Did You Win a Free Cruise Vacation or a Travel Nightmare

You receive an email, phone call, post card, or telephone message....

"Congratulations, you are a confirmed recipient of a spectacular 8 day/7 night fantasy cruise vacation"

Wow - are you really going to get a free cruise? Most likely, it is not free - and there's a good chance that it isn't even a good deal.

Before you pack your bags, consider the warning signs that may suggest that you're being scammed.

The Temptation of the Cheap Cruise Vacation

With the popularity of cruise travel and the reduction in its cost in recent years, people who once would never have dreamed of taking a cruise vacation are now going on cruises in record numbers.

Unscrupulous travel promoters are aware of this trend, and attempt to cheat people with the promise of free travel or huge discounts. When you get an unsolicited announcement that you will receive a cruise vacation - whether free or at a discount - you should investigate the offer thoroughly before you make any payment.

Common Problems With Discount Cruise Offers

Common customer complaints about free or discount cruise offers include:

  • Hidden Fees: Once you book the cruise and pay a down payment - or even after you pay what you are told is the cost of the entire cruise package - you are told of additional fees, such as port fees, taxes, registration fees, or service fees, or other surcharges.

  • Different Amenities: Once you arrive on the cruise ship you discover that it lacks many or most of the features that you were promised.

  • It's Not Free After All: Sometimes the promoters of a "free" cruise offer will start hitting you with extra fees from the moment you call, and will pressure you to pay immediately by credit card.

  • Outright Fraud: Sometimes the company that is calling you is not in fact a travel agency at all. It may be a boiler room operation that will disappear with your payment shortly after your check or credit card authorization clears, or is trying to get your bank account or credit card information for the purpose of identity theft, making purchases with your money and credit.

Protecting Yourself from Travel Scams

You can help avoid being cheated by taking the following steps:

  • Buyer beware. If a travel deal sounds too good to be true, it almost always is.

  • Be skeptical of unsolicited offers: Cruise offers that come via unsolicited telephone calls or by spam email are much more likely to be fraudulent.

  • Don't hesitate to say "no": Don't let them pressure you, and don't believe their claims that if you don't pay an immediate deposit the cruise will fill up and you'll miss your opportunity. If they call you and "won't take no for an answer", hang up.

  • Work with reliable travel services: Purchase cruise services only from businesses you know to be genuine. If you cannot verify that the company that has contacted you is real, don't do business with them.

  • Take your time: If you are pressured to make a quick decision, the chances are much higher that you are being scammed.

  • Get the details in writing before you buy: Insist that you receive a complete description of the cruise in writing, including all costs and fees, before you book. Investigate the cruise ship. If air travel is included in the package, find out what airline and airport the company will use to book your travel. If the company won't provide details, or won't provide them in writing, you can be quite certain that the company is trying to cheat you.

  • Check out similar packages: Investigate the cost of similar cruise packages that are offered by other, legitimate travel agencies and services. You may find that you can get the same cruise vacation, and perhaps even a better vacation, for less money through a reputable travel service.

  • Learn about date restrictions: Make sure you know all of the date restrictions on any cruise package. If cruise dates are restricted you may find that there are so few days available for your package that you can't schedule a holiday, and that you've thrown your money away.

  • Be careful with your credit card number: Make sure that you are dealing with a genuine travel promoter or agency before giving them a credit card number by telephone, email, or through a website. Never give a credit card number or bank account information to a company that you have not verified to be real.

  • Do not send money by courier or overnight mail: Unscrupulous cruise promoters want your money as soon as possible, and sometimes use couriers or overnight delivery services to avoid the possibility of federal mail fraud charges.

  • Make any payment by credit card: If you have verified that the company offering the deal is real but you still have doubts about their integrity, pay by credit card. While there is no guarantee that you will be able to effect a chargeback if the cruise deal turns out to be a fraud, you effectively have no chance of recovering your money if you pay by check, money order, wire transfer, or cash.

If you encounter problems during the cruise, complain at that time. If you don't complain until after the cruise is over, you will be in a much weaker position to secure any sort of refund or to make a legal case against the promoter or cruise company.

Watch Out for Fake Travel Promoters

A company that is engaged in fraud may use letterhead from a real business, may use the name of a real business, and may even fake their caller ID information such that it appears that they are calling from the real business, yet have no actual connection to the business.

If you are not certain if the person you are speaking with actually works for the company they identify as their employer:

  • Look up the company's contact information,
  • Contact the company directly, and
  • Verify directly with the company that the offer is real.

Don't rely on a call-back number from the person who has called you, as they may simply give you a phone number that forwards to a boiler room operation in a different state or, very possibly, in a different country.

Copyright © 2004 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 26, 2018.