Though there are no hard statistics on how many cruise ship passengers get scammed at ports every year (the majority of victims don't report the crimes due to time, embarrassment, and the pure inconvenience of filling out a police report abroad), it's safe to say that cruisers are at a high risk of being targeted by scammers. Poverty is a serious consideration at many ports, especially in Mexico and the Caribbean, and the high volume of unsuspecting passengers coming in and out of a bustling port draws scammers who are desperate for cash. Fortunately, being aware of the more common scams and taking some preventative measures before disembarking the ship can reduce your chances of being a victim. Check out these common port scams (we learned a few of these firsthand) and our tips on how to prevent them, so you can enjoy your next cruise worry-free.
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1. Taxi Scams
Taxi drivers are a constant source of anecdotal scams. Rip-offs can range from drivers taking a longer route to bump up the fare, to claiming the meter is broken and charging wildly inaccurate prices, to providing change with counterfeit bills. But one of the most dangerous taxi scams is when a driver agrees to take passengers to a tourist destination, but claims that a one-way street (or insert another excuse) will prevent him or her from dropping the riders off at the actual entrance. Instead, he instructs his unsuspecting victims to get out and walk two blocks — but they’re often miles from where they actually need to be, leaving them stranded. The reason for this scam is that drivers want to make several quick turnaround trips, instead of having to drive a long distance for one fare. To avoid being left on the street in an unfamiliar place, consider skipping off-the-street taxis in favor of shuttles, or find a driver through a reputable hotel. Printing out a map or tracking the drive on your phone’s GPS are savvy options for staying safe in a taxi.
2. Credit Card Skimming
Shopping and dining are two major pastimes at any port, and the ease of putting larger purchases on a credit card might seem like a no-brainer. But think twice before you pull out the plastic. Credit card skimming machines are ubiquitous and make it easy for fraudsters to steal your credit card numbers in a flash. Another common plastic scam is when a vendor swipes your card, says it didn’t go through, and insists you pay cash. You won’t notice that you paid twice until you check your credit card statement. It’s likely that your bank will help you with any reported fraud, but avoid the headache and use a credit card only in an emergency.
Carrying cash is smarter than relying on a credit card, but paper comes with its own caveats. Obviously, you don’t want to bring hundreds of dollars that you don’t plan on spending and might misplace. Try to make a realistic budget of what you’ll need for the day, and stash the rest of your money in your ship cabin’s safe. If possible, divide your cash between two people, so it’s not all in one spot. As for avoiding scams, double check that you’ve received the right amount of change after making a purchase. When a cashier doesn’t return all your money, it’s called shortchanging — and it’s a common practice since scammers can always claim they made a simple calculation mistake. Don’t be shy about using a currency convertor on your phone or asking to see prices on a calculator. This is particularly helpful if you’re dealing with a foreign currency.
A Conde Nast Traveler editor shared her cautionary tale of getting ripped off by a tour operator in Grenada. Essentially, the editor claims she paid $80 at the start of the tour, but the driver strongly insisted (with the presence of two burly men) that she still owed him $80 at the end of the day. Since she was away from her cruise ship, running out of time, and felt threatened for her safety, she had little choice but to pay up. Next time, she’ll ask for a receipt upon payment. It’s not a bad idea to bring your own receipt book and have vendors sign immediately after payment is received. Insisting on being dropped off at the port is another safe choice, since tourist police are usually present.
5. Purposeful Lack of Information
Cruise ships sell authorized tours that come with all the financial details of what’s covered: transportation, food, and tips. But, the most popular tours can sell out, and some cruisers prefer a more DIY approach at port — but be cautious about going out on your own. On a recent trip to Roatan in Honduras, we eschewed the cruise ship’s pricey day trip to West Bay Beach and instead negotiated with a transportation company at a kiosk just outside the cruise terminal. We agreed to $36 for a round-trip ride to the beach, and got a receipt. However, after a 45-minute drive, the driver dropped us off at a beach club and announced there was no public access to West Bay. If we wanted to enjoy the white sand and clear water, we’d have to pay an additional $25 entry fee to the beach club. Next time, we’ll ask specific questions about what is and isn’t included in the price.
6. International Driver's License Requirements
In Santorini, we decided a rental car made the most sense for checking out the island’s beaches. Before leaving the United States, we made a reservation with a local car rental company. So, imagine our surprise when we turned up to claim our wheels and were told it was against company policy to rent to an American driver without an international driver’s license — a major detail buried in the fine print, along with the unpleasant news that we would not be reimbursed for our prepaid car. We were forced to pay top dollar for a last-minute car at a more reputable car rental place that accepted U.S. driver’s licenses — and their salesperson assured us we weren’t the first Americans to be shocked about the competitors’ hidden policies. To avoid this scam, carefully read all the fine print and double check restrictions before putting any money down on a car rental.
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