Are cruise ships a safe way to vacation, or are they lawless floating cities packed with disease and disaster?

The internet seems to have made up its mind. Search for “cruise ship dangers,” and you’ll be greeted with dozens of terrifying headlines; Fox News wrote about “the world’s most dangerous cruise ports,” while Cracked wrote about the “five reasons cruise ships are nightmares.” It’s enough to scare anyone away.

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We decided to look into a few of the allegations against the cruise industry. Along the way, we also reached out to Donnie Brown, vice president of Maritime Policy at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade organization that conducts research on the cruise industry; we also spoke to a former cruise ship worker, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak truthfully about his previous employers.

What we found was sort of a mixed bag; some criticisms of the cruise industry seem legitimate, while others are clearly exaggerated. For instance…

1. Are ships basically lawless free-for-alls?

“The FBI has opened 305 criminal cases on the high seas,” maritime attorney Charles Lipcon wrote in his ebook Unsafe on the High Seas, which has become something of a touchstone for anti-cruise arguments. “Cruise lines are required to report any gastrointestinal disturbances, but they have no mandate to report crimes and disappearances.”

Since cruise ships are only subject to the laws of their flags, they’re not under U.S. jurisdiction. That sounds somewhat terrifying. Fortunately, it’s outdated (and somewhat misleading) information.

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Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship, The Majesty of the Seas, docked in Key West, Florida. Royal Caribbean began publishing its international crime data online in 2010, though the page hasn’t been updated since 2014. (iStock)

“The U.S. has jurisdiction … if the ship, regardless of flag, is a U.S.-owned vessel, either whole or in part, regardless of the nationality of the victim or the perpetrator,” said Salvador Hernandez, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI, during a congressional statement in 2007.

The issue is that when a crime occurs outside of U.S. waters, other factors come into play and can affect the FBI’s ability to investigate. As a result, the bureau focuses on investigating “specified serious crimes,” including kidnapping and robbery.

But the cruise industry certainly has a mandate to report all serious incidents. That was established in Hernandez’s testimony; CLIA worked with the FBI to create guidelines for reporting crimes, which led to the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) act in 2010.

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President Barack Obama signing the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act in 2010 (www.cruiselawnews.com)

Besides, there’s a good incentive for the cruise industry to report incidents: They want to avoid controversy.

2. Do people really go missing from cruises regularly?

This is a touchy subject for the cruise industry, and it’s no surprise that cruise ship disappearances attract a lot of media attention.

He was playing on top of a lifeboat. Understand that there’s nothing under the lifeboats, just air and water, so it’s an incredible level of stupid.

Take the case of Rebecca Coriam, for instance, who disappeared from the Disney Wonder in March 2011. Coriam’s family eventually settled a lawsuit with Disney, but prior to that settlement, they were vocal in criticizing the cruise line’s handling of the disappearance.

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Rebecca Coriam, a Disney cruise ship employee who disappeared in 2011. (Greeningz)

Scare pieces often note that “as many as 200” cruise passengers have disappeared since the year 2000. It’s a less terrifying number when considering that more than 20 million people travel on cruise ships every year, but it’s still disconcerting.

The good news is that the disappearances aren’t really that mysterious: People are simply falling overboard. Additionally, those incidents seem to be rare.

“Missing person cases were more sporadic in nature and did not appear to have any significant pattern,” Hernandez told Congress in 2007.

Our sources agreed.

“[Man-overboard incidents] are not common,” Brown says. “The cause, in our experience, with man-overboard incidents from cruise ships has been usually proven to be the unfortunate result of intentional or reckless acts.”

That’s not surprising, since cruise ships have to maintain high railings and other obstacles to prevent such incidents. The cruise ship worker we interviewed says that he was aware of one man-overboard incident, which occurred when a passenger acted—ahem—irrationally.

“He was playing on top of a lifeboat. Understand that there’s nothing under the lifeboats, just air and water, so it’s an incredible level of stupid,” our source says. “He fell in, but fortunately, another cruise ship was behind us, and they pulled him up.”

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Our source says that he’d heard of other incidents, but in every case, passengers were disregarding obvious safety precautions.

According to Brown, cruise lines take every incident seriously, and they’re constantly looking for ways to protect passengers—even those that behave foolishly.

“Cruise lines continue to invest in the review and the testing of new technologies for man-overboard detection systems, which include cameras and sensors, and those can be very helpful in both as a preventative measure, an awareness measure, and for determining what may have happened in the rare case where, unfortunately, somebody goes over the side,” Brown says.

3. Are cruise ships havens for disease?

On cruise ships, passengers and crew members live in fairly close proximity to one another, so disease outbreaks can happen.

