Before we start pointing out the scams and rip-offs on cruise ships and with other travel, we need to define what is and is not a scam.
A scam is never about price. If you think something is overpriced it isn’t enough to be considered a scam. You did have the choice in buying or passing.
Most people know cruise ship Wi-Fi is pricey and doesn’t work as well as many expect it to. While this might be considered a rip-off, it doesn’t rise to the level of a scam.
For something to be a scam (and a “rip-off” for the purposes of this article) there needs to be an element misinformation or deceit involved. The reason why I consider this the big issue when traveling is because this is where you can have your wallet unloaded without realizing until later (if at all) that you have been had.
It is easier to see how scams take place when explained with a story so I will share a recent Caribbean cruise my wife, daughter and I enjoyed a few weeks ago. And boy were the scam artists out! They didn’t want pocket change, they wanted hundreds, and in one case, 5-figures of my hard earned money, plus the opportunity to pay 29.99% interest on the money I was scammed out of!
Considering how much money is involved, this is a serious financial issue. Vacation time may be a time to relax and unwind, but if you are in a tourist area (cruise ships easily qualify) you need to keep at the highest alert or it might be the last vacation you can afford.
The ship is leaving port. Hop aboard!
Cruise Ship Scams and Rip-offs
It was the first cruise for all of us. We left Miami for an 8-day cruise with two ports of call in the Dominican Republic, and one port of call each in Bonaire and Aruba.
Normally I am a road trip kind of traveler so I tend to stay away from the tourist areas where the issues are greatest. On a cruise the cruise ship has scams on board and every port anticipates the victims, ah, I mean tourists visiting them. Fun as a cruise is, there are well practiced people every step of the way willing to help you part with your cash.
Seasoned readers will know many more scams when cruising. Forgive my passing over most of these. Please share your stories in the comments so we can benefit as a community.
I want to dig deep into three scams that would have been very serious if fallen for.
- Art sales on the cruise ship. Most people will see quickly that the art sales on a cruise ship are questionable at best. However, your friendly accountant, has a nasty habit of reading fine print. Call it a habit from reading tax code. And boy, did I uncover a doozy or three!
- Monkeyland. My family participated in only one excursion: Monkeyland. And if you think you can let your guard down when enjoying travel deep into the port of call, think again. It was a well-oiled machine for prying money out of you and I think you will agree the distorted facts bring the offers to the level of a scam.
- Aruba. We enjoyed a long walking tour by ourselves in Aruba. And then an opportunity of a lifetime arose. It also revealed my superpowers! I was able to read through paper, predict the future and expose a scam all in 10 minutes.
Art Sale Scams on Cruise Ships
My daughter is an artist so she couldn’t resist the art show.They used some inducements to get her to attend the auction. I, on the other hand, do not have much interest in art. But in support of my daughter, and out of curiosity, I attended. And boy did I learn a thing or two!
First, this was one slick operation run by a company called Park West Gallery. They claimed to be on over 90 cruise ships but I had no way of verifying this.
Second, the art was not all that impressive. Much of it was from up and coming artists or new artists. My daughter knew some of the techniques used to create many of the paintings. There were a few that were appealing to the eye. But, as a non-artist, my eyes might not know the difference between Da Vinci and a kindergarten class project.
Now we get to the fun part.
The art auction was held in a darkened room. That makes sense so people can easily see the art at the front of the room.
The auction was recorded.
The first item was something like $77,000 and appeared to sell quickly to a guy at the back of the room. I wasn’t tuned in enough at the first auctioned item to realize how the grift was unfolding. My first impression was that the guy was a plant. By starting with a high number, later auctioned items selling for mere thousands, would seem like a bargain. In fact, the guy the auctioneer indicated bought the piece may never have done so. Here is why.
Some items would sell and the auctioneer would indicate the audience should give a warm round of applause to the buyer. If you listened carefully you could tell when a piece didn’t sell as the auctioneer said, “Let’s give applause for that one.” That one? Ah! Point to someone in the crowd so people would think there was a buyer while the recording would clearly show the wording was honest.
Periodically a very expense auction was placed between “regular items.” I believe this was to keep people thinking of higher numbers. It’s a psychological trick used to anchor a price.
Up to this point I saw only smooth salesmanship and no scam. Remember our definition of a scam. Price alone does not make something a scam.
Park West Gallery was providing their own appraisals from what I gathered. Of course, we get some interesting numbers when such a massive conflict of interest exists.
Saying a painting is appraised from $30,000, but are willing to let it go for $20,000 is BS! Period. If you are so generous, then let me get an independent third-party appraisal of your personal residence, Miss auctioneer, and part with said property for a serious amount under the appraised value. Bet that offer would not be entertained.
The value of any of these paintings, at most, is what they sold for at the auction. That is how the value of an asset is determined.
If this isn’t a scam, the next one is, in my humble opinion.
