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The Free Cruise Offer: Scam or Legit? (Photo: Cruise Critic)

The Free Cruise Offer: Scam or Legit?

Thank you for your interest in Royal Seas Cruises on Ticketmaster. You will soon be receiving a call to book your free Bahamas cruise. Can't wait?

This seemingly simple sales pitch began a yearlong journey of phone calls, complete with lightning-fast decisions, scheduling and hand-wringing, as I attempted to determine whether the free cruise offer was a scam, legit or something in between.

Updated August 29, 2018

The Free Cruise

The free cruise scam is something of a legend among travelers, and unfortunately a siren song for the uninitiated. Who doesn't want a two-night getaway to the Bahamas on a cruise for free -- or at least, cheap? I got my free cruise offer as an ad on Ticketmaster on the confirmation page for a theater ticket purchase, and I signed up online to receive a call. It's not the only way the call goes out; the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has reported people receiving phone calls from radio stations like Chase 88 and Quest 102, offering a chance to win a free cruise for answering trivia questions. Some people have received postcards in the mail with an 800 number to call. (Groupon offers Bahamas cruise deals, but as far as we know, they don't claim to be free and are legit.)

However you encounter the free cruise offer, there a few things to consider. First, it usually does not come from a cruise line, though the phone reps might make it sound like that's what they are. My offer came from Royal Seas Cruises; others have been contacted by Holiday Cruise Line. These are travel sellers, not cruise lines. The ship they are offering to get you on is often Grand Celebration. It's a legitimate cruise ship -- but it's owned by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. No one will tell you that.

Second, as you might guess, the cruise isn't actually free. The cruise fare is waived, but you still have to pay government taxes and fees up front: $65 per person, when I called. When you cruise, you will need to pay $12.95 per person, per day, for gratuities, and the cruise line reserves the right to impose an additional fuel surcharge, up to $12 per person, per day. Last time major cruise lines were imposing fuel surcharges additional to the cruise fare was 2008.

All of this is sketchy, but it's not necessarily a scam if you get a cruise in the end. Did we? Here's our story.

Collecting Our Free Cruise: What Happened?

In mid-May 2017, I got the email confirming my interest in a free Royal Seas cruise, and just a day or two later, a representative called me about my free trip. The ensuing conversation was the epitome of a hard sell. After outlining the details of my free cruise -- two nights on Grand Celebration out of the port of Palm Beach in an inside cabin anytime in the next 18 months, as long as I booked 60 days in advance -- and the additional fees I had to pay (supposedly a Ticketmaster promo at $65 per person, down from the usual $129), the rep tried to upsell me in multiple ways.

I could book an outside cabin for more money, or she could transfer me to the customer care team if I'd prefer a balcony. The rep told me that if I booked the outside cabin, I could upgrade at an undisclosed discounted rate later, but I couldn't do that if I booked the inside that day. Or I could choose an extended stay (saving over 75 percent!), with two nights pre-cruise in Fort Lauderdale or Orlando or two nights on Grand Bahama Island (in between sailings) at the Grand Lucayan Breakers Cay Resort. Total price for the cruise plus Bahamas resort was $998 for two passengers.

The rep didn't mention a timeshare pitch, but when I asked her, she said you did need to attend a "guided tour of the Florida owner's resort" if you booked one of the hotel packages but not if you chose to cruise only. (Many free cruise recipients complain about the surprise timeshare presentation or hotel tour they're forced to attend when collecting their free vacation.)

But the sketchiest aspect of the phone call was that I had to decide that very instant; I could not hang up and call back. When I said I couldn't possibly make a vacation decision without checking with my husband, the rep offered to put me on hold, so I could call my husband and then re-connect. She also said if I booked, I could transfer the booking to someone else for a $9.95 fee. When I gave my credit card over the phone, I had no way of knowing if the rep was who she said she was, if I would get a cruise or if she would steal my credit card number. It was an uncomfortable leap of faith, especially when they charged my credit card before the official authorization portion of the call took place.

Oh, and when asked if Royal Seas Cruises owned Grand Celebration, the rep said yes (wrong).

Booking the Free Cruise

Unlike a normal cruise reservation, when you pay for your free cruise, you don't walk away with a cruise booking number. You get a Royal Seas booking number that you use when you're ready to confirm a sailing date. It's not as easy as it looks.

I called at the end of August to book an early November weekend cruise. The rep told me that my preferred sail date was only available if I upgraded to a package with a two-night pre-cruise stay at their hotel in Florida. There was no availability for my booking (inside cabin, cruise-only) until December when I was not free.

