Getting duped while on vacation is like a double gut punch. Not only does it ruin your free-wheeling travel vibe, but it also hits you right in the wallet.
And while I like to focus on the positive side of cruising, an article like this is necessary to help keep cruisers safe and less frustrated.
Cruise port at Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Photo Credit: Cruise Fever
Cruise ports are ripe for certain kinds of scams, and some are worse than others. Passengers are disembarking in a flurry of excitement, and they are back on their cruise ships before the day is over.
Those looking to score a quick buck off unsuspecting cruisers rely on this shortened time span, as they are less likely to get caught and face any ramifications.
While most cruise ports are perfectly safe, it’s important for passengers to be vigilant and look out for some of these tricks of the trade we’ve listed below.
ATM card scams
I was scammed by this one while on a Caribbean cruise. I was not as cautious as I should have been and found an out-of-the-way ATM while walking around the cruise port in Cozumel, Mexico. It was not until a couple weeks later when getting ready for another cruise out of Florida that I noticed some suspicious charges on my bank card. It was all traced back to that shady looking ATM, where somehow my card and pin were compromised.
I typically recommend using foreign ATM’s to get local currency as it’s very convenient and can have lower exchange rate fees than other places, but it’s important to use an ATM you know you can trust. Check for card skimmers that can be loosely placed over existing card slots on the machine by the scammers, cover your hand when entering your pin, and don’t even use it if you have concerns.
You can use the ATM on the cruise ship as well, but be ready for some hefty fees for the privilege.
A recent report out of the Mexican Caribbean has revealed concerns about counterfeit Mexican pesos being found in tourist areas. A group of women were found to have 75,000 fake bills on them, and many of these bills have found their way into the Mexican Caribbean state of Quintana Roo.
It’s important to realize that a lot of Mexican ports, especially in the Caribbean, will accept U.S. dollars, so there’s usually no need to use pesos. But if you do pay with U.S. dollars some vendors will give change back in Mexican pesos or whatever the local currency may be.
There has been an uptick in counterfeit bills this year, so it pays to at least familiarize yourself with the authentic version of the local currency if you plan to pay in cash. If you are given counterfeit bills and then try to pay with them later there can be severe consequences.
When a ship pulls into port, taxi drivers get a sudden influx of work. On occasion cruise passengers get duped into paying more than they bargained for when taking this local transportation.
One trick that is often used by taxi drivers involves a listed rate for the trip, but when you arrive to the destination you found the rate has been doubled because there are two passengers and the rate was only for one. You should always settle on the exact cost ahead of time if you’re traveling to a set destination.
Another thing to watch out for involves paying with cash. Some taxi scammers will state they have no change and therefore your large bill will just have to do. Also, when getting change back make sure it’s the correct amount and authentic, which goes back to the last point.
I love using local taxis. When visiting St. Maarten I paid for a driver to drive the entire island for a few hours and show us the best places to see along the way. But I settled the entire rate before the trip began and was clear I did not want to go shopping. This is important as some taxi drivers in cruise ports get paid by local vendors to have passengers shop at their local shops, so the “route” is not an accident.
A few tips to follow to be safe when taking taxis:
Get the taxi number or company code to make sure they are licensed by local authorities.
Take a picture of the license plate with your phone in case you need it later.
Negotiate and agree on a final price before you even shut the door.
Ask local port authorities which taxi service or driver they would recommend.
Pay with cash if possible, but have smaller bills in case you don’t get change back.
Private tours providers getting compensated by vendors
I already mentioned this with taxi drivers, but some other private tour providers will do this as well. They will make certain stops because they get paid a slice of the profits from shop owners.
It’s not always a terrible or malicious thing. But you should at least know ahead of time so you can ask the right questions before paying for a tour around a cruise port.
This is where it helps if you’ve done your homework and know what sites you want to actually see. Otherwise, you might find yourself going from shop to shop where the tour provider gets a small payment for bringing tourists to their storefronts, and you could miss out on an authentic experience.
It’s common for local workers to have mutually beneficial agreements with other workers in the port city. Just make sure you know what you’re getting ahead of time, so you’re not duped into an endless shopping spree for the same old mass-produced items.
Cruise line operated tours do this as well, by the way. They will get a cut of sales that come from stopping at certain vendors. So, your tour might make a certain stop not because it’s a great stop but because there’s a financial incentive.
Knockoffs and fakes
You might actually like knockoffs, and so you don’t mind a ‘Gucci’ purse or ‘Louis Vuitton’ wristlet that may not last the rest of the week on the cruise. These fake name brand products can be found by the boatload, especially in popular cruise ports like Nassau and St. Thomas.
It may be controversial, but counterfeit products do a disservice to the actual name brand, and some cruisers have reported issued with customs if bringing back knockoff goods, although I’ve never seen this firsthand.
