Those slick TV ads can make a cruise look like the “dream come true” experience of a lifetime. And a cruise can, in fact, be a wonderful experience. But sometimes that experience morphs from dream to disaster. A cruise is both a means of transportation and a destination resort with its own passport requirements. As a result, it can suffer some of the problems of both—especially if you fall victim to certain cruise scams.
The “Free Cruise” Scam
This ploy has been around a long time, and it dominates the online reports of cruise scams. You get a letter saying you have “won” or “been selected for” a free Bahamas cruise (often from a company with “Caribbean” in its name despite the fact that the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean).
What you actually get in this cruise scam is some combination of (1) “fees and taxes,” including those imposed by the cruise line in addition to government fees; (2) a requirement to sit through a high-pressure timeshare presentation that may go on for four or five hours; (3) a dingy cabin in an obsolete ship without air-conditioning; (4) land accommodations in a run-down resort; and (5) constant pressure to “upgrade” ship or land accommodations. The internet is full of stories from folks who took the bait of this cruise scam.
Local Cruise Scams
Among the most prevalent cruise scams are those involving locals at ports of call. Usually they involve a minor loss of time and money, but occasionally they can be worse. Typical scams include fake taxi drivers who call out “taxi,” grab your baggage, ask for a payment, then hand you over to a real taxi driver who ignores what you paid the tout and charges you the going rate. In other cases, drivers will take you 10 miles for a two-mile trip.
Of course, you can find (or be found by) pickpockets, exchange dealers who give you counterfeit currency, and merchants who cheat on your credit card bill. Be especially wary of a merchant who tries to bill your card in U.S. dollars—it sounds nice, but it puts you on the hook for an extra exchange scam. Vigilance and wariness can insulate you from most of these local cruise scams, but there’s always a chance you’ll still fall victim. And if you get caught, you have very little chance of any recovery.
Bad Sightseeing Tours
This one isn’t quite an outright cruise scam, but many port visitors are really annoyed by a sightseeing tour that spends an hour at a souvenir store chosen because of the quality of its kickbacks rather than of its merchandise. A related minor cruise scam is the artwork produced by local street “artists” who are really just coloring in between the faint lines of a pre-printed scene.
Online Cruise Scams
A potentially dangerous cruise scam can compromise your identity, files, or both: an email apparently sent by a cruise line or resort asking you to hit a link for more information on your upcoming cruise. These originate with someone who has hacked the cruise line’s or operator’s data to get the names of current and prospective customers. And, obviously, either the message itself or the link contains malware. This online cruise scam is like those fake emails from FedEx or UPS going around that ask you to verify something about an upcoming shipment.
Fake List Prices
If it’s “75 percent off,” it’s bound to be a good deal—right? Not necessarily. The base price from which that 75 percent is deducted is often complete fiction. Even “brochure price” means very little. So forget about big discounts from fake list prices. You can decide whether a deal is good by comparing its price with prices for comparable cruises and by checking impartial cruise review websites such as SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.
The Cruise Line Contract
Although not a cruise scam in the classic sense, the worst problems you can face arise from the contract that you agree to when you buy a cruise. Those contracts are outrageously one-sided “contracts of adhesion” you would never sign if you had a chance to negotiate them yourself.
Although contracts differ a bit from company to company, almost all let the cruise line off the hook for a lot of problems and make you sign away what would normally be your rights as a consumer. Among them, the cruise line can:
- Cancel your trip for any lawful reason without prior notice.
- Disembark you or change your accommodations without liability for compensation or refund.
- Require that you accept its refund fees without recourse.
- Deviate from routes and schedules without prior notice.
- Refuse any refund or damage claim resulting from a cancellation or change due to factors not within the cruise line’s exclusive control.
- Make a proportionate refund if your cruise ends early or, at the cruise line’s option, give you only a future cruise credit.
- Insulate itself from any liability for actions performed by any subcontractor, including the ship’s doctor and shore excursion operators.
- Search your stateroom and belongings without prior notice.
- Refuse liability for emotional distress or mental suffering under any circumstances other than those you can prove in court as resulting from personal injury or imminent risk of injury.
- Limit your ability to litigate an issue to a single designated federal court or even a foreign country.
- Prohibit you from entering a class-action lawsuit.
- Value your personal property at no higher than $50 per traveler or $100 per stateroom unless you buy supplemental insurance.
- Prevent you from drinking locally bought liquor while on board.
- Require that disputes be resolved by compulsory arbitration.
The is just a partial list; be sure you’re aware of what you’re signing up for when you make that initial cruise purchase. Consider buying cruise insurance for a little extra protection in case things go wrong.
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More from SmarterTravel:
- The 15 Biggest Travel Scams, and How to Avoid Them
- Europe Travel Scams to Watch Out For
- The Worst Decisions You Can Make on a Cruise
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.