Part 1: Correcting some long-term misunderstandings about seagoing vacations.
Although cruise ships are increasing in numbers and popularity, cruising is still a mystery to those who have never sailed one on. I recently spoke on a radio show (NPR in Seattle) as a cruise expert, and one statement from a call-in guest and echoed by the host still haunts me: There seems to be very little in-between feeling about cruising -- either you love it or you hate it.
Honestly, I have met a few people who say they hate cruising, but most of them don't really know anything about it. Usually they have it confused with some kind of bad experience on something other than a modern cruise ship -- a sailing vessel, a Catalina ferry, a floating casino, even a deep-sea fishing boat. It appears the word hate is just another way to say, I'm not familiar with this, but I don't think I would like it based on my limited experience.
On the other hand, I have met hundreds of people who love a real cruise vacation -- but then, cruising is my business and I am surrounded by my own kind. Therefore, when I was faced with negative and uninformed comments from listeners to the radio show, I found myself practically speechless.
Some comments were the same misperceptions I have heard my whole life. But some are relatively new misperceptions and concerns, which generally started in 2005 after the honeymooning George Smith disappeared from a Mediterranean cruise, an NCL ship was hit by a rogue wave, and the Star Princess caught fire and suffered one death -- all of which received intense media coverage.
I will address all these misperceptions, but first let's talk about cruising in general for the uninitiated. (Everything I cite in this article is based on research done by cruise lines and independent sources; this is not just my opinion.)
Rating Cruises as a Vacation Option
According to a consumer study by Cruise Lines International Association, cruising has the highest satisfaction quotient of any vacation type. Asked to rate various vacation options as not satisfying, satisfying, or very satisfying, respondents answered very satisfying more often for cruises than for anything else.
One phrase commonly uttered by people on their first cruise is, I had no idea it would be like this. Like what? The most surprising thing is probably the level of service. Your stateroom may be small, but it has a super soft mattress, high-density sheets, plush towels, balmy notions, engaging TV programming and a modest bathroom with shower or tub. You might even get fresh flowers and a bowl of fruit. With this room comes a steward who cleans it twice a day.
Dinner, and all other food, is generally better than you'd expect on a vessel that produces thousands of meals daily. On most cruise lines it is arguably gourmet quality -- a four or five-course meal for which you might pay $50 per couple or more in a restaurant. And all meals are included in the cruise price.
The onboard service is excellent. On ships with assigned tables, waiters make it a point to learn your preferences and have them ready for you every night - like your favorite condiments, wine, dessert, or the way you like your coffee.
In the old days of cruising, food and service were considered the embodiment of the experience. They are both still great, far beyond what you get in many fine hotels. As we speak of the old days of cruising, I will address...
The Old Cruise Misperceptions
For decades, the same concerns about cruise ships always came up, and some of them are still valid.
1. I'm afraid I will get seasick. It's the motion of the ocean, not the size of the vessel, as they say. Even the biggest ships can rock, but not as much as small boats do. Most large cruise ships are extremely stable, and have built in stabilizers which are fins that reduce the motion. However, any ship can move in rough enough waters.
When rough seas happen, it can be a little frightening, and a bit thrilling. Many real cruisers love the motion of the ocean, since it reminds us we are on a ship. But bad weather during cruises is rare, since the vast majority are in seas that have little or no motion and generally good climates. I can remember weeklong cruises where the seas were so calm I forgot we were sailing.
And seasickness is very easy to avoid these days. I've been on more than 100 cruises but I have gotten truly seasick only a handful of times, and for a simple reason: The ship hit bad weather and I did not take the appropriate medication in time. If you start to feel sick, take a dose of Meclizine (brand name Bonine) at the very first signs -- a vague tiredness, a slight headache and a queasy feeling in the stomach. These pills are sold over the counter, and side effects are minimal. For most people they may cause mild drowsiness, so just take a nap.
