Cruise Scam Watch: The $99 cruise

cruise scamIs it real or is it a fake? That’s the big question that comes up when we hear of a $99 cruise. Short answer: If it comes directly from a cruise line, yes, it probably is true. You’ll pay port charges, taxes and government fees on top of that but those prices do exist. If it comes from anyone else, beware; this might be a scam.

We’ll get to the real scammers in a minute. First though, let’s look at a real-life example of cruise pricing that may appear to be misleading but really is not. It’s important to know the difference between the two.

Real cheap fares are often last-minute deals and you’ll have to sail in the next 30 to 90 days to get them. Cruise lines do that to fill up ships rather than sail with empty cabins. Other cheap fares like Carnival Cruise Line’s Early Saver Fare, are for sailings far in advance. These have restrictions, much like a discounted airline ticket.

That Early Saver fare is one of the best values around, no scamming involved but can be hard to tie down on our own. For example, right now the line is advertising fares starting at $169 for a 3-day cruise. That’s a great value.

Let’s play along and see what happens when we try to find that $169 price advertised on Carnival’s web site today as that sure catches ones eye.

Going to Carnival.com we look for special pricing and see that $169 price. We click for “details” and find that $169 price is no place to be found and the low price that jumps off the page is now $209. “That’s OK” we say, let’s play along. So we click on View Sailings by that $209 price and get 74 pages of cruises to look through. Our confidence is restored a bit as we see prices less than that $209 and finally find the $169 price.

Cruise lines commonly offer a price that is restricted to one or two sailings out of the hundreds of choices we might find.

There’s really nothing wrong here and Carnival is not trying to take advantage of us, it’s just clever marketing but totally legitimate. They actually did have that $169 fare. Clicking around you’ll run into the same situation on pretty much any major cruise line website.

It’s a rather complicated process that we get used to really fast which opens the door for the crooks to come in.

This would be a good reason to use a travel agent who can help navigate through the maze of choices. Still, Carnival is an honest company, selling an actual product. Not all travel sellers are.

cruise scamYou’re a winner!
The booking scams often come in the form of sweepstakes winners. You’re at a public event that features booths of information and are encouraged to sign up for a chance to win a free cruise. All you have to do is pay a $99 processing fee. You and a friend can go on a fabulous cruise vacation for just that small fee.

There are a lot of different versions of the “Win a Free Cruise” scam and probably always will be as long as cruises are popular. At the very least these are ways companies collect your personal information which you really don’t need everyone having. On the darker side, there is no free cruise for anyone and/or that small processing fee you was the gateway used by crooks to steal your identity. Just say no on this one.

Still, cruise lines do give charitable organizations free cruises to raffle off for fund-raising so if the source of the free cruise is your church, it’s probably safe.

The travel agency went broke
By now you’re probably getting the idea that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t” which surely applies to some travel sellers. A good case in point is Cruise Value Center, a one-time major player in the online booking world that went broke. In this case, it was believed and entirely possible that passengers who had booked cruises and made final payments might not have actually been confirmed on those sailings and the money they paid not passed along to the cruise lines. Yikes! Unsuspecting and trusting consumers out for that rock-bottom low price at all costs could and did get easily caught up in the whole mess.

The cruise line went broke
Just last September Cruise West, a small line from Seattle best known for Alaska voyages suspended bookings after a long series of financial problems. consumers here were left without much recourse either.

Pyramid Schemes
This scam often involves an “amazing business opportunity” for you that can result in discounted or free travel with very little work on your part. Those targeted here are usually people who have been on a cruise or two already and really liked it.

The idea that fuels this scam is that “everybody knows somebody” who might like to go on a cruise. Who better to buy a cruise from than a trusted friend? Along comes XYZ Travel Company who will teach you all about it for $499. For that fee, they promise to provide good training and set you up with the latest tools for booking cruises. All you really have to do is get your friends to buy from you. In return, you get discounted or free travel.

The problem here, and one that has caused cruise lines to stop accepting bookings from companies like this in the past, is that the “training” is inadequate and your title of “travel agent” is meaningless. Legitimate travel agents go through extensive training and will have verifiable letters after their name like CTC, ACC, MCC, or ECC from real accredited organizations.

How to avoid getting caught up in these cruise scams:

  • Never pay with cash or a check, always pay with a credit or debit card. You are afforded some protection there if things go badly.
  • Buy travel insurance from a third party, not the travel agency or cruise line.
  • Use a trusted travel agent. Don’t have one? Ask a trusted friend, relative or co-worker who does or see our tips on finding one.
  • Always insist that payments be made directly to the cruise line. There is no reason for a travel agency to hold your money. You should see the name of your cruise line, not the travel agency, on your card statement.
  • If you want to be a travel agent selling cruises, start with a professional organization like Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) or the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) who can provide guidance.

Flickr photos by liss_mcbovxla and the Italian voice