If a Caribbean cruise sounds tempting right about now, there’s an even more seductive lure: a “free” cruise. But before responding to winter-timed TV commercials, mailed postcards or unsolicited phone calls, consider the real costs of a “freebie” two-night Bahamas getaway, for example, pitched as a “special promotion” or “prize” for which you’re already eligible.
- Your money. To reserve your cruise (or even to get information about it), you’re asked for your credit card information and immediately billed up to $65 per passenger for port fees. After providing their plastic, some customers complain about hundreds of dollars in subsequent unauthorized charges — even before they board the ship. Small-print disclosures note there are no refunds on that prepaid money. Once aboard, expect additional charges, including $24 per day, per cabin, for the ship’s fuel. Other travelers complain about inflated tack-on charges for meals, lodging and other expenses in supposedly “all-inclusive” vacation packages that are upsold.
- Your time. Some offers require that you attend a sales presentation for a time-share or to join an expensive (and problem-filled) vacation club. Call center personnel may say it’s a 20- to 40-minute talk, but past customers complain about being held captive for up to five hours or, after traveling hundreds of miles for a vacation, threatened with no accommodations for refusing to attend a sales presentation not previously mentioned.
- Your patience. It could wear thin darn fast, once you face an onslaught of solicitations after providing your contact information (among the first questions asked in order for you to claim your prize). Consider the big UPPERCASE letters in the small-print disclaimer on this registration form: You may be contacted by “TELEPHONE, AUTODIALER, EMAIL, ELECTRONIC VOICEMAIL, OR MAIL FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROMOTING VARIOUS TRAVEL OFFERS. YOU EXPRESSLY WAIVE ALL FEDERAL AND STATE NO-CALL REGISTRY PROTECTIONS FOR THE PURPOSE OF FUTURE MARKETING.” Some customers report getting hundreds of unwanted solicitations in the following weeks, with no mind to their repeated opt-out requests. Others report below-par accommodations, last-minute cancellations after airline and other travel plans were made, bait-and-switch tactics and other headaches.
What to know to prevent losing at cruising or other vacation packages:
- Beware of sound-alikes. Royal Seas Cruises and Caribbean Cruise Line may take poetic license from recognized and respected Royal Caribbean, but there is no affiliation with it. Both Royal Seas and Caribbean, leaders in free-cruise giveaways, have F ratings with the Better Business Bureau; Caribbean recently agreed to pay at least $56 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging the company made millions of unwanted robocalls in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Also beware of strings-attached freebies from companies that tweak the names of Celebrity or other well-known cruise lines; they are sometimes dissolved when they are sued or get into trouble with authorities.
- Know the buzzwords. Gotcha-riddled cruise promises tend to use language such as “vacation offer,” “you’re eligible to win” or “guaranteed.” Others claim you already won, though you never entered a contest. One word that should never trick you: “free.” It means just that, so don’t pay deposits or service fees upfront or on the promise you may get them back later.
- Find out who really sent the offer. Legitimate cruise lines send emails or mailings and make phone calls to past customers, but before jumping on solicitations from unrecognized vendors (and especially those with sound-alike names), do an online search by typing the company or ship name and words such as “complaints,” “reviews” and “scam,” or read about experiences at Cruise Critic, complaintsboard.com and ripoffreport.com.
- Expect a pushy approach. Still interested? Even before a possibly required time-share sales pitch, expect high pressure as you try to get information about your supposed freebie. Expect to be pressed for your name, address, credit card and other sensitive information before answers to your questions are provided. Expect pressure to act now because the offer is “going fast” or is a “onetime deal.” And expect long and repeated holds, verbal intimidation or getting disconnected for not complying. (All of these occurred in several calls I made asking for details, terms and bottom-line costs before I would provide my ID theft-worthy information.) As you might expect, company officials could not be reached for comment.
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