Tips & Resources

Playing It Safe on a Cruise Vacation

By James Daw, Contributing Writer

Planning a cruise vacation? Then aim to return healthy and happy! Here are some tips that could help you avoid disappointment, sickness, injury, crime, ruinous expenses, and other risks.

Cruise travel fact sheet

2012 passengers: 20 million

Average fare: $1,311 (Other spending: $417)

Violent crimes - Allegations per 100,000 cruise passengers

Nationwide prosecutions per 100,000 residents

  1. Rape: Sweden 69, USA 27, Denmark 6, Canada 1.6
  2. Rape, sexual assault, including children: Sweden 181, Canada 77, Italy 8, Egypt 0.1
  3. Assault with serious injury: Sweden 948, USA 240, Canada 156, Egypt 0.4

Note: Most statistics were rounded to whole numbers. All figures may not be closely comparable. Cruise crime occurs during short trips. The rate of crimes in countries applies to a 12-month period, and is thus less frequent.


Most Canadians seem to agree with travel writers and industry representatives that cruise ships offer a safe mode of travel. A quarter of us have actually gone on a cruise and, while most are aware that Carnival Corporation’s Costa Concordia crashed and capsized off Italy in 2012, seven in ten agreed with Harris/Decima pollsters that such events are rare, and not a worry. Even so, cruise ships are not immune to disaster, and public health authorities warn us to take precautions to avoid sickness, injury, inadequate medical care, sexual or violent assault, and ruinous expenses.

What should I look for when choosing a cruise?

Friends, family, and travel agents may be able to suggest cruise options that will suit your interests, price range, and expectations for food, service, and housekeeping. A treasure trove of comments and ratings from consumers, travel writers, and bloggers is just a Google search away. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even displays results of sanitation inspections. But critics urge us to dig deeper when it comes to our health and safety.

How can I reduce the risk of illness?

The Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada pamphlet, Advice for Cruise Travellers, advises us to visit a travel medical clinic before taking a cruise. A trip to the clinic will require planning weeks in advance, and allocating some extra spending room in your budget. Ask about vaccines that will protect you both while on the ship and in the places you will visit. Your provincial ministry of health or group drug plan may pay for some vaccines, but not all. “Some ports of call require that you have an international certificate of vaccination against yellow fever to disembark,” the Foreign Affairs pamphlet notes. Viruses can spread quickly on a ship. So wash your hands frequently with disinfectant cleanser, and choose your food and drinks carefully. “Insist on bottled water while ashore,” the government pamphlet adds.

It would also be wise to ensure you have enough of your usual medications for the cruise, and to ask whether the ship could meet any special medical needs you might have. Talk to your doctor about the wisdom of travelling far from a major hospital. Ask about seasickness or nausea, a common ailment on cruise ships.

How can I reduce the risk of injury?

A stroll on deck could prove hazardous to some passengers, even in the best of weather conditions. That risk will increase if you consume too much alcohol. You will be more vulnerable to falling, getting into a confrontation, or being at a disadvantage if dealing with others who have criminal intentions. Keep your safety in mind when choosing activities, and plan your movements around the ship and on shore with potential dangers in mind. Take emergency drills seriously, report suspicious activity, and plan your escape route in case of fire, extreme weather, or a breach in the hull of the ship.

Who pays for medical care on a cruise ship?

Government health care would only pay—in full—for a physician’s services in your home country. Any contribution toward out-of-country medical costs will be modest. The cruise line might pay for first aid and bandages if something were to happen on the ship or during an activity it arranged on shore. But if you had a serious medical emergency and needed to be transported ashore, you would want to turn to travel insurance you purchased or obtained through your employer.

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada warns: “Purchase travel health insurance that includes at least $500,000 in coverage for accidental injury, hospitalization abroad, and medical evacuation at sea. The cost of medically evacuating a patient from a cruise ship by helicopter can easily reach $150,000.” You might also want trip cancellation and interruption coverage, in case you get sick before leaving or miss the cruise due to bad weather. Avoid any travel insurance that is not provided by a company licensed and regulated in Canada.

