Have cruises really become more dangerous?

by Janice Hough on March 19, 2013

VeniceCruiseShip

These days there are so many media reports on cruise ship problems, I’ve joked that CNN should rename itself the “Carnival News Network.”

Indeed, Carnival Cruise Lines hasn’t had a great month, with the Triumph famously stuck at sea for days, another cruise canceled midway with a generator problem and two delayed with propulsion pod issues.

But in reality, other than the ill-fated Triumph cruise, are the cruise industry problems really that bad? Are they that unusual?

As a travel agent, I’ve booked hundreds of cruises and sailed on a few dozen myself. In general, most sailings go off without a hitch, but stuff does happen. Cruise lines do note in their contracts that they reserve the right to skip or substitute ports.

My most dramatic time at sea, almost 30 years ago, was on a Home Lines cruise to Bermuda. A changing hurricane warning had the captain say at first he would leave early, then that they would stay docked at Hamilton longer to let the storm pass.

In the end, the forecasters got it right. The hurricane hit early in the morning and, quite literally, ripped the ship from the dock. The captain got the engines started, and moved the ship out to the middle of the bay, facing into the eye of the storm, which kept it stable, and we waited it out.

Passengers who had gone ashore early had to be brought out in small boats, and we lost a day in port. But, everyone survived and I don’t even think it made the New York papers. Of course, that was pre-Internet and the 24/7 news cycle.

Ships miss ports all the time. Grand Cayman and Cabo San Lucas, for two examples, can have problems with wind and high seas that make it too dangerous for a ship to call. Needless to say, weather can affect almost any port.

Sometimes passengers’ health problems result in itinerary changes. A Holland America ship we were on had to skip a day’s scenic cruising in the Sea of Cortez because of a medical emergency where a man needed to be taken to a Cabo San Lucas hospital.

Another cruise missed most of a port call when the ship had to stay late at an earlier port for an ambulance to pick up a passenger. And, a Royal Caribbean cruise was delayed in Antigua when the ship, at that point one of the world’s largest, banged into the dock on departure, causing some minor damage that had to be inspected by divers.

Propulsion pod problems also caused problems for years for Celebrity Cruise lines, as a new system on their Millennium class ships used to break down about every 18 months. This resulted in the cruise experiencing a breakdown, missing ports and the next cruise or two being canceled.

(In Celebrity’s case, the line would refund the affected cruise, and give clients a future cruise free. I had some clients get a great week in Tahiti plus a cruise later in one of these cases. They ended up quite happy.)

No doubt other travel agents and regular cruisers reading this have many more stories. But while they’re memorable, they’re also relatively rare.

Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, has 24 ships, most of which have not had problems. Plus, around 300 cruise ships are sailing, overall.

These days, with the heightened scrutiny, everything becomes a story. A Royal Caribbean ship briefly made headlines last week as “another cruise ship disaster” when 100 passengers caught the norovirus.

Getting sick on vacation and missing ports is no fun, especially if it’s something you’ve had your heart set on visiting.

But the fact remains, things can go wrong on any vacation; sometimes horribly wrong. A boy died in a Disney pool last week and the island Kauai has had five drownings already this year.

On less awful notes, travelers can encounter strikes, mechanical delays and all sorts of things that result in losing part of a planned trip. Tourists get sick all the time, especially in foreign countries.

Cruising may not be for everyone. Being put on a ship that doesn’t match your style and interests can make for an unpleasant experience even if nothing goes wrong. But, do the recent headlines make me less likely to sell cruises, or sail myself? In a word, “No.”

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  • James

    This comment really isn’t relevant since I’ve never been on a US cruise ship. I did take a Yangtze River cruise on a Chinese “cruise” ship about ten years ago. I was the only westerner aboard. A female passenger had an apparent heart attack while we were underway. (My only knowledge came from rumors that were translated to me)

    There were no diversions. We pulled into the scheduled port the next morning. I was in one of the last groups of a tour that left the ship. Behind us were two stretcher bears with an apparently unconscious woman, waiting patiently until we cleared the gangway.

