Cruise scams: Why you should toss that ‘free cruise’ card in the trash


When TPG’s Gabrielle Bernardini opened up her mailbox recently, she was surprised to find a congratulatory postcard announcing she’d won a free cruise with her spouse. It was surprising in many ways, but mainly because she hadn’t entered any contests. She assumed the anonymous free cruise brochure was a scam but was unsure of the extent.

Here’s what I learned about Gabrielle’s free cruise award and what you need to know if you receive a similar “prize.”

Congratulations! You won a free cruise


As a consumer advocate who has covered all types of scams over the years, I’m familiar with the free cruise postcard routine. Those mailings are tricky because they might be sent by a quasi-legitimate timeshare or travel club — albeit one with questionable marketing tactics.

However, more often than not, a full-fledged scammer is on the other side of that notification.

After having a good look at the postcard Gabrielle received, I determined this one leaned further into cruise scam territory due to the following red flags:

This mailing was anonymous and had no return address.It was unsolicited: Gabrielle hadn’t entered any contests, and she doesn’t particularly identify as a cruise enthusiast.Gabrielle is unmarried, so the mention of a spouse further suggests the sender bought some kind of list of names without personal details attached.The invitation named an event with zero online presence: Travel Exhibit 2024.It attempted to create a sense of urgency by warning of a short time frame for claiming the prize before the free cruise would be awarded to someone else.

The top of the free cruise brochure had an additional red flag with the names of various cruise lines displayed prominently, giving the impression that these companies were somehow involved in Travel Exhibit 2024.

Finally, the name at the bottom of the form was the same as a very popular cruise vlogger with hundreds of thousands of followers. Although there was no direct insinuation that the author of the mailing and the cruise vlogger are one and the same, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. That particular name was likely chosen to give the mailing additional (false) credibility.

So, who was actually behind this scheme? I decided to call and find out, and that’s when things got really weird.

What do I have to do to claim my free cruise?

cruise scam paper


I dialed the number on the postcard (1-866-922-4205) and asked to speak to Justin Alexander, whose signature appeared at the bottom. The man who answered told me that Alexander wasn’t available, but that he could help me.

At this point in the conversation, this person’s voice was normal. As the call went on and he was unable (or unwilling) to answer many of my questions, he started to speak in an increasingly more bizarre vocal fry.

Here’s a little excerpt of our first conversation about the identity of the company behind the free cruise and how it could be redeemed.

Me: I don’t see any information about your company on this postcard. What is it called?

Mr. Vocal Fry: It says Travel Exhibit 2024.

M: Yes, but is that a company? I can’t find anything at all online about Travel Exhibit 2024.

VF: That’s because each year, its name is different. That’s why you can’t find anything about us. Last year, it was called Travel Exhibit 2023.

M: Is it a travel show or a company? I’m confused. What exactly is Travel Exhibit 2024?

VF: Do you want the free cruise? If so, you and your spouse have to come to a 60-minute presentation in Boca Raton this weekend. You can learn all about it there. You will qualify for the free cruise, which will be provided by one of the major cruise lines.

M: But I would like to know more about it before I drive all the way there. Can I come by myself?

VF: No. This offer is only for couples. If you don’t have a spouse, you can bring a partner … or a friend.

When I continued my attempt to get clarity about what Travel Exhibit 2024 actually is and how I could learn more, he told me he wasn’t sure. He then said he was a third-party marketer hired to answer the phone and make appointments. He assured me that I would learn all about the company behind the postcard during the presentation.

“It’s called Perfect Vacations and their website is hidden, so you can’t see it. It’s members-only,” he explained to me. “But you’ll be able to look at it when you go to the meeting. Also, you’re going to get a $100 gift card. When would you like to go?”

I told him that I needed to know what the presentation was about before I committed. He assured me it wasn’t going to be a timeshare presentation but that he would need to call me back after he learned more from the company.

Since he never asked me for my name or number, I was sure he had no intention of calling me back.

By the time our conversation was over, I knew he needed a big glass of water to clear up whatever had caused his voice to change so dramatically during our conversation. The vocal fry was so strong that it made my throat hurt. I assumed he was trying to disguise his voice, and that, along with everything else that transpired, convinced me that this operation was not on the up and up.

