Cruises can be the one-stop-shopping solution to your next vacation. Many are all-inclusive, with travel, accommodations, and activities rolled into one. These days, there is a cruise line or a cruise route for every kind of passenger.
First off: is an oceangoing voyage or a river trip a better fit? This will determine, to a large extent, the size and available amenities of a cruise vessel. In terms of climate, travellers can choose between tropical or Arctic cruises or everything in between. Some routes are simple jaunts around the Caribbean, others may be months-long circumnavigations of the globe.
What all of these considerations share, though, is a common assumption: trust. Travelers trust cruise operators to provide them with a good time, yes. Even more fundamental, though, is travelers’ assumption that cruise lines will keep them safe and bring them home in one piece.
For a few days or a few weeks, travelers put their lives into the hands of cruise lines and the crews that staff the vessels, relying entirely on them for food, drinking water, and safe passage over miles and miles of open ocean. Aside from the reliance on crews for their most fundamental needs, travelers are especially vulnerable when they leave familiar countries and languages behind.
So, what should the savvy travelers know that cruise operators aren’t keen for them to learn about? The dirty little secrets range from the truth behind the prices to safety concerns to the treatment of crew members who shoulder the responsibility of protecting passengers.
Water, water everywhere, but not a soda to drink? The good news is that just about all cruise lines, at least the major ones, include water, along with the simple pleasures of plain tea and coffee, in the base price for the trip. For anything more elaborate, even soda, passengers will have to choose between buying beverages à la carte or springing for a beverage package.
The good news about these packages is that they typically include a fifteen percent gratuity for baristas, bartenders, and servers. The bad news is that unless you plan on drinking a lot of pop (or something stronger), you may spend more than you would buying à la carte. The Penny Hoarder has a list of different packages for you to survey.
Anyone who went through freshman year of college or spent their summers at camp knows what happens when lots of people, who spend their days and nights at a relentless pace, share cramped quarters, use the same bathrooms, and eat from the same, heavily-trafficked buffet. Inevitably, someone gets sick and suddenly the entire dorm, cabin, or cruise ship has something horrible.
In recent years, cases of norovirus have sickened hundreds of cruise ship passengers in the span of days. Norovirus is a gastrointestinal affliction that causes diarrhea and is spread through contaminated surfaces and food. While you may not be any more likely to get norovirus onboard, it may be difficult to avoid getting sick once an outbreak occurs.
The thing about insurance is you can never have enough. The other thing about insurance is you never know if you bought enough until something happens and you need to make a claim. There are a few—actually quite a few—exclusions in most travel insurance plans that may give you pause after your read through the rest of our list.
If you have a preexisting medical condition that acts up on the trip, travel insurance does not cover your treatment. Insurance also does not cover cancellations due to weather, acts of violence (presumably including piracy), war, or adventure sports such as scuba diving.
Cruise lines want you to have the time of your life while onboard. Of course, having the time of your life should conform to ship rules, company policy, and port-of-call laws. Previously this list compared cruise ships to a floating summer camp. Like summer camp, the staff can send you back to your cabin because of bad behavior.
The staff’s first priority is to keep you safe from yourself and keep your fellow passengers safe from you. Cruise ships are enormous, complex machines floating on the open ocean. Being disorderly or climbing on the railings is an easy way to get hurt.
While misbehaviour may get passengers sent to their cabins for the rest of the voyage or until the next port-of-call, some unruly or stubborn cruise ship guests will not be dissuaded by this. For those who are especially unnameable to correction, the crew has one resort: the brig.
Refusing to remain confined to your room will get you sent to the brig. A particularly egregious first offense, like attacking staff or fellow passengers, will immediately get you sent to the brig. At the next port-of-call, the ship’s crew will turn you over to local law enforcement. Think about facing charges in a country with an unfamiliar language or legal system; follow the rules and be nice.
A theme on this list has been that the actions of one passenger can endanger the safety of other passengers or even the entire ship. The crew will always prioritize the wellbeing of the whole over an individual’s happiness.
