The Onboard Scams
If I could give just a single piece of advice to a first-time Princess cruiser, it would be to just completely steer clear of all the onboard scams. Don't get curious, don't enter the raffle, don't check out the coupon, or in any other way feed the beast -- just keep walking and don't look back. There's plenty of good times to be had on the boat.
Unfortunately, if you cruise with Princess, you'll have to protect yourself from scams. Princess is in cahoots with the scammers, so Princess doesn't look after its captive guests to protect them from scams; instead it is actively participating in the perpetration of the scams.
The same may be true on many or most other cruise lines and cruise ships. I can only speak for Crown Princess, and what I saw on board wasn't just marketing overreach -- it was despicable, shameful behavior.
So the primary scams are shopping, spa, the casino, photography, and fine art. I'll address each briefly, but spend more time on the Champagne Fine Art Auction, because of its egregious nature, and what it reveals about Princess's culpability.
Everyone expects Princess to sell essential items and swag at steep markup, and they do, so BYO-Everything is good advice, although there will always be something you forgot or did not anticipate, and then you get to test the quality of Princess's mercy.
It is not very good.
I thought it was extreme overreach for them to be charging $6 for the most basic Princess lanyard.
A first-time cruiser might not know that you are going to get carded for every drink -- soft or hard -- all day long, regardless of your age, and even if you bought a beverage plan -- so it is exceptionally convenient to have your card in a lanyard so it's always handy and present.
And therefore it is no surprise that Princess Shops do a big business in lanyards the first days of the cruise. This is the same lanyard that is given away for free every day at every conference in the world. They cost pennies, and Princess should offer one for free with your credentials. Or they could charge a dollar and I wouldn't blink. But $6? Really?
Model ships available in plastic or lucite...for not much more than you'd pay for a lanyard!
But lanyards, binge-chocolates, aspirin, coffee mugs, and model ships aren't what we mean when we talk about shopping scams. Instead, what we mean are Jewelry, Watches, and Perfume.
Princess hosts Effy Jewelry stores on some of their ships, including the Crown Princess.
Effy Jewelry seems pretty to me, or maybe this piece would be in silver instead of gold:
The Horizon Buffet
The Dining Halls
9. The Scams
Fine Art Auction
A six-dollar lanyard!
You can read about "rampant reports of fraudulent gems" sold by Effy, but the scam I am concerned about isn't that Effy is or isn't the worst jeweler, but just the idea that people should be jewelry shopping while captive on a cruise ship without Internet access to research or comparison shop. The situation is absolutely ripe for pressure tactics, and as soon as I see a bunch of jewelry with no prices on anything, my scam-radar goes nuts.
The same is true with the watches and perfumes. The core scam is cruisers imagining they are affluent and trying to behave as they have been programmed to believe that affluent people behave, by buying luxury items on a luxury cruise. It's a seductive game that Princess ought not be encouraging, let alone profiting from.
Princess pushes it like this. A Shopping Spotlight gets tucked into the Princess Patter, which looks newsy, but is just a relentless ad:
Enough lanyards for your entire family!
For example, "Ammolite" is described in the advertisement as "rare, precious, and exotic." If you check the Wikipedia entry for Ammolite, it does not use any of those words. Effy is described in the ad as a "jewelry icon," and the word "flawless" is thrown around -- but not with respect to the gems themselves, just "flawless work" with the potentially flawed gems. This is just garden variety puffery, but it is laid on thick. And check out that watch: "Two time zones and changeable straps" Impressive?
There are jewelry auctions and raffles, but you must be present to win. They really want a chance to pitch you, because if Princess can overcharge somebody by a thousand dollars for jewelry, that's as good as selling an extra stateroom for a week. Don't give them a chance.
And once they've price anchored everybody around a $5,000 necklace, buying Effy chain jewelry at $3/inch or T-shirts for $10 each seems like a steal, so they still do great. Watch the crowds gather for the Crown Princess's version of a sidewalk sale:
Part of the genius of Princess's business model is that Princess tells its passengers that they are wealthy and sophisticated even while inciting behavior that betrays the opposite truth.
Casinos are by definition a scam, but probably worse on a cruise ship, where there is no regulatory agency competent to ensure that there are any payouts at all or that the machines work properly.
Besides that, the Casino takes up a huge amount of the ship, which is all space that could be put to better use for the 90% of cruisers who are too smart and/or unaddicted to lose their money this way. This is a big chunk of the of Deck 6, about the same as a Dining Hall, which means they could afford to instead have dining hall tables spaced better, or add any kind of feature that is otherwise entirely missing from this ship.
The casino just uses a lot of space.
This is a particularly offensive racist/sexist slot machine, but Princess didn't invent this kind of thing, any more than they invented all the high-pressure sales techniques and scam mechanisms already described -- they just are happy to help others exploit their captive audience.
The Spa Scam is relatively straightforward. They mark up the prices by more than $50, then give you a $50 off coupon, and when you get there you discover not only no savings, but a pushy upsell on spa products.
The Photography Scam doesn't have to be a scam at all. Princess could simply provide professional photography services for its guests and charge a reasonable rate for it, which could be a great reason to cruise. But that's now how they do it.
