The Insider: Everything that can go wrong on a cruise — and how to avoid it

By | February 13th, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a new Insider series on cruising. Here’s the first part on whether you should cruise and part two, on where to buy a cruise. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

So much can go wrong on a cruise, I hardly know where to begin.

Maybe here: Informed consumers don’t get ripped off. They know what they’re buying, where to book it, and they’re aware of all the pitfalls that await.

The more you know about cruising, the less you have to worry about having a negative experience.

Help, I’ve booked the wrong cruise!
I’ve already spent a lot of time in this series discussing the value of a travel agent. Many of my cruise-related cases involve buyer’s remorse, which is to say, a traveler was booked on the wrong ship, in the wrong cabin, or on the wrong sailing. Wrong sailing? Oh, yes. It usually involves a family with young kids being stuck on a theme cruise where folks let it all hang out. (Curiously, I never hear from swingin’ singles who are upset that there were children on the cruise, but I digress.)

Do your homework, kids, and this won’t happen to you. And what if it does? Well, if you discover the problem beforehand, call your agent or cruise line and ask to move your sailing date. I have yet to come across someone who asked to be moved for that reason, and was declined. Missing the cruise is another matter — one I’ll deal with in detail later. If you find that you’re on the wrong cruise after you board, it’s really probably too late. A young couple that’s looking forward to a restful week at sea that accidentally booked a Disney cruise — not much that can be done about that. You’re partying with Mickey!

Related story:   Can this trip be saved? "This was the worst vacation any of us have ever taken"

Is my cruise fare a scam?
Here’s a cruise fare on a Caribbean sailing for the Carnival Imagination.

Total 2 Travelers: $738.00 *
Gov’t Fees/Taxes: $147.50
Total: $885.50

Let me mention a few things. The $738 is not important to you, but it is to your travel agent. That’s the number on which your agent’s commission is based. I don’t think any cruise line should quote the $738 quite as prominently because no one ever pays it. (But at least the “total” isn’t displayed in microscopic print or revealed after you make a purchasing decision, as it used to be on airline websites before regulators intervened.)

The government taxes and fees, on the other hand, are relevant. Those fees are refundable if you cancel your cruise, even if the fare is nonrefundable. Also, it’s a rat’s nest of port fees, taxes and other government charges. Of course, the real charge you should pay attention to is the “total” — that’s what the cruise will cost. Probably.

Beware of other “opt-in” charges later in the booking. Those can include optional insurance, automatic tipping and shore excursions. If you think you’ll have it easier with an agent, don’t be so sure. I’ve heard of unscrupulous agents telling their clients that insurance is required on a cruise (it isn’t) and employing other hard-sell tactics (“Oh, it’ll be a wasted cruise if you don’t go snorkeling on the reef!”) to make more money from a booking.

Point is, that $885 is just the beginning. It isn’t unusual for the final bill to double, and even triple, once you’ve added all the extras. I’m not kidding.

Related story:   Don't do this when you're traveling with kids

Where did all of these fees come from?
Even the best cruise lines often broadside their guests with fees. Just yesterday, I heard from someone who inadvertently signed up for automatic tipping. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the cruise line to refund the generous tips that had automatically been deducted from his credit card.

Cruising used to be billed as an “all-inclusive” experience. It isn’t anymore. Cruise lines make a significant portion of their revenues from ancillary fees, of which there are many. Starting with the “welcome” drink served on the lido deck (it’s not always free) to a special request at dinner (I’m not making this up — a fee for the end piece of a roast) your cruise line is trying to monetize your vacation in ways you probably can’t imagine.

How do I avoid fees?
There’s only one way to make sure you don’t get scammed by these fees. Learn the word “no” and use it often. Want a picture of you and your beautiful family? No. Care for a soda? No. Lunch in one of our specialty restaurants? No, no, no. It isn’t that these items aren’t fun to have while you’re on a cruise, but that in many cases, they’re ridiculously overpriced. Try getting wireless Internet access or making a ship-to-shore phone call if you don’t believe me. Also, it helps to know another phrase: “How much?”

Note: If you want to see how much the cruise lines’ ancillary revenue pursuit can hurt, wake up early on the last day of the cruise and head downstairs to the front desk. The friendly faces that greeted you when you arrived are gone, replaced by stone-faced dudes with heavy Scandinavian accents, maintaing their cool while one passenger after another tries — and usually fails — to argue their way out of a surcharge.

Related story:   No damage to rental car, but they called a collection agency anyway

By the way one of the worst “gotchas” is your magnetic room key. By default, it doubles as a charge card on many ships. Make sure you de-authorize it before handing it to your kids — especially teen-agers — otherwise they will make your vacation much more expensive. One reader contacted me recently, trying to get my help in removing a $400 charge her grandchildren had run up at the ship’s arcade. Kids!

I lost money at the tables!
Those slot machines are nice to look at while you’re in port, but once you’re in international waters and the velvet rope to the gambling area falls, they’re a money trap. Stay away.

I’ll have even more scenarios in the next part of this series.

(Photo: ykanazawa1999/Flickr)

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.