August 19, 2010
The Free Cruise
We've seen spokesmodel Carmen Electra touting free cruises on TV, received the award booklet mailing (with its official-looking stamps of approval from The Islands of the Bahamas, Alamo and Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort) and discovered the offer while browsing the Web. We're told that collecting our free cruise is easy: Call an 800 number, or fill out a form, and it's time for two nights of zero-cost cruising.
Naturally, "scam" might be the first thing that comes to mind with such an offer. And it quickly becomes apparent that the * means it's not actually free. It'll cost you a minimum of $59 per person for government fees and port taxes. There's nothing necessarily untoward here; the government taxes and fees are clearly stated, and $59 per person for a two-night Bahamas cruise -- which includes accommodations, all meals, entertainment and a call at Grand Bahama Island -- still seems like a decent deal for a quick getaway.
Still, people have had serious complaints when trying to book the offer, ranging from confusion about which company is making the offer (Caribbean Cruise Lines, which sends the deal, or Celebration Cruise Line, which operates the ship) to forced timeshare pitches and misleading pricing. Cruise Critic did some research -- and attempted to book a cruise -- to help you determine whether the offer is a scam or a good deal.
First, a bit of background:
What is Caribbean Cruise Line, Anyway?
Let's clear up a key point of confusion right away. Celebration Cruise Line is the actual name of the line on which you'll be sailing. Caribbean Cruise Line is not a cruise line at all, but the name of a wholesaler that's touting the free cruise. But the difference between line and wholesaler seems to be blurry at best, with numerous complaints on sites like Cruise Critic, complaintsboard.com and ripoffreport.com conflating line and seller. It doesn't help that each has a telegenic spokesmodel -- Daisy Fuentes for Celebration and Carmen Electra for Caribbean.
As a travel wholesaler, Caribbean Cruise Line is licensed and bonded in the State of Florida, "Fla. Seller of Travel Reg. No. ST-37425." (Though, there are timeshare marketing outposts in locations where the company is registered; for instance, in New Jersey, it's registered by the New Jersey Real Estate Commission.) Regardless of the official license, the charges against Caribbean Cruise Lines have been fast and furious -- consumers have had difficulties getting refunds, been subjected to aggressive sales tactics, discovered that salespeople had misrepresented cabin locations -- and many equate the two companies or confuse one for the other.
Angelina from Pennsylvania, who booked an extended-stay vacation after seeing Carmen Electra touting the cruise on TV, told us a horror story, which included more than five hours of timeshare presentations that they were not told they'd have to attend. "You have to go, or you will not be allowed to get on the cruise ship if you don't," she told us.
Florida's Division of Consumer Services has record of at least 40 complaints, the content of which we've yet to receive in the form of a public record request. Moreover, the Better Business Bureau gives Caribbean Cruise Line and "F" -- and the BBB has documented 459 complaints filed against the business, 396 of which have been considered resolved. Still, according to a spokesperson at the Florida Attorney General's Office, the body responsible for responding in earnest to those consumer complaints, no official investigation has been opened or closed on Caribbean Cruise Line.
Celebration Cruise Line, meanwhile, debuted in March 2009 as the newest player in the bustling South Florida cruise market. The line offers two-night budget cruises out of Palm Beach to the Bahamas aboard its converted ferry, Bahamas Celebration. It's the first cruise line to offer multi-day sailings out of the Florida port since 1996, according to the port authority.
Celebration Cruise Line is filling the void left by Imperial Majesty Cruise Line, a similarly budget-minded, first-timer-focused offering -- and one that also relied on the free cruise timeshare pitch to help fill its only ship. IMCL ceased operations in March 2009. (In fact, Celebration's parent company is Fort Lauderdale-based Celebration Cruise Holdings, which previously owned Regal Empress and chartered it out to Imperial Majesty Cruise Line. Read more about the connection between IMCL and CCL.)
Collecting Our Free Cruise: What Happened When We Called?
I grabbed the awards booklet that came in the mail from Caribbean Cruise Line and called to go through the process. Here's what I found:
I reached Jerry Porter, who told me the conversation was being recorded to make sure he didn't "promise me a trip around the world on the Queen Mary." Jerry went on to clearly state that I would be responsible for the payment upfront at the time of the call and that I'd have to book now or lose out on this exceptional offer. He asked me if I had my credit card handy. Expecting my total to be $118, port and government fees for two people, it was actually $217 -- Jerry had, by default, tried to sell me an upgraded oceanview cabin instead of the cheapest room available. Jerry didn't tell me until I asked, but there is also a $10 per person, per day, fee for gratuities, which is automatically added to your onboard bill. It's a standard practice for cruise lines, but it's not something that first-timers would necessarily know.
After my second question, I was transferred to the supervisor. No one was particularly rude, but the sales people stayed strictly on script. I had additional questions and was given the number for the corporate office -- or, rather, "Travel Services," a fulfillment center.
A woman who answered the phone and identified herself as Tanesha provided information about Celebration Cruise Line and Caribbean Cruise Line, stating that the companies were one and the same. She said that the promotional department, Caribbean Cruise Line, handles the free cruise giveaways and the extended-stay vacation packages, and the cruise line, Celebration Cruise Line, sells cruises and cruise-stay packages.
Again, according to Glenn Ryserson, Celebration's Vice President-Marketing, there is no connection; they are two separate businesses.
I tried calling a different free cruise 800 number I found on the Internet. The drill was the same. On the second attempt, additional questions were met with a curt, "We're instructed to send you to the Web site," and then they hung up on me.
For the next week, I received at least three phone calls a day from the wholesalers. When I picked up, I heard a recorded message touting Caribbean Cruise Line.
