Be sure your cruise travel agent is not a crook

travel agentsIts becoming an all too familiar story: A group of friends or family members buy a group cruise through a friendly local travel agent who handles everything for them. The group makes payments on their cruise to that travel agent, paying in full, right on time. Then the group goes to the ship on embarkation day all excited about the cruise only to find out something is wrong. Some or all of them don’t actually have a booking on that sailing or any other sailing as their travel agent ran off with the money and never paid the cruise line. Lets take a look at how this happens and what we can do to prevent it.

The Freeport News describes a recent scam that happened to the Edden family from the Bahamas:

A family decided to take a vacation together this summer, but some were hugely disappointed.

Thirty-nine persons were set to go on an eight-day Carnival Caribbean cruise to St. Thomas, Tortola, Antigua and Nassau and were all excited.

But, according to family members remaining, the cruise was not for all.

When the group flew to Ft. Lauderdale, where they were to board the ship for their vacation cruise, as the group began the checking-in pro-cess, it was discovered that only 29 of the 39 persons were booked in the system for the cruise. According to reports, that was the amount of people for which the cruiseline allegedly received payment.”

The story goes downhill from there. Everyone had already checked their luggage with porters which was now mixed in with the luggage of 2500 other guests on the ship. At this point the whole mess was thought to be a big mistake so the group contacted their friendly “travel agent” for help.

Eunice Morris of Morris Travel was contacted but the ship had only four remaining cabins on-board which they then sold to the travel agent that reportedly used a credit card to secure.

Of the 39 members of the family only 29 were able to go, and the remaining 10 could not get their luggage because it was mixed in with 2,500 others.

One family member left on shore said this was to be her daughter’s first cruise and when they saw the boat leave her daughter began to cry uncontrollably.

It was a heartbreaking moment for the 10 who were not only left stranded at the harbour but also without luggage, no transportation and had already checked out of their rooms.

So now we have 10 people left ashore while the rest go off on their cruise vacation. Morris Travel promised to send them money to help with expenses while they were in Florida, waiting for the others to return along with a full refund when they returned home.

At least those on the ship were having a good time? Not so much.

For the family members onboard it was not a good trip either as they found they did not have the types of rooms they had paid for.

Then, before the ship made its way to Nassau, the family were called in and told that the credit card (that the travel agent used to pay for the cabins bought on the day of sailing) was fake and they were asked to pay the full amount of $14,612.00 right then.

Their passports were held and they were blocked from leaving the ship, but former Member of Parliament for West End and Bimini David Wallace, who was also on the cruise was said to have pleaded for the family and they were allowed to get off the boat in Nassau, but had to leave their passports.

The story ends with the news that Morris Travel has done this several times and gotten away with it. Their story was that payments had been sent to a processing center who made a mistake and did not forward the payments on to the cruise line.

Our research has revealed that there was an error in processing and due diligence to correct and inform did not take place in sufficient time to avert a problem at Wenthworth Agencies (WAA) which has contributed to the distress of all parties concerned. Ms. Morris paid for a service to be rendered and we did not follow through to ensure that her request had been met.

“We have compiled points of noted interest on what transpired to cause denied boarding and payment re-call … We again apologize to the clients of Ms. Morris that suffered through an embarrassing ordeal and to Ms. Morris as she struggles to bring reason to the situation caused upon her unwarranted.

“Again our sincerest apologies, Mr. Daniel Wenthworth, Managing Partner.”

Further investigation by The Freeport News did not find a Wenthworth Accounting Agencies Boston, Cambridge and East Central Massachusetts. Big surprise.

The heart-breaking part of all of this is that the whole situation could have been easily avoided if a few simple rules of booking had been followed by the Edden family:

Always pay with a credit or debit card- Never pay with cash or a check. Paying with a credit or debit card affords some protection to consumers in the case of fraud like this case appears to be, just as if that card were stolen or the card number compromised. Cash is impossible to track down later. Checks deposited in the wrong place are not much easier. For efficiency and security, nothing beats a credit or debit card.

Insist that payments go directly to the cruise line- There is no reason for any travel agency to hold payments. In this case, had payments been processed properly and the Edden family used a debit or credit card, they would have seen “Carnival Cruise Lines” on their statement, verifying that payments went to the right place.

Register with the cruise line as soon as you have a booking number- Cruise lines are required to collect certain personal information like how passengers are planning to get to the pier, what credit card they will use for onboard purchases and the correct spelling of their names, etc. If booked passengers go to the cruise line website and attempt registration using the booking number provided by the travel agency and it does not work, something is wrong. It may be as simple as an innocent spelling error of a name or it may be that the crooked travel agent never made the booking.

Ask for an official cruise line invoice- After the initial booking is made, travel agencies commonly send out their own in-house booking confirmations. There’s nothing wrong with that and those travel agency invoices often show details of when payments were made that the cruise line invoice does not.

If it does not sound or look right, ask a trusted source– The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a great source to start with, before buying. That an agency is not listed with the BBB should be red flag causing concern on the part of buyers. The BBB rating of an agency is also a good indicator of how things might go. In another scam reported this week by the Orlando Sentinel, the crooked agent involved scored an “F” rating.

Be aware of the travel agency/cruise line relationship– Complying with the agreement made between travel agents and cruise lines, cruise lines will not talk to passengers about their booking made through a travel agent. By booking with a travel agent, passengers give up the right to discuss your booking with the cruise line.

Does that mean everyone should simply book directly with the cruise line? Maybe. If it was their first time going through the process, booking directly with the cruise line would have eliminated the intentional fraud we saw with this case.

