Over 800,000 Australians took a cruise in 2015, and that number will probably increase to over one million in 2017. This includes all ages, with even those over 90 feeling at home on a cruise.
Cruising on the high seas or up a river is one of the safest forms of travel. However, while it’s tempting to drop all your luggage and head for the bar, you should be aware of the health and safety issues that may occur on a cruise and take a few safety precautions.
To give you more insight, we’ve compiled a guide filled with tips for staying safe and healthy so that you can relax on your floating paradise.
Are cruises considered safe?
Cruise ships operate under an enormous list of rules and regulations, from fire safety and maritime security, to navigation and safety drills. Although there have been a few tragic incidents involving passengers in recent years, there’s scant data on crimes at sea. That’s why it’s important that if you’re planning on taking a cruise, you educate yourself about the possible things that can happen on-board.
At least 29% of shipboard ailments are respiratory infections, followed by injuries (18.2%), seasickness (9.1%) and gastrointestinal illness (8.9%). One in 250 passengers requires medical attention - at least half of these being passengers over the age of 65.
Motion sickness, influenza, sunburn, food poisoning, insect bites and even Zika virus can occur on board. In April 2015, 112 people on board the cruise ship Celebrity contracted a gastrointestinal illness. Just one sick passenger can lead to hundreds falling ill. When an outbreak of norovirus hit the Explorer of the Seas in December 2015 (docked in Sydney), 182 people fell ill. While norovirus is highly infectious, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says cruise ships account for only 1% of total reported cases.
Unfortunately, sexual assault on board cruise ships is not uncommon. A report by New Zealand researcher Dr. Jill Poulsen found that the risk of sexual assault on board cruise liners was 50 per cent higher than on land. Seventy per cent of these offences were crew members assaulting passengers, and one in six victims was under 18 years of age.
Most complaints regarding theft involve passenger luggage. Holidaymakers often forget that they need to be vigilant and keep their valuables secure. Even in-room safes aren’t exactly ‘safe’. Cruise ship staff have the ability to open in-room safes if you forget your code, and while the majority of staff are honest, you may want to rethink where you hide your valuables.
Evacuating a ship is the last resort for authorities. However, it’s the only way to ensure passengers are kept safe in the event of an imminent threat. In November 2015, authorities evacuated hundreds of people on the Spirit of Tasmania and Holland America Line, which were both moored in Victoria, as they investigated bomb threats.
You may never experience any of these risks, but they can happen anywhere in the world and cruise ships certainly aren’t immune.
Cruise safety tips
Here are a few safety tips to be aware of on the high seas, even if you’re a regular cruiser.
You share more with others than just a good time when you’re on a cruise. One sick passenger can turn your floating oasis into a buoyant germ incubator. Norovirus causes gastroenteritis and is easily spread between people. It lasts between one to two days, but longer in those who are frail. Use hand sanitisers and be wary of food buffets. Remember you may be vigilant with hygiene but other passengers may not.
Get your health in check
Before you even step foot on board, get a medical check-up. Disclose any pre-existing medical conditions and make sure you have enough medication. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to pack your medication into a blister pack so it’s easier to take.
Cabins located further from the centre of the ship may be rockier and heighten sea sickness, while internal cabins may make you feel claustrophobic. Choose a cabin with a window, closer to the centre of the ship, or you may feel like you’re on a fishing trawler if bad weather hits.
The ship may be rocky
You’ll eventually become accustomed to the rocking of the boat, but it’s easy to miss a step and fall over.
Accommodation on a cruise is smaller than what you’re used to at home. Top bunk beds should only be used by children over 9 for safety reasons.
Thieves cruise too
Theft occurs everywhere, even on a cruise ship. Reconsider if you need to bring a laptop or expensive jewellery. Keep an eye on your items at all times, even if you’re lazing on a sunbed.
Be aware of slippery decks
Ship decks can be wet or slippery, making it easy to slip over. Pack a pair of low-heeled shoes with rubber soles.
Take care on the stairs
No matter how fit you are, just one wrong step can send you tumbling. Take extra care and use the handrails for stability.
Why do I need travel insurance for a cruise holiday?
Cruises may seem relatively safe because you’re travelling on board a luxury ship with amazing facilities from one exotic port destination to the next, but as with all holidays there are many things that can potentially go wrong.
If you’re wondering why you need travel insurance for a cruise, consider:
- Who pays if you need to be airlifted off your cruise due to a medical emergency? The costs for an evacuation back to Australia or to the nearest port can exceed $100 000.
- What if you can’t even go on your cruise because you unexpectedly get sick and the doctor advises you not to take the holiday? How can you get your deposits back?
- Who compensates you if someone steals your new camera or your luggage is lost or damaged?
- Who pays for your medical treatment if you slip or fall and injure yourself on board?