The presence of a contagious bacteria or virus is something they want to avoid.

In August 2017, the Sun Princess cruiseliner made headlines when at least 91 passengers contracted norovirus infections. Norovirus causes a range of unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms (the less said about those symptoms, the better).

Outbreaks can turn a cruise vacation into a living nightmare, and, at a glance, the numbers are alarming. From 2008 to 2014, the CDC observed roughly 13,000 individual cases of norovirus on cruise ships within its jurisdiction.

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Fortunately, though, these types of incidents are rare. Those 13,000-or-so cases were less than two percent of the 74 million cruise ship passengers during those six years.

“Safety and security of guests is always the highest priority for our industry,” Brown says. “Included in the safety of the guest is their health, and having a pleasurable and enjoyable cruise in a healthy way.”

To that end, each cruise ship has a qualified medical staff, and passengers are carefully screened for illness before being admitted onboard. The CDC also requires cruise ships to report gastrointestinal illness outbreaks and thoroughly sterilize infected ships.

“Cruise ships absolutely take [outbreaks] seriously,” our former worker says. “The last thing they want is a guest who’s paying potentially thousands of dollars to spend their cruise in a bathroom.”

According to the cruise worker, crewmembers who display symptoms of sickness must undergo mandatory quarantines, and failing to report an illness could be grounds for dismissal. In nearly two years of cruising, our source says he didn’t encounter a serious outbreak, but all crewmembers were trained for that possibility.

“If an outbreak reached a certain point, everyone had a job. Crew musicians might be dispatched to disinfect boat railings,” he says. “In extreme situations, I’ve heard of cleaning crews replacing all of a ship’s mattresses and taking other steps.”

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For the most part, the regular cleaning crew provides a sanitized, safe environment.

“They’re constantly on rounds, cleaning and disinfecting,” Brown says. “The presence of a contagious bacteria or virus is something they want to avoid. And that’s done through cleaning and sanitation.”

The crewmember told us that passengers shouldn’t worry about sickness—but they should wash their hands, particularly at ship buffets and other high-contact areas.

4. What if disaster strikes?

Let’s say that a person has a heart attack on a cruise ship in a remote part of the Caribbean. What happens?

That exact incident occurred on one of our source’s ships.

“There’s a helipad on every ship, and they airlifted [the passenger] out,” our source says. “It was very fast, and everything went super smoothly.”

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Helipad on the bow of a cruise ship in Naples, Italy (iStock)

As we mentioned earlier, every ship has a medical staff, and the cruise industry follows the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) guidelines to make sure that their crews and facilities are qualified. Brown says that in an emergency, the ship will work with the United States Coast Guard to coordinate medical evaluations when necessary. That communication is key.

“There would be a consultation with a flight surgeon—that’s one of the medical doctors for the Coast Guard—to validate that, yes, the [patient] should come off,” Brown says. “Sometimes one could talk to that flight surgeon, and they would say, ‘No, they would be better off staying onboard rather than being subject to the altitude that the helicopter would have to fly at.’ We take their consultation to heart to provide the best medical care that we can.”

What if the ship starts to sink? That’s where the crew members’ training comes into play. Before a ship departs, every employee—from the cleaners to the ship musicians—have to undergo training drills. In an emergency, every employee is responsible for helping passengers.

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Passengers preparing to evacuate a Royal Caribbean cruise ship during a fire in 2013. All passengers and crew were safe and accounted for (AP via Daily Mail)

What if a cruise ship encounters a boat full of refugees from a country like Cuba or Haiti? Believe it or not, that occurs pretty regularly. Our crewmember says that most ships don’t just call the Coast Guard; instead, they take the refugees aboard, feed them, and house them in the crew quarters until the Coast Guard can pick them up.

Overall, most of the dangers of cruise ships seem exaggerated.

While traveling over the ocean is obviously more dangerous than staying at home, millions of people enjoy cruises every year without issue.

“The people who own and operate the cruise ships aren’t profit-driven monsters, and there isn’t danger lurking behind every corner,” he says. “There’s basically a process for everything, and if you use common sense, you’ll have a great time. Just relax and have fun. Let the staff do the worrying.”

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Brown agrees.

“Cruise vacations remain one of the safest forms of travel,” he says. “We’ve got a long history of continuous commitment to improvement, and the comfort and care of our guests is at the forefront of that. It’s really essential to a positive guest experience, which keeps them returning back to cruising. Their experience, which includes their health while on board, equates to their continued cruising, so it’s essential to the business.”

“Just like on land, each individual’s commitment to their health and the health of those around them, applies onboard ships, too,” Brown notes. “Everybody’s got a role to play.”