  • Graham

    I’ve only ever been on 2 cruises; both in the last 5 years and both were Carnival brands (but not Carnival Cruise Line). The first was a southbound 1 week from Seward to Vancouver BC which went perfectly. The 2nd was last month around the tip of South America, The Captain of the last cruise welcomed us with the words “this in’t so much a cruise as an adventure”. In the end we made all our calls, had a vomiting virus on board, offloaded at least one passenger for medical reasons, had to miss out on sailing around the island of Cape Horn and made a call which the ship due the previous day had had to miss out due to weather.

    I came away from the cruise last month having enjoyed it but with a few questions in my mind. One related quite simply to the onboard ambiance (not quite the right word but it’s the one that comes to mind). Staring and ending in South American ports meant that we had a lot of Spanish (and some Portigese) speaker on board. We had a briefing about each port the day before we arrived and there was an English version and a Spanish version and it was noticeable that both were equally well attended. Despite that the food and entertainment was relentlessly the standard for the cruise line – nobody seemed to have anticipated the passenger mix and made allowance for it in the food or entertainment.

    But I think the thing the worried me was communication among the crew. In the event of a problem the crew are my lifeline. As such, I expect them to be able to communicate effectively among themselves. There were so many nationalities in the crew with different language skills that I had to ask myself whether they would be handle a genuine emergency. Sure, they held drills but doing something during daylight in moderate seas is very different to trying to do the same thing at night in rough weather with passengers milling about and getting in the way.

  • MeanMeosh

    With the possible exception of especially severe problems like the Triumph or Costa Concordia, I don’t think issues aboard cruise ships significantly affect most people’s perceptions about cruising or the cruise lines. I think most travelers understand that things like weather interfering with a scheduled port, a medical emergency with another passenger, an unexpected mechanical problem, etc. happen, and can happen on any mode of transportation you choose to get to your destination. Reasonable travelers just want to be kept informed of what’s happening, and an apology and/or a small gesture of appreciation keeps us happy.

    What DOES make a difference is how the cruise line responds to the issue. I took a Celebrity cruise in December, and we encountered problems with immigration in two ports, and tendering in a third, that forced an early arrival at the first port, canceled excursions at the second, and shortened excursions plus a 2 hour wait for a tender, both coming and going, at the third. Nothing was disclosed to the passengers until the last possible moment, when it was really too late to try and figure out alternatives. Celebrity’s response was basically “not our problem, you signed a contract, nothing we can do for you”. Given their failure to be proactive, I have vowed never to sail with them again, and spread the word to everyone I know not to use Celebrity. The sad thing is, all it would have taken was $150 in funny money towards my next cruise, and I would have given them a second chance.

  • dcta

    My concern about Carnival is that these four ships are not “new” (as was the propulsion system on Celebrity that had issues). That being the case, I do have to wonder about the maintenance program over at Carnival. And THAT gives me pause before I sell that product.

  • dcta

    So there were “Immigration” problems – presumably with your fellow passengers? And CEL is responsible for that? Or was it something else? Were the ports short of Immigration officers that day? Was there a strike?

  • TonyA_says

    Meanmosh, I have to agree with DCTA here. It might look as if they don’t care but in reality it is just that they do not control so many factors during a trip. To have a news conference for every time something is missed in the itinerary is not helpful since they themselves do not control the outcome. So you know of things only after it happens. Sorry but that is what travelling is all about. You lose control of many things and it can be uncomfortable.

  • TonyA_says

    A couple of years ago the son of a local liquor store owner in Greenwich disappeared during his honeymoon cruise. That shocking news played quite a while at our community. I’m not sure it convinced folks to stop cruising. If anything, it probably made absinthe and how to get it during a cruise as the topic of most coversations. People are gonna cruise regardless. It is now part of the American Experience.

  • MeanMeosh

    It wasn’t an issue with passengers, or a staff shortage/strike (I wouldn’t have even bothered complaining to the purser if that were the case; clearly it isn’t reasonable to hold a cruise line responsible for things like that). Celebrity claimed that they were informed at the last second by the authorities in Peru, and then Chile, that they would require each passenger’s passport to be individually stamped, and possibly require a face-to-face interview before being allowed to de-board the ship. Maybe they were telling the truth, and the authorities just decided to be difficult that day – it is South America after all – but to me the story seemed implausible (a Princess ship that was following right behind us had no such issues, which is what made us all suspicious).