No legitimate company would be so secretive about its name, location and purpose. I had a little more sleuthing to do.

Mystery solved: Prime Vacations International

woman on phone


After online searches for Perfect Vacations and Travel Exhibit 2024 turned up nothing, I called the number on the postcard again the next day. I asked for Justin, but the same man answered and told me Justin wasn’t available. His voice had returned to normal until I reminded him that we had spoken the day before, and soon, the same pressured vocal fry emerged.

I asked what he had found out about the company, and he asked me what I wanted to know.

“Well, mainly the name of the company that will issue my free cruise,” I told him. “I don’t think you’ve given me the actual name yet. Have you?”

He paused and then said, “It’s Prime Vacations International.”

Mystery solved.

He asked me again if I wanted to schedule a presentation with my spouse for the next day in Boca Raton.

“Where in Boca Raton will this be held?” I asked. “Is it in a hotel?”

He hesitated for a moment, and then the vocal fry became more bizarre.

“Inside the Bank of America Building in Boca Raton,” he told me.

I asked him for a few more details about the free cruise, and he told me that I could go on any major cruise line leaving from Florida. The room would be an inside cabin, but I could upgrade at an additional cost. There would also be taxes and some other “fees.”

I thanked the vocally challenged man and explained I would need to do more research before making a decision. We ended our call.

What is Prime Vacations International?

Now that I had the name of the actual company behind the free cruise postcard, I was able to find a plethora of information. It was immediately clear to me why the third-party marketer would want to conceal the name as he tried to lure someone to the initial sales pitch.

Prime Vacations International scores 1.4 out of 5 stars on Yelp, where there are various verified reviews from people who actually attended the presentation. As the score would imply, most are dissatisfied with the company and identify it as a scam operation. Some say they felt forced to endure a high-pressure sales presentation where a variety of tactics were employed to wear them down.

The consumers who were unsuccessful in resisting the pitch and signed a contract at the end describe the club’s reality as simply a reservation call center — one you have to pay big bucks to use. Many participants reported spending $3,000 to $10,000 on a membership that gave them access to that hidden website mentioned in my first call with Mr. Vocal Fry.

Even the lone five-star review for Prime Vacations International on Yelp isn’t great. It says the available inventory is limited, and you can find better deals independently.

As I read through all the reviews on Yelp and other sites, I couldn’t help but think that this might be another type of reservation call center scheme. Sure, this travel club might make you a legitimate reservation, but you can do that on your own and — as the five-star reviewer points out — at a cheaper rate.

What about that free cruise and gift card?

business presentation


So, if you can withstand the hard sell and make it through the 60-minute presentation, will you get the free cruise and gift card at the end?

According to participants on all the review sites, the answer is “nope.” Instead, when the sales pitch is over, the “winner” receives a voucher with all the terms, conditions and fine print about that “free cruise.” Those are details that the company should include on the original postcard so that the would-be cruiser can make an informed decision about whether they even want — or can afford — the prize.

First, a $50 per person deposit is required just to get the redemption ball rolling.

Next, as you might expect, you’ll encounter all sorts of restrictions and blackout dates. One of the Yelp reviewers who sat through the presentation was kind enough to share the redemption instructions and fine print.

What is immediately clear is that the free cruise has the potential to turn quite pricey.

Taxes and fees will cost approximately $200 to $350 per person.

Additional fees “might include and not limited to: government imposed taxes, port charges, transfers, agency booking fees, NCFs, fuel surcharges, cruise line imposed surcharges or any incidental expenses like gratuities, phone calls or entertainment.”

Prize winners with dreams of relaxing on their cabin balconies as they sail to tropical locations are in for another disappointment. The free cruise award winners are assigned windowless interior cabins on the lowest deck, which might have “bunk beds.” I found that part particularly curious, given that Mr. Vocal Fry told me this prize is for couples only.

I’m sure it’s a rare couple who would find sharing bunk beds on vacation enjoyable. Only a few cabins on a few cruise ships are indeed bunk bed-only, but mentioning the possibility is likely part of the ploy. It encourages the prize winner to upgrade to a more suitable cabin for, you guessed it, another fee.

