Is cruising finally safe now? Here's the unvarnished truth
The CDC scrapped its color-coded dashboard, but don't let that fool you
There's that question again: Is it safe to cruise?
The Centers for Disease Control raised it this week when it quietly ended its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. The program had published a color-coding system for ships based on infection risk.
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Since no one understood the dashboard, what's the point of debating it? But that didn't stop us from having a discussion anyway.
The verdict? It is not safe to cruise by a nearly two-to-one margin, according to readers.
But let's talk about why cruising is still a little iffy. It's a combination of dangers, including COVID, other passengers, and risks inherent to cruising.
COVID is still running rampant
COVID remains a big problem on board, despite the CDC's declaration. Last week, more than 100 passengers and crew on the Coral Princess tested positive in a shipwide outbreak. The Carnival Spirit had a reported outbreak in May.
But most of the infections don't make the news. Terry LaFavors just returned from a 10-day cruise tour on Holland America's Noordam from Vancouver to Whittier, Alaska.
"Despite the notice for passengers to wear masks, at least 25 percent of passengers did not wear masks at any one time, even when the line provided masks in the cabins and offered masks at the customer service desk," she says. "Needless to say, there was no enforcement and no daily reminders. All three of us returned with COVID, including our 10-year-old."
LaFavors doesn't understand the new relaxed COVID rules on cruise ships.
"The cruise lines are only worried about the money," she says. "Passenger health is not in their charters."
I suspect she's right. With no dashboard — incomprehensible as it may have been — we have no way of assessing the likelihood that we'll get infected on a cruise.
Is cruising safe now? We just have to take the cruise line's word for it.
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Other passengers are dangerous
Cruising is dangerous beyond the COVID, of course. Passengers and crew members assault, steal from and kill each other with some regularity.
Don't believe me? Here are some statistics compiled by maritime lawyer Michael Winkleman.
These are based on numbers reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation by cruise lines.
But these numbers don't tell the whole story, according to Winkleman.
"It's important to note that these figures are only the reported crimes aboard ships," he notes. "As a law firm specializing in maritime law since 1971, we have firsthand knowledge that many crimes at sea go unreported for a number of reasons. As such, it is our opinion that the figures are far lower than the actual number of crimes at sea."
Common sense tells you that's true. But if you don't think the reporting requirements are a problem, just take a look at the latest report. According to cruise lines reporting to the government, there was almost no crime on cruise ships last year. It looks like it was such a non-issue that the government stopped reporting incidents altogether.
There are other dangers to cruising
Even if you disregard COVID and onboard crime, there are other dangers. I know because I hear about them every day at my consumer advocacy organization.
Passengers fall ill and must deal with onboard doctors who are not trained to western standards and are rewarded for the ancillary revenue they bring from sick or injured passengers. The worst-case scenario is being unceremoniously dumped at a third-world port, where hospitals won't accept you unless you pay in cash, and it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a medical evacuation.
What are your odds of getting sick? It's impossible to say. No one plans to fall ill on a cruise. People are so confident that they even skip the travel insurance and medical evacuation memberships to save a few bucks.
But cruise ships are required to carry body bags and maintain a morgue. They can fit a few bodies, but in an emergency, the cruise ship can also use a freezer to store the bodies. Those morgues fill up on many sailings. If you've ever dealt with a bereaved widow whose husband is lying in the freezer, then you know that the cruise industry's claims that it's a safe vacation are not quite accurate.
So should you cruise?
No vacation is totally safe, especially now. But you should prepare.
Sail on a reputable cruise line
Avoid an unknown cruise line sailing to exotic ports if you want to play it safe. The big names are far less likely to play games with your safety (although they sometimes do). It's worth paying a little extra for peace of mind.
Wear a mask even when you don't have to. Practice social distancing even when it's not required. Don't go running on the Lido deck at midnight. And for the love of Poseidon, don't get the all-you-can-drink package. You may end up going overboard.
For goodness sakes, get insurance
If you're taking a cruise, you'll need travel insurance and a medical evacuation membership. You don't want to be the person stranded in a banana republic hospital. Seriously. Get insurance.
Cruising is still not safe
So is cruising safe yet? No. And it will probably never be completely safe.
The CDC's clumsy actions have just muddied the waters when it comes to cruise safety. Hopefully, this story has cleared things up a little. Cruising is still risky. Don't let government declarations or cruise line propaganda convince you otherwise. Book with caution and be careful out there.
What’s the most dangerous part of cruising?
Over to you. What's the most dangerous part of cruising? Is it the risk of a COVID infection? Other passengers? Or the risks inherent to cruising? Today, we have a poll for you. But the comments are also open.
About the art
This week’s story inspired artist Aren Elliott to imagine the dangerous things cruise passengers do. “Going down holding a bottle of Dom,” he says. “Now that’s what I call commitment.”
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