Timing is everything when you pull a bait-and-switch. Most of them happen just before or after the purchase – an “oops-the-price-isn’t-available” or a “sorry-did-we-forget-to-mention-a-fee” stunt. But for Mary Hoefs’ Royal Caribbean cruise, she didn’t find out until she tried to board.

Here’s what happened she tried to embark on the Liberty of the Seas with her family recently:

While checking in, our son and his family from Texas were pulled out of line and taken to another room. There they were told: “Pay an additional $800, or they you can’t board the ship.”

They were in a state of panic, and two little grandsons were in tears because they could not get on the ship. Not really understanding the reason, we had to come up with the extra cash for them to board. (Had we not had the money, what would have happened?)

The cruise was paid in full by us, at the time of booking. They had all this information far enough in advance that should there have been a problem, had plenty of time to let us or our travel consultant know so that it could have been taken care of before the date we were to set sail. Under no circumstance should this have been thrown in our face while standing in line to board the ship!

We feel that the full $800 should be refunded by Royal Caribbean. They only refunded $400, and sent that to the travel agent, with no reason or apology to us as to why our family from Texas was singled out like this.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? I figured there must be another side to this story, so I asked RCCL. Here’s its response.

Our records indicate that this booking was not created in-house, rather, through a travel agent. During the booking process, the guests from Texas were booked as being residents of West Virginia – with a promotional discount that was being provided to residents of West Virginia at that time. When the guests were unable to provide government issued ID that showed they were residents of West Virginia, the discount had to be removed, thus, the additional charges.

In other words, Hoefs’ family had used a discount that can only be used by West Virginia residents. When they couldn’t prove they lived in West Virginia, they had to pay a fare difference.

I shared this information with Hoefs.

I paid for the two from West Virginia $1,787, which was the “special rate.” The family from Texas, I paid $3,275. And from here in Arizona, the price was $3,275. So the Texas family did NOT have a special rate. Regardless, I booked and paid in full on December 16th, 2008, the cruise was not until March 14th 2009. If there was a discrepancy, they had plenty of time to notify me before rather then wait till we were standing in line to board the ship. If they did not feel they were in the wrong, then why did they return half of the $800?

Hoefs is correct. She didn’t create the confusing pricing system that led to this problem. RCCL had ample time to check the IDs of the travelers. And yes, the $400 refund doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Lesson learned? If you’re booking a cruise through a travel agent, make sure you qualify for any discounts, and can prove it. At a time like this, cruise lines are trying to collect every extra penny from their passengers — even if they have to do it at the dock.