Just be sure to take the medicine before you get sick! If you don't take it in time and you become nauseated, it is too late. After that, you cannot absorb the medicine, although an injection at the ship's infirmary remains an option. Don't take chances and say, I'll see if I get sick before I take it. Once you are sick it is too late.
2. I don't want to be stuck on a boat. This one often comes up in other forms, such as Bingo and shuffleboard, get ready for the old folk's home; or all there is to do is eat.
Years ago, most ship travel was across the Atlantic, where typically you spent six or seven days at sea without a break. But on a typical seven-day Caribbean cruise, you will be in port three to five days and only spend one to three days at sea. The ship will usually dock before breakfast and stay in port until dinnertime. In some ports, the ship might stay until midnight or even more than one day. In Europe, it is common to be in port almost every day on a 12-day cruise, and to stay overnight in at least two ports. A European cruise is a sightseeing vacation, not a sea-going adventure. The ship is your hotel and your transportation, not a destination unto itself.
And while you are onboard, you'll find much more to do than in the old days. You can relax with your umbrella drink (I think that is boring, but some people go to island resorts and do little more than that for seven days). You can get spa treatments, work out in the gym, read in the library, gamble in the casino, play video games, write and exchange email, play cards, watch a movie, or go to a cooking demonstration. Many large new ships offer sports and recreational activities like bowling, rock-climbing, roller-blading, ice skating, basketball, tennis, aerobics, yoga, simulated golf, hot tubs, swimming pools and tennis. Or you can always have quiet time in your cabin with your spouse.
So, those are the old cruise misconceptions, though I still hear them often enough. And here is the funny part: While most people book a cruise based on the ports of call, in the end passengers invariably say their favorite part was the days at sea! This is based on end-of-the-cruise passenger comment cards, which are distributed on every cruise.
Part 2: Today's cruise concerns -- cutting through the media hype. Especially on health, environment and safety issues.
In our first installment, we examined some of the traditional consumer misunderstandings about cruise vacations -- worries about seasickness, a lack of onboard activities and so on. Now we'll examine some more contemporary issues -- things that probably wouldn't be concerns for potential passengers at all if they hadn't been the subject of frequent media coverage in recent years.
To put cruise statistics into perspective, one million people cruise on the ships of U.S.-based cruise lines every month. These lines are members of the Cruise Lines International Association, based in Florida. All have home-offices in the U.S. and adhere to rules defined by the U.S. Coast Guard and other international organizations and treaties such as the SOLAS (Safety of life at Sea) agreement. The idea that they operate outside the law because they sail in international waters is essentially the opposite of the truth.
The fact that these ships call in several countries means they have to adhere to several sets of laws all the time, far more than most companies. As Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises puts it, Once one governmental organization comes out with a recommendation or rule the rest will follow. Although cruise lines are not mandated to follow the rules of countries they do not visit, as a cruise operator, you are crazy not to comply with all international laws, to maintain the highest standards possible is expected of us by our guests.
Misperception #1. Cruise ships are unsanitary and passengers often get sick.
Many news stories lately have focused on outbreaks of a disease on cruise ships called Norovirus. In fact, it isn't only found on cruise ships, even though the media coverage might lead you to believe that's the case. It is the most common virus in this country, next to the common cold, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that the percentage of Norovirus cases on cruise ships in the United States is far less than one-tenth of one percent of all cases.
Why is there so much media coverage about Norovirus on cruise ships? In part because the CDC requires cruise lines -- and only cruise lines -- to report Norovirus outbreaks, since the closed environment of a cruise ship is one of the few places where the CDC can monitor the virus. But you can catch Norovirus in any place where groups of people share things like food and restroom facilities. The best way to avoid it is not to touch public surfaces like handrails and buffet utensils. The best safeguard is to wash your hands thoroughly, at least 20 seconds with soap, and dry them with a towel. While alcohol-based hand cleansers are better than nothing, they don't do enough to kill the virus on their own.