So, it pays to be courteous and in-step with your seaborne community, even in the little things, like scheduling. If late returning to the ship from your land activities, you will likely be left behind. If you are a habitually tardy person, or otherwise don’t need that extra stress, consider only going ashore with the cruise’s chartered tours, for which the ship will always wait.
Committed environmentalists may want to choose a different plan for their vacation. Cruise ships use the same sort of fuel as international shipping vessels do. This fuel is a particularly dirty form of diesel. The Guardian reports that pollution from shipping, including cruise liners, could be responsible for 60, 000 deaths across the globe every year. As a passenger, travellers spend days or weeks breathing in these fumes at close range. This is a real concern to consider before planning your trip, especially if you are particularly sensitive to pollution.
As efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions spread to the shipping industry, international shipping companies have set the goal of zero emissions by 2023.
Like airliners, cruise ships are generally a very safe way to travel. Also like airliners, when things do go wrong aboard a cruise ship, they go very, very wrong. Aside from the possibility of getting norovirus, you could fall many stories into the open ocean.
National Geographic reports that three-hundred people have fallen from cruise ships between 2000 and 2018. Intoxication was a major factor in many of these incidents, either because lowered inhibitions led to revellers climbing ships’ high railings or, because alcohol consumption exacerbated psychological conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder.
Moral of the story: drink responsibly, and stay on the safe side of the railing.
As stated above, modern cruise liners are marvels of engineering: tons and tons of metal somehow conquering buoyancy, a city block or a skyscraper sailing across the waves. These extremely complicated pieces of machinery are also stocked with potentially antsy passengers and lots and lots of alcohol, which never facilitates good decision-making.
An admittedly “curious” passenger on a Holland America ship released the stern anchor of the Ryndam in 2010, which could have pierced the hull of the ship. The cruise had to divert to port and one woman had a heart attack because of the shock. The passenger was sentenced to two months in U.S. federal prison and two months of house arrest.
Yes, the rule against bringing your own beverage, or more than a set amount of your own beverage, aboard is in part motivated by profit. Like movie theaters, cruise ships would rather make extra money by selling you things you would rather bring: snacks and drinks. The Penny Hoarder also has different operators’ policies about BYOB in its drink package survey.
Drinks can be part of a good time when used in moderation, but this list has shown a high correlation between passenger intoxication and passenger endangerment. Cruise ship barkeeps are trained to cut passengers off when they have had too much, hopefully limiting the likelihood of accidents.
No one likes a litterbug. To throw trash overboard while on a cruise is to show extreme disrespect to the marine environment and to the countries that host the massive ocean liners. Imagine if someone showed up on your doorstep and threw trash on the lawn. Hefty fines are in place to discourage passengers from throwing things overboard.
Aside from the environmental concerns, littering may pose an extreme risk to the health and wellbeing of all passengers on the ship. Throwing cigarettes overboard raises the possibility of an onboard fire. As will be discussed in greater detail below, one thing sailors fear more than water is fire.
Working conditions in the hospitality industry can be harrowing, particularly in developing countries that do not have the same labor standards or enforcement practices as developed nations. Ships are only obligated to follow the labor practices of the country whose flag they fly, which allows unscrupulous operators a way to legally scrimp on crew pay or safety.
The crew members who interact with passengers on a day-to-day basis, the “front of house” staff and the officers are more likely to come from wealthy, developed nations. Cooks, dishwashers, and maintenance personnel are more likely to be from impoverished countries and be sending remittances to their families, and thus be more susceptible to threats of firing or deportation.
As mentioned above, travel insurance does not cover trip cancellation if operators decide that the weather is too dangerous to dare a voyage. While modern ocean liners are exceptionally safe in construction, with detailed evacuation plans, good judgement about sea conditions is still essential for a safe voyage. Tropical cyclones—whether called hurricanes or typhoons—are a fact of life that comes with sailing in warm waters.
