Is it finally safe to take a cruise?

By | September 7th, 2013

If you’re one of the 303 million Americans who won’t take a cruise this year, you might want to reconsider your vacation plans. This may be the time to head out to sea.

The reason has little to do with cruise prices, which are rapidly sinking. The average cabin for two costs just $143 per night, according to Priceline. That’s down 13 percent from last month and a four-year low.

It isn’t even the barrage of bad publicity from a series of embarrassing mishaps, including last year’s sinking of the Costa Concordia and Carnival’s infamous “poop” cruise earlier this year, which some say is pushing prices downward as cruise lines vie for your business.

The real sea change has gone practically unnoticed, as the industry is finally getting its act together in many small ways.

It’s not entirely voluntary, though. Cruise lines now publicly report all their major onboard crimes on their websites, after years of criticism from consumer advocates and after Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced a bill that would have forced them to.

The U.S. cruise industry, which avoided most American taxes by registering its ships overseas, is also about to pay its fair share of taxes, thanks to another proposed bill.

First-timers such as Sonia Vining, an elementary school music teacher from Plymouth, Mich., are trying a cruise — and liking it. Vining ignored the dire warnings about cruising and sailed on Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Epic, hitting the Eastern Caribbean ports of St. Maarten and St. Thomas, this spring.

“It was relaxing, and it was a great bargain,” she says. “Show me a hotel that gives you seven nights’ accommodation and three meals a day for $900.”

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Cautions from critics

For years, cruise industry critics warned passengers that the deals came at a high, and often unseen, price. Cruise lines didn’t just dodge most American taxes by registering their ships elsewhere, but they paid their crew substandard wages. What’s more, they said, safety on board some vessels was iffy, with reports of sexual assaults and passengers falling overboard.

This spring, for example, two passengers on the Carnival Spirit went overboard near the Australian coast. Their bodies were never found. A few weeks later, a 19-year-old Kentucky man was arrested following another passenger’s complaint that he tried to rape her while on board the Carnival Dream. He has pleaded not guilty.

But the blanket arguments against cruising will fade as these incidents — though relatively rare — are more openly and systematically disseminated by the lines themselves.

The three major cruise lines — Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean — are now posting quarterly reports of all major on-board crimes to their own websites, including homicides, suspicious deaths, missing persons, kidnappings, assault with “serious” injury, theft of more than $10,000, rape and sexual assault. These crimes used to be reported to the Coast Guard, but thanks to a late revision in another bill, only cases that the FBI considered closed needed to be made public. It left passengers with the impression that their ships were virtually crime-free.

“Passengers have a right to know if their cruise is safe,” says Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which represents cruise passengers.

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Look for accountability

Talking about crime on ships isn’t enough, but knowing the extent of the problem is sure to pressure cruise lines into being more accountable, as opposed to the vague assurances made by many of its executives in the past. Similarly, embracing common-sense regulation and closing historic loopholes will give passengers a little more peace of mind to book a cruise.

And if it doesn’t? Don’t forget the industry’s new passenger bill of rights, introduced in May, which, among other things, gives passengers the ability to leave a docked ship if it can’t provide essentials such as food, water, bathroom facilities and medical care and provides the right to a full refund for a trip canceled because of mechanical failures. That should calm fears of your next cruise going all Triumph on you.

The cruise industry is closer to reaching its goal. A recent JD Power & Associates report found that customer satisfaction among cruise passengers is generally high, but there’s still work to be done. Nearly 20 percent of passengers experience a problem on their floating vacations, according to the report.

“Cruise lines need to understand the causes of customer dissatisfaction and determine what will motivate them to come back,” says J.D. Power’s Ramez Faza.

Cruise lines should also embrace the latest legislative efforts as the life preserver they’re intended as. The proposed new laws would make the cruise experience even safer and better regulated, not to mention remove the ugly tax-dodger label.

Those simple concessions might be costly to the industry in the short term, but down the line, they would create a more profitable and sustainable business that is also good for the passengers it serves.

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  • polexia_rogue

    Safe-yes bargin-no
    I went across 4 states,paying as I went, for hotels, food and activites. It was waaaay cheaper then the cruises I looked up.

    Cruises will never be a better option then a normal roadtrip

  • California_Dave

    It is still extremely important that you match the passengers to the right ship on the right itinerary. If it is not a good fit, it doesn’t matter how cheap the fare, you will not have a good vacation. I highly suggest people work with a travel agent (I am not one) that can match you with a ship and itinerary that will have like-minded people. It also pays to have a budget outside of the fare as all-inclusive is only available at the very high end and can cost you as much as the cruise itself. I love cruising, and have never seen or heard about crime on any of the 17 cruises we have taken, but may be interested to see the stats for the lines we frequent.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Don’t forget that Di$ney had an incident where a girl was molested in an elevator by a crew member while the boat was docked. Rather than deal with it there (on US soil), they sailed for the Bahamas.


  • This is seldom a good deal for a single.

    In any case, you couldn’t pay me to get on a ship with more than about 150 passengers. (Aside, possibly, from a Trans Atlantic crossing to avoid flying.)