Instead, the individual photo price is $50, and the all-photos package costs $250. You get offered a $50 discount before you board, but the discount email doesn't tell you what you'll be buying for your $200. And indeed, it's complicated.
For $250, your stateroom gets a copy of any photo that includes someone from your stateroom. But if your family is in three staterooms, then you need to buy three packages in order to get any combination of people in your family. And you better decide quick, because we don't keep track of the photos we take each day, so if you decide to come back later and get it you'll have to go fishing through endless racks of photos of 3,000 passengers to find yours. And while you're thinking about it, we have a high-pressure pitch for your family to come to our Platinum Photo Studio and get some REAL photos taken for a price yet-to-be-determined.
We did not buy the photo package, and, as it turned out, the photo opportunities that we passed up were really cheesy. For example, crew members dressed up in costumes -- a Trojan warrior when we were closer to Greece, and a stripe-shirted pizza-maker when we got to Napoli, with curly mustaches drawn on their faces with a magic marker.
That's not the kind of photo I would wanted to have been paying $250 for, and it is in no way comparable to posing with Mickey and Peter Pan on a Disney Cruise.
Champagne Fine Art Auction
The Mother of All Cruise Ship Scams
I attended the Crown Princess Champagne Fine Art Auction because I was truly curious as to why there were art auctions on a cruise ship -- bewildering! But what I witnessed was not bewildering but shocking.
I have some details below about what I saw and what was wrong with it, but if you don't want to take my word for it, read Bloomberg, which did an expose' of Cruise Ship Art Auctions at Sea a couple years ago, titled: "Ever Bought Artwork on a Cruise? Prepare to Be Seasick."
Or watch this video I took of Princess's auctioneer, Boris, selling a print for $1,300, touting gee-whiz brush techniques like "sfumato" and "chiaroscuro," while rapidly deploying a series of persuasion techniques, including anchoring and commitment.
Stage One of the Con begins days earlier, when the artworks are displayed for days on the wood paneled walls on Deck 5 just off the piazza, giving the general sense of museum-quality work.
Stage Two is when the auctioneer, Boris, gives an enrichment talk hyping up the quality of the art and pretending to teach the audience something other than random lingo, like “chiaro-oscuro.” This includes videos shown before the auction that hype up house artists as employing extraordinary and innovative techniques, and coining nonsense terms like “abstract sensualism.”
Stage Three occurs immediately before the auction begins, when everyone is encouraged to select with sticky notes which of the hundreds of paintings are put up for auction – no obligation! – and to “reserve” specific paintings, which would entitle one to a lower price than the auction price under certain circumstances. Some people have been given preferential treatment and are allowed to view the pieces and “reserve” them in advance of others.
Putting sticky notes RIGHT ON the fine art? It's okay because this isn't the actual item you will be delivered. Apparently everything is just a print, not an original painting.
Stage Four is price anchoring – Boris tells us that we’ll be seeing pieces worth a thousand, five thousand, ten thousand, even fifty thousand dollars, but there will be some less expensive pieces as well, starting at $400, $500, $600, which makes hundreds of dollars seem like a relatively small amount.
Stage Five is the elimination of objections: It turns out that spending money is risk-free at a Princess art auction, because you have 40 days to get your money back – simply return the painting – absolutely no risk. And you have four YEARS to change it for another painting, if you later see one you like better, or simply want to change. It sounds like a good deal, but if you listen to the fine print, you don’t actually get your money back – you pay a 15% restocking fee, plus shipping both ways -- and what’s left is just a credit toward your next art purchase, so those dollars are gone, gone, gone.
More fine print: Princess encourages you to get an appraisal of your art before you buy it. They’ll sell you an appraisal, for convenience, but they aren’t responsible if you subsequently get a separate appraisal and the price is lower than Princess appraised it at.
We investigated this pretty thoroughly. One of the prints Princess was offering was a classic scene from Beauty and the Beast, a giclee we had seen in Disneyland, and then at the Disney Store, and we were pretty sure the retail price was about $500, which was too steep for us.
Since we knew the actual price, we expressed enough interest in the piece to convince the Princess Fine Art staff to give us a reservation on it, which entitled us to a low, low, rock-bottom price of just $7,020 – even if someone else bid more for it, we could still have the rock-bottom price of $7,020, if we bid on the piece at the auction.
As it turns out, the most we could pay for the print directly from Kinkade, largest size, most limited edition, was $450. The most expensive version I could find on amazon was limited edition, printed on canvas, additional highlights, largest size, framed, for about $1,500 -- a small fraction of Princess's estimate and many thousands of dollars shy.
Stage Six is the first stage of the auction, when Boris gets the audience used to holding up “bid cards” which display a number. The phrase, Everyone’s "hands on a bid card!” occurs repeatedly, and the warm-up is that the first cards up win “a free work of art.” Then a fake auction is conducted using fake $40,000 that has been imaginatively allocated to each participant. Once everyone’s muscle memory has been primed to participate in a frenzied way, the real auction begins.
