Are Cruises Safe? A Cruise Safety Guide For Parents

The Titanic may have been “the last word in luxury” back in the day. But it can’t compare to the sheer size and prestige of modern cruise ships.

Flickr/TravelingOtter - the Royal Princess in Geirangerfjord

These floating mega-cities can span about a quarter of a mile in length and stand taller than a 20-story building. And as you’d expect from a modern city like New York or Miami, cruise ships have everything you could hope to ask.

  • Broadway-style performances and live bands? Check!
  • First-class dining facilities? Check!
  • Play areas and wholesome entertainment for the kids? Check!
  • Parties and nightlife? Check!
  • Wifi in the middle of the ocean? Check!

With something to offer to passengers of all ages, cruises are an excellent choice for vacationing families. But with about 3,000 people on board the ship, things can get out of hand when left unchecked.

From Legend To “The Cruise From Hell”

Carnival Cruise’s Legend made the headlines recently and earned the title “the cruise from hell” from its passengers.

The 10-day South Pacific cruise became the arena for three days of fighting that culminated in a mass brawl.

“I was punched in the face trying to protect my fiance,” said Michael Barsoum who was proposing to his girlfriend. Kids and women were also pulled into fight according to Barsoum, while those who wriggled out of the large-scale melee locked up in their rooms.

The end of “the cruise from hell” saw the staff and police disembark an extended family with more than 20 members, who allegedly started the madness and left cuts, bruises, and broken bones in their wake.

Nobody would want to put their children in the midst of a massive fist-fight.

So should you avoid cruising altogether?

Not quite according to statistics.

More than 11 million US passengers went on a cruise in 2014 but generated only 34 reported incidents. And this trend seems to stay stable year after year.

Cruises are still one of the safest vacations for your family. Nevertheless, you can’t let your guard down, especially when little tots rely on you for safety.

Here’s how to keep the entire family safe aboard a ship, not just from quarrelsome knuckleheads but other health and safety risks, too.

Pre-Cruise Preparation

Anticipating all of the things that can go wrong is the last thing we want to do when planning a vacation. But as far as travel safety is concerned, doing so is just what the doctor ordered. Here’s how to prepare for the worst of times when planning, so you can have the best of times while cruising.

Talk To Your Travel Doctor
With thousands of passengers and multiple destinations in the mix, cruises are at risk for outbreaks.

The CDC recommends updating immunizations for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and influenza. But you and your kids may need more depending on the itinerary.

To make sure you don’t miss an important vaccine, talk to a travel doctor or travel medicine specialist. Not only will they update your shots. But these professionals will make personalized health recommendations while taking following factors into account:

  • The length of the cruise
  • The destinations
  • The time of the year
  • Types of activities you and your kids are likely to engage
  • Other personal details like age, medical history, pre-existing conditions, etc.

One rookie mistake to avoid is visiting the doctor too late.

Consulting the travel doctor a few days before the cruise may not give them enough time to administer all the necessary vaccines. Instead, schedule an appointment about four to six weeks before the sailing date.

Flickr/Jan Tik

Pack A Carry-On Bag
Your cabin may not be ready when you board.

You can either carry your heavy suitcases for a few hours or hand them over to a porter. The latter option is convenient, but know that your luggage may not get to your cabin until dinnertime.

So make sure all of your essentials are within reach. Pack a carry-on bag.

You can use a backpack, duffle bag, or hard-sided luggage. Just make sure you’re comfy carrying it for extended periods, and the bag has enough space.

Far more important, however, are the contents your carry-on. The items in it might be the only belongings you (and your kids) have during the first day of the cruise.

As a rule:

Anything you can’t afford to lose must go into the carry-on.

Here’s a short list of items you will want to have in your carry-on:

  • Passports, IDs, and cruise documentation
  • Money, both plastic and cash
  • An extra set of light and comfy clothes for family members
  • Digital cameras, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other gadgets
  • Diapers, wipes, snacks, and other kid’s supplies
  • Personal care products like shampoo, soap, and cleaning solutions

And last but not the least:

Bring a well-stocked first aid kit.