- What if you have to cut short your holiday because a family member back home is unexpectedly hospitalised for a serious illness?
Travel insurance for cruises may cover you for these scenarios and others, whether it be on-board, on-shore or even before you leave your home. If you don’t have travel insurance you’ll be liable to pay the expenses, or lose the money you’ve already paid out for your trip.
What type of travel insurance should I purchase for a cruise holiday?
When looking for travel insurance for your cruise holiday, make sure you check that your policy includes cruising as it may not be automatically covered.
Look for a Cruise travel insurance policy that can provide you with:
- Cover for the cancellation costs if you unexpectedly fall sick before you cruise and can’t travel.
- Cover for lost or stolen items.
- Medical evacuation and repatriation assistance if you’re seriously injured or fall ill on board.
- Emergency assistance or advice on finding the closest hospital, doctor, or even arranging a translator if necessary.
For more information, check out our travel insurance for cruises page.
Cruise health tips
Medication to take on a cruise
There are on-board chemists but it’s better to bring your own medication. You’ll pay a lot more for it on the ship and they may not have the medication you require.
- Ask your doctor to pack your prescription medication in a blister pack for the duration of the cruise (plus extra in case you’re delayed).
- If you suffer from motion sickness, or haven’t experienced a cruise before, sea sickness tablets may help with nausea and dizziness.
- Bring enough painkillers in case of injury or headache
- Imodium is helpful if you suffer from a sensitive stomach
- Purchase a first aid kit that includes insect repellent, sunscreen, antibacterial hand wipes, Band-Aids, gauze, and a thermometer.
Vaccinations and immunisations
The risk of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases is very low on cruise ships. Vaccines for cruises depend on where your ship will be stopping.
Some countries have strict health policies and require all passengers disembarking to have adequate proof of vaccination. If you plan to be eating meals on shore excursions, make sure you’re up-to-date with vaccinations such as Hepatitis A and influenza, before you travel.
Ask your doctor about necessary vaccinations, particularly for diseases prevalent in ports of call.
Cruises to South America are at risk for the Zika virus. Clinical trials for a vaccine only started in August 2016 so the best way to keep safe is to steer clear of mosquitoes.
Avoiding cold and flu
- Visit your doctor for a flu shot before you travel, particularly if you’re a senior.
- Take a course of vitamins at least four weeks before you travel, and continue taking them while you’re on the ship.
- Wash your hands before every meal to minimise the risk of infection.
Onboard cruise ship safety
Safety on board is your responsibility.
- There’s no reason to bring much money on board unless you’re depositing it into your on-board account at the beginning of the trip, or plan to spend money on shore excursions. Any excess money you show could make you a target for theft. Keep cash strapped to your body in a money belt or concealed pocket.
- Rethink the need for your laptop and expensive jewellery on your cruise. The best advice is to leave them at home.
- Not all cabin doors automatically close. Keep your belongings safe by making sure your door clicks shut.
Balcony railings offer great views over the ocean. Made of plexiglass or a solid wall, they often exceed height standards of 42 inches. It would be difficult for anyone shorter than 5 feet to fall over the railing but it’s not impossible.
Children shouldn’t be left unsupervised on a balcony. For safety’s sake keep your balcony door locked at night and when you’re not in your cabin.
Check the balcony before you go to sleep. Port contractors clean ship windows so it’s easier than you think to enter through an unlocked balcony door.
Drinking too much alcohol makes you an easier target for theft, assault, and injury. Go easy on the booze and remain aware of your surroundings (and your limitations) at all times.
A bit of liquid courage makes it easy to get carried away, but be mindful about how much alcohol you’re consuming, and also who is buying you drinks.
Before you sip your first cocktail at the bar, you must attend the muster drill. Just like a safety drill on the plane, a muster drill is a mandatory exercise to let passengers know what to do in an emergency. The crew will show you where your muster station is, what certain alarms mean, and how to put on a lifejacket.
Even if you’ve heard the drill a thousand times, listen carefully, as it’s an important part of your cruise experience.
You’re on a boat out in the elements with tonnes of people moving around, so expect a few surfaces to be slippery. Pool water (particularly around the pool deck), spilled drinks at the bar, and water from splashing waves can be found everywhere on board.
Walk around slippery surfaces, or at least steady yourself if you have to go through them. Stairs can also be slippery, so always use the handrails no matter your age or fitness level.
Falling overboard on a moving ship
According to Cruise Junkie, 270 passengers have gone overboard since 2000. Sadly 27 of them toppled into the sea in 2015 alone. If you do fall into the sea while the ship is moving, don’t expect to survive. There are several factors stacked against you such as hypothermia, breaking a limb or the fall knocking the air out of you.
According to Portsmouth University Professor Mike Tipton, most people die within the first 60 minutes of falling into the sea, and even if the boat turns around to rescue you, it may be too late.