Just kidding. It’s never a real auction. The best I can tell, the only thing they were selling was Limited Edition Prints, and although they don’t say what the limit is, there does not much scarcity -- a hundred? A thousand? A million? If five people or fifty people all bid on the same print, they appear able to sell one to everybody – if you are holding up your bid card, they’ll take down your number -- just meet afterwards in the art gallery to work out the details, where they probably upsell expensive frames and insurance.
Stage Seven is when the remainder of the tricks come out during the auction itself. For example free champagne, in case anyone's already-poor judgment might be further impaired.
And after hyping up a particular piece, Boris asks the audience to hold up their bid cards to publicly commit to how much they think the piece is worth, what would be a “good price.” He descends through $1,300, then $1,200, $1,100, as more and more cards go up, then starts the bidding at $900, so everyone holding up their bid cards feels like an idiot or a liar if they don’t bid far less than what they have publicly said is a “good price.”
The same dynamic is at work, although not as strong, when a piece is auctioned because you selected it in the pre-auction, and you feel like you’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t bid, since you are the reason it is up there, even though there was no obligation.
Boris requires the audience to applaud the auction winners, and solicitous staff congratulate the winners on their accomplishment -- more psychological commitment.
Boris also claims that he is receiving bids from the room when in fact there is no one bidding – I watched, and as I recall it, he called out the bids and said thank you, but it did not appear that anyone was bidding and he never said the number of a bid card.
Then there are gimmick auctions, where they auction pieces sight-unseen, which are placed facing away from the audience, with assurances that these pieces are going to be more valuable in the future, because they are from up-and-coming artists, and these are insanely low prices (like $350). Bloomberg agrees that Park West*, the leading art-at-sea auction house has, in the wake of lawsuits, stopped promising future value increases. But that is exactly the suggestion I heard at the Princess auction.
The way I describe the scam, you would assume that nobody would ever fall for it, but these psychological techniques are the oldest in the book, and they absolutely work. Our guess was that 80% of the room was not bidding on anything – they were just there out of curiosity, like us -- but the remaining 20% seemed to be bidding, and we witnessed several authentic-looking sales at over $1,000 each.
We left in disgust, having seen far more than enough, so we don't know how it ended. But there was a post-auction sale in the evening, and a follow-up auction on Thursday, which we ignored, and then the scam continued, as "sold" signs went up in the art gallery to give the false impression of an opportunity missed.
The story of the Fine Art Auction has two morals:
First, as a cruiser, you just need to ignore all the scams -- art sales, jewelry raffles, watch sales, perfume sales, the casino, marked-up spa services, photography upsells, vicious exchange rates, and maybe even be prepared to bring your own lanyard. Just ignore them entirely, as if they weren’t there, and do whatever you want on the ship. The scams don’t get in the way if you don’t let them.
The second moral of the Fine Art Auction story is that Princess, and perhaps some other cruise lines, is addicted to some REALLY toxic revenue streams. Princess needs to be able to make money without scamming their customers in shameful ways. And if they did that, then they could use the art gallery space, and the ridiculously huge casino space, for something that delivered more value to more passengers.
Boris explains to the art collectors the mechanics of the art auction.
A pre-show mythologizes Park West's house artists. This artist just feels to express himself on the canvas.
A tantalizing pre-show display -- the paintings are brightly lit in the dim room.
Boris warms up the audience as they bid with pretend dollars for a Peter Max.
The art is arguably not all actually fine art.
Here is some "Abstract Sensualism."
Arguably not fine art.
Really, seriously not fine art.
Does this speak to you? It speaks to me. (Just kidding; it doesn't.)
Here is the Thomas Kinkade "Beauty and the Beast Falling in Love" print that we thought could be had for about $500 retail.
Here is Princess offering me the above Kinkade painting for $7,020 "rock bottom."
Here is Thomas Kinkade's own website, willing to sell us this print in its largest and most exclusive, limited edition "Publisher Proof" format for just $450. I don't see how Princess could ever in good faith get to an "estimated retail price" of $7,985, even with a nice frame. That doesn't sound like a good faith estimate to me; it sounds like attempted fraud.
These amazon ads demonstrate that you can easily buy the same Kinkade print in many sizes, framed, on canvas, limited edition, or even as jigsaw puzzle. There is no scenario where $7,985 is a reasonable estimated retail price.
* A NOTE TO THE LAWYERS:
I can't tell whether Park West is involved in Princess's fine-art-at-sea program or whether Princess does it in-house. Sources on the Internet disagree. I do note that the Princess auction offered the 40 Days / 4 Years deal that Bloomberg attributes to Park West, and some of the same artists, so I would not be surprised if Park West were directly or indirectly involved.
But In case anybody is thinking about suing me for telling the truth in public about Princess's onboard scams, think twice.
First, I am a lawyer. Second, the above account is investigative journalism in the public interest. All descriptions accurately characterize my opinions and impressions. Moreover, all images, video clips, and descriptions are Fair Uses for analysis and commentary. Under Lenz v. Universal Music, 815 F.3d 1145, a copyright holder has a legal obligation to consider fair use before issuing a DCMA take-down notice, so don't try it.
Princess: Clean up your act and get this shifty stuff off your ships. Protect your customers' overall wellbeing, not just their physical safety.