Let's begin with the big picture: Overall, it's safe to cruise. While accidents and mechanical problems with ships attract headlines, you're more likely to be affected by crime in ports and on board. But you can take steps to minimize those risks so that you don't become part of that small fraction of cruisers.
It's always a good idea to check travel warnings on the U.S. Department of State website when traveling abroad and to get advice and suggestions from your cruise line before going ashore. Risk goes up in some places more than others — I don't know any cruisers who've fallen victim to pickpocketing penguins in Antarctica. But crime happens even in places you might not expect it.
For example, while river cruise-friendly Paris is considered a relatively safe city, both the American University in Paris and U.S. State Department warn travelers about pickpockets and other forms of theft, which are common in the city. They also both note that in addition to wallets and purses, iPhones and other smartphones as well as other small electronics are especially coveted by thieves. Don’t give thieves the opening.
Crime prevention tips
Here are some crime prevention tips for cruisers and travelers:
- Keep personal items close, especially on crowded public transportation and in high-traffic tourist areas such as museums and cafes.
- Don’t leave purses on the backs of chairs or on the floor in restaurants.
- Don’t put your phone in your back pocket or carry your camera around your neck. Keep such items in your purse or other bag, keep the bag securely closed and keep it close to you.
- Thieves come in all age groups: In Paris, many pickpockets are children under the age of 16, especially at museums where they have free entry.
- Be aware of common scams such as a person walking in front of you “finding” a ring on the ground and offering to sell it to you for a bargain price or someone crowding too close to you in public areas. Some con artists use distraction, such as asking you to take a survey or to help them because they’re lost, while their partners pick your pockets or grab your purse.
Crime aboard ships
Crime does happen on ships as well as in ports, so don't let your guard down just because you feel you are in a contained environment and surrounded by others all day and night. There may be several thousand passengers and crew on board a ship, so there is a risk that some may not be honest. You should use common sense and be as careful as you would in any other public places.
It's hard to get precise statistics on cruise incidents as there is no major central resource that cruise lines are required to report incidents to. The United States Coast Guard tracks incidents for lines operating out of the United States, including accidents, suspicious deaths, assaults and sexual assaults. To get a broader picture, I use the CruiseJunkie.com website. This site tracks every incident globally. There is growing pressure for the lines to provide more data on their websites.
Sonia Gil of Sonia's Travels offers some great travel safety tips in this 3-minute video.
Cruise lines go to enormous lengths to avoid and plan for accidents. The ships are governed by regulations issued by the International Maritime Organization that include the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea regulations, which require all ships to have sufficient lifeboats, life jackets, emergency equipment and personnel trained to tackle any major incidents.
Should an incident occur at sea, follow the crew’s instructions without delay, and get to your muster station as promptly as possible. Most ships conduct a muster drill — sometimes called a safety or lifeboat drill — at the beginning of every sailing to prepare passengers for what steps should be followed in the event of an emergency. Pay attention to the escape routes.
- Smoking. A fire at sea is the one kind of incident that all ships dread. Fires can spread fast and are difficult to control. Ships have restrictions on where you can smoke. If you do smoke, make sure your cigarettes are completely out, and never throw butts over the side of the ship as they can be drawn back into the ship and start a fire.
- Guard rails. Be careful and don't fool around next to guard rails, especially after drinking. In the past three years, 23 passengers and crew fell overboard in 2014, 27 in 2015 and 16 in 2016 out of more than 23 million cruisers, Cruisejunkie.com reports. So don't take the plunge — it's about a one-in-a-million possibility, but it does happen.
- Valuables. Bring as few valuables as you can, and keep them locked in your safe.
- Passport. Always leave a photocopy of your passport’s first page in the safe in your cabin on the ship, as this will help facilitate replacement if your passport is lost or stolen during a cruise.
- In port. Don't take valuables or a lot of cash with you. Stick in populated areas, go on escorted excursions and only use taxis sanctioned by the government. Remember that places you visit may be poor and wealthy cruise passengers can be seen as easy targets, relaxed and off guard.
Cruise ship safety
In this era of increased attention to security risks, it's good to know that cruise ships operate in a controlled environment where access to the ship is strictly monitored and enforced. All passengers, crew members, carry-on baggage and luggage are inspected prior to boarding. Passengers and crew may embark or disembark only after passing through a security checkpoint.
Crew members must undergo a background screening prior to joining a ship's staff. In addition, foreign nationals who work on ships that sail into U.S. ports are required to meet the legal obligations of a seamen’s visa, as set forth by the U.S. State Department. Every time a crew member enters the United States, they are vetted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, just like everyone who enters the country.
Have you had any brushes with crime or personal safety issues during a cruise? Please share your tips!
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