Revenge at sea: 5 ways passengers are getting even with cruise lines

Cruising isn’t what it used to be. Just ask Steve Roberts, who recently sailed from Costa Maya, Mexico, to Nassau, Bahamas on the Carnival Glory.

Although his floating vacation was billed as an “all inclusive” experience, Roberts found it was anything but that. Dining in a premium restaurant cost $30. Drinks were extra, too. And at the end of the cruise, Roberts says he was asked to pay a mandatory gratuity.

“But the worst part was being assaulted by about a thousand ship’s photographers, taking our photos every day, so we could pay an outrageous fee for as many prints of the digital photos as we wanted,” he says.

So Roberts did what more cruise passengers are doing these days: he said “no.”

That’s just what the cruise industry doesn’t want to hear. Amid a sinking economy, the major cruise lines have been cutting everything from their staffs to itineraries to, of course, ticket prices.

At the same time, cruise lines have quietly imposed new fees in an apparent effort to raise onboard revenues. Perhaps the most aggressive to date has been Royal Caribbean, which recently added a $14.95 surcharge for passengers ordering a filet mignon in its main dining room and a $3.95 “late night service charge” for onboard room service orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m.

Royal Caribbean says the fees are not about money, but convenience. Passengers who want to order a signature steak in the main dining room, as opposed to visiting one of its specialty restaurants, can now do so. And the room service fee, a spokeswoman added, is meant to “encourage responsible food ordering.”

Carnival’s $30 fee for its specialty restaurants, as well as its gratuity, is a choice, according to Tim Gallagher, a Carnival spokesman. “Guest feedback tells us they appreciate these options,” he says, adding that a Carnival cruise remains a “very inclusive” vacation. “There are people who cruise and never spend a dollar in the casino, shops, spa or on shore excursions, photos or bingo.”

Make that lots of people. To say that it’s a buyer’s market for cruises might be an understatement. Passengers know it, and they seem to be enjoying their new power. It’s almost as if the archetypical cruise passenger — you know, the overfed, newlywed and nearly-dead kind — has been replaced with a more whimsical and mischievous character, like Captain Jack Sparrow.

We should have seen this coming. In addition to the epidemic of fees and surcharges, cruise lines have more or less had it their way for years. After the fire sales that followed 9/11, cruise prices rose like the tide, and passengers were slammed with more than just onboard fees. Their vacations were often held hostage to illegal, mandatory fuel surcharges that were imposed even after they had paid for their vacation in full.

“Payback is a funny concept,” cruise expert Paul Motter told me, adding that there’s some evidence that passenger discontent has been bubbling up, including a recent class-action lawsuit against Park West Gallery, which offers onboard art auctions, and a $40 million settlement in last year’s fuel-surcharge scandal.

But are passengers really in a mood for revenge? I asked Terry Dale, the president and chief executive of the Cruise Lines International Association, about current passenger attitudes. He told me cruisers were out for bargains, not blood, and were finding “exceptional value” this year. In fact, cruise lines are offering their valued guests more than ever, including “complimentary amenities, shipboard credits, relaxed and reduced deposit requirements and special fares for booking 2010 cruises,” he says.

Maybe he’s right.

Maybe travelers are just buoyed by the lowest cruises prices in a generation, and nothing more. But in a series of interviews with passengers and industry experts, a slightly more complex picture starts to surface — that of profit-starved cruise lines pulling out all the stops to attract new customers and of penny-pinching passengers who know they have them over a barrel at last.

Here are five ways their customers are channeling the Captain and getting even with the cruise industry:

Waiting until the last minute to book
Cruises used to be bought a month or more in advance, and often far longer. If this were a normal year, for example, then most of the 2009 cruises would already be booked by now (they’re bought during a time in January, February and early March called “wave” period). It’s not a normal year. “I’m seeing them wait two weeks or less,” says Jenny Reed, a travel agent for Atlanta-based Cruise Planners. It’s a waiting game, with cruise lines keeping prices as high as possible until it looks as if they’ll sail with a lot of empty cabins. Then they slash rates. They’re trying to reverse the trend. In January, Carnival introduced what it called an “early saver” fare that guaranteed the lowest price on a cruise if you booked three months early. If you later find a lower fare for the same sailing and accommodations, Carnival will issue the difference in the form of an onboard credit.

Smuggling alcohol on board
Sales of beer and wine are big business to cruise lines. At sea, where there’s no lawful drinking age or legal limit for alcohol consumption, sales of alcoholic beverages are believed to be the single largest source of onboard revenue. For a cruise line, selling a lot of booze can mean the difference between a profitable and unprofitable trip. So when passengers bring their own alcoholic beverages, there’s a problem. Andi Fisher, a marketing manager from Berkeley, Calif., watched several passengers get busted on her last cruise. “One got caught because when the bottle went through the X-ray and came out the other side someone knocked it over and there was Kahlua everywhere,” she says. “Someone else brought vodka in a water bottle.”