Cruises have a doctor and, at least, two nurses on board. Ship medical centers are well-equipped to respond to emergencies. But they’re not a pharmacy and may not have what you need.

Also, a visit to the ship’s doctor will cost you around $100 – plus the cost of the medication. Do you really want to spend a few hundred dollars to relieve your migraine? Probably not!

So add a first aid kit to your carry-on.

The contents will, of course, vary depending on your family. But the kit should contain the usual must-haves:

  • Child-friendly pain relievers and cold remedies
  • Topical antibiotic and hand sanitizer
  • Bandages and gauze pads
  • Scissors and tweezers
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Kid-safe insect repellent

Plus any prescription medication you need to take regularly.

If you have toddlers, you can’t go wrong with a few packs of ORS (oral rehydration solution).

The risk of catching traveler’s diarrhea is real, and young children are the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, antidiarrheal drugs are unsafe for kids. So your best bet is to manage the symptoms and replace the lost fluids frequently.

Aboard The Ship

Few things are as tiring as standing in line with bags and small people to attend to. Once aboard, you may feel tempted to chill out and let the rest of the family do their thing. Save that for later. Your first hours on the ship are essential in ensuring everyone is on the same page safety-wise.

Attend The Muster Drill And Listen!
I feel you.

Muster drills are anything but fun.

Not only do you have to wear your life jacket and fall in line, all the while carrying a baby or toddler (who’s also wearing a life jacket). But the emergency siren which announces the start of the drill comes at the most inconvenient times – like when you’re getting some shut-eye or playing with your little one.

And when you get to the drill…

You will see a lot of people on their smartphones, while some are already tipsy from alcohol.
Why should you even bother attending!?

Because the muster drill will save your life.

More than 30 people died the last time a cruise ship suffered damage before the crew can hold a muster drill. Today, most cruise lines start the exercise before they depart to avoid history from repeating itself.

To attend the drill, you will have to reach your muster station first, typically found on the open deck.

You can find the station number in your cabin, along with an explanation of its location and a route you can take. Wherever you are on the ship, you will also find signs and arrows which lead you from the cabin to the station

After the passengers have gathered, crew members will go through the boring but life-saving stuff – from the location of the life jackets, how to wear them, safety procedures in case of an emergency, to the best escape routes.

During the drill, make sure your eyes and ears are glued to the presentation. And get the kids and teens to tune in, too, for good measure.

After The Drill…
Remembering every detail from the drill is impossible for most of us.

So when you get back to the cabin with the rest of the family, you will want to review everything that was discussed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to capture the drill on video as international laws mandate cruise ships to include the same safety instructions in the cabin. You can practice donning life jackets with little tots, or walk the primary and alternative escape routes, so it grows familiar to you.

Aside from reviewing the safety steps presented in the drill, planning the following is also an excellent way to spend your family’s first hours on the ship:

  • Who goes with whom: Scouts use the buddy system when outdoors, and so should you. Pair a slightly older family member with someone younger or someone who has been on a cruise with a newbie.
  • Establish curfew times: And be firm about it! Kids and teens may want to stay out for longer. You’re on vacation after all. But a toddler doesn’t have any business walking around the ship at 1 am.
  • Routine check-ins: With attractions for people of all ages, family members will want to go out and explore on their own. Nothing wrong with that. But establish check-in rules before everyone goes their merry way. Be clear on how often they should notify others of their status and which medium to use (ex: onboard messaging apps, walkie-talkies, etc.).

While you’re at it, you should also remind the tweens and teens that the same stranger-danger rules apply on the high seas.

They shouldn’t accept drinks from people they don’t know. They also shouldn’t go into someone else’s cabin or invite someone in theirs – even if he seems like a genuinely nice guy.

And last but not the least:

Adult areas like casinos and bars are off-limits to underage family members!

During The Cruise

The ship is finally sailing! The kids have been briefed. The luggage has been tucked in the cabin. You’re now officially on vacation. Time to relax, but not too much. You still need to account for other safety risks on and off the ship.

