Despite the fact that cruising can be an affordable, interesting and stress-free way to vacation, it faces its fair share of scrutiny from travelers and health and safety officials. Recurring news stories of norovirus outbreaks and engineering malfunctions have left some consumers wary of setting sail, referring to cruise ships as "floating petri dishes." But even with the high-profile mishaps of recent years (namely, the Costa Concordia accident in 2012 and the Carnival Triumph "poop cruise" in 2013), the industry is still booming: The Cruise Lines International Association estimates that 23 million passengers will sail on a CLIA-affiliated ship in 2015. But if you're not ready to join the millions of seafaring globe-trotters, U.S. News can help. We asked Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, for help debunking some of the common cruising misconceptions, and asked a few avid cruisers: What are your tips for staying safe and healthy on board?
If you get green around the gills anytime you board a boat, you shouldn't let that deter you from taking a cruise. It only means you'll have to pick your destination and ship a little more carefully. According to Brown, newer cruise ships are equipped with better motion stabilizers that keep the boat steady even in the rockiest of waters. Aside from the ship's age, you can also keep sickness at bay by choosing a larger boat: You won't feel the turbulent waves as much thanks to the sheer size of the ship (this will also help if you're nervous about feeling claustrophobic on board). Some itineraries also cross calmer waters than others, including sailings around Norwegian fjords and Alaska's Inside Passage, according to Brown. And if all else fails, you've got plenty of seasickness remedies at your fingertips, including Bonine, among other over-the-counter medications, and ginger tablets, which can usually be found on the boat at the front desk, in the onboard sundries shop and sometimes even on your room service menu.
You can also ditch the ocean altogether with a river cruise. Aside from the fact that you can spot the shoreline at all times, you'll also find that river cruises are more land-focused, with less time on the ship and more time in port (another plus if you're concerned about claustrophobia).
Tales of vacation-ending norovirus outbreaks have made headlines in recent years, but if you're letting that stop you from taking a cruise, you may not be looking at the big picture. "The bad news is, you can get it anywhere," Brown said, iterating that travelers are just as susceptible to the dreaded stomach bug on shore as they are at sea. In fact, according to norovirus statistics compiled by CLIA, you're 750 times more likely to contract norovirus on land than on a cruise ship. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus causes an average of 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis per year. To put that in perspective, only about 800 people out of the 10.1 million who took a cruise in 2013 contracted norovirus, according to CLIA.
Cruise ships, more than any other method of transportation or lodging travelers come in contact with, are scrutinized for cleanliness and safety by two government agencies, both the CDC and the U.S. Coast Guard. The CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program conducts twice-yearly unannounced inspections for ships in U.S. ports, while the Coast Guard oversees both announced and unannounced safety inspections for every cruise ship that embarks passengers in U.S. ports. Before you book your cruise, you can check the report card for your prospective ship on the CDC's website (86 or above is considered a satisfactory score).
Still not convinced? The cruise ship's hygiene efforts don't stop after the inspection is over.
"There is hand sanitizer everywhere. You don't really find that anywhere else," Brown said, referring to the fact that readily available sanitizer is not as prevalent in airports, airplanes or hotels, where the onus is on the traveler to disinfect when and where they see fit. You'll find sanitizer at nearly every turn on a cruise ship. "They help you help everybody," Brown said.
Another way you can protect yourself: be careful at the buffet. Jennifer Haines, who has been cruising with her husband for more than seven years, said she's seen many of her fellow travelers grab food with their hands, even though kitchen crews provide tongs and utensils for passengers to hygienically serve themselves. Haines said the only food she and her family eat from the buffet are ice cream and cooked-to-order items like hot dogs and burgers. They eat the rest of their meals in the onboard restaurant or order room service.
If you do start to feel sick a day or two before you're scheduled to set sail, don't get on board. It can be heartbreaking to cancel a vacation you've planned for months, but that's what travel insurance is for.
See: Is a Cruise For You?
Cruise ships are often compared to floating cities, thanks to all the space and amenities they offer. And just like a city, cruise ships have standards of safety and security in place to protect their temporary residents. Aside from the security officers and measures employed on board (such as security checkpoints, security cameras, and the locks and peep holes in every room), cruise lines are required by law to report any illegal activity to the FBI and the Coast Guard.
As for the safe operation of cruise ships, each cruise line must answer to the International Maritime Organization, the governing body that oversees global regulations and standards for the maritime industry.
If you're still on the fence about whether a cruise is right for you, consider why millions of travelers remain unnerved by the negative media attention.
"The recent cruising horror stories on the news haven't hindered my desire to cruise," said Cory Lee, founder of the travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, who has been on five cruises. "I believe that things can go wrong in your own home, so why sit and wonder 'what if?' I'd prefer to just get out there and set sail."
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