In 2012, Georgia Ananias was enjoying a Mediterranean cruise with her family when the unthinkable happened. Their vessel, Costa Concordia, struck a rock formation on the sea floor and began to capsize. It happened so quickly that not all passengers and crew were able to evacuate in lifeboats. Thirty-two people died.
“It was an awful experience,” she told HuffPost. “I can still hear the screaming. It’s a life-changing experience that nobody wants to have. You’d never think that when you go on a cruise that something like that can happen.”
Of all the travel disasters, cruise ship incidents certainly make their fair share of headlines. People have strong opinions about cruises, so whether there are disease outbreaks, reports of assault or deadly accidents, these events tend to garner a lot of attention.
Despite these stories, cruise expert Stewart Chiron aka “The Cruise Guy,” emphasized that such occurrences are overall rare when you look at the large number of cruise voyages and passengers that enjoy incident-free experiences each year.
“It is in the interest of all the ships to provide as safe an environment and experience as possible,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are bad situations that occur, but it’s far fewer than what we would see ashore.”
“There is nothing that suggests that all cruises are unsafe,” echoed Dr. Mark Fischer, regional medical director of International SOS. “Dangerous situations can happen anywhere at any time, and this includes on cruise ships.”
Still, he added, there are always unique health and safety risks when you embark on any travel journey, so it’s important to stay vigilant.
“According to the CDC, the most common health threats to cruise passengers include norovirus, seasickness and respiratory illnesses,” Fischer said. “Some of the most common safety threats include extreme weather and petty crime. There are some things out of a traveler’s control when on a cruise ship. However, there are also important guidelines a traveler can put into place to ensure safety.”
Below, experts share their advice for prioritizing health and safety during a cruise vacation, from pre-travel procedures to tips for port excursions.
Pay attention to safety drills.
“First and foremost, remember to pay attention during the mandatory muster drill,” Fischer said. “This is where you will learn where the life jackets are, what alarms mean, and what to do during certain emergencies. You should practice this drill a few hours after the instruction to ensure you retain the information.”
Pay particular attention to the emergency signal, which typically consists of seven or more short blasts of the horn followed by one long blast. You can find recordings online to familiarize yourself with the sound.
Ananias, now senior vice president of International Cruise Victims, recalled hearing the signal on the day of the Costa Concordia disaster. She and her family narrowly survived amid the chaos and confusion. “There were so many people from different countries, so they had to do five announcements in different languages from the PA system,” she said. “That’s why it’s helpful to know the signal since there can be language barriers or the PA system might stop working.”
Be on alert when visiting ports.
“If guests are wandering off the boat at a port, they should be aware of any safety concerns such as scams to avoid or pickpockets,” said Cathy Pedrayes, a safety expert and author of “The Mom Friend Guide to Everyday Safety and Security.” “The cruise ship can probably advise on any safety concerns specific to the area. And if you’re touring at a port, remove the obvious markers that you’re a tourist, such as a cruise ship ID bracelet unless required as part of a group tour.”
Before you disembark to explore a port, consider paring down your wallet to just one or two credit cards, especially if you’re traveling with a partner who has cards connected to the same accounts. That way, you’ll minimize the consequences of falling victim to theft.
“A lot of times, people don’t consider that they’re traveling internationally on the cruise because they departed from a U.S. port,” Stewart said. “Obviously, you want to have a great time, but you still need to have your wits about you. Tourists are targets. Make sure your purse is zipped. Don’t wear your flashiest jewelry and watches. And don’t leave your belongings on the beach unattended.”
He also recommended checking the latest news and State Department alerts for the destinations where the ship will be stopping. If reports of heightened crime make you uncomfortable, don’t feel pressured to disembark at that particular stop, or at least be extra vigilant.
“If something does happen at a port, say you get in a traffic accident in a remote area or wind up delayed on a tour you booked with someone other than the cruise line’s designated company, make sure you contact your carrier,” said travel safety consultant Kevin Coffey. “Usually, your cruise ID card contains valuable information like the number for a 24-hour phone line.”
Watch how much you’re drinking.