Booking Directly Through the Line: A Different Story
Attempting to book directly through the line was different. I was quoted $199 per person for an oceanview cabin. With port and government fees and auto-gratuities, which are collected onboard, the total came to $269.92 per person. (A number of readers on the Cruise Critic message boards have noted that they've had to pay the fuel surcharge as recently as April. It's $9 per person, per day. I asked the sales woman directly, but was told there were no fuel surcharges. Ryerson confirmed that the company's policy was currently not to charge surcharges.)
That's $540 total -- quite a bit more than the $217 I was quoted by the wholesaler.
More Hidden Costs from the Free Cruise Offer? The Timeshare Pitch
Okay, so there's a savings potential to be sure. But there's yet another potential catch. On the back of the mailing, we spotted this statement: "Promotion requires the attendance at a presentation on the sale of independent vacation ownership resorts." The fine print continues, clarifying the company's intent: "The advertising material is being used for the purpose of soliciting sales of a vacation ownership plan." In other words, the "free cruise" is the lure to get you to buy a timeshare.
And yet, on the two separate calls made to two different 800 numbers -- one received in the mail and one found online -- I was told that, in booking the cruise-only portion, I would not have to attend a timeshare presentation.
At least a few Cruise Critic members have posted slightly different stories. "I received my cruise confirmation from Celebration in the mail yesterday for our April 24 sailing. Of course it says we must go to Fort Lauderdale to pick up our vouchers prior to boarding in Palm Beach," wrote member TracyESQ on the message boards. Others have confirmed that the post-payment booking packet that arrives in the mail directs passengers to a "welcome center," rather than to the Palm Beach pier (or an online location) to pick up their boarding passes.
To confuse matters, some readers have noted that, after calling the cruise line directly, they were told to proceed right to the pier and bypass the "welcome center." Definitely follow the instructions of the wholesaler, says spokesman Ryerson -- again, the real name of which is Celebration Cruise Line, not Caribbean Cruise Line. "We wouldn't want you to come to the pier and be unable to board."
In a telephone conversation, Ryerson aimed to distinguish Celebration Cruise Line from Caribbean Cruise Line. Ryerson tells Cruise Critic, "There is no free cruise offer from Celebration Cruise Line and never has been. A few wholesale companies may be promoting it as part of a package, the same as with most other cruise lines."
So what does the line say about how Caribbean conducts business? "I know that they do go up there with a taxes-only cruise with the goal of selling a bigger package."
And those wholesalers are very important to Celebration. Ryerson mentions that that some 30 percent of passengers get onboard by way of wholesalers like Caribbean Cruise Line.
"What we do with every customer on the ship, whether they come through a wholesaler or directly through us -- we don't care how they get on the ship -- we only care once they get onboard that the experience is a very positive one, and 98 percent of the comments are positive. We haven't had the need to talk to any business partners. From what I understand, these people are getting on the ship for taxes only, and they would have never experienced a cruise otherwise. The salespeople are earning commissions, and some of the people might be a little more aggressive, but I definitely don't think they're disreputable in any way."
But does the cruise line have rules that wholesalers must follow when selling the brand?
"The only guideline for selling the cruises is that if someone is promised a completely difference experience than was actually experienced -- then we have a problem ... but there have not been any red flags from our standpoint, and people are getting as much, if not more, than they expected."
For its part, Celebration Cruise Line is accredited by the Better Business Bureau, and has a rating of A-. Yet the line is not without its own unusual business practices, such as its fuel surcharge policy. It reserves the right to reinstate fuel surcharges of $9 per person, per day, if the price of crude exceeds $40 per barrel -- a price at which oil hasn't been close to in years. All other mainstream lines put the threshold at $65 or $70. And it seems that passengers have actually been paying the fuel fees in the recent past, perhaps unknowingly. According to Ryerson, the line now "rolls everything into the cost into the cruise, while we had, in the past, had a separate fuel surcharge."
The Take Away
What we can say at this point is this: Do your research as to the product being sold, sight unseen. Read reviews of the ship on sites like Cruise Critic. Understand that the ship is a converted Baltic ferry, this is a mass-market cruise experience, and you will likely get a small inside cabin, perhaps set up with bunk beds, if you pay the minimum $59 per person. It must be said that companies like Caribbean Cruise Line have successfully booked thousands of cabins for Celebration. Many passengers have shared their stories on Cruise Critic's Celebration Cruise Line forum.
The Web site for the Florida Attorney General also offers sound advice. Before deciding on any vacation certificate arrangement, you should always call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 1-800-435-7352 to determine whether the company is registered, how long it has been in business and whether there are any complaints against it. Further, "Do not give your credit card number to anyone over the telephone unless you initiated the call and are sure that the company's offer is legitimate."
In terms of consumer protection, Florida statute says that you have a right to cancel your purchase and receive a refund within 30 days of the date of purchase or receipt of the vacation certificate, whichever occurs later. You may also have the right to cancel at anytime if the accommodations or facilities are not available pursuant to a request for use provided in the contract if certain statutory terms and conditions are met. You must advise the seller in writing of your wish to cancel, and include the certificate. The seller has 30 days from the time of receipt of your notice of cancellation to send you a full refund.
Still, you may have to fight for the refund, as one Cruise Critic reader points out. "After lots of phone calls and arguing," Evaluator posts, "we got a full refund from ... Caribbean Cruise Lines.... We have been on too many good cruises with Royal Caribbean to take a chance on this company at this time. Maybe later, after the Bahamas Celebration has been operating out of Palm Beach for a much longer time, we would reconsider. And then we would only book direct with Celebration. Good luck to those that choose this line."
--by Dan Askin, News Editor