The paperwork. Just read the paperwork. Nowhere in the conversation did we get told that you might not get the artwork you bid on! In fact, the invoice clearly states in very small type (for you to read in a darkened room) that, “You likely will instead receive a unique work that is a variation of the example displayed at the auction.”
You will “likely” receive something different, but “substantially equivalent?”
And don’t think of filing suit against the gallery. The document clearly states: ARBITRATION OF CLAIMS AND DISPUTES AND WAIVER OF JURY TRIAL. Then you get a fair amount of small print pointing out how favorable this is for Park West Gallery.
And that is where I cross over to scam territory. Overpriced? Your choice to buy or pass; no scam. Fast talk at the auction that requires carefully listening? You should have listened carefully; no scam.
A large amount of small type necessary to read in a darkened room that puts you at a serious disadvantage and replaces the expensive item purchased? In my book, a scam. The details I outlined above should have been clearly stated to the group before they bid or time should have been given and encouragement offered to read the corpus of small print.
Oh, and all art in sold unframed unless stated otherwise, which some was.
If you like a piece of art, buy it. I have no problem with that. Buy it for the personal pleasure, not as an investment. If the price is high (anything over $1,000 in my book), get a third-party appraisal before signing anything. You are not going to lose out on the art you want anyway. Remember? You are “likely” to find something else delivered to your home.
And if you really love collecting art from new artists, try out local galleries. Supporting local artists ranks higher in my book that buying art while on vacation on a cruise ship.
My family only took the cruise line up on one excursion. The rest of the time we explored on our own without incidence. Well, except for the third scam we discovered in Aruba.
Buying the excursion through the cruise line is more expense, but not a scam in any way. Because we would be starting at the port in La Romana and traveling deep into the Dominican Republic, I wanted to stay close to the group from our boat. It was worth the extra cost for me.
The attraction is the monkeys. The monkeys were in segregated cages and when our group entered one of those cages they knew it was food time. The monkeys were all over us like bad breath after a tuna sandwich. Absolutely the best!
Monkeyland is located on a coffee, cocoa and other spices plantation. Once we enjoyed the monkeys we were off to get educated on growing organic coffee and cocoa. This occupied over half the allotted time for this excursion and for good reason.
I believe the products they grow are organic. Other claims seemed a bit of a stretch, however.
As the sales pitch was in full swing (lots of products we had to buy!) we got some less than accurate information, our definition of a scam.
The first whopper of a statement informed us that consuming their plantations products can lead to weight loss. The speaker was thin and he used that as an example of how Dominicans and people on that plantation were all so fit and trim. Except for the lady over his left shoulder behind the cash register that needed an extra three inches or fewer pounds (kilograms) to qualify. Opps! Gotta watch out for employees that don’t fit the BS story.
The second whopper involved information on naturally decaffeinating coffee. The claim is that the anthrax bacteria was best to get the job done and that the natural anthrax bacteria is harmless until modified in a laboratory. I actually let out a laugh when he said that and was given a stern frown.
When I got back home I crowdsourced this questionable fact by asking on social media sites if anyone has heard of this. I found nothing online and my followers thought I was pulling their leg. Well, it wasn’t me; it was a guy from the Dominican Republic. But it gets better!
The last claim that had me bent over laughing hysterically was this. Our presenter, the skinny guy, claimed his granddad lived to 132 and his grandmother to 136. He credited the longevity as a result of drinking the plantation’s organic coffee.
For the record, the Guiness Book of World Records only lists verified information and mentions the oldest person ever to live died at 122 years of age, plus another 164 days. A far cry from 132 or 136 years. Here is a list of all the verified oldest people to ever have lived if you are interested.
You would think with these three strikes I would have kept my wallet tucked. Well, you would be wrong. I bought an overpriced bag of roasted coffee beans. It is the best coffee my office has ever seen. I’m still old, fat, bald and gray. The claims seem spurious, but man, that is some good coffee!
Not all scams are bad, I guess. Just be careful in the tourist trap areas, fellows accountant. There is plenty to trip you up. Then you decide if it is worth trading cash for the items.
Something dawned on me after we set sail.
Aruba is very close to the coast of mainland South America. A quick internet check indicated Aruba is on the South American plate and therefore, part of South America.
This would not be an issue but for some rather forceful words I published many years ago saying I never planned on leaving North America in my life. Well, I had a choice: swim back to Miami or swallow my pride. (It went down better than I thought.) Back to our story.
Aruba was our last port of call. It was a relatively short stay so we planned our own personal tour of the small island. And then it happened.
As we were walking an attractive young woman wanted to hand us each a card. The cards had potential prizes inside.
The young woman was so excited to see what we won she was dancing on her toes. Her dance might have been muted if I had told her I noticed she dealt off the bottom of the deck when handing my wife her card.
My daughter got nothing. Na, na, na, na, naaaaaa! I got a beer. Must have looked like a beer guy, I guess. (I later passed on the free beer.)
But my beloved wife. Oh, she was a big winner.