“Don’t drink so much alcohol that you lose your wits,” said Ashley Kosciolek, senior cruise writer at The Points Guy. “It could lead to slipping and falling or cause you to engage in unsafe behaviors. Plus, hangovers can really put a damper on the next day’s fun.”
Although the side railings are generally quite high and secure, accidents happen ― especially when people get too drunk.
“Just like at hotels during spring break, people have too many drinks and get an idea to try to move from one balcony to another or climb a railing to take a photo,” Stewart said.
Overindulging can lead to other dangerous incidents on cruises.
“What you’re seeing more and more of these days is you’re seeing a lot of fights breaking out on these ships,” said David Charlip, a lawyer specializing in cruise ship injury litigation. “People get drunk and, for whatever reason, have words with each other. A lot of people travel in big groups, so the next thing you know, you’ve got a gang of people fighting another gang of people. We’ve seen cases involving injuries, especially when the security staff intervenes.”
Be aware of your surroundings.
“Be aware of your surroundings ― like looking out for slippery decks or anything along those lines,” Pedrayes urged.
Use your common sense as you make decisions, and trust your instincts if something doesn’t feel right. Along the same lines, exercise the same caution around strangers and potentially dangerous situations on land.
“A cruise ship is like a small city,” Ananias said. “It’s filled with all different types of people, so you need to act accordingly.”
There are usually signs that indicate crew-only areas. As a passenger, you should avoid these zones, which can be potentially dangerous. Even if a crew member invites you into a restricted area, you should politely decline.
“Do not invite other passengers to your room or share your cabin number with anyone outside of those you are traveling with,” Fischer said.
And just as you’d be inclined to pay attention to your cocktail at a hotel bar or your beer at a local brewery, take the same approach with your drinks on a cruise. Date rape drugs can wind up in drinks on ships as well.
“Everything you do on land, you need to do on a ship,” Stewart said. “Be protective of your drink a the bar. These sorts of instances are far fewer on a ship, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”
Be mindful of what you eat.
“A lot of times, people get intestinal illnesses like norovirus during cruise vacations,” Charlip said. “It’s obviously a good idea to wash your hands frequently, but other than that, there’s not always a whole lot you can do. On excursions, you should pay attention like you would at a barbecue ― if you see things made with mayonnaise like coleslaw that have been sitting out all day, it’s probably not a good idea to eat them.”
If you have specific dietary needs, check the cruise line’s website or talk to a representative ahead of your trip to ensure they can be met on board.
“It’s also important to not share your food or beverages with passengers that you don’t know and ensure good ventilation when indoors on the cruise to avoid contracting illness from another party on the cruise,” Fischer said.
Don’t push past your limits.
“When people go on vacation, they often forget to pack their common sense and awareness,” Coffey said. “They think accidents or bad incidents can’t happen, but it’s still the real world.”
Remember that you don’t magically become a superhero when you embark.
“What happens on cruises is some people want to do things they haven’t done for most of their lifetime, if not most of the year,” Charlip said. “So they become more adventurous than perhaps their bodily limits allow and feel like they have to push themselves in many ways, whether it’s trying to squeeze in as many activities as possible, braving heat or different environmental conditions, overeating, and drinking or just otherwise going above and beyond.”
Trying new things can be great, but remember you’re on vacation and don’t push past your limits, no matter how fun the rock climbing wall on the ship looks. If you book a tour or activity, take the time to understand what it entails and make sure you’re prepared.
“Particularly in European countries, there may be a lot of walking, cobblestone streets, things like that,” Charlip explained. “A lot of these folks are somewhat elderly. If they’re on a 10-day cruise, by day eight, they might be exhausted but still doing stuff that’s terribly strenuous and active. They’re not giving their bodies the chance to rest and recuperate. If you push it too much, you’re opening yourself up to injury.”
Use the buddy system.
“Remain vigilant and be sure to stay with those you are traveling with both during the day and especially while moving around the ship at night,” Fischer said. “It’s also best to carry your identification with you at all times in the event of an emergency.”
Refrain from going off by yourself during excursions when possible. Instead, consider designating someone in your group as your designated partner who has your back and ensures you’re accounted for.
