Aaron and Shelly Belams of Wisconsin looked forward to their Princess Cruises vacation from Rome to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The couple found a deal through an online travel agency that priced the 21-day cruise at $2,200 per person – a good value. Or so the Belams thought.

Expensive surprise

About six weeks before sailing, Princess notified the Belams’ travel agent stating the couple would need a Brazilian visa. The cruise line noted that it was the passenger’s responsibility to get them and any passenger who did not have a visa would be denied boarding.

The visas would cost $210 per person (actual visa cost, plus expedited service) – an unwelcome $420 surprise. It gets worse — the cruise ship was only stopping at one Brazilian port, Fortaleza, for only nine hours! “If we’ve known that it will cost us that much for a few hours in Brazil, we would have looked for cruises that do not go to Brazil at all,” says Aaron Belams.

Visa stamp — you can’t cruise without it

Many people dream of exotic cruises with stops in places like Brazil, but beware as foreign country visas can add a big expense to that cruise deal. Although many countries require only a passport, some call for U.S. citizens to get visas, too.

Newer ports of call in Brazil, Turkey, and Russia require them. There’s a difference with Turkey and Russia: Turkey allows cruise ships to acquire “blanket visas” that cover all passengers and Russia allows guests of cruise ships to bypass a visa if they tour with approved tour operators. However, if you want to see the sites of Russia sans tour guide you will need a Russian visa.

Another thing to keep in mind when applying for a visa is that some Middle Eastern and African countries will not issue visas or allow entry if your passport indicates travel to Israel. Also, some countries like South Africa require blank pages for entry/exit stamps.

In the case of Brazil, it appears to be completely political and a case of reciprocity. If a Brazilian citizen is required to obtain a visa to enter a country then citizens of that country wishing to visit Brazil will be required to obtain a Brazilian visa. Sadly, U.S. and Brazilian citizens must pony up a $130 visa fee along with any added expenses to visa service companies for the processing convenience.

Read the brochure

Princess is correct – visa information is listed in the “General Information” section of their brochures and on its Web site. The information clearly states that it is the “sole responsibility of the passenger to carry and have available all required travel documents.” It also says, “Passengers who do not possess the proper documentation may be prevented from boarding their flight or the vessel without refund of the cruise or cruise-tour fare.”

Bottom line: the visa requirement is your responsibility not the cruise line’s in most cases so do the homework necessary well before you leave home or employ the services of a good travel agent whose job it is to know the requirements. Unfortunately, the Belams didn’t have a knowledgeable travel agent.

Some important things all travelers should do to avoid hassles:

Check the expiration date on your passport. Many countries require that your passport be valid for at least six months beyond your date of entry. To be safe, renew your passport if it’s expiring within nine months.

Look at visa requirements. Although many countries require only a passport, some call for U.S. citizens to get visas, too. Check the State Department Web page listing to see where visas are necessary.

As for the Belams they’ve learned a lesson: Check out the country’s visa fee first before we book our cruise.