vicki Freed, Carnival's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said these types of price promotions are limited, both in length and in the number of times an agency can qualify -- and they are open to all agencies, regardless of size.

"[Freeman] can come to us and say, 'I can have a cruise night,' and for one week ... they can get a two-category upgrade. Or they get $20 off. We put a value on the promotion. It's an equal opportunity playground," Freed said.

As for whether Carnival is still giving breaks to larger agencies, one big-volume player, Jeff Kivet, owner of Cruise Value Centers in East Brunswick, N.J., said it is not.

"It does have upgrades or one-week sales, but not on a steady diet," he said.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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