Not taking official shore excursions
Another big moneymaker for cruise lines is a shore excursion, such as an island sightseeing tour or a dive trip to a coral reef. Many cruise lines reportedly split the take from these excursions on a 50/50 basis. But those trips are no longer a sure thing. Passengers I spoke with said their shore excursions were half-full, or worse. “We did not take an excursion on our last cruise,” says Jamie Floer, who recently sailed on the Seven Seas Mariner. “It was canceled due to lack of interest.” Does that mean people aren’t coming ashore? Hardly. Instead of buying one of the higher-priced shore excursions offered by the cruise line, they’re opting for a less expensive one you can book online or in person at the port.

Avoiding the ‘upsell’
Like Roberts, a lot of passengers are simply saying “no” to the extras, including the premium restaurants, photos and drinks. Jean Farmer, owner of the Greenwood, Ind.-based cruise agency Elegant Cruises by Jean, has overheard some passengers grumble about the surcharges. “They chose not to go to the specialty restaurants and were very happy with the food in the main dining room,” she says. Cruise lines are so concerned about the lack of guests to these premium restaurants that they’ve begun offering incentives designed to lure them back. One of Farmer’s clients was offered a coupon book on a recent Royal Caribbean cruise for a free meal at Johnny Rockets. “They were thrilled,” she added.

Staying home
The absolute worst-case scenario? That passengers don’t fall for the last-minute deals at all, and skip their vacations entirely. As the economy slides further into recession, that’s a distinct possibility. But it’s not the only reason people would forfeit their cruise, to hear passengers like Tom Sullivan, a Web developer from Middletown, N.J., who cruised on Royal Caribbean last fall, talk about it. “I think many people can overlook being nickel and dimed by surcharges and fees as long as there is still value and a good experience,” he told me. “But that, too, is declining. No amount of fees or surcharges will compensate for a negative vacation experience or lack of value — and will drive people away.”

While it may be something of a stretch to call any these actions “revenge,” they are undoubtedly hurting the cruise industry. Profits are plummeting and new ship construction projects are in danger of being canceled, arguably as a direct result of this new consumer behavior. Captain Sparrow is on the loose.

Maybe now would be a good time to rethink the way floating vacations are marketed. The cruise lines could start by ending the use of the word “all inclusive” to describe their product.

Travel agent backs resort that broadsided customer with mandatory “under 25” fee, until …

If you’re under 25, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise when you check into the Oasis Cancun, a pyramid-like, all-inclusive resort on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula: a mandatory “under 25” fee of $54. And they don’t take “no” for an answer. When Ryan Plaxsun, 24, recently checked into the hotel, he was told to pony up the cash — or leave.

But Plaxsun thought he’d already paid for his whole stay when his online travel agency, Orbitz, took $1,100 out of his account for the airfare-inclusive vacation package. So he protested.

I asked to speak to a manager and they said they did not have one there. Then I asked them to show me this fee on their Web site, and they couldn’t.

After that I asked to use a phone to call Orbitz, and they also refused, saying that their phones do not make outgoing calls.

They told me if I did not pay the additional fees they would not give me my room and the fee had to be paid upfront. I was able to get a receipt for this, after some more arguing.

A hotel without a manager? No prior disclosure? A phone that doesn’t make outgoing calls? Hmmm.

Here’s what the hotel gave him.


I suggested Plaxsun ask Orbitz for a refund of the $54, since the price should have been included in his stay. So he did.

Orbitz said the $54 is not refundable because it is a hotel policy — even though the fee isn’t listed on the hotel Web site or Orbitz. I asked if Orbitz could refund their booking fee, but they wouldn’t do that, either.

I was hard-pressed to find any mention of this fee anywhere as of late yesterday. I decided to contact Orbitz on Plaxsun’s behalf. I heard back from the online agency almost immediately.

We reviewed our Web site and there is no information made available to customers in regards to a under age fee being collected at check in at this property. As you know, we often rely on the hotels to provide this sort of information to us in advance.

In addition to offering an apology to this customer, we will refund the customer the $54 to the credit card on file and advise him via e-mail of the refund.

We are also updating our hotel market manager in this location so that the company can follow up on getting the listing for this hotel updated.

Good call.

Surprise “mandatory” fees at a resort are a huge issue for travelers, and as the economy heads south, I would expect to see these extras multiply. Travel agents — and particularly online travel agents — need to be careful that they disclose every possible surcharge when they’re selling a package billed as “all-inclusive.” Fine print buried a dozen clicks into its terms of service isn’t going to cut it.

