Cruise ships are some of the safest modes of transportation you'll ever be on. Cruise lines must follow a surprising number of rules and regulations to protect passengers' (and crewmembers') safety while onboard a cruise ship.
Ships operate under international rules, known as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which regulate everything from fire safety to navigation and maritime security. Plus, the Centers for Disease Control and Coast Guard conduct rigorous inspections of all ships that operate from U.S. ports to ensure they comply with both health regulations and emergency response requirements.
Do note that cruise ships are like mini-cities, and you should take the same general travel precautions you would on land.
International maritime rules require all cruise ships to hold a safety drill before the ship leaves the dock. Called a muster drill (not mustard!), the safety briefing will take place about a half-hour before sail away. You will be required to go to your muster station at the designated time where you will listen to a description of your ship's safety features and the procedures you'll need to follow in case of an emergency.
On big ships, the code for your station is printed on your key card and on the back of your cabin door; on small ships, there's usually only one muster station. Before the muster drill starts, the cruise director will make an announcement as to where all the muster stations are, and during the drill crewmembers will guide you in the right direction. As part of the instructions you'll receive, you will learn what signals to listen for, where to go and how to put on a life jacket.
Most cruise ships plying the oceans have at least one medical doctor and two nurses onboard who can respond to medical emergencies. There also are trained security officers onboard who will respond to complaints of violent confrontations or crimes and unruly behavior. All crewmembers receive continuous training in emergency procedures and first aid as mandated by the International Maritime Organization.
Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line have trained lifeguards onboard but they may only be on select ships and during select hours. Passengers are responsible for watching their own children and travel companions and following posted pool rules.
As with any place with lots of people, you should always take precautions to keep yourself safe. Most general safety rules apply here: 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 night.
As in a hotel, room attendants do have access to your cabin, but receive strict instructions never to enter a passenger cabin except while performing their job duties. Before entering a room, stewards will always knock first and will not enter if you tell them you are inside. If you want to nap, put up the Do Not Disturb notice and stewards will come back later.
Keep in mind, if you leave the Do Not Disturb notice up for too many days in a row, they will eventually enter to make sure everything is ok. If your cabin ship door has a deadbolt (most do), you can use that as well to indicate you're inside the room.
Cruise ships carry thousands of people you do not know. Take the same precautions you do at home, at a hotel or resort in any city worldwide. That might mean that you keep the littlest kids with you at all times, allow older kids to leave the kids club on their own only if they go directly to you or your room and let teens have free range -- or choose differently.
Certainly, you will want to instruct kids or teens allowed to roam freely on using common sense to avoid danger (don't climb the ship's railings, don't go to secluded places with unfamiliar adults, etc.).
The kids clubs and nurseries all have gated access, meaning people can't just wander in. Parents must sign the youngest kids in and out; older kids can sign themselves out but cannot leave without alerting a staff member. Youth counselors are trained to handle food allergies and medical emergencies; but if your child isn't feeling well or is upset, they will contact you or a guardian you've named. Some youth staff are also trained to handle children with special needs, such as autism.
But be aware, there is no one-on-one supervision and youth staff are not responsible for the activities of children or teens once they have signed out of the clubs.
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The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.