No such thing as a 'free' cruise

/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I think I'm entitled to a refund from a company called Your Travel Headquarters, and I need your help. My girlfriend and I recently got a call from the company, saying that we had won a free cruise and that we needed to call them back that day to redeem it.

We did, and asked all the pertinent info about the trip, and how much it would cost and if there were any other fees and expenses. A representative explained that it was a "free" promotional trip and that the only thing we had to pay was a departure fee of $190 and any expenses that we might incur getting to the cruise ship's port of departure in Miami.

I asked specifically, "Is that all?" He replied, "Yes, those are the only expenses and no other charges would be applied." According to him, we had 18 months to use the trip, and we needed to pay the $190 immediately or we would forfeit our prize.

Last month, we decided to book a date, only to later find out that it would cost another $550. I told the representative that I wanted to cancel, and be issued a refund since we were misled. He flat-out refused, saying, "We have a no-refunds policy." What should I do?
— Michael Mihalik, Harrison, N.J.

A: I think you're entitled to a refund, too. I can't remember an unsolicited offer for a "free" promotional cruise that didn't include some kind of gotcha clause in it. Yes, the cruise is free but getting there will cost you. Or we have to "hold" the cruise with a nonrefundable deposit (hey, if it's free, why do you need to pay to confirm it?).

Before you agreed to book a cruise, maybe you should have done a little homework. Your Travel Headquarters, which is based in Batavia, Ill., scored an "F" on its Better Business Bureau rating at the time you contacted me. Among the problems: complaints of its sales practices, refunds and customer service. Even a quick Internet search would have sent up enough red flags to reconsider that $190 deposit.

But the representative insisted you book right that minute, didn't he? Those high-pressure sales tactics should also raise red flags. In my experience, anyone who doesn't want you to research an offer or shop around to make sure you can't find a better deal has something to hide. Whether it's an offer of a "free" cruise, a too-good-to-be-true timeshare, or a vacation club with unbelievable benefits, when they tell you that you must decide now — run.

The other problem was the way in which the assurances were made. No other charges? That promise was made by phone, and unless you record your calls, there's no way to hold a representative to that. Get it in writing.

Finally — and maybe most importantly — remember that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free trip, for that matter. If someone offers you a "free" cruise or a "free" resort stay, just say "no." Don't even think about it twice. You'll thank me.

I contacted Your Travel Headquarters on your behalf. It refunded your deposit.