    And Tony, for the record, it’s not the delays that bothered me. I have encountered problems far worse than this over the years. And no, I don’t expect a news conference every time an issue comes up, but a quick “we have been informed of…” announcement would be nice. What DOES bother me is that Celebrity couldn’t even be bothered to apologize for the inconvenience; the front desk’s response to my complaining was that “Celebrity is losing money on all of this, so why should we offer you anything?” Whether that’s true or not, I sure as heck wouldn’t tell that to a customer.

    Sorry, very few things in travel make me angry, but this one still sticks in my caw…

  • pauletteb

    Many of my friends and acquaintances love cruising, but even without problems, I know it’s not for me. Since my idea of vacation is hiking and photography, the fewer people the better, the only thing I can think of that would be worse than a cruise is 30 minutes at Chuck-E-Cheese. Different strokes . . .

  • pauletteb

    The book on the incident made for very scary reading . . . and made me forever despise Jim DeMint.

  • TonyA_says

    Sorry MeanMosh but I didn’t mean to rub you the wrong way. [Western] Customer Service Reps have always been taught not to apologize since it will admit fault. Some have carried it further to the point the they do not even apologize for your inconvenience. It sure makes one feel that you are just a number in their money making scheme.

    I recently flew a couple of domestic JAL flights. I was surprised to find a letter (laminated paper) apologizing for the missing Boeing 787 Dreamliner, specifically for the Tokyo-Helsinki launch (see copy here http://www.jal.co.jp/en/info/inter/130204.html). I guess they were apologizing since they had that flight on promo on the TV screens.

    I just wanted to provide some contrasting examples of apologies. Obviously I was impressed by the latter. I’m sure your cruise is just one example of an offering by a mediocre U.S. travel company. In my opinion, if you want to be treated better, then you need to look for service performed by (some) Asian companies. I have quit expecting anything more from the U.S. ones.

  • http://twitter.com/johntbaker John Baker

    I guess I look at these things differently than most… No one has died on a Carnival ship due to the issues. I’m not even aware of a serious injury due to the issues. Some have been inconvenienced. In each case, the people received at least a partial refund and a credit toward a future cruise.
    I also offer this up… I have never, ever had a vacation that went exactly to plan. Murphy always finds a way to have his fun. How you react to that means all the difference in how enjoyable your vacation is.

    Why would I stop cruising over one cruise line having issues?

  • Shannon

    Yup – the Celebrity Millennium broke part of the propeller on a rock in Ville Franche 2 days before my family and friends, a group of 15 were to sail from Civitavecchia so we all got calls to say “sorry, but…” We all had purchased separate air and were indeed up for SOME kind of a trip so with 3 of us being travel agents, we scoured for cruises leaving from the same general vicinity in the next 2 days. 4 of us sailed on Windstar from Istanbul, 6 found a Holland America cruise that was not fully booked and the rest did an FIT through France and Italy! A year later, we all met up in Barcelona for the free cruise given to us by Celebrity for the inconvenience.

  • dcta

    I find it absolutely plausible that Customs & Immigration might decided to detain one ship on one line and not another. Anything can trigger it and this is why most cruise lines insist on passengers taking afternoon flights out of their last port of call – they can’t guarantee you can make a 10am flight given the vagaries of Customs & Immigration around the world.

    What is interesting is that the US (I’m not talking about where they are flagged but where the business operations originally came from) ship, Celebrity, had issues but the British ship, Princess, did not. Hmmm in Chile and Peru…where US relations are a little bit – not a lot – frosty right now…….

    And yes, you may not know this but Princess was originally British….Of course I could be way off base, but as I said, one never knows what might set of Customs & Immigration in any given country.

  • rainsy

    English is the language of emergencies. I have worked on many ships in the last 30+ years and you will notice that the officers all will speak the same language.To allay your fears you might search shipboard drills on the internet (eg: SOLAS)
    There is a lot more going on behind the scenes than most passengers are aware of.

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