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Cruise Scams to Watch Out for, Protect Against

How to make sure your vacation plans aren’t scuttled and your trip is smooth sailing

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©Brandon Laufenberg 2020. All rights reserved.

You’re dreaming of bright sun, blue water and gentle sea breezes, and you feel so lucky to have won a free cruise through an ad, a sweepstakes or a raffle. Unfortunately, instead of celebrating your good fortune with piña coladas on the top deck, you find yourself scrambling to recover your money when the cruise is “canceled” or “rescheduled” at the last minute. Or that the whole thing was just a ploy to get your data and steal your money or identity.

Cruising is one of the most popular types of vacations — 30 million people are expected to cruise in 2024 across 360 vessels. With that popularity comes an opportunity for fraudsters to target your wallet.

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Common types of cruise scams

“The old adage rings true that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is,” says Charles Sylvia, vice president of industry and trade relations at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents cruise lines, travel agencies and agents.

Here are Five Ways to Avoid Cruise Scams

Scammers want their marks to get excited about saving big bucks or receiving a great reward, but this is what they’re really offering:

  • Large, unexpected charges. Some people who accept their prize of a free trip find themselves on the hook for charges, such as taxes and fees, which end up costing more than a berth booked with the cruise line directly or through their own travel agent.
  • Fake trips. The scammer may cancel the trip at the last minute due to weather, mechanical problems or other excuses. Or they may be offering trips with such restricted time available, it’s impossible to make arrangements. In one recent case, several Americans — one of whom sold her house to pay for her ticket — found that the company they bought their three-year cruise from had no ship available.
  • Unscrupulous actors. One scammer, who solicited clients on Facebook offering discounted cruises and two-for-one deals, was convicted in Florida in 2022 for using clients’ money on personal expenses, including a new car. Another fraudulent agent was arrested in January 2024 for claiming to book an Alaskan cruise for customers, but going on the cruise himself.
  • Time-share hard-sell. An all-expenses-paid cruise is offered in exchange for a little of your time — which turns out to be a time-share presentation or resort tour lasting several hours. If you survive that, you’ll likely face more high-pressure pitches for costly trip upgrades.
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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

How to be a smart consumer

  • Beware of starting with a search engine. Entering a general “Best Cruises” or “Cruise Deals” when looking for a trip may lead you straight to a scammer’s site. Fraudsters buy ads or create fake sites using their knowledge of how search engines work to appear at the top of your results. Try starting your search instead on the sites of several of the major cruise lines.
  • Investigate the company. Check for industry associations like the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), CLIA or the US Tour Operators Association. Seals will appear at the bottom of a travel company’s web page. You can check with the professional associations to see if they are a member, says Sylvia. In addition, “I always recommend putting in the name of the organization and the word ‘scam’ and seeing what comes up,” Sylvia says. Look for the company’s BBB Business Profile, then check for complaints and how they were resolved as well as trip review sites.
  • Check any professional’s credentials. CLIA and the American Society of Travel Advisors verify agents, and the BBB provides business certification. “We have agents in all 50 states,” says Melanie McGovern, director of public relations at the International Association of Better Business Bureaus. “It’s really important when you’re choosing any service provider to do research. Read reviews and see how they handled complaints. If anything went wrong, did they go above and beyond to make it right?” says McGovern.
  • Ask detailed questions. “Are there dates that you have to go? Do you have to pay the taxes? Is it transferable, and if you can’t go, is there a cash value?” says McGovern. If you’re considering buying a ticket with a cruise as a prize, “Reach out to the organization and find out how they’re booking it. ... Is it directly with the cruise line? Is it being booked from the travel agency and what travel agency is it?” says Sylvia.
  • Study the fine print. Get a clear explanation of all fees and your accommodations. Make sure you understand the cancellation and refund policies and get them in writing. “Any legitimate service provider will give you time to read through contracts, service agreements. If they’re giving you that pressure to sign up right away to book a trip, that’s the time where you should think, OK, maybe I need to do more research to make a good decision, ” says McGovern.
  • Confirm bookings with the cruise line. On every genuine reservation there will be a booking number, even if it was bought through a travel agent, which you can plug in to the cruise line’s website and double-check, says Sylvia. Make sure your name and date of birth are correct.
  • Avoid sharing personal or financial information. “The vast majority of the cruise lines only need to know first and last as it appears on passport. They never need to know your Social Security number,” says Sylvia. Anything to do with passport numbers and more detailed personal information comes much later in the process, Sylvia adds, “after final payments and online check-in processes have begun, typically 60 days out from departure.”
  • Pay with a credit card. This will give you protection if a payment dispute arises. Beware of paying with wire transfers, gift cards or using payment apps.
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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.