10 ways to avoid falling overboard on a cruise ship
1. Listen and pay attention during the safety drills
The crew will tell you of any dangers you may experience and inform you how to avoid them, what to do including where safety gear such as safety buoys are located and what to do with them. This could end up saving your life or fellow cruise passengers.
2. Steer clear of the railings
This tip is particular important to communicate to children so they know not to climb on anything.
3. Keep an eye on your children at all times
Kids can do some silly things sometimes, so it’s always good to keep them in sight and the young ones within reach at all times.
4. Avoid the urge to re-enact the scene from Titanic
Trying to get that Titanic shot may have you end up in the sea.
5. Limit alcohol consumption
You’re probably going to enjoy some alcohol when on board, but make sure you stay in control. If you do have a little too much, ask a friend to escort you back to your cabin to ensure you make it there safely.
6. Don’t take drugs
You should avoid any action or activity that’s going to impair your ability to stay safe when you travel and this is even more important on a cruise ship.
7. Remain indoors or better still, in your cabin during bad weather
During storms the ship can rock, the deck can become slippery and winds can be severe which could all lead to you ending up overboard.
8. Stay where you’re suppose to
If it says ‘Do Not Enter’ or ‘Staff Only’, stay out of these areas as they may not have the same safety levels that exist in the passenger areas.
9. Stay in well-lit areas at night time
A cruise ship is a small floating town, so there can be some unsavoury people on board. As you would normally avoid dark quiet alleyways, avoid dark areas and/or where no one is around, especially at night time.
10. Use your common sense
Travellers tend to let the hair down and relax on holidays. So remind yourself, if you wouldn’t do it on land, don’t do it on a cruise ship.
Taking care of your luggage on a cruise
Luggage is x-rayed before you embark on a cruise. Most theft involves luggage that isn’t locked and is easy to access. Be vigilant and keep an eye on your luggage wherever possible.
- Don’t travel with more luggage than you can carry
- Secure your luggage with locks
- Consider firstly whether you do need to bring your valuables. If you do need to bring them, lock your items in your cabin if you don’t need to carry them with you
- Keep your belongings within sight and an arm’s reach away
Just like hotels, some ships have a luggage shipping procedure where you leave your luggage outside the cabin door the night before disembarkation for collection by the ship crew. Most people happily use this service, but it can be an opportunity for theft.
Ensure your luggage is locked and your cabin number is written clearly on each bag. Keep valuables, documents and important medications with you in your hand luggage.
Taking money on a cruise
Cruise lines have adopted a safe, cashless policy for spending on board. EFTPOS facilities aren’t available, and prepaid VISA cards and cash passports aren’t accepted. Instead, expenses are charged to your on-board account connected to your credit card. Each purchase you make must be signed for. The ship will hold a pre-authorisation of your purchases, placing a hold on your credit card for the amount you have spent each day.
At the end of the cruise, the total amount spent is charged to your credit card as one payment. It’s a tricky system because some banks will hold pre-authorisations for up to 30 days, which means you won’t have access to those funds and your card may be close to maxed out for that period.
An easier, but less safe way to take money on board is to deposit cash into your on-board account within the first 24 hours of your cruise. It means you don’t overspend and can collect any remaining money at the end of the cruise.
If your cruise card is lost or stolen report it to the reception immediately so they can cancel your old card and issue you with a brand new one.
Cruise safety for seniors
The number of pensioners and older travellers holidaying overseas jumped by more than 80 per cent in the last five years. Over 60s love cruises – Mediterranean cruises, river cruises, ocean cruises, or luxury cruises, they love them all. However, it’s important to ask a few questions before you even book a cruise.
Are you fit enough to travel?
Disclose medical issues to your doctor and deal with them before you go on the cruise. Cruise ships are isolated from specialised medical care and are only equipped to deal with non-emergency situations.
Do you need regular medical treatment?
Cruises have limited medical treatment available. Make sure you have access to enough medicine for the duration of your cruise.
Do you need assistance with mobility?
Cruise ships won’t provide special carers for guests, so make sure you’ve arranged for a companion or carer to accompany you on your cruise. Some ships offer a limited supply of wheelchairs, but they’re reserved for emergencies, so bring your own wheelchair.
Remember these top 10 seniors’ tips to stay safe and healthy.
- Check the ship’s report card: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention checks ships for water quality, pests, hygiene, cleanliness, and spread of gastrointestinal illnesses. Report cards indicate how well the ship performed, so choose your ship wisely
- Go easy on the alcohol: drinking alcohol to excess dehydrates you and compromises your judgement and perception.
- Be aware of staircases, slippery surfaces and ladders: if you’re travelling with a walking stick or wheelchair, these areas will be difficult to manoeuvre.
- Don’t flaunt your valuables or cash around: flaunting your valuables makes you a target for theft.
