The Costa Concordia’s accident off the Italian coast is a horrible tragedy, with at least 11 people dead and others still missing. But the industry’s record for safety remains strong: Nearly 14 million people cruise each year on major cruise ships, and few industry watchers can even remember the last time a fire or ship failure resulted in passenger deaths.
The U.S. Coast Guard is involved with safety aspects of the cruise ship design before it is even built. Once launched, each cruise ship that sails from the U.S. must pass U.S. Coast Guard certification. Each is inspected at least every six months on both announced and unannounced inspections that include reviewing staff safety procedures. Crews are drilled regularly on safety procedures. Those that don’t sail from U.S. ports still must meet safety standards set by individual countries and by SOLAS, an international safety and standards convention that is set by International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations.
“The cruise industry is a very safe industry,’’ says Scott Elphison, a senior marine inspector in South Florida. “The way ships are built, they are extremely safe.’"
Still, the Concordia accident did happen. In a press conference, the chairman of Costa Cruises, Pier Luigi Foschi, said the event as the result of human error—namely, the captain deviated from his programmed course without permission from the cruise line and without urgent reason (such as weather or emergency) to do so. The captain is under arrest in Italy.
As this situation points out, the cruise industry can do make improvements in staff vetting and training. And there’s a good argument to be made that safety drills should be required before ships leave port.
Ultimately, whether to take a cruise—or any vacation—is a matter of personal choice. Here are a few steps you can take to make yourself as safe as possible:
° Check Coast Guard vessel inspection reports.
° Check Centers for Disease Control sanitation inspection reports.
° Check online reviews of cruises and operators (I use CruiseCritic.com)
° Review the evacuation plans posted on the back of their cabin doors as soon as you go onboard and watch the safety videos that run in most cabins.
° Leave an itinerary with friends and family who aren’t traveling with you.
° Scan the front pages of your passport and e-mail it yourself at a widely accessible email address (such as a Gmail or Yahoo address) so you can retrieve it from afar.
° Buy travel insurance from a third-party (non-cruise owned) company; be sure it includes a phone number you can call 24/7 in case of emergency. Sources for comparing policies include InsureMyTrip.com and SquareMouth.com.
Jane Wooldridge is Travel + Leisure's Cruise correspondent.