Tourism & Cruises

A ‘free’ cruise probably isn’t free. If you get a call, here’s what you should do

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration ship. After the ship was charted by FEMA late last year, several passengers who had booked through travel agencies that offer “free” cruises were unable to get refunds.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration ship. After the ship was charted by FEMA late last year, several passengers who had booked through travel agencies that offer “free” cruises were unable to get refunds. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line

Every year, thousands of “free” cruise robocalls light up consumer phones in Florida and across the nation, promising all-expenses-paid trips to the Bahamas.

But “free” can quickly devolve to “discounted” as fees are added on. For those who buy in, the challenges typically come later, when the strings attached to the deal start pulling on consumers’ checkbooks.

“The biggest takeaway is that there is no such thing as a ‘free’ cruise and anyone who sees a ‘free’ cruise offer in their mailbox should just throw it away immediately and problem solved,” said Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocacy expert who has helped travelers with “free” travel schemes.

The biggest takeaway is that there is no such thing as a ‘free’ cruise and anyone who sees a ‘free’ cruise offer in their mailbox should just throw it away immediately and problem solved.

Christopher Elliott, consumer advocacy expert

The unsolicited deals typically come in the form of phone calls, telling the listener they won a “free” cruise, or asking them to participate in a political survey first. It could be a post shared on Facebook, a text message or a mailer.

When travelers look further into the offer, they usually find it requires they pay port and government fees and/or sit through a timeshare presentation. They are usually pressed to pay for the trip upfront and to then pick a sail date within about 18 months of the initial purchase.

The companies that offer “free” cruise deals often work together, forming a complex web that makes it difficult for the traveler to track what company is actually calling them with an offer, which one is responsible for their reservation and which one is billing them. Deceptive names that sound similar often lead many consumers to think they are dealing with the cruise line directly. But often, the cruise line is not involved in the sales process for “free” cruise offers.

That makes it difficult later, if something goes wrong with the voyage or a passenger wants a refund, to obtain help or seek recourse.

And while some people go on the discounted voyages and enjoy them, experts advocate for not taking the deal, but booking with the cruise line directly.

If you’re interested in Bahamas Paradise, it’s a legitimate cruise line so book directly with them.

Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at Cruise Critic

In South Florida, many of the deals are for sailings on Fort Lauderdale-based Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration ship.

“If you’re interested in Bahamas Paradise [Cruise Line], it’s a legitimate cruise line so book directly with them,” said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at Cruise Critic, a cruise review website that has seen numerous complaints about “free” cruise offers. “They’re a lower budget cruise line and really designed for people who want that quick getaway.”

But for some would-be travelers, the “free” cruise deal, though not free, sounds good enough to contemplate.

For those who do, here is how to avoid getting into trouble if something goes wrong:

Watch for red flags

If you’re not sure if the offer is legitimate, watch for these red flags:

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A fake advertisement for a “free” Carnival Cruise Line cruise — just pay taxes and port fees — for victims of the 2017 hurricane season was posted on Facebook and debunked by British Carnival cruise director John Heald.

▪ Robocall offers that require you to first answer a political survey. (“Free” cruise deals may also come as mailers, text messages and Facebook posts.)

▪ Pushy sellers, who insist on getting your credit card information.

▪ Companies that ask for payment at the time of the call, saying you can later select a sailing date as long as it’s within 18 months of the first payment. (Consumers have complained they have a hard time selecting a date because there are often only few available days, leading them to then try to cancel their cruise).

▪ Companies that try to up-sell you on a hotel stay before or after your voyage.

▪ Companies that require you topick up tickets in-person at a hotel or other location.

▪ Companies that require you to sit through a timeshare presentation.

Ask questions

Request that all the information on the deal be provided to you in writing, and then try to get as much information on the deal as possible, suggests McDaniel.

“It’s within your right to ask any question you want,” she said.

Some questions that may help you get a sense for the type of deal you’re being offered include:

▪ What fees will I end up having to pay?

▪ Will I pay the taxes? Will I pay the gratuities?

▪ Where and how will I get the tickets for my voyage? Online or in person?

▪ Is there a timeshare component to this? What am I expected to sit through?

▪ Is food and beverage included with my sailing?

▪ What company am I booking with? Is this the cruise line itself?

▪ Who do I contact if I have a problem with my cruise?

Do your research

Most importantly, before you give your credit card information, do your background on the company that called. The Better Business Bureau will give you a sense for that company’s reputation and the kinds of complaints customers have lodged against it. Yelp may yield other reviews from past customers.

And a simple search of the company’s name with the word “scam” or “rip-off” may reveal a history of customer concerns, said the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

Give it that one day to think about it. If someone says, ‘I can’t call you tomorrow, there’s no deal,’ then it’s not worth it. It’s too good to be true.

Katherine Kiziah, attorney with Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart and Shipley

“Tell them to just call me back tomorrow,” suggests Katherine Kiziah, an attorney who represented Florida in a Federal Trade Commission class action against a travel agency involved in a “free” cruise scheme. “Give it that one day to think about it. If someone says, ‘I can’t call you tomorrow, there’s no deal,’ then it’s not worth it. It’s too good to be true.”

Seek help

For travelers who book the trips but later decide to cancel or seek a refund for the voyage, there are some avenues for recourse outside of filing suit.

▪ Put a dispute on your credit card, suggests Elliott.

“Don’t write checks, don’t wire money. If you find yourself too deep in, dispute the charge on your credit card and walk away,” Elliott said. Some credit card companies will still help you resolve the claim past the 60 day dispute window, he said.

▪ File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, which has been successful in the past in getting companies to refund consumers.

▪ File a complaint with the Attorney General’s office in your state.

The office will keep track of the complaints. If there are enough complaints to file suit, the office may do so on your behalf and the behalf of others in a similar situation, as in the case of the FTC and attorney generals in 10 states versus Caribbean Cruise Line, a travel agency that allegedly offers “free” cruise deals.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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