Cruise safety and cancellation questions

Are cruises safe?, Italy, Italy (Photo by Michael Hansen)

Are cruises safe? Can I cancel a cruise? Can I get cruise cancellation insurance?

Statistically speaking, cruising remains an overwhelmingly safe way to travel, even given the high-profile "disasters" that have been making the news over the past few years.

Still, it raises many questions about how to determine is a cruise line is safe, what kind of recourse you have in the face of a cruise disaster or cancellation, whether travel insurance can help, and how all this affects the cost of cruising (aka: do disasters make for good bargain hunting?).

Here are the answers:

How likely is it that my ship will be the victim of a cruise disaster?

Again, cruising actually a pretty safe way to travel.

It's just that the ships have grown so gargantuan that when something happens to one ship it happens to 3,000 or 4,000 people at once, so it tends to make the news.

Then again, let’s keep that in perspective. More than 20 million people take a cruise each year. That's right: 20 million (some 67% of whom come from the U.S or Canada).

That means that even if a disaster strikes one of these enormous, 4,200-passenger ships, it is only affecting 0.02% of annual cruise passengers. (Actually, a bit less, since roughly 900 to 1,000 of the "passengers" on such a large ship are crew members, not cruisers.)

Minor incidents abound, yes, but we're probably noticing them more (and reporting on them more) because prominent cruise disaster stories have made the news two years in a row:

  • The grounding of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy in January, 2012, which killed 32 people (it was caused by "human error"—a category which apparently covers a pilot who wanted to show off his big boat to the residents of Giglio island and got too close to the rocks)
  • The dead-in-the-water, toilets-and-A/C-stopped-working three days suffered by the Carnival Triumph in February, 2013, following an engine fire.

The truth is, there have been a bit more than 70 ship fires in the past 20 years—and most of them do not result in a floating purgatory like we saw on the Triumph.

That said, problems are likely to become more common as the industry continues to expand at breakneck pace and as the ships themselves continue to grow to ridiculous proportions—the Royal Caribbean monster boats Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas each hold nearly 6,300 people (though to be fair, those two are also among the handful of ships afloat with truly redundant systems that, in theory, should keep most mechanical failures from crippling the ship).

It’s a simple law of probability. Having more ships afloat will result in more total incidents, and more larger ships means proportionately larger problems.

How can I find out about a cruise lines' safety records?

Unfortunately, there's no one database of cruise health and safety records because it is hard to provide oversight to a truly international industry—to take the case of Carnival, the company is incorporated in Panama (though the head office is in Miami), the ships tend to be Bahamanian-flagged, and they sail between multiple countries.

In other words, no one regulatory agency is really in charge (yes, I'll get to the IMO in a minute). Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) has held hearings about the cruise industry safety and standards, but so far the Senate hasn't done much. (Odd that a Senator from a landlocked state would do this? Nope. He's the chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.)

Every six months, the U.S. Coast Guard does inspect every ship that uses U.S. ports; you can look up their records and incident reports at cgmix.uscg.mil/psix—though searching for just cruise ships is tricky, as they cover all type of craft from speed boats to fishing trawlers to oil tankers. Here is a five-year summary of cruise ship incidents only, as requested by Congress in Feb., 2013.

The CDC does annual sanitation inspections (www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp).

Your best bet is to browse information on the cruise message boardsCruiseCritic.com and CruiseMates.com—to help find reliable cruise operators and ships.

I almost hate to bring up the following resource, because it exists purely as a repository for news of cruise disasters and failures and unsubstantiated complaints about cruise experiences—kind of like a TripAdvisor devoted exclusively to bad reviews—but you can check out www.cruisejunkie.com.

One tip is to look for the newest ships. All big ships built since July, 2010—which are, admittedly, not yet many—should adhere to the International Maritime Organization's "safe return to port" regulations requiring true redundancy in all the systems (www.imo.org).

(The Carnival Triumph, like many ships, does have two engine rooms, but their electrical systems were linked, so the fire that took out one took out both—and turned the ship into a giant raft with no working toilets.)