Our attractive host was squealing with delight. It was her first day on the job! (Whatever.) She is a struggling college student! (Who isn’t in these places?) She wins $100 when someone wins the grand prize. (I’m holding back my excitement.) She called a supervisor to help her with the prize claim and the grift was on.
What were the possible prizes, you ask? Well, it was one of four things: $500 cash, $700 in casino credit (it was sponsored by the casino we stood in front of), a $500 Visa gift card or a free world vacation (back to Aruba and said casino).
By this time I am deep into my vacation and my verbal filter was beginning to falter.
We were brought up some stairs to claim our prize. I said I wasn’t going inside and opted to sit outdoors on a porch in the warm breeze. (Wisconsin farm boys prefer that kind of weather in January for some reason.) My family decided it was best to stick with dad.
Our attractive host’s boss and by now much less excited attractive host looked all nervous when they asked my wife to scratch off the gray patch to reveal the prize we won.
I interrupted the grift with my less than appropriate prognostication.
I said, “Before you scratch the card, let me predict the future. I can tell you which one of those prizes my beloved wife has won.” Dead stare. I don’t think they liked me. I continued, “My beloved wife has won the. . . wait for it. . . the VACATION!!!” Then I smiled and said, “And all it will cost my wonderful wife to win this free vacation back to, ah, here, is. . . $299! As a booking fee, of course.”
If eyes could say A$$hole, oh I was reading those eyes perfectly.
And guess what we won? No really. Guess. I’ll wait.
It was. . . (drum roll). . . the VACATION!!!
And it did NOT cost a $299 booking fee to claim our awesome prize. It cost $359. Never trust a Wisconsin accountant on the wrong continent to get everything right.
They did not ask. They did not try. The grift, ah, sales pitch was over.
We managed three cold bottles of water out of the deal and attracted a lot of attention because I was LOUD! And I thought I was funny.
Seriously, kind readers. This one is one of the oldest grifts in the book and a 100% scam. Nothing was free! I had to find my way there and pay for three days in their casino hotel room. That is not winning a prize!
I have an incredible time on my first cruise. Warm weather and sun are rare in January, rural Wisconsin. I needed those 8-days on a boat before tax season started. And fully recharged.
Road trips are still more my style. Maybe the future holds another cruise, maybe not. Either way it was a good expereince.
BUT! A cruise is a controlled tourist trap you can’t walk from. Your guard needs to be high. Prices of stuff can be usurous, or as we saw, part of what I consider a scam.
Ports of call are also one big nest of tourist trap.
All this said and I still cracked open my wallet in Aruba. Bought a Cuban cigar (and I don’t smoke) for bragging rights. It sits on my bookshelf now. Daughter and wife bought a comfortable dress each (great for humid Wisconsin summers).
The food was good, the people friendly. I just wish I didn’t have to bring my baseball bat along to keep the scams at bay.
And one last thing. If you are planning a cruise you want to consider some essentials. Here is a page on Amazon that is constantly updated to help with your travel planning.
Sam @ Financial Samurai
Tuesday 31st of January 2023
What an awesome post! Had no idea about the artwork bait and switch!
Monday 30th of January 2023
Excellent article! Thank you for reminding us to keep our guard up (constantly)!
Monday 30th of January 2023
Just took my second cruise past Dec. with Royal Caribbean, kept discipline and enjoyed the things that were included like rides, food and shows. Enjoyed the drinks and time at the ports, looked at the art gallery and walked past. It was a great vacation since there are a lot of things to do without much planning. Discipline is important with shore and water excursions but it's a nice vacation.
Monday 30th of January 2023
Enjoyed your story around the booking fee. Wife keeps talking about doing a cruise. Will have to keep our eyes open.
Early in the story during your setup you mentioned a 29% interest fee. Unless I missed it you didn’t finish with the payoff. Was that in relation to the art?
Keith Taxguy, EA
Tuesday 31st of January 2023
MB, I was trying to keep the story clean.
At the auction they handed out a credit card application to everyone. The interest rate was 29.99%. I circled the interest rate and wrote in big bold letters "HOLY F****". Except I used a naughty word. Then I handed it back in. Got my "first" dirty look of the auction.
Not only is the art a rip-off, in my opinion, they also want to nix you for 29.99% for the honor of being scammed. That takes cajones, in my book. The art auction was the ultimate scam I saw on the cruise. If it weren't for that I may never have written this post. For all the folks that love cruising, I wanted to point out the fine print. In my experience people forget to do that and it is one of the biggest financial mistakes you can make.
Monday 30th of January 2023
I recommend you smoke that Cuban cigar before it gets dried out. I never smoked anything my whole life, but crewed in a racing sailboat a fee years ago. When we won our skipper would break out cigars (along with beers). I find it quite enjoyable, but only partske of this pleasure a few times per year, usually in the summer after a nice grilled steak on my patio. Try it! But don’t inhale.