The main point is to not trust a label. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. While you can get some great deals at some shops around the cruise port, checking for authenticity is another matter. Unless you’re an expert in this field it can be hard to tell the difference.
Jewelry is another area where it can be hard to spot fakes. You will hear the name Diamonds International a dozen or more times during the port shopping talk, but unless you really know what you’re looking for in authentic jewelry, be suspect of any deal that seems a little too unbelieveable.
Related: A few port shopping tips to follow
Those ‘free’ gifts in shops around the port
Speaking of the port shopping talk, I attended one of these on my very first cruise with Royal Caribbean. I was given the coupon book as I eagerly listened to all the fantastic deals I could find in port, and all duty free!
Part of these shopping talks usually include instructions on how to get a ‘free gift’ from different shopping vendors around the port. It’s a win-win right? Well, after visiting a few of these shops for our free gift, I soon realized what was actually going on.
Sure, you can walk in and request your free gift after showing a coupon or whatever the case may be. But then comes the pressure sales tactics. The guilt-trip soon follows with a certain vibe that screams, “Are you really only here for the free gift and you won’t buy something from our store?”. Some sales people were more pushy then others, but after a while I figured it wasn’t really worth the hassle just for a little charm bracelet or trinket. These methods are used to get shoppers into stores, but they don’t really want cheap people like me in there.
If you don’t mind the sales tactics and you just want the free stuff, go for it. Just be ready for some dirty looks and complaints about your cheapness.
When I was on a cruise in Barcelona, Spain I was on high alert. I had read about the notorious pickpockets on the metro of this iconic city. Las Ramblas is also known for its clever pickpockets, but I never had any issues because I knew what to look for. When I was taking the metro I would carry my bag in front, was mindful of who was around me, and tried to keep my back to the wall or seat if possible.
Also, being wary of crowds was important. Thieves like to target crowds because in all the bumping and shoving, it’s easier to slip a hand in your pocket and retrieve a wallet without you even noticing.
Be mindful of anyone who carelessly bumps into you, spills something on you, or stumbles across your way, as pickpockets work in teams and while one is distracting you, the other could be stealing something.
Keep your wallet or other valuables in front pockets or use a moneybelt.
And while it might be impossible to blend in like a local, not walking around aimlessly while staring up at the buildings and looking at a brochure can help not seem too much like a tourist who is ripe for the picking — or pickpocketing in this case.
Car rental shenanigans
I’ve rented cars while in the Caribbean on cruises many times, but each time it’s a roll of the dice. I always like to rent a car in Cozumel, Mexico because it’s such a nice drive around the island and I can stop at different beaches along the way at my leisure.
But before you even get in that rental car there are a few things you should do first.
First of all, make sure you’re working with a reputable car rental company. I’ve had some credit card issues after using one rental company, and most companies will put a credit hold on your card if you’re using it as your main insurance provider. Car rental insurance in Mexico and other parts of the world can be complicated, so I won’t go into all the details here. But know that insurance is a large part how these companies make money on relatively cheap rental prices.
Secondly, you should always take pictures or video of the car before you drive off. One scam that some cruisers have run into involves the company claiming you did damage to the car that was already there before you left. If you have proof on the contrary it will save you some frustration and money. Otherwise you will have to settle the cost of the damage before you can leave.
Taking photos of street performers
A street performer in a cruise port or any other city is a working individual. And if you stop to listen to a musician, or take a photo of creative artist doing something amazing you should leave a tip of some kind. This is one reason of many that I like to carry small bills of cash on me when I’m in port.
But there are some places where the street performers are a little more forceful in trying to get paid. If you take a picture of a performer and then offer up a tip, you may find that it’s not enough.
If you want to take a picture of or with a street performer make sure you know what is expected up front. You can ask how much it would cost first and then proceed. But don’t assume you can grab a picture for free. Some cruisers have reported even being followed by street performers until they gave them at least something for their image.
Around cruise ports you will find a lot of Wi-Fi hot spots that you can use. Some are very reasonably priced as well. For as little as $5 for the whole day or a few dollars for part of the day you can get decent enough internet speeds to check your email, upload to your socials, or connect your device for whatever you need.
Just remember to take necessary precautions. Your data could be viewed by a 3rd party. Always use a VPN when connecting to a wireless network, especially in a foreign country. Without it your private data and personal information could be viewed, and you don’t need that mess ruining a good vacation.
Scammers are clever, but they are also lazy by default, going after only soft targets. By taking a few precautions and having some street-smart you can avoid some of these pitfalls that are all too common in some cruise port cities.
The more you cruise the more you are aware of what to watch for, so it pays to listen to the advice of veteran cruisers. If you find someone on the ship that has been to an upcoming port already, ask for advice. Ask what things they would do again or things they would avoid. And if you discover a scam, don’t be afraid to say something to spare someone else from the same fate.
What scams or tricks have you seen while on a cruise? Let us know in the comments below so we can all benefit and avoid being a victim.
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