That said, adherence to IMO regulations is voluntary, and only about 10 cruise ships have truly independent redundant systems.

Should I just avoid a cruise line if I'm worried about its safety record?

By all means, yes.

However, in practice that might present a problem.

If you're looking for a single cruise company to have some sort of corporate policy about maintenance that will sure a disaster doesn't happen, I would like to point out that Carnival Corp owns not only Carnival Cruise Lines but also (among others) Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard, Seabourn, P&O, and Costa Cruises (as in the Costa Concordia).

Yes, each of those cruise lines is an independently operated company—and no one is going to confuse Cunard's Queen Mary 2 with a Carnival Fun Ship—that just all happen to have the same corporate parent. Fact remains that the Carnival Corp. accounts for 100 ships right now with a total of 203,000 berths—that's nearly half the cruise cabins at sea today.

So is Carnival merely having a terrible run of back luck? After all, what happened to the Carnival Triumph happened to the Costa Allegre in 2012 and to the Carnival Splendor in 2010. However, last spring the same thing happened to a (non-Carnival) Azmara cruise in the Philippines.

The U.S. Coast Guard has stated that it is not overly concerned that there is a problem with this one company.

Then again, the Coast Guard has also investigated some 90 "marine casualty incidents" on board Carnival-owned ships between January, 2008, and February, 2013—that's 70% of the total 129 incidents investigated in that five-year period.

Of those 90 incidents, 53 were for Carnival Cruise Lines; most of the balance for Princess (21) and Holland America (13).

That's far, far more than the next company in line, Royal Caribbean, with 14 investigated incidents (followed by Celebrity Cruises with 8 and Norwegian Cruise Lines with 7).

Can I cancel an upcoming cruise if I lose faith in the company?

Yes, but don't expect to get much of the cost back. Cruise cancellation policies vary from company to company, but are usually pretty brutal.

To, again, take Carnival as an example, you forfeit at least the deposit even if you cancel two months before departure.

Within eight weeks of departure, you can only get a 50% refund.

If you cancel 15 to 29 days ahead, you only get 25% back.

Once you hit the two-week window, you'll get zero refund.

What if I do endure a cruise disaster or cancellation and am not happy with the company's compensation?

Frankly, there's very little you can do.

You can try to argue, sweet-talk, or berate your way to a better compensation, but frankly when there are 3,000 or 4,000 other angry cruisers to mollify, companies tend to stick to their one-size-refund-fits-all policy.

These discount vouchers and cash compensations we've been hearing about for the disgruntled passengers of recent cruise mishaps actually go above and beyond what the cruise lines are legally required to do.

It’s more of a PR issue for them—a carefully calculated compensation package by way of apology and saving face in the public eye.

You can always file a civil suit, but thanks to the iron-clad legal document that is the conditions of carriage agreement—all that fine print that comes with the ticket—the corporate lawyers have got pretty much every angle covered.

Unless you can prove physical harm was done to yourself, you are highly unlikely to win any lawsuit.

Won’t travel insurance help?

No, not for the type of cases that have been making the news lately.

Standard trip interruption insurance only covers things like sickness, injury of death; financial default of a company; terrorism; or major weather disruptions, like hurricanes. It never covers technical failures.

Even if you pay extra for a "cancel for any reason" policy, you still must cancel that trip a least 48 hours before departure (so it is useless once the cruise begins)—and even then you usually only get a 50% to 75% refund. (The reasoning: the insurance company does not want to you cancel on a whim, so they make sure a cancellation will hurt you financially.)

Besides, those kind of travel insurance policies usually cost more than $100—not really worth it when week-long cruises cost only $400 to $800 to begin with. » more

Is right after a disaster a good time find great deals on cruises?

Every time a newsworthy cruise disasters strikes, bargains do start cropping up—though not as many (or as great ones) as you might expect.

Still, be on the lookout for some nervous cruise lines to run at least small across-the-board sales to make sure their bookings stay high.

As always, the best place to find deals are at the cruise discounters.