Stay Alert When In The Pool
Just because pools at cruise ships are crowded doesn’t mean they’re safer than their land-based counterparts.

Sure, some cruise lines like Royal Caribbean even have lifeguards manning their pools. And the extra pairs of eyes are more than welcome.

However, these water attractions are packed with adults and kids alike, and you can’t count on a handful of people to keep track of everything. Parents must still stay within an arm’s reach of their children and provide constant supervision.

See if your cruise has swim vests on board, and consider bringing one if they don’t.

On the other hand, you will also want to review proper water safety practices with your mini-me’s.

Make sure the kids know not to get near or in the water when you’re not around, and that they should stay away from drains while in the pool. And before diving, they should check the water’s depth first. Jumping head first on areas that are too shallow is courting disaster.

Specific lines offer sessions on swimming essentials and water safety to young passengers and having family members take one is always a good idea.

Eyes Open At The First Sign Of Trouble
Rarely do bloody fights erupt in an instant.

The 45-minute brawl at the Legend was a culmination of smaller skirmishes and violent encounters. Simply put, you’ll often have the time to get out of harm’s way.

You just need to keep your eyes open. In particular, be watchful for:

  • People exhibiting rude behavior
  • Loud arguments and insults
  • Pushing and shoving
  • And other signs a fight may break out

These warning signs don’t always translate to a full-fledged brawl, but you want to keep tabs on how things will develop.

If the arguing, pushing, and shoving grow more intense, take the kids and leave the scene. And if possible, notify security personnel along the way of the brewing trouble.

Flickr/Danila Medvedev Silver Wisper on the Neva River

Plan Ahead Of Time When Going On Shore Excursions
Arriving on a cruise ship and the sudden influx of foreigners won’t help you maintain a low-profile. People on the shore will notice, so you must take extra care when on land.

For starters:

Decide whether you will go on shore excursions (or not) long before the journey.

Doing so affords you the time to research every destination thoroughly. Here are questions you want to answer in your investigation:

  • What types of criminal activity are most common? Violent crime in an area may be low. But theft and pickpocketing are rampant in heavily touristed places.
  • Is the region under political unrest? Or suffering from poverty? Both are warning signs, but having both is a no-go.
  • What is the modus operandi of the crimes common in the area? Some will spill coffee on you, while an accomplice offers to clean up the mess. In some cases, the duo pretends as a passenger and a cab driver.

You will also have to decide whether you will take the kids or just club it.

Cruises have kid’s clubs and activities to keep the children busy so mom and dad can explore and enjoy what’s ashore.

The downside is that getting on or off the ship can take 30 minutes to an hour. So if your child needs you, they’ll need to wait.

However, taking the kids with you has its share of risks.

First on the list is getting separated. Ports can get crowded, while energetic toddlers may run into nooks and crannies until they lose their way.

If you plan on taking your little one, here are a few recommendations to help you prepare.

You will want to take and carry photographs of each other. So should someone get lost, you can immediately provide visual clues to locals and authorities – even if you can’t speak the native language.

You wouldn’t want to take your expensive smartphone with you. So bring an instant-print camera. Models from Polaroid and Fujifilm are good enough for the job. Not to mention affordable. And with the unique photo opps you’ll find on land, the camera will come handy.

Getting an anti-lost wrist link is also a good idea.

While some parents hate the leash to the bone, I find it immensely valuable when going places with my daughter. It lets her move around while ensuring she doesn’t stray too far away.

And last but not the least, no-nonsense tourist safety practices like:

  • Finding strength in numbers by staying close to other passengers
  • Not drawing attention to oneself
  • Putting valuables where you can see them
  • And more

All of them apply when you’re on land.

New Contributor: Candice is the mom and blogger behind She caught the travel bug during her 20’s, and has passed it down to her young daughter.

Follow Candice @CandiceWhitloc

Photos by:
Flickr/Roderick Eime, Credit Oceania Cruises
Flickr/Jan Tik
Flickr/Danila Medvedev

Candice is the mom and blogger behind She caught the travel bug during her 20's, and has passed it down to her young daughter.

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