If Plaxsun had known about the $54 charge before he booked, Orbitz would have been correct to deny a refund. It did right by its customer by giving him his money back. Eventually.

Does anyone know if this is a scam?

The all-inclusive Mexico vacation fax scam is nothing new. Is this one — or not?

Reader David Nightingale wants to know.

I fully realize “buyer beware” and “you pay for what you get” are caveats we all live by. But over time we weaken because we’ve seen these things so so often. Our fax machine gets the attached solicitation regularly and one has to wonder what you get for this and how legit it is.

I understand that getting there is not a part of the price, but still is tantalizing. Any info you might have appreciated.

Here’s what we do know.

The faxes are not always welcome. In fact, many consider these unsolicited messages to be spam.

We have been receiving unsolicited faxes from this number for years, advertising a Mexico vacation. It wastes our paper and fax toner. There is a number printed at the bottom of the page, and there are instructions to call it in order to stop receiving the faxes. I suspect it is a ploy to confirm our fax # so we have never called. We want it to stop!!

Others believe the offer is fraudulent.

Please do not respond to this number or buy this deal. This is a scam and when you respond, they confirm your fax number. They will never remove it from their files.

My take? If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Take the fax to the recycler.

Beware of this Cancun all-inclusive fax scam

You already know that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. But clever scammers also know that you have an “override” button. Like invoking a well-known travel brand. Or using the name of a trusted media outlet.

Margie Swenson says she fell for such a ploy perpetrated by an Orlando-based company called Travelcomm Industries, which operates under the name Patriot Travel, Cheap Tickets Cancun, Cancun Adventures and, until recently, Priceline Cancun.

Here’s what happened:

Last August, we decided to plan a Cancun vacation for April. I had received a copy of a clipped article from USA Today dated August 7, 2007. It came from the “Money” section. Someone had handwritten two notes on it and drew arrows to the area of the article the note applied to. The two notes read: “I know you are going on a trip this year, thought you’d be interested.” and “Call … and ask about Cancun 6 day all-inclusive for $300/person.”

Swenson phoned the company and was told the rate included food, drinks, room service, and even wind surfing. A representative assured her that she could choose from 16 hotels which were listed on a Web site called Pricelinecancun. Swenson and five other friends booked their flights to Mexico and paid for their hotels but were not given confirmations.

In October, I called the company to choose our hotel. An agent informed me we would be in Cancun during peak season and that it would cost us an additional $200 per room. I agreed to pay. Then I was told that there were only two hotels to choose from. Both of them were three-star hotels — the Maya Caribe and the other the Dos Playas.

I selected the Maya Caribe after one of the agents convinced me it was really nice.

But when she checked into the Maya Caribe, she says she realized she’d been duped.

The lobby looked like an old gas station from the 60’s that was emptied out and a few chairs put in there. I knew we were in trouble at that point.

Our rooms were not ready for occupation yet, so we headed over to take advantage of our “all-inclusive” meals. I spent 20 years in the army and never ate in a mess hall that bad.

We looked at the Dos Playas hotel and it looked like old barracks. We knew the Maya Caribe had to be better. No it wasn’t! We walked for quite a distance to get to our rooms. They didn’t qualify for rent-by-the-hour rooms. There are no hotels in the U.S. that I can compare this place to.

After one night in these substandard accommodations, Swenson and her friends found another hotel that was up to their standards. When she returned to the States, she contacted Travelcomm to ask for a refund. “I was flat-out told I wouldn’t get a refund,” she told me. “I asked for a name and address of whom I would contact and was given something but was told I’d be wasting my time.”

So what’s going on here? I asked Priceline about this apparent scam. Here’s what a representative told me:

In the late summer/fall of last year, after learning about them, we filed complaints with the Florida Attorney General and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. You won’t see that URL anymore, since we also successfully stopped their further use of it.

A USA Today source says the newspaper is aware of the scam, too, and that its attorneys have been “trying to shut it down.” Periodically, the newspaper is contacted by travelers who have fallen for the Cancun fax offer. Obviously, the article that’s being faxed around is a fake. “It annoys me that they’re using USA Today as the bait,” I was told.

Can Travelcomm be stopped? A lot of folks have tried, from former employees to the federal government.

It’s likelier that people will just stop falling for the scam, forcing Travelcomm to go legit — or go out of business.

In the meantime, here are a few tips worth repeating. If it looks too good to be true, it really is. I mean, come on. Six days of an all-inclusive resort for $300? You’ve gotta be kidding me.

A faxed offer? What is this, the 80s?

As for invoking the names of a well-known travel brand or a trusted media outlet, I think maybe the X-Files rule applies to this situation. Trust no one.