Updated January 8, 2020
Are cruises safe? It's one of the most common questions we hear from cruise veterans and first-timers alike, especially after tragic occurrences are splashed across news headlines worldwide. To help you make informed decisions about cruise ship safety, Cruise Critic has broken down the most common cruise safety concerns.
Cruise ship accidents happen, but they are exceedingly uncommon. Cruise ships that sail in U.S. waters are regularly inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard for any irregularities or safety issues that might be of concern. All cruise ships (regardless of where they sail) operate under international rules, known as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which regulate everything from fire safety to navigation and maritime security.
Cruise ships are technical entities and small fires, electrical outages and propulsion problems do occur. But chances are you'll never even be aware of any such problem and cruise safety is virtually never compromised by such incidents.
Despite two high-profile incidents -- one in 2012 (the Costa Concordia foundering) and one in 2013 (the Carnival Triumph fire) -- overall cruise ship operational incidents declined by 15 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to a report published by maritime research company G.P. Wild International on behalf of Cruise Line International Association.
Using 36 publicly available sources (government data, trade publications, media reports and the like), the report compared incidents involving fire, technical breakdowns, groundings, storm damage, collisions, sinkings, passengers missing and overboards, in relation to industry metrics including passenger volume, miles traveled, travel duration and other data points.
As an example, the number of "significant" fires dropped from four in 2009 to two in 2013, and the number of "significant" strandings and groundings went from five in 2009 to one in 2013. G.P. Wild International defines a significant incident as one in which the ship suffers more than a 24-hour delay to the published itinerary, or fatalities or serious injury occur to either passengers or crew.
In addition, when compared against other forms of transport, cruising had the fewest fatalities per billion passenger miles, the report found. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the cruise industry saw a 0.08 passenger fatality rate as compared to 0.8 for commercial air, 3.3. for passenger cars and 11.9 for the U.S. rail system.
Cruise Critic asked readers, "Have you ever been affected by crime, minor or major, on a cruise ship?" The answer of more than 89 percent was … no.
Statistically speaking, incidents involving personal safety are exceptionally rare. According to data provided by the cruise lines to the FBI (only crime reports that are no longer under investigation are reported to the public), in the first three quarters of 2015 there were two suspicious passenger deaths, three assaults on passengers resulting in bodily injury and nine sexual assaults on passengers on ships across Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International ships. To put that number in context, that's 14 people compared with the estimated 217,000 passengers who sailed on those ships in just one sailing of each ship (let alone nine months of sailings).
Another common concern for potential cruisers is a fear of falling overboard, but this is extremely difficult to do. All cruise lines adhere to strict rules for minimum railing and balcony heights, as well as structural barriers. The vast majority of overboards are suicides or passengers acting irresponsibly (such as climbing up onto railings). "I've been on a dozen cruises and never had a safety issue," wrote Cruise Critic member Quilting_Cruiser. "But, I don't let my guard down any more than I would if I were on a land vacation. I pay attention to what's going on around me and I don't make stupid decisions."
Being aware and paying attention are the best ways to stay safe on cruise ships, as they are anywhere. While the cruise lines put a lot of effort to maintaining cruise ship safety, with security officers and cameras always watching, passengers cannot give up their own personal responsibility. General safety rules apply on cruise ships, just as they do at home: don't accept drinks from strangers, be aware of your surroundings, don't go into a stranger's room and keep your cabin door locked at all times.
Drowning is a potential danger on any cruise ship, especially as most cruise lines do not employ lifeguards. Only Disney Cruise Line has trained lifeguards on its ships, and they are only stationed at family pools during set hours. Passengers are responsible for watching their own children and travel companions, and following posted pool safety rules. Kids should be given a set of rules by their parents before getting in the pool, and a responsible adult should always be actively watching (not with one eye on a magazine). Adults are not immune to danger, especially when the umbrella drinks are flowing; keep an eye on your travel party, regardless of age.
There have been no pirate attacks on cruise ships in at least five years, but despite this, cruise ships have not stopped taking precautions when traveling in areas previously known for pirate activity -- namely the Gulf of Aden (a gulf located in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia). Ships traveling through this area of the world typically take on extra security to keep passengers safe. Additionally, all exterior lights are dimmed and cruise travelers are asked to keep the lights in their cabins at the lowest settings in order to make the ship less of a target. Very few cruise ships sail through the Gulf of Aden each year, so the likelihood you'll be sailing into pirate territory is incredibly low.