  • Jim Daniel

    I just took a very short Carnival cruse as part of a business/sales meeting for a company of mostly young adults. Having been on an Alaska cruise on Holland America, I was a little less than happy with young drunks storming through the halls loudly between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning.

    I once watched an episode of “The Love Boat” but this was more like the SEX BOAT.

    THE LESSON: Learn what line you want to travel on and who your fellow travelers are. The Carnival excursion I was on was really not aimed at folks over 50, and I can’t blame Carnival for that. They have chosen a demographic and they serve that group well.

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe if you are traveling as a group since hotels charge by the room not by the person (up to a point). But for a single, I find the costs to be about the same on a ship when I add in all the costs like gasoline and wear and tear on the vehicle. Of course I tend to stay in more expensive hotels (not the Ritz, but not Motel 6 either) that more closely match the promised level of luxury on cruises. Also, it just depends on what you want to do. These days I prefer to leave the driving to someone else so I can kick back and relax so I prefer bus tours in Europe to most anything else.

  • jim6555

    Carnival owns Holland-America, a cruise line where the average age on most trips is somewhere north of 70. If you want a quiet cruise with well-behaved passengers, this Carnival brand may be the way to go. As California_Dave pointed out, it is important to match the ship and itinerary to the needs of the passenger.

  • Jim Daniel

    Pretty much what I figured. I did not set up this cruise, it was for “business meetings” and the young guys arranged everything.

    I long to go back to the East Coast of Alaska. I MAY take the Alaska Marine Highway Seattle to Sitka, spend a few days, then catch Holland America back.

  • Jim Daniel

    The trick to affordable is to be AVAILABLE. If you live or can stay in a port of call, know the cruises and call the company about 3-5 days before one you want sails. Inquire about cabins available and then NEGOTIATE. Whatever they offer as a first price, try to get them to go two steps lower. You may only get one step, but you have the knowledge that every ship measures fuel costs in thousands of pounds burnt per day, and that won’t change if you ride or not. They also have to have virtually everything on board with or without you, pay the same bills every day. ANY money they get from you last minute is better than sailing with an empty cabin. This works best in off-peak season travel.
    How does $100./Day sound for room, board, and scenery?

  • Nigel Appleby

    Well said. The only crimes I’ve heard of on 25 cruises is happenings in port when passengers did not follow the advice of the4 ship’s crew or tour guides.
    For example a Rolex stolen after we had been told to not walk around alone and not wear expensive jewellery, someone who went for a walk on his own cam back without his Rolex. Also In a particular area having been told to be aware of the likelihood of pick-pockets, keeping a wallet loosely in a back pocket, or keeping a handbag/purse slung behind one’s back, wallet disappeared and the handbag was slashed open along the bottom.
    Neither of these situations are the fault of the cruiseline.

  • Bill___A

    I won’t be going. They need to clean up their act about 5,000% before I would even consider it.


    I have cruised regularly since 1983 and have been on nearly 50 cruises at this point. I have not encountered any violent crime on any of the ships I have been on. There have been thefts from cabins, poolside and of course in ports. And one cruise I was people were robbed at gunpoint in port. I am not in denial that violent/serious crime happens on a ship but so far I have not experienced it.
    However, I was mugged in a hotel parking garage and a friend was assaulted in the corridor leading to her room in a well-known hotel. A business acquaintance returned to his hotel room after a meeting and it had been completely cleaned out and he had “checked out” using the system on the TV. Despite heavy discouragement from the hotel security I did report the mugging and found I was not alone as a victim in that garage.
    The Costa sinking and the Carnival cruise breakdowns are deserving of the publicity. I think that cruises should pay crew/staff decent wages and get rid of the tipping. Taxes are a matter that the government needs to work on. All crimes, both serious and petty should be reported.
    But I also think the same standards should be addressed in land-based businesses as well. Wait staff in US restaurants should be paid appropriate wages and not rely on tips. All tourist related industries–hotels, motels, theme parks, national parks and so on should also have to publicly report all crime, especially serious crime, that occurs on their property.
    We cannot hold one industry accountable for something when similar businesses are not.

  • Lindabator

    And you are not alone! My escorted tours sales have skyrocketed in the last year, as they DO leave the driving to someone else, give you a great balance of seeing what NEEDS to be seen, and having free time to explore on your own – and the prices are great!

  • Lindabator

    Very true – when I announced to a certain segment of my clients last week that there was FINALLY a cruise ship which did NOT accept passengers under the age of 18, which offered large staterooms, included all the goodies, and did not require tipping – they’d never heard of them before, but now can’t wait to sail!

  • Lindabator

    Then you might want to check out River cruises – small ships, limited passengers – and special cruises throughout the year with NO single supplements! :)

  • Lindabator

    Actually, the average is 55-60 on Holland. ANY longer or more exotic cruise is going to attract an older crowd, however, so keep in mind that a Canada/New England for 15 days will skew to an older crowd. :) (Just a heads up – have a LOT of families who travel Holland to Alaska, and honeymooners love the service they get on them as well)

  • Lindabator

    Great point! And the wages they pay the staff (according TO THE staff) are FAR better than that they earn back home, and the tips just ensure they can make the most of the time onboard. And I hear FAR more horror stories from land packages than from cruisers.

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