How good is the medical care on a cruise ship?

Cruise ship owners do not attempt to replicate a general hospital. They offer medical infirmaries of varying sizes, depending on the number of passengers. The doctors and nurses in these clinics are hired on contract, and may only be on ship for short periods of time. They certainly will not know your personal medical history.

If the care you received was poor, you could not expect compensation from the cruise line, at least not in a US court. A Florida court ruled in 2007 that a “ship owner is not vicariously liable … for the medical negligence of the shipboard physician.”

The Cruise Lines International Association explains that it has worked with the American College of Emergency Physicians to set voluntary guidelines regarding the staffing and equipping of medical infirmaries on cruise ships. The trade association states that the goal of the infirmaries is to start diagnosing and caring for a passenger. Then, once a seriously injured or ill person is stable enough, he or she will be evacuated to a hospital.

Writer Marcia Levin offers a personal anecdote, observations, and a description of infirmaries available on a selection of cruise ships on the website Cruise Critic. Cruise planner Michael Berryhill of Sun Cities Travelers Group in Arizona offers some of his own observations regarding medical emergencies and evacuations at sea on his website Cruise with Mike. You can also read medical and safety concerns raised by Newfoundland-based sociologist Ross Klein, who presented on cruise ship safety and regulations to a US senate hearing in 2012, and posts documents and statistics to his own website, The work of these commentators may assist you in posing questions when you are shopping for a cruise vacation.

Could I sue, or be sued, over an injury on a cruise?

Yes, lawsuits are a possibility, and could prove complicated and expensive. Personal injury lawyers at the Fort Lauderdale firm of Anidjar & Levine warn that your trip contract may specify where, and how soon, a lawsuit may be filed. The contract may also attempt to restrict the legal responsibility of the cruise ship and its employees. You may need an expert in maritime law if something occurs a long distance from shore. So read your contract carefully. If you suspect during a cruise that a civil lawsuit could result, do your best to gather written, photographic, and testimonial evidence before you leave the scene.

An alternative to suing would be to protect yourself with insurance—and not just travel insurance. Speak to a knowledgeable insurance agent or broker about liability insurance that could protect you if you were sued for negligence. If you were to suffer a crippling injury or illness while in a foreign jurisdiction, an all-inclusive travel insurance policy (that includes emergency medical care, trip cancellation, and trip interruption) would provide coverage for your immediate medical and travel expenses, but would not be sufficient if your ability to earn an income was put at risk.

What special care should women take?

Several writers for major publications have attempted to offer tips for female travellers, particularly those travelling alone. But no story we found was as comprehensive as the pamphlet Her Own Way — A Woman's Safe-travel Guide, produced by Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. The sections on crime proofing, scams, overseas relationships, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other potential issues would apply as much to cruises as any other type of foreign travel. So keep that in mind if deciding on a different sort of trip than a cruise.

What risks might children face on a cruise?

Canadian professor Ross Klein independently tracks cruise ship crimes and disasters. He notes that many of the victims of sexual assault are children. (He has been quoted saying 18 per cent of victims are children, but in an August 13, 2013 commentary about the limitation of crime statistics reported by the cruise industry, he cited the figure at 34 per cent.) Often it is ship employees who are accused. So consider carefully whether you wish to turn your children over to the care of others while on a cruise. Caution them about accepting invitations into the cabins of others, and about allowing others into your cabin while they are alone. Be on guard for the risk that minors may get access to alcohol or drugs while out of your sight, or could have a drink spiked with a date-rape narcotic.

Millions of travellers enjoy cruise vacations each year and come home boasting what a great time they had. But there are risks to consider. A list of the Top 10 Reasons to Cruise on the website Cruise Critic prompted Miami maritime lawyer Jim Walker of the firm Walker & O’Neill to respond with what may be the most pessimistic perspective available on the Internet. His Top 10 Reasons Not to Cruise is worth reading, if only to inspire you to develop your own strategies for coming home happy and healthy.