But even if all of these terms and conditions sound agreeable to you, there might still be an insurmountable roadblock to redeeming the voucher: blackout dates and limited availability.

“Generally, there is no availability during peak holiday weeks and limited to no availability during peak summer travel dates in June, July and August,” the terms and conditions state.

Because the inventory for these free cruises is so limited, the company requires recipients to provide a total of three possible dates that they would be willing to travel. It offers no guarantee that any dates will be confirmed. A repeated complaint across the review sites is that it’s seemingly impossible to redeem the voucher if you’re unwilling to pay more to upgrade.

And I discovered one more oddity in this scheme: The phone number associated with redeeming the free cruise is yet another third party — Casablanca Express. That company holds a one-star average review on the Better Business Bureau and doesn’t fare better on other sites.

Casablanca Express describes itself as “the preferred travel agency for companies that require fulfillment services for a variety of travel packages. While we may be in the travel business, it may be more accurate to say that we are really in the customer service business.”

However, the reviews across multiple sites tell stories of disappointment and frustration for the customers who attempt to use this company to fulfill their “free” prizes.

Look out for these warning signs

woman checking mail


The free cruise marketing scheme has been around for years. It’s not showing any sign of going away because people are still responding to it. Message boards around the internet are filled with tales from victims who got drawn into the appeal of a complimentary trip that turned out to be anything but free. As an additional insult, some ended up with timeshares and travel clubs they never wanted.

Don’t let that be you.

Remember these warning signs of a less-than-above-board operation before you agree to drag your partner to one of these presentations with the hopes of cruising to the Caribbean for free.

Unsolicited awards

These surprise prizes might come via the USPS, email or phone. Remember, you can’t win a contest you didn’t enter. You can be 100% positive that the person or company awarding you a free cruise or other travel-related prize wants to sell you something — and that something will be expensive. Your free trip definitely will not be free. You should ignore all unsolicited award notifications.

Invitations by strangers to non-transparent events

If someone came to your front door wearing a mask and told you that you won a free trip, you would be suspicious — especially if they were unwilling to tell you who sent them to your house. You might even call the police.

Postcards containing no identifying information are similar in that you don’t know who you’re talking to or their true intent. Any invitation that doesn’t identify who, what, where, why and how much should be tossed in the garbage. Don’t risk exposing yourself to a possible scam.

Booze-fueled events

If cocktails are served (which often happens if you attend a travel club presentation in the Caribbean), your hosts aren’t simply being hospitable. If you choose to attend, please decline the proffered drink. I’ve received many pleas for help from bewildered travelers who attended festive, booze-filled presentations and signed legally binding contracts at the end — much to their horror once they sobered up.

Free cruise scams and schemes: Bottom line

If a legitimate travel club contacts you (yes, there are legitimate, transparent travel clubs) and you wish to proceed, make sure to do your research. Look for review sites, preferably ones like Yelp and others with spam detectors able to identify and flag fake posts. Compare reviews across multiple sites for a better overall picture of whether or not you should spend your valuable time attending a presentation for the travel club — free cruise or not.

Before you attend a travel club or timeshare presentation in the hopes of receiving a free gift, get all the prize redemption details. Then, mentally prepare yourself for a type of sales pitch you have likely never experienced before.

If you decide to try your luck and think you have the stamina to resist that hard sell, skip the alcohol and proceed with caution. But don’t say TPG didn’t warn you.

Related reading:

How to avoid vacation rental scams this summerHelp! A fake Air Canada customer service number scammed me out of $493How to avoid overpaying for a travel visa on an airline websiteIs a cruise itinerary change worth $4,000? This Regent passenger says it isHelp! I’ve been waiting 2 years for a $7,443 refund from my cruise operatorDo you get compensation when an aircraft swap leaves you with a worse seat type?

By: Michelle Couch-Friedman
Title: Cruise scams: Why you should toss that ‘free cruise’ card in the trash
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Published Date: Thu, 09 May 2024 13:30:16 +0000


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