“If you’re a solo cruiser, it could be beneficial to buddy up and ensure that someone on the ship has an eye out for you by making a friend or two early on,” Fischer said. “However, don’t rely on this solely. Be sure to implement other practices to ensure your safety, such as putting valuables in your room safe, informing family or friends of your travel itinerary on the ship and on land, and always being aware of your surroundings.”
Children should also never be left alone on a cruise or excursion.
“Don’t allow your children to run around unsupervised,” Kosciolek said. “Not only is it potentially unsafe for them ― it can be an annoyance to other passengers.”
Protect your belongings.
“Make sure your cabin doors lock when you enter or leave your rooms,” Pedrayes said. “Use the safe for valuables. If you have a balcony room, be careful with leaving things on the balcony. You wouldn’t want it to get washed away in bad weather or with window washing.”
As with other forms of travel, avoid walking around with large sums of money or valuables. There are ways to protect your belongings before you also arrive on the ship.
“I recommend putting AirTags or other tracking devices in your luggage,” Coffey said. “Things get lost and misplaced. Luggage tags pop off, even on cruise ships.”
Stay on top of personal health and hygiene.
“It is always important to make sure you are up to date with your routine
vaccinations as well as the recommendations for the locations you plan to travel,” Fischer said. “Making an appointment with a travel medicine specialist at least four weeks prior to your trip will mitigate risk.”
Stay on top of personal hygiene practices, like regularly washing your hands throughout the vacation. Carry sanitizer as you go about your day as well.
“Frequent handwashing ― especially before you eat and after you use the bathroom or touch things like stair rails or elevator buttons ― is the best way to avoid both catching and spreading germs,” Kosciolek said. “Although cruise ships experience far fewer cases of norovirus than schools, hospitals, nursing homes and restaurants, it’s still a risk.”
Don’t forget to pack any medicine you might need. Kosciolek recommended seasickness remedies like as ginger candies, Bonine or Dramamine, accupressure wristbands or behind-the-ear patches.
“In a pinch, grab a green apple or a ginger ale from the buffet or room service,” she added. “Finding an area on a low deck near the middle of the ship also helps, as does finding a window and staring at the horizon.”
Always take any essential medications with you on your excursions so that you have them even if there’s an incident. Try to keep it all in its original packaging with prescription labels attached.
“If you have chronic medical conditions, ensure you have all of your medications in a secure location plus an extra seven days of medication in the event there are any travel delays,” Fischer added. “Travelers should be encouraged to carry medications in hand luggage and avoid packing medications in luggage they will be required to check. Checked-in luggage can become lost or delayed, which will interrupt the traveler’s regular administration regimes.”
Do your research.
Before you embark on your journey, familiarize yourself with any important policies and procedures in place. Understand what your travel insurance and health insurance do and don’t cover.
“If you have a heart attack or get into a traffic accident in an Uber or cab and wind up in the hospital during an excursion, you may not necessarily want to be at that particular hospital,” Coffey said. “Figure out what it would look like if you needed to be flown home too. And how would the costs be handled? Find out what medical care looks like on the cruise as well.”
Familiarize yourself with your tour operators, as they’d be responsible for any incidents and subsequent litigation.
“People don’t realize that most of the official excursions are not run or managed by the cruise line,” Charlip said. “It’s typically outside vendors, so you might not have the same degree of oversight and supervision that you would in the U.S. And don’t assume the cruise or tour staff will be looking out for your safety. The person that’s primarily responsible for your safety is you, so do your homework.”
He’s also a proponent of trusting your gut. So, for example, you can decline if you signed up for a snorkeling expedition but think the sea conditions don’t look good that day.
“Finally, make sure you have copies of all important documents, such as your passport, in case you lose it,” Pedrayes said. “I like to bring a paper photocopy, and I email myself a copy as well.”
Ensure someone back home has copies of your important information and itinerary. Then, have a plan of action if something goes wrong and you need help getting back home or reconnecting with the ship.
“Before the cruise, read your contract,” Ananias advised. “Leave knowing exactly what will happen should there be an accident. Know that U.S. laws likely won’t apply in many of these situations. You might feel like you’re signing your life away, so everybody should read that contract and make sure they feel comfortable.”