When you surf over to a cruise agency's Web site, or dial up their 800 number, you may be dealing with one of the top cruise-only wholesalers in the country, a local franchisee of a large full-service travel agency, or a very knowledgeable cruise specialist at a small travel agency. Or, it may be a novice working off of his or her kitchen table.
So, how can you tell the difference and find a good, reputable travel agent or agency -- and avoid a bad booking experience?
Unfortunately, agents tell us that the travel industry is not well-regulated, and just about anyone can just print up business cards, hang out a shingle and start selling travel. The majority of states do not require any type of registration, certification, licensing or consumer protection measures for travel agencies, although this is beginning to change. Bottom line: It is crucial to know who you are dealing with.
Your best bet is to talk to friends, co-workers, relatives and associates and ask them if they know of a good, reputable, local agent who specializes in cruises. (And, of course, read our feature article on Finding a Good Travel Agent.) But here are a few more tips for avoiding cruise travel scams -- and spotting a less-than-reputable agency and protecting your investment before it's too late.
Pay with a credit card. For your best protection against either a dishonest seller of travel or possible supplier bankruptcy, always pay for your cruise fare -- both the initial deposit and the final payment -- with a major credit card such as Mastercard, Visa or American Express. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you are entitled to protection (via a chargeback of disputed fees to your account) if a merchant fails.
Important note: This protection may not apply to those using debit or check cards; it's important to confirm policies with your issuing bank before you charge.
Ensure your money is in the right hands. After you've made a payment, review your credit card or bank statement and make sure that any applicable charges originate directly with the cruise line, not with the travel agency. That way, you'll know that the cruise line has definitely received your money. If you must pay by check or money order, it should be made payable to the cruise line -- not to the agency or to an individual.
Get proper confirmation of your booking. Insist on getting the actual cruise line's confirmation numbers, not just a confirmation number from your agency. Not only will you then know that your information and money is in the right hands, but you'll also be able to pre-reserve shore excursions, restaurant reservations and spa appointments (where available) on the cruise line's Web site.
Purchase travel insurance -- but do so wisely. Cruise Critic has long advised travelers to purchase travel insurance directly from respected third-party insurers rather than the cruise lines themselves, as the latter's policies do not protect customers should the cruise line go out of business. Do note, however, that most insurers provide financial insolvency protection for cruise lines as well as airlines, hotels and tour operators -- but not travel agencies. Learn more in our Travel Insurance: Pros and Cons.
Check up on an agency before giving them your business. Ask if the agency belongs to any of the following organizations: ARC, IATA, ASTA, ARTA, CLIA or NACOA. A legitimate agency should belong to at least one or two of these groups. Check, too, with the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been registered about the agency. You may also want to contact the attorney general's office in the state where you live and the state where the agency is based.
Remember: If it sounds too good to be true... Be very cautious about dealing with any travel company that says you've won something or sends you a certificate in the mail for a trip that sounds too good to be true -- because it probably is. Never give out your credit card number to a telephone solicitor (unless you have initiated the call and you know the company that you are dealing with) and never send cash, checks or money orders to a travel company that you do not know (unless all of the details of the trip are supplied to you in writing first).
Travel Fraud complaints, ranging from telemarketing travel scams to timeshare reseller issues, are consistently filed by consumers with the Federal Trade Commission. Since 1997, the FTC has led the national response against travel-related fraud through the initiation of three major law-enforcement sweeps, "Operation Trip Up," "Operation Trip Trap," and "Operation Travel Unravel." In conjunction with federal and state law enforcement agencies, the FTC has filed 17 cases against companies that have misled consumers in their advertisement of travel services and the travel products and services they eventually provided, as of November 2007. Cases include instances of deception in timeshare reselling, vacation certificate telemarketing, travel agent "credential mills", and fraudulent travel flights pitched at immigrants wishing to visit their families abroad. The law enforcement measures were coupled with consumer education campaigns to alert American consumers of the breadth of travel fraud and ways to avoid getting scammed when planning a vacation.
The Federal Trade Commission launched a travel-fraud prevention game for consumers in May of 2006. The consumer education program, "Gear Up for A Great Trip" focuses on travel scam awareness and provides information on how to plan for a successful vacation. Information about the game and links to both its Spanish and English versions is available through the link above.
Operation Trip Up
In March of 1997, The Federal Trade Commission began its campaign against travel fraud by launching "Operation Trip Up," a joint federal-state-local campaign targeting a wide range of vacation frauds. At the program's onset, 36 law enforcement actions were filed as part of the campaign along with an extensive consumer education program. The cases filed as part of the action ran the gamut of travel fraud, including everything from typical vacation certificate telemarketers and timeshare resellers, to immigrant-targeted flight promises and "credential mill" travel agent scams. The goal of Operation Trip-Up was to ground those scam artists who had been pitching a substantial number of deceptive travel offers, and to prevent consumers from victimization by the myriad of travel scams they could encounter. Then Director of the FTC Bureau of Competition, Jodie Bernstein, issued a statement announcing "Operation Trip Up."
Operation Trip Trap
Continuing to see consumer complaints related to travel fraud, in 1999 the FTC launched its second law enforcement sweep, "Operation Trip Trap," a joint law enforcement and consumer education effort targeting companies that misrepresent vacation packages through fraudulent telemarketing and other deceptive practices. The FTC and 21 federal and state law enforcement authorities charged that 25 companies misled consumers about the vacation packages they were selling, overstated the amenities included, told travelers they had won trips that they had not, hid extra charges in "all-inclusive" packages, or charged consumers for products and services they never received.
The FTC filed five complaints in federal district courts asking the courts to permanently enjoin the alleged law violations and to award consumer redress.
Press Release Announcing Operation Trip Trap
Operation Trip Trap List of Law Enforcement Actions
Operation Travel Unravel
In August of 2000, the FTC launched "Travel Unravel," a program to target travel industry fraud in the United States. The operation was a bilateral effort with 19 state authorities to uncover fraud and deception that cost consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. The operation resulted in 85 actions for alleged law violations, including failure to disclose the actual cost of travel packages, misleading consumers by telling them they have won a free trip while subsequently charging fees, and failing to inform travelers that when purchasing a package they will be required to attend one, or several, timeshare presentations. The Commission cases were filed by the FTC's Southeast Region and Midwest Region (with the Commonwealth of Virginia a co-complainant) and the Commission's Division of Marketing Practices.
Consumer Tips to Avoid Travel Fraud:
Be wary of "great deals" and low-priced offers. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices;
Don't be pressured into buying. A good offer today will be a good offer tomorrow. Legitimate businesses don't expect you to make snap decisions;
Ask detailed questions. Find out exactly what the price covers and what it doesn't. Be sure to ask about additional charges, as well;
If you do decide to buy, get all information about the trip in writing. Once you receive the written information, make sure it reflects what you were told over the phone and the terms you agreed to;
Don't give your credit card number or bank information over the phone unless you know the company with whom you are working;
Be aware that when you place your business card or name into a drawing for a free vacation, you may be added to a telemarketing call-out list;
Know that your personal information also can be collected via the Internet when you are visiting travel-related sites seeking deals on trips or airfare;
Don't send money by messenger or overnight mail. Some "scam artists" may ask you to send them money immediately. If you pay with cash or check, as opposed to using a credit card, you lose your right to dispute any potential fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act; and