I tried again a few weeks later, and was able to book myself and a friend on the January 20, 2018, Saturday-to-Monday cruise. Once again, they tried to upsell me to a pre-cruise package for $69 that included two nights' hotel stay at the Ramada Plaza in Fort Lauderdale with meals, and maybe with transportation to the cruise port or maybe they'd arrange it for $60 per person. (It was not clear -- despite the huge price difference with or without transport.) They reminded me about additional fees, such as gratuities, fuel surcharge (currently at $9 per person) and port parking (if needed, at $18 per day). I wouldn't receive an exact cabin number until three weeks before the cruise.

The other surprise was that I would need to pick up my cruise documents at Royal Seas' Welcome Center at the Ramada in Fort Lauderdale, nearly 50 miles away from the cruise port. But what if we're flying into West Palm Beach, I asked? The rep assured me I could call to get the documents sent to the port where I could pick them up. It was unclear why they didn't have everyone's documents at the port or sent to their homes or email addresses.

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No Free Cruise for Me

A month or so before my cruise, a Royal Seas rep called me to confirm my sailing. We got cut off, and she never called back. I assumed I was confirmed.

Fifteen days before my cruise, I get an email from Royal Seas: "We have made attempts to contact you regarding your upcoming travel dates. The Grand Celebration has changed it's [sic] itinerary so unfortunately your cruise dates are no longer available." Now Grand Celebration has one itinerary, Palm Beach to Grand Bahamas Island and back, and the only time it changes that is when it gets chartered by FEMA for hurricane disaster relief. I have my travel companion call the cruise line. After an hour on hold, she's told the cruise line has "commandeered the ship" (say what?), and we can either switch to two nights at the Ramada Plaza in Fort Lauderdale plus a one-day ferry trip on the Balearia to the Bahamas, or a refund of our money with some type of certificate to show the airlines to help rebook our trip.

We did not want option A. (Look up reviews of the Balearia -- aka "the Vomit Comet" -- on our sister site TripAdvisor, and you'll see why.) When I got back home, I called Royal Seas on Monday to cancel. I spent a total of three hours on hold, including two at one stretch, and never reached anyone. On Tuesday, I found a different number and got through. This rep said I could switch to the two-night hotel stay (no mention of ferry) or rebook on another sail date. When pressed, he said I could cancel but wouldn't help with airline change fees.

I asked to speak to a supervisor. She said she was very sorry, that there was nothing they could do as the ship had been chartered. (I did confirm with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line that the ship was indeed chartered, though the rep there said that usually charters are booked months -- not weeks -- in advance.) She told me she'd refund the $130 I'd paid in fees, but couldn't help me with expensive flight changes. When I pressed her, she ultimately gave me the contact information for her compliance department who would review and hopefully help refund airline change fees. So, we canceled.

All that was an ordeal – and then it got weird. The following day, the supervisor called me back to say that she felt so bad for my situation that she pulled some strings and got us back on the cruise. What about the charter, I ask, and she says there were a few rooms still available (likely because I stuck with the inside cabin). What about all the travel plans I just canceled? Try to change them back, she urged, stressing how she just went out on a limb for me. Hmm. One day she told me she couldn't help; the next, she laid on the guilt when I balked at spending more time on the phone rejiggering travel plans.

Even if I wanted to, the situation was impossible -- my friend's babysitters were no longer available, and I'd have to pay a second set of airline change fees plus a higher fare, turning a $100 ticket into a $400 ticket. So, I called back and canceled, guilt trip be damned. Or did I? A few days before my cruise should have departed, I got a confirmation email from Royal Seas about picking up my cruise docs. I hope it was a clerical error because I did not have the energy to call back. Now I'm waiting to hear back from the compliance department, and watching my credit card for the refund.

Was It a Scam?

My experience with Royal Seas Cruises was definitely sketchy and full of hassles. I expect I'll eventually get a refund, though I'm not sure about the reimbursement of my airline change fees. I fully expect that it will take several more phone calls before I see any money.

Before you write off Royal Seas as a total scam, however, look at the company's Yelp reviews; some people actually do get a cruise out of the deal. There are many complaints -- about the high-pressure sales tactics I encountered, bait and switch with hotels, forced timeshare presentations, cruise cancellations and high fees when people don't book their cruise in the allotted 18 months and want to extend the offer. But at least with Royal Seas, no one is reporting their credit card number stolen or that they put down the deposit and never received the voucher to book. (Though there could be other scams out there that do these things.) For what it's worth, the Better Business Bureau rates the company as an F, says it's not BBB accredited and mentions the cruise scam at the top of the page.