My doctor recommends a brand of pre-moistened towels called P.A.W.S. They contain a formula that kills most viruses, including hepatitis A, B and C; Norovirus; E coli; Listeria; pneumonia; and most other publicly transmitted germs. They even controls SARS and avian flu. Go to www.safetec.com for more information.
Odds are you will not get sick on a cruise ship, but if you do get caught on a sick ship, avoid public restrooms, carry moist towelettes, let the servers serve you in the buffet lines, and wash your hands often. You should always err on the side of caution on every cruise, and in the airports and restaurants on the way to your cruise ship.
But once again - remember that the cruise industry has been very unfairly spotlighted on this issue. Less than 0.1% of U.S. cases occur on cruise ships according to the CDC's own statistics. Out of the 1 million people who cruise each month, that is well under 1000 cases. In fact, I have not read of an outbreak in months. It is essentially a non-factor that still reverberates through the minds of every novice and every reporter. Just maybe, out of fairness, the media should give it a break.
Misperception #2. Cruise Ships are Bad for the Environment.
Among all seagoing vessels, few are doing more to protect the ocean environment than passenger cruise ships. But I would be less than honest if I said this has always been the case. Unfortunately, some crewmembers have played fast and loose with the rules in the past. There were documented cases of ships with illegal pipes to dump oil-infused bilge water into the open sea rather than saving it for disposal in port. I personally saw garbage bags dumped at sea from a cruise ship I worked on in the early 90s. I took my concerns to my superior, but I found out there wasn't much I could do without risking my job.
But the people who run the cruise lines have cracked down on this and in the last five years made dramatic changes environmentally. The truth is, the rule-breakers were not the decision-makers in the cruise lines' home offices. They were shipboard lower-level crew members acting on their own to make their jobs easier and free up more time for themselves in port. I have been behind the scenes on several ships, there used to be a divide between what happened on board and what the home offices were told, but as laws were broken and fines imposed, land-side operations took control. The result is that they cracked down, hard, on their on-board worker's attitudes and behavior. Today's cruise fleet serving the U.S. market has truly cleaned up its act. I could go into considerable detail here, but I will just give you links.
- Kuki's Ecology Officer Report
- NCL Helps L.A. to Clean the Air
- Norwegian Sun Receives San Francisco's Cruise Ship Environmental Award
Admittedly, much of the reform is due to new laws that carry steep fines. Public embarrassment in the press also helped. I congratulate the people who brought these infractions to the public eye and helped the industry straighten itself out, but I think cruise lines should get credit for what they are doing right today. Today's cruise ships are green, and there is more to worry about from land-based pollution that ends up in the seas (80 percent of all ocean pollution comes from shore).
Another sort of environmental issue is people pollution. As an example, one caller to the radio show I was on recently cited the influx of Americans descending on a small town in Mexico. The caller said cruise ships were just a way to bring America with you instead of seeing these native lands in their pristine natural state. This struck me as somewhat true, but counter-intuitive for a person who claimed to be concerned about the locals living the simple life. The fact is, hundreds of small towns around the world beg cruise ships to visit for the economic boost an influx of tourists provides. I don't know of one island that ever asked cruise ships to stop coming there.
Misperception #3. I don't want to be stuck with those kinds of people.
Yes, someone said this on that same radio show, although she had not been on a cruise since her childhood and could not define the characteristics of those kind of people.
I believe there is a cruise for everyone, and by the tone in her voice, I would peg her for a Windjammer barefoot cruise. Anyway, since she was from Seattle, I hope she read this article by a Seattle priest who took his first cruise and found out those kind of people flooded his sermon, which was originally scheduled to be presented to just a small group of people on board. Expecting the worst, this minister had a true revelation about those kind of people.
I suspect some of the those kind of people misperception has to do with stories in the media like drunken honeymooner George Smith, who disappeared from his cabin while his wife was passed out in a distant hallway. The most raucous cruises are the three-day weekend cruises on the least expensive ships, usually filled with many young people, including singles, where there are frequently a number of people who over-indulge. But that is the same type of cruise the minister above was on.
