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Be sure your cruise travel agent is not a crook

travel agentsIts becoming an all too familiar story: A group of friends or family members buy a group cruise through a friendly local travel agent who handles everything for them. The group makes payments on their cruise to that travel agent, paying in full, right on time. Then the group goes to the ship on embarkation day all excited about the cruise only to find out something is wrong. Some or all of them don't actually have a booking on that sailing or any other sailing as their travel agent ran off with the money and never paid the cruise line. Lets take a look at how this happens and what we can do to prevent it.

The Freeport News describes a recent scam that happened to the Edden family from the Bahamas:

"A family decided to take a vacation together this summer, but some were hugely disappointed.

Thirty-nine persons were set to go on an eight-day Carnival Caribbean cruise to St. Thomas, Tortola, Antigua and Nassau and were all excited.

But, according to family members remaining, the cruise was not for all.

When the group flew to Ft. Lauderdale, where they were to board the ship for their vacation cruise, as the group began the checking-in pro-cess, it was discovered that only 29 of the 39 persons were booked in the system for the cruise. According to reports, that was the amount of people for which the cruiseline allegedly received payment."

The story goes downhill from there. Everyone had already checked their luggage with porters which was now mixed in with the luggage of 2500 other guests on the ship. At this point the whole mess was thought to be a big mistake so the group contacted their friendly "travel agent" for help.

"Eunice Morris of Morris Travel was contacted but the ship had only four remaining cabins on-board which they then sold to the travel agent that reportedly used a credit card to secure.

Of the 39 members of the family only 29 were able to go, and the remaining 10 could not get their luggage because it was mixed in with 2,500 others.

One family member left on shore said this was to be her daughter's first cruise and when they saw the boat leave her daughter began to cry uncontrollably.

It was a heartbreaking moment for the 10 who were not only left stranded at the harbour but also without luggage, no transportation and had already checked out of their rooms."

So now we have 10 people left ashore while the rest go off on their cruise vacation. Morris Travel promised to send them money to help with expenses while they were in Florida, waiting for the others to return along with a full refund when they returned home.

At least those on the ship were having a good time? Not so much.

"For the family members onboard it was not a good trip either as they found they did not have the types of rooms they had paid for.

Then, before the ship made its way to Nassau, the family were called in and told that the credit card (that the travel agent used to pay for the cabins bought on the day of sailing) was fake and they were asked to pay the full amount of $14,612.00 right then.

Their passports were held and they were blocked from leaving the ship, but former Member of Parliament for West End and Bimini David Wallace, who was also on the cruise was said to have pleaded for the family and they were allowed to get off the boat in Nassau, but had to leave their passports."

The story ends with the news that Morris Travel has done this several times and gotten away with it. Their story was that payments had been sent to a processing center who made a mistake and did not forward the payments on to the cruise line.

"Our research has revealed that there was an error in processing and due diligence to correct and inform did not take place in sufficient time to avert a problem at Wenthworth Agencies (WAA) which has contributed to the distress of all parties concerned. Ms. Morris paid for a service to be rendered and we did not follow through to ensure that her request had been met.

"We have compiled points of noted interest on what transpired to cause denied boarding and payment re-call ... We again apologize to the clients of Ms. Morris that suffered through an embarrassing ordeal and to Ms. Morris as she struggles to bring reason to the situation caused upon her unwarranted.

"Again our sincerest apologies, Mr. Daniel Wenthworth, Managing Partner."

Further investigation by The Freeport News did not find a Wenthworth Accounting Agencies Boston, Cambridge and East Central Massachusetts. Big surprise.

The heart-breaking part of all of this is that the whole situation could have been easily avoided if a few simple rules of booking had been followed by the Edden family:

Always pay with a credit or debit card- Never pay with cash or a check. Paying with a credit or debit card affords some protection to consumers in the case of fraud like this case appears to be, just as if that card were stolen or the card number compromised. Cash is impossible to track down later. Checks deposited in the wrong place are not much easier. For efficiency and security, nothing beats a credit or debit card.

Insist that payments go directly to the cruise line- There is no reason for any travel agency to hold payments. In this case, had payments been processed properly and the Edden family used a debit or credit card, they would have seen "Carnival Cruise Lines" on their statement, verifying that payments went to the right place.

Register with the cruise line as soon as you have a booking number- Cruise lines are required to collect certain personal information like how passengers are planning to get to the pier, what credit card they will use for onboard purchases and the correct spelling of their names, etc. If booked passengers go to the cruise line website and attempt registration using the booking number provided by the travel agency and it does not work, something is wrong. It may be as simple as an innocent spelling error of a name or it may be that the crooked travel agent never made the booking.

Ask for an official cruise line invoice- After the initial booking is made, travel agencies commonly send out their own in-house booking confirmations. There's nothing wrong with that and those travel agency invoices often show details of when payments were made that the cruise line invoice does not.

If it does not sound or look right, ask a trusted source- The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a great source to start with, before buying. That an agency is not listed with the BBB should be red flag causing concern on the part of buyers. The BBB rating of an agency is also a good indicator of how things might go. In another scam reported this week by the Orlando Sentinel, the crooked agent involved scored an "F" rating.

Be aware of the travel agency/cruise line relationship- Complying with the agreement made between travel agents and cruise lines, cruise lines will not talk to passengers about their booking made through a travel agent. By booking with a travel agent, passengers give up the right to discuss your booking with the cruise line.

Does that mean everyone should simply book directly with the cruise line? Maybe. If it was their first time going through the process, booking directly with the cruise line would have eliminated the intentional fraud we saw with this case.

But booking directly with the cruise line also removes the opportunity for a good, honest agent to work on the behalf of passengers over the life of the booking. Those efforts most often result in consumers getting the best value as well as a seamless package that only a qualified agent working with their best interests in mind can provide.

Any state Attorney General's office and/or Division of Consumer Affairs is also a good one to give a call early in the process of booking. They maintain records of these things and are eager to help.

The situation is sad but very avoidable for groups that have planned their cruise-of-a-lifetime family reunion, anniversary, graduation or wedding cruise for quite some time. Trusting the local travel agent, they may have skipped dining out, made their shoes last a bit longer than normal or done without something else to make those payments on time. They had no reason to believe anything was wrong. After all, their travel agent is a pro and knows all about cruise vacations. Just this week, another group fell prey to a "travel agent" who would be more accurately described as a "felon on the run".

Flickr photo by gurbisz

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