5 things to consider before taking a cruise

With the death toll from the Costa Concordia, which capsized off the coast of Italy on Jan. 13, rising into the double digits, the question of cruise ship safety is likely to be on the minds of many people. Here are some things you should think about before hitting the high seas.
There are a number of precautions passengers should take before taking a cruise. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

With the death toll of the Costa Concordia, which capsized off the coast of Italy on Jan. 13, rising into the double digits, the question of cruise ship safety is likely to be on the minds of many people.  Here are five things you should take into consideration before embarking on a cruise.

The reputation of various cruise lines

Before even booking your cruise, research the safety and sanitation records of various liners. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have records of cruise ship inspections as part of their Vessel Sanitation Program. You can look up how ships scored on recent inspections, and see outbreak updates for any gastrointestinal illnesses reported by passengers and crew.

Traveller’s insurance

Insurance can provide coverage for a variety of trip-related problems, from emergency cancellations to lost luggage. When it comes to cruises, it’s worth asking specific questions about coverage, as being on a ship can create some unique situations. For example, find out if your insurance covers helicopter evacuation should you become critically ill. In an emergency, something like this could be the difference between immediate care at a hospital and having to wait in sickbay until the ship reaches the next port of call.

Your health

Before leaving on a cruise, you should cover as many medical bases as possible. Check your itinerary and make sure you get the proper vaccinations for the regions you’ll be visiting. If you regularly take medication, bring extra with you, and if you have any specific medical conditions, bring as much documentation and information as possible, in case you need medical assistance during the cruise.

While every ship has a doctor on board, there is no universal standard for a ship's doctor – the level of training will vary from ship to ship, as will the on-board medical facilities. Most ship doctors aren’t considered employees of the cruise line, but rather independent contractors. This creates a legal grey area – if you have an issue with the quality of the care you receive on the ship, it’s not the company that’s responsible, it’s the doctor. Given that most are foreign-based, it can be extremely hard to serve them with a malpractice lawsuit.

If you think that a pre-existing condition might force you to seek medical attention during your vacation, it might be worth reconsidering your trip or mode of transport.

The ship’s layout

Familiarize yourself with the emergency procedures on the ship as soon as you get on board. There will likely be survival information in your cabin or stateroom, detailing things like the location of life preservers, what lifeboat you are assigned to and the meaning of the ship’s emergency signals. If you’re travelling with small children, find out where child-sized life preservers are located. By law, every ship must hold fire and lifeboat drills with passengers – make a point of attending them.

Social perils in general

The basic rules for any inland vacation also apply on a cruise. Always lock your cabin door, both when you leave and when in your cabin – especially if travelling alone. Never leave a drink unattended, and wherever possible, order your drinks directly from a bartender, so you can see it being made.

Large cruise liners are a maze of corridors and decks, so travelling alone into unfamiliar parts of the ship should be avoided. Flashing wads of cash or other valuables could make you a target for robbery. Leave any valuables you don’t need at home, and store any excess cash in the ship’s safe. Many cruise companies now have credit card and other digital billing systems, which should cut down on the actual amount of money you need to carry on your person.