How Safe Are Cruise Ships?

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Recent incidents of fire and engine failure have many wondering if a ship-based vacation is safe. Here's everything you need to know to check the safety and reliability of ships you're likely to use for your next cruise.

With the open sea, wind in your hair, and fruity cocktails, cruises can be a great way to spend some time off. But recent headlines – like the infamous Carnival “poop cruise” and other mishaps involving Carnival ships, and a fire aboard a Royal Caribbean vessel – have some wondering how safe this pastime is.

Not as safe as you might think, advocates for better safety say. To document the incidents, many turn to industry expert and author Ross Klein. Wrote the International Business Times:

Not including the Costa Concordia tragedy last January, which left 32 dead off the coast of Italy, Klein calculated on his Cruise Junkie website that in 2012 there were 96 incidents onboard cruise ships. These included 20 fires, 14 collisions, five power failures, five propulsion problems, eight mechanical issues and four maneuverability problems.

According to Klein’s figures, in the first three months of 2013 alone there were already 21 incidents, including three fires, one collision, one loss of power, eight propulsion problems and one maneuverability problem.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

A New York Times story – well worth the time to read — counted the incidents Klein has tracked over the years. Fortunately, very few result in loss of life.

“I think that what the numbers say is that things go wrong and in most cases there is no threat to physical harm,” Klein told the Times. “In probably 95 percent of the cases, it’s purely inconvenience.”

Who’s keeping eye on the industry to make sure that ships are as safe as possible? Regulation of the industry is weak. Said cruise safety advocate James Walker in a post on CNN:

Cruise ships theoretically follow guidelines set forth by the International Maritime Organization and the recommendations in the Safety of Life at Sea. But the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations organization, does not have the authority to enforce its own guidelines, nor can it impose fines or criminal sanctions against cruise lines that flout Safety of Life at Sea recommendations. This obligation falls to flag states, like Panama.

The result is that cruise lines are largely unregulated.

So, how can you evaluate the reliability of a cruise ship, other than using a search engine to look for news or looking at sites like Cruise Junkie, Cruise Ship Fires and Cruise Bruise?

  • The  U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program tracks outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness like norovirus on cruise ships and posts its findings here. It also rates cruise ships for all sorts of sanitation issues. Find those results here.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard conducts twice-yearly safety inspections of foreign-flagged cruise ships that stop in U.S. ports. You can access those reports here.
  • Reports by the FBI track major crimes on cruise ships, like homicide, sexual assault and thefts of more than $10,000.

In other words, you can’t be certain that the cruise ship you’re on won’t lose power or have a fire onboard. But you can take other steps to protect yourself:

  • NBC News has nine tips for keeping safe on a cruise, such as:
    • Lock all valuables, including your passport, in the ship’s safe, not the dinky one in your cabin. Leave your expensive belongings at home.
    • “Crooks cruise too, so cash in your [gambling] winnings periodically and take them to the ship’s safe; if you win big, ask for an escort.”
  • Take the safety drills seriously and know where you’re supposed to go if there’s an emergency. We’d be more inclined to cruise with a line that requires safety drills before the ship leaves port, rather than later.
  • Review the ship’s safety procedures, which should be located in your cabin.
  • Hand sanitizer and hand washing will protect you from norovirus on surfaces you touch. If you get ill, isolate yourself from others.

Have recent news events involving cruise ships made you less likely to book a trip? How have your cruise experiences been? Let us know below or on our Facebook page! And for tips that will help you save on your next cruise, visit the links below.

Karen Datko contributed to this report. 

Stacy Johnson

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