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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Weighing the Risks and Rewards. When you use a travel agent, who you do business with matters.

Travelers who take the risk of booking a cruise based on the cheapest price they find online face two big questions:

Do you really save enough money to make the risk worth it?
And, perhaps even more important, what are the chances you'll wind up with no vacation at all?

Don't think that's what the Detroit Free Press reported ( November 2008 ) below.

"Cruise agency folds; clients stranded. Clients say one of the nation’s biggest online cruise agencies, based in Michigan, took their money, never paid for cruises, then collapsed. The industry journals Cruise Week and Travel Weekly estimated the company may have taken $2 to $3 million in customer money that was never applied to cruises and that the company was on pace to do $100 million in business this year. Travelers who contacted the Free Press this week described losses of $1,500 to $60,000 for trips that were never booked. And they are wondering how they will ever get their money back.

“They never even paid our travel insurance,” says Jay Goodman of Brooklyn, N.Y., who found out about the loss when his travel insurer contacted him for payment — which he’d already made to Cruise Value Center. He also lost $1,589 on a Panama Canal cruise he was supposed to take Jan. 16th. He paid through Discover, which then used PayPal to pay the company. He has disputed the charge with Discover. David Hyman of London, England, was out $60,000 for a deluxe Silversea Cruise after the agency took his money but never paid for the cruise. Ninety percent of his payment was made with a nonrefundable cashier’s check. Kim Bonner of Reading, Pa., found out her deposit for a 25th anniversary cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line was paid, but the balance never was. She is trying to get a refund through her Visa bank card."

So, how can you protect yourself ?

First, have your travel agent give you the actual cruise line's booking confirmation number(s)NOT the invoice number or agency reference number used by the travel agency. With your cruise line's confirmation number, you can view ( usually within 24hrs of placing your deposit ) your own booking directly on the cruise line web site, with the added benefit of pre-reserving, where available, shore excursions, restaurant reservations and more.

Second, pay for your cruise -- both the deposit and the final payment -- with a major credit card such as Mastercard, Discover, Visa or American Express. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you are entitled to protection (via a chargeback of disputed fees to your account) if the travel agent or for that matter, the cruise line goes out of business. This protection may not apply if you use a debit card. So, check with your card company for their policy before you charge.

Third, when you do pay for a cruise on your credit card, make sure that the actual charge is made by the cruise line, rather than the travel agency. That way you'll know that the cruise line has your money.

Look Before Your Book

" Does the cruise price seem too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices."Unpleasant surprises can ruin a cruise vacation. That's why it pays to investigate before you buy. On the internet it can be difficult to tell a legitimate offer from a fraudulent one, so consider these travelers' advisories from information complied from the Federal Trade Commission and other sources. Items noted in red are our suggestions. The information has been edited to focus on cruise travel related issues.

How To Protect Yourself

Be wary of "great deals" and low-priced offers. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices.
Don't be pressured into buying. Legitimate businesses don't expect you to make snap decisions.

Ask detailed questions. Find out exactly what the cruise price covers and what it doesn't. Ask about additional charges. Get all the details included in your package. Consider contacting the cruise line directly to verify arrangements. Ask about cancellation policies and refunds.

If the company can't give you detailed answers,
go somewhere else.

Get all information in writing before you agree to buy. Ask for a copy of the cruise line's own written confirmation. Once you receive the written information, make sure it reflects what you were told over the phone and the terms you agreed to. If the company offers you a great deal but won't give you the details in writing until you have paid, it could be a scam operation.

If the company can't give you a copy of the cruise lines own confirmation,
go somewhere else.

Don't buy part of the package - the air fare or cruise - separately from the rest. If the deal is not what you expected, it may be difficult to get your money back for the part of the package you purchased.

Don't give your credit card number or bank information over the internet or phone. One easy way for a scam operator to close a deal is to get your credit card number and charge your account. Sometimes fraudulent telemarketers say they need the number for verification purposes only. Don't believe them.

If the company doesn't take steps to protect your personal information,
go somewhere else.

Don't send money by overnight mail. Some scam artists may ask you to send them a check or money order immediately. If you pay with cash or a check, rather than a credit card, you lose your right to dispute fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. If you charged your cruise to a credit card, you may dispute the charges by writing to your credit card issuer at the address provided for billing disputes. If possible, do this as soon as you receive your statement. In any case, the law gives you up to 60 days after the bill's statement date to dispute the charge.

Check out the company before you buy. Contact the Attorney General in your state or where the company is located to see if any complaints have been lodged against the travel firm or the travel provider. Be aware that fraudulent businesses often change their names to avoid detection.

If in doubt, say "no." Trust your instincts. It's less risky to turn down the offer
so hang up the phone.

Does the cruise price seem too good to be true? If so, it probably is.
Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value
or substantially undercut other companies' prices.

Be wary of a salesperson who "pushes" one cruise line,cruise ship or itinerary. That's
not a good sign that they are working in your best interest.

You may be asked after you book and place a deposit to pay more for port charges, document shipping costs, higher than normal deposits upfront, unreasonable cancellation fees or are offered a bonus if you pay in-full upfront.

That cut-rate cruise offer may not be a bargain after all, especially when dealing with travel brokers who might use bait and switch tactics to get you to buy something you did not want.

Make sure that the company is registered with the State Attorney General's Office where it does business if it sells, or arranges for, air or sea travel (either separately or in conjunction with other services). Ask to see the company's current registration certificate.

The certificate has the company's registration number, which must be included in all advertising.

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