But booking directly with the cruise line also removes the opportunity for a good, honest agent to work on the behalf of passengers over the life of the booking. Those efforts most often result in consumers getting the best value as well as a seamless package that only a qualified agent working with their best interests in mind can provide.

Any state Attorney General’s office and/or Division of Consumer Affairs is also a good one to give a call early in the process of booking. They maintain records of these things and are eager to help.

The situation is sad but very avoidable for groups that have planned their cruise-of-a-lifetime family reunion, anniversary, graduation or wedding cruise for quite some time. Trusting the local travel agent, they may have skipped dining out, made their shoes last a bit longer than normal or done without something else to make those payments on time. They had no reason to believe anything was wrong. After all, their travel agent is a pro and knows all about cruise vacations. Just this week, another group fell prey to a “travel agent” who would be more accurately described as a “felon on the run”.

Flickr photo by gurbisz

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Cruise line price scare: real or strategic plan?

Cruise Line Price Scare

Earlier this week, Norwegian Cruise Lines announced that at the end of March prices would go up. Noting high demand for their anything-goes “Freestyle” version of a cruise vacation, the line said it planned to raise prices ten percent. If that announcement has a familiar ring to it, there might be a good reason why says one industry expert. Let’s play along.

First, the line cushion’s the blow of a 10% price increase by extending their current promotional offers until the end of March in a “we’re tough, but we’re fair” sort of way.

“We wanted to give consumers and travel agents the opportunity to take advantage of these offers before the price increase.” said Norwegian Cruise Line CEO and former Undercover Boss Kevin (Sneaky) Sheehan.

“Thanks, we appreciate your kindness and the heads up.” should be the consumer response?

Not so fast says cruise industry expert Stewart Chiron, CEO of CruiseGuy.com “This is NCL’s 2nd Annual April Fool’s Cruise Sale. For some, it’s a message of don’t book NCL after 3/31 because you’ll pay more.”Indeed, cruise lines often promote a call to action for booking in a number of ways that seem to have a bit of strategic ambiguity built in. While accurate, the helpful announcement or glitzy promotion does not exactly match reality.

“NCL made the same comments last year, but (the timing) followed Carnival’s announcement that they were going to raise summer prices.” added Chiron reasoning “They may be trying to generate additional attention for their possible future IPO.”

A price scare tactic is one way to move buyers toward booking. But cruise lines don’t have to mislead the public, they do a great job of that all on their own.

The “cheap cruise” turns out to be much more when taxes and fees are added in. That’s no fault of the cruise lines, they do mention that those extra fees are not included. “Free upgrades” suggest that buying a cheap inside cabin might get you a luxurious balcony stateroom. Again, the fine print lines out the details, but buyers seeing a handsome couple standing on their balcony does suggest that upgrading to one is possible.

Still, most buyers learn quickly to read the fine print even though new strategies still throw them off guard.

Whatever the reason, it’s buyer beware as this year’s busy wave season winds down and the next round of promotions heat up. It might be a good idea to file this information away for later notes Chiron “Stay tuned for next year’s announcement. It might sound quite familiar.”

Flickr photo by markhillary

Cruise Line Scams: Booze and Beverage Packages

Cruise line scams On a cruise, many passengers follow the pay-as-you-go way of buying alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, much like they might on land. Others may choose packages that appear to be either convenient or a good value. To determine if a package is simply convenient, a good value or possibly a scam, you’ll have to do the math.

Featured Drink of the Day
There’s something to be said about getting on a ship heading to the Caribbean and having that first frozen drink on deck as the ship sails away. For many, that’s part of the experience. But paying several extra dollars for the cheap plastic glass it comes in over and over is a a waste of your money and a big profit item for the cruise lines. Most all lines also offer the same drink in a regular glass for much less.

Convenience almost always adds up to a higher price. But you may be willing to pay that higher price just to stop stressing over each and every purchase. If so, Celebrity Cruises has some packages that might be just what you are looking for.

Beverage Packages
The thought is “You can drink all the soda you want and not have to worry about how much it is.” True, but do the math. A Classic Non-Alcoholic Package is $91.00 for a seven day cruise on Celebrity Cruises. By the glass they charge about $2.00 for a soda. Do you drink more than 6.5 soda’s a day? If so, you come out fine. If not, you’re better off paying as you go.

Celebrity also offers other packages as well. A Classic (booze too) Package gets Non-Alcoholic beverages, beer up to $5 each and spirits, cocktails and wine up to $8 each for $273 on a seven-night cruise. For a beer drinker, that comes out to 7.8 beers a day. I know people who would come out way ahead on this one and some that would come out way behind too. Again, do the math.

And they wonder why people try to smuggle booze on to the ships.

Speaking of which. We ran across a nifty idea that might just be perfect for smuggling booze.A product offered by by EasyTraveler, Inc. looks to be just what we need, especially if cruise lines move closer to implementing TSA standards, limiting us to no more than 3oz of any liquid upon boarding.

Royal Caribbean already has this requirement listed on their website where they say:

cruise line scams


Did you catch that last line?

Please Note: All guests must comply with TSA guidelines for transporting liquids

That’s kind of scary to think of. It’s one of those gray area rules that are on the books but are rarely enforced or are subject to interpretation at the time they come up. Trying to imagine a 7-day vacation with only 3oz of hair products is the stuff of nightmares for some people.

OK fine, how about this little device then?

This should work and the $23 cost is nothing compared to what one might save vs.the $273 package on Celebrity. Or back to convenience, these would work well for a nice cocktail in your stateroom before dinner too.

Yes, where there’s a will there’s a way and you too can beat cruise line scams.

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