How to avoid credit card problems aboard a cruise ship
Overspending, surprise holds, fraud freezes can leave you adrift
By Allie Johnson | Published: November 21, 2016
A cruise promises to serve up fun, relaxation and smooth sailing, but problems with plastic can leave vacationers in rough seas.
From surprise holds, suspected fraud freezes and going overboard with onboard expenses, consumers must navigate a variety of card issues on cruises, says Billy Hirsch, founder of CruiseHabit.com, a site offering cruise tips and advice.
Here’s how to avoid the five most common card problems that can happen on a cruise:
1. Getting hit with holds. Cruise ships now are almost entirely cashless, which means you hand over a card to cover onboard expenses such as drinks at the bar, restaurant meals and excursions, Hirsch says. Instead of charging your card for each purchase, cruise ships pre-authorize the card and charge you a lump sum at the end of the voyage.
Handing over a debit card rather than a credit card on a cruise can cause big problems because the holds tie up your own cash. If a bill hits your checking account while funds are being held, you could end up with a returned payment and nonsufficient funds charges from your bank. “They may pre-authorize more than you think,” Hirsch says of cruise ships.
Some ships pre-authorize a lump sum based on the length of the voyage, while others pre-authorize either a set amount or the approximate total of the charges you racked up that day, Hirsch says.
What to do instead: Always hand over a credit card that has plenty of available credit on it so you won’t bump against your credit limit, says Stephanie Goldberg Glazer, a travel agent who specializes in cruises. “If you use a debit card, things could go very badly,” she says. If you must use a debit card, find out ahead of time exactly how the cruise ship handles pre-authorizations, and make sure you have plenty of funds in your account.
2. Getting surprised by a fraud freeze. If you go on a cruise without letting your card issuer know ahead of time, you run a high risk of getting a fraud freeze put on your card, says Tanner Callais, who runs the cruising website Cruzely.com. “When you’re on a cruise, you hop from port to port to port from one day to the next. You’re buying excursions in Mexico and expensive meals in Jamaica,” Callais says. “That can look kind of fishy.”
Those odd charges could signal to your issuer that a thief may be using the card fraudulently. And a card issuer that can’t reach you right away might freeze your account, causing your card to get declined, which is common on cruises, Hirsch says. “They may not be able to easily contact you because your cellphone might not be ringing in the middle of the ocean,” he says.
What to do instead: Prevent a fraud freeze by grabbing a copy of your cruise itinerary and notifying your card issuer of your travel plans in detail, Glazer says. Most credit card companies allow you to file travel alerts online, so you might not even need to call. “Tell them ‘I’m going on a Mediterranean cruise, and I’m and going to visit these five countries on these dates,'” Glazer says.
Hirsch recommends going a step further, saying you should call and specifically tell your issuer to expect “multiple, possibly high-dollar, authorizations and charges from a cruise line.”
In ports of call, scamming tourists is big business, unfortunately. Everyone knows you’re only going be there for a few hours and then they’re never going to see you again.
|— Tanner Callais
3. Getting defrauded or robbed in port. Any traveler can become a victim of credit card fraud or theft while far from home, but it’s smart to be especially careful when you disembark in a port city, Callais says. Americans coming off cruise ships stand out as easy marks with “fanny packs, big hats and just our style of clothes,” he says. Also, you could be long gone before you spot a fraudulent charge or a double charge. “Everyone knows you’re only going be there for a few hours and then they’re never going to see you again,” he says.
In a port city, you also could have your debit card number stolen if you use your card at an ATM where a crook has attached a skimming device, Callais says. “In ports of call, scamming tourists is big business, unfortunately,” he says.
What to do instead: Take just enough cash with you to use for small purchases while in port, Callais says. If you plan to use a credit card, take a card other than the one you provided to the cruise line for your onboard purchases, Callais recommends. If the card you’re using in port does get compromised and shut down by the issuer, you’ll still be able to make your onboard purchases without hassle. “When I cruise, I always bring a backup card,” Callais says.
To avoid skimming, only use ATMs located in or attached to banks, says Chuck Flagg, a Cruise Planners franchise owner. Also learn what a skimmer looks like and check every ATM you use, he says.
4. Going overboard with onboard spending. On most cruise ships, you use your room key to make onboard purchases that are charged to your card on file at the end of the cruise, Glazer says. Many cruisers rack up enormous bar tabs because drinks are pricy and most ships automatically tack on an 18 percent tip, Flagg says. “You can run up big charges pretty easily,” he says.
Other common onboard expenses that add up fast include meals at specialty restaurants on the ship, spa services (including massages or pedicures), excursions such as sightseeing or snorkeling sold by the cruise line, and incidentals from the ship gift shop. A frugal cruiser might spend $50 per day, while a vacationer who splurges and hits the casino could end up shelling out $500 or more per day, Glazer says. “You could end up getting surprised with credit card debt at the end of the cruise,” she says.
What to do instead: It’s fairly easy to avoid post-cruise sticker shock if you set a budget and keep track of your charges, Glazer says. Most cruise lines let you look at a running tally of your purchases on the TV screen in your room. Check daily to make sure charges are accurate and to keep an eye on the total, Glazer says.
If you’re really on a budget, you can ask guest services to put a hard limit on your room key card so it will be declined after total charges hit a certain amount, Hirsch says. This tactic also works well if you’re cruising with children you want to prevent from racking up purchases on your account, he says. “Maybe your credit card has a $15,000 limit, but you want to put a stop to all charges after $500 because that’s all you’ve budgeted,” he says.
5. Getting stuck with the charges on a bad trip. Another problem with using a debit card on a cruise ship is that your options may be limited if you have a bad trip or an issue with charges. West Virginia bed-and-breakfast owner Elisse Jo Goldstein-Clark and her husband learned that the hard way after they went on a disastrous Caribbean cruise. They found out after they set sail that their ship was headed to “dry dock,” where a ship is taken out of the water to undergo repairs, and the ship was in bad shape. “There were people in the hull banging day and night trying to fix pipes,” Goldstein-Clark says. Surly staff members couldn’t wait to get off the ship, and they cussed like sailors and even made nasty comments that made Goldstein-Clark cry. She paid extra for staff to scatter rose petals in the room to surprise her husband for their anniversary, but the couple were mistakenly greeted with a “Happy Graduation” sign instead.
After the cruise, Goldstein-Clark decided she wanted a partial refund and wrote a long letter to the cruise line detailing their horrible experience. When that didn’t work, their travel agent called the cruise company with no luck. Finally, Goldstein-Clark decided to try to do a chargeback of some of the onboard charges. But she had used her debit card for all expenses, so she didn’t have a credit card company to investigate and go to bat for her. “Every single thing on that cruise was a screw-up, and we had no recourse,” she says.
What to do instead: Double-check all charges before you disembark and settle up your final bill using a credit card, not a debit card. If you later discover a problem with the bill, or if there’s an issue you weren’t able to resolve with the cruise line initially, you’ll be able to rely on credit card consumer protections that may help get your situation resolved.
"I tell clients never, ever use a debit card on vacation, especially not on a cruise,” Flagg says.
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