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The Fabulous Free Cruise

It sounded too good to be true - and of course it was - one free cruise with the purchase of another cruise for only $469. It seemed worth a try, so my friend Betsy and I purchased the package.

We decided to go on the free trip first. It was billed as a seven-day cruise with a choice of the eastern Caribbean, the western Caribbean or the Mexican Riviera.

After much back and forth with the agency, we settled on the first sailing that would not incur additional charges for high season. Port and service fees were extra at $279 each and only one destination was available - Fort Lauderdale to Key West to Cayman Islands and return - a five-day, not a seven-day cruise as advertised. Although this was our least favorite choice, we agreed. The cruise was pleasant but we encountered rough seas on the return trip, which closed the pool and the outside decks and kept us inside the ship. So much for the "free cruise."

The paid cruise was represented as two nights in Fort Lauderdale before the cruise, two nights in Orlando, two nights at an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas, followed by one more night in Fort Lauderdale. The Bahamas resort looked fabulous in the glossy brochure included in the package.

Getting a sailing date took another year to arrange - the travel agent said the problem was hurricane damage. We paid additional port and service fees of $158 each and decided to skip Orlando, which would have cost more in hotel taxes, transportation, meals and other incidental costs.

First, we went to our hotel in Fort Lauderdale to pick up our vouchers. We were offered incentives for sitting through a supposed 30-minute tour and a 90-minute time-share presentation. We were honest and told the salesman up front we weren't interested in buying. He drove us around the property anyway, making us a captive audience and the "30-minute" tour became a five-hour ordeal!

Our "cruise" was a five-hour boat ride with a lousy breakfast, but good lunch. The "luxurious all-inclusive" resort was a 2 or 3-star hotel with nothing included and $24 in taxes due. The air conditioner didn't work well and the swimming pool and restaurant closed at 3 p.m. The cruise brochure featured a beautiful place called "The Royal Oaks Golf Resort and Casino," but our hotel was The Royal Palm, obviously a different place. Our accommodations had neither golf club nor casino - not even a tropical ambiance. Even worse, we were miles from the beach and never saw it. The only way to get there was by an expensive taxi ride, so we just hung out at the hotel and read our books.

We arrived back in Florida 90 minutes later than scheduled and grabbed a $50 cab back to the resort. Finally we had time to think about our cruise package and where things began to go wrong.

Tourism is a huge industry and there are certainly bargains to be had. There are also duds like our cruise, but a savvy traveler can avoid disaster. When things sound too good to be true, check it out thoroughly, and then recheck it. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices. Get the specifics spelled out in writing before you buy - what airline, what airport, the name and grade of hotel, availability of transportation and proximity to attractions.

Watch for hidden fees, and remember that port and service fees are collected after you pay for your cruise. Hotel taxes may be added on to quoted prices, so be sure to ask if there are any additional charges. Be aware that ppdo means "per person, double occupancy," so if you are traveling solo, the price will double or there will be a "single supplement" fee.

Millions book great vacations through local travel agencies or online travel sites, but be sure to consider the fees those agencies charge as part of the cost. Some may not be revealed until your transaction is nearly complete. Your leisure time is valuable and you want to make the most of it so shop carefully and enjoy!

The Fabulous Free Cruise