You may consider sailing during a cooler time of year, or around a cooler part of the globe, to avoid weather cancellations and delays. Tropical systems develop over the course of a week, but your travel plans will likely be months in the making.
Captain Jack Sparrow they are not.
As dramatized in the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips, pirates are a major concern to shipping in some parts of the world, particularly off the coast of East Africa. Due to decades of civil war and famine in Somalia, formerly peaceful fishermen have turned to robbing and hijacking international shipping freighters.
While pirates have yet to successfully take a commercial leisure vessel, there have been close calls. Cruise lines have responded by hosting piracy drills, arming vessels with nonlethal weapons like high-frequency noise makers, and by enforcing dusk-until-dawn bans on light and noise. Not the fun trip you expected, but at least you’ll be safe.
Throwing a Twinkies wrapper off the bow might deface the beauty of nature and get you in trouble, but cruise ships get away with dumping something truly gross overboard. In 2014, cruise ships dumped about a billion gallons of sewage into the world’s oceans.
The sewage is minimally treated before it is released. Their treatment technology has not been updated for nearly four decades.
Combined with the environmental impact of ships’ dirty diesel fumes, these are truly concerning issues for the eco-conscious traveler. For people who want to cruise while minimizing their impact, a 2014 article by ThinkProgress republishes environmental ratings of various cruise lines.
Distasteful as the sewage elimination practices of the cruise ship industry may be, they are far better than the alternative. The passengers of the Carnival Triumph discovered as much in 2013 when the ship became stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. A fire led to a ship-wide loss of power onboard the Triumph. A week of general misery followed before the ship was towed back to port, the “highlight” of which was human waste leaking from plastic bags piled up along the halls.
In the picture above, the Coast Guard races to render aid to the infamous “Poop Cruise.”
One of the most important rules, and one of the first passengers have the chance to break, is the safety muster. Early in your trip, shortly after boarding the trip, you will have to assemble at a muster point near your assigned lifeboats for a drill. You need this practice in order to respond calmly in the unlikely case of an emergency.
Part of the tragedy of the RMS Titanic, aside from the lack of lifeboats and the callous disregard for the lives of third-class passengers, was that crew and passengers were unfamiliar with how to launch those few lifeboats the ship did have. As a consequence, several of the first lifeboats left half-empty.
Speaking of the Titanic, her captain, Edward J. Smith, was a sailor’s sailor. In accordance with the code of the sea, and following the morals of the stoic Edwardian Era, Smith went down with the ship, making no attempt, by most accounts, to evacuate.
In stark contrast to Smith’s example is Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia. When the cruise ship ran aground of rocks off the coast of Italy, Schettino, along with most of his officers, were the first to leave the ship, abandoning passengers to their fate. Schettino claimed he tripped and fell into a descending lifeboat. Thankfully, the court did not buy it, and sentenced him to sixteen years.
Sailors fear fire even more than sinking. Fire can tear through a ship before passengers have a chance to evacuate. Spilled fuel on top of the sea can catch fire, endangering passengers who do escape from the ship. Such was the case of “Asia’s Titanic,” the Doña Paz, a Philippines ferry that collided with an oil tanker. Four thousand passengers on the overcrowded ship were incinerated, making it the world’s worst peacetime disaster.
The risk is not confined to developing countries. An arsonist set fire to the Scandinavian Star on a routine run between Oslo and Frederikshaven, killing almost 300 passengers and crew. Their memorial is pictured above.
If this list has a big takeaway message, it is this: be active in protecting your own safety while traveling, even on something as safe as a modern cruise ship. Cruise liners are so safe because of years of trials and often fatal error to establish rules and procedures that protect you, your fellow passengers, and the crew.
Ships can and do sink. This will be true as long as human beings go to see. In the Costa Concordia disaster, thirty-two passengers lost their lives. The sinking occurred three hours into the voyage.
They had not yet begun the muster drill.