In this case, the actual scam seems to be the bait and switch tactics, unhelpful customer service, hidden fees and requirements and the difficulty of obtaining a refund for canceled cruises. It's not a phishing scam, but you have a high probability of not getting the vacation you thought you were booking.

Booking Directly Through the Line

Cruise newbies are rightfully confused about companies like Royal Seas Cruises. While the line implies it's the cruise line for the Grand Celebration ship, it's not; its name often makes people think it's Royal Caribbean, and many of the positive BBB reviews are from folks posting in the wrong place.

Grand Celebration is, in fact, an old Carnival ship that was purchased by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. After its fall 2017 FEMA charter, the ship got a refresh in dry dock, including a new adults-only area, a larger casino and a coffee and juice bar. The cruises are popular enough that the line has purchased a second ship from Costa Cruises, to be named Grand Classica, scheduled to debut in April 2018. Cruise Critic readers rate Grand Celebration 3 out of 5 stars -- remember, it is a smaller, older ship -- and have reviewed it 299 times.

Bahamas Paradise turned down our request for an interview, but a spokeswoman for the line said, "I can tell you that Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line and Royal Seas Cruises are two totally separate, unrelated and independent companies. Royal Seas Cruises is a wholesaler and sells Bahamas Paradise Cruises, as they also sell other cruise lines."

We went to the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line website in late January and spotted a home page ad offering "cruise for $129 or get 10 free drinks." We talked to an agent via the live chat feature and confirmed that the $129 price was per person, not per room, for an inside cabin; the total fee for two was $393 after taxes and fees, with an additional $12.95 per person in gratuities payable on the cruise; and that availability was limited to last-minute weekday sailings in January and February. Their spring break deal quoted prices starting at $149 per person.

Booking through Bahamas Paradise is the legit way to go, but as you can see, you'll be paying a lot more. My weekend cruise in January cost nearly $250 less through Royal Seas Cruises than this weekday offer. Then again, I never got to cruise.

The Take Away

You will never get something for nothing, and only you know how much risk or time you are willing to take to get a vacation for cheap. If you're tempted by a free cruise deal, here are a few ways you can protect yourself from being scammed:

Do your research.

When you see a free cruise offer from a company like Royal Seas, look them up online before you give them your money. This is especially easy if you sign up for the deal online and there's a few days' lag time before they call you. A quick look at Yelp and the BBB website can provide a ton of information. If you have a ship name, you can look it up on Cruise Critic to see which company actually owns and operates it. You can also read both editor and reader reviews of ships to see if the experience is the dream cruise you're envisioning. In addition, Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), which protects against unethical travel sellers, requires all nonexempt travel sellers to register with the department; you can call them to find out if the company you're dealing with is registered or has any complaints levied.

Beware of giving your credit card to an unknown source.

FDACS also advises that consumers "never give out credit card or checking account numbers over the phone unless you initiated the call and are certain of the company's credentials." If someone cold calls you and asks for your credit card number in exchange for a vacation voucher, there's no way to prove they're legit. You can ask for a number to call them back, but they might not give it. (Royal Seas would not, and would not honor their deal if I hung up and called later.) Know how your credit card company handles fraudulent charges, and document everything said to you on a call if you plan on taking the risk. Never give your credit card number for any purpose (such as verifying your identity) other than making a specific purchase.

Ask questions.

Be skeptical of hard sells and offers that sound too good to be true. An amazing deal that is only available if you book right now likely has strings attached or a hidden agenda. Ask the name of the cruise ship and cruise line; if they won't tell you, hang up immediately. Ask the company if it can show you credentials or prove it's legit. Ask about additional fees you might be required to pay, restrictions on dates of travel or requirements like attending timeshare pitches (a common occurrence with free travel offers). Ask how and when you'll receive travel vouchers or be able to book your cruise. Ask about penalties for canceling, transferring the booking to another person, switching travel dates or extending the expiration date of your voucher.

Speak to a supervisor.

If anything sounds suspicious or if your questions are not being answered to your satisfaction, ask to speak to a supervisor or higher-up. Especially when dealing with customer service requests, they are often authorized to offer more than the first-line phone reps.

Book through a reputable cruise line or travel agent.

There are so many great cruise deals out there from legitimate travel agents and cruise lines, you might be better off booking your vacation that way. A free cruise offer might be cheap, but you can waste hours of your life trying to put the package together, and might not end up with a cruise, or at least the vacation you imagined, in the end. Educate yourself on tips and tricks for getting the best cruise price, and then pick the trip you want. It's definitely better value for your time and money.

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