However, those are not typical cruises. Most cruises are seven-day or longer vacations filled with all-American couples and families. The vast majority are married, and most of them have children -- sometimes traveling with them, sometimes not.
The cruise industry often cites Disney theme parks as its biggest competitor. Yes, Las Vegas is also considered a competitor, but only for the family market. A few things you'll never see on a cruise ship are topless variety shows, prostitutes sitting at bars, or newspapers full of ads for escorts. Cruise ships don't even give free drinks to gamblers.
Misperception #4. Sexual Incidents Aboard Cruise Ships
This is one of the saddest and most difficult misperception to deal with. The media sensationalizes the rare stories about the worst sex crimes and predators aboard cruise ships, and fail to put the true picture into perspective. They portray it, once again, as an industry at fault, instead of blaming the perpetrators who happened to choose a cruise ship instead of any other setting.
It is true that when some of these incidents have occurred, that the cruise lines should have handled the follow-up better, especially older cases. But statistically you are, then and now, still safer on a cruise ship than almost anyehere else on the planet. Plus, the cruise lines have now agreed to oversight by the FBI for all crimes at sea.
During recent hearings on Capitol Hill, a mass-market cruise line presented real figures on sexual assault and related incidents on its ships. A crime expert hired by the cruise industry said the report showed 17.6 incidents per 100,000 passengers. A statistic which is dramatically lower than most vacation cities or even college campuses. A very low figure for almost any population, but especially a densely packed vacation setting.
Industry critic Ross Klein, a professor of sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, appeared at the same congressional hearing to slice and dice the same data, and actually claimed he could prove you are safer on land than a cruise ship. A claim I fully dispute if you care to read it (click below).
As Carnival cruise director, John Heald, points out, by far the most common reason security is ever called out by non-involved passengers is domestic disputes, Such encounters often lead to accusations of sexual battery or abuse after the fact.
In any case, the cruise lines have already admitted and addressed their enforcement problem, have already agreed to governmental oversight and to procedures to preserve evidence and work as advocates for the victims of these rare but serious crimes. With the help of Congress and U.S. judges, new procedures and agreements have been forged between the cruise lines and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Today, any violent crime on a ship that calls at any U.S. port must be immediately reported to the FBI, who will then decide whether or not a case should be opened. This is a big leap forward that should go a long way in easing the minds of advocates for change.
Additional Serious Subjects
The truth about cruise ships is that people bring their personal problems with them. People who go missing, sadly, are not victims of crime, but of depression and sadness. In addition, most disputes and subsequent accusations that become statistics arise from arguments between people who know each other, but that isn't part of the statistic. The image of stranger danger stalkers just doesn't make sense. Such people work like wolves, seeking helpless loners they can separate from the pack and make a quick escape. That is the antithesis of a cruise ship environment which is typically full of people traveling in groups, who are well acquainted and outgoing. Plus, there is nowhere to run on a cruise ship.
As for other crimes, like murder, robbery and burglary, I surmise you are statistically safer on a cruise ship than in your own home. I know of only one likely murder on a cruise ship, that of George Smith, and it was apparently an incident between passengers. Why the cruise line was assumed to bear responsibility in this case baffles me. But the incident did make it clear to the cruise lines how important it is to preserve crime scene evidence.
The Lighter Side of This Serious Subject
By the way, people do not just fall off cruise ships unless they are doing something to bypass the safety systems in place. When I heard reports of a couple that fell off the Princess ship, I knew exactly what had happened. The man was found swimming in the ocean with no pants on. It was reported that he took them off to increase his buoyancy. What happened to his underwear? It subsequently came out that a picture was snapped just before she went overboard (first) and they were (insert mock surprise here) engaging in hanky panky!
I personally have several years in the cruise business both on shore and onboard ships. I know all the dirt, and all the good stuff, too.
Take it from me: Cruising is a good industry, run by great people, and most importantly, it's a great vacation. There are a few things to watch out for, but I can tell you more horror stories about crimes in Paris than about crimes on cruise ships.