- Don’t venture into deserted or dark areas: even ships have areas that are difficult to monitor.
- Watch what you eat: don’t overeat or consume what you wouldn’t normally.
- Keep up your water intake: ship water is usually suitable for drinking, but bottled water is a must on shore.
- Don’t lean over railings: safety is your responsibility.
- Close your cabin door properly: not all cabin doors automatically close. Keep your belongings safe by making sure your door clicks shut.
- Pay attention to the muster drill: so you know what to do in an emergency, where your muster station is, and how to put on a lifejacket.
Healthy eating and drinking on a cruise
Cruise ships are well known for their variety of food. Buffet dining is a major drawcard for passengers, making it easy to overindulge. However, food buffets and restaurants can be breeding grounds for bacteria if hygiene practices aren’t followed correctly. Remember the dos and don’ts of food safety to reduce your risk of catching something nasty.
- Pace your food intake: You don’t have to eat it all just because it’s there
- Wash your hands frequently (with soap!): The spread of gastrointestinal illnesses can be greatly reduced by washing your hands often, especially after you use the bathroom and before you eat. Carry a hand sanitiser with you.
- Remember your food allergies: If you’re allergic to something on land, you’ll be allergic to it on the ship too. Don’t eat what you wouldn’t eat at home.
- Be wary of food buffets: While the majority of ship food preparation adheres to strict hygiene standards, the same can’t be said for passengers in the buffet line. Sneezing, coughing and talking over food are some of the ways to spread illness, so choose your food items carefully.
- Drink lots of water to reduce dehydration: Sunshine and air-conditioning - and even your alcohol intake – can dehydrate you. Keep up your fluid intake by drinking lots of water. Ships have filtered drinking water, and all their food is prepared with it. If in doubt, boil it before drinking or buy bottled water from the shops on board.
Cruise safety for families
In the old days, cruises were filled with the newlywed or elderly. However, today, you’d be hard pressed to find a ship that doesn’t indulge its tiniest guests. Families are taking advantage of tremendous value to ‘sea’ more, and cruise companies are striving to offer facilities that encourage multi-generational holidaying from toddlers to the over 70s. But it doesn’t matter if you’ve booked an ocean view room on board a 5 star rated cruise, or if your over 80s parents will watch the children while you’re at the bar, you still need to take precautions to ensure your children’s safety.
1. Pool safety
Some ships can hold over 6000 people, all with their eyes set on the vessel’s swimming pools. However, the recent drowning death of an 8-year-old boy on board highlighted that ships don’t have lifeguards. Children must be supervised by an adult at all times for their safety. Moreover, if your kids aren’t toilet trained or wear a nappy (even swim nappies), they can't use the pools or spas.
2. Sun exposure
The sun can be harsh on the high seas so protect yourself and your children from its rays. Bring a wide-brimmed sun hat, sunglasses and enough sunscreen to apply regularly.
3. Restricted areas
Ships prevent children under 13 years of age from entering certain areas. These areas often fill up with adults after a certain time, so they aren’t great for kids anyway. But if an adult supervises children, staff may allow them to stay. Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult in the entertainment lounges and are often restricted to certain pools, gyms, spas, casinos and beauty centres too.
4. Light at night
Rooms become very dark at night. Bring a nightlight or flashlight with you so that your child doesn’t bump their head, stub their toe, or walk into a scary monster.
5. Electrical outlets
Some cruise companies will childproof their electrical outlets but others won’t. If you’re concerned, bring some duct tape.
1. On-board activities
On-board experiences may be less strenuous than those ashore, but some can still cause injury, such as water activities or using sporting equipment. There are plenty of day activities that cater to the adrenalin junkies as well as the most sedentary travellers. Ascertain your fitness level and choose activities that correspond with your capability.
2. On-shore excursions
Arriving at an idyllic island destination for a hiking tour up to the summit may seem in the spirit of your holiday, but choose your activities based on what you can do, not what you’d like to do.
3. Be cautious on your port visit
Some ports are sleepy towns and others are crime hot spots. Don’t navigate through the city alone – take a group excursion or book a private guide.
4. Obey the local law
Laws and procedures apply in the country you’re visiting, not your home country.
5. Be careful what you put in your belly
Eat cooked food only and avoid salads and fruits you can’t peel.
6. Leave your flashiness on board
Don’t flash your money and jewellery around when visiting a port city. It puts you at risk for theft.
7. Remember your fitness level
Determine your fitness level before you cruise and take part in activities that suit you. Don’t go hiking up a mountain if you’re only capable of a gentle stroll.
8. Drink plenty of bottled water
Don’t drink tap water in port – bring bottled water from the ship or buy it as soon as you’ve disembarked. Avoid ice in drinks too.
9. Use mosquito repellent
Some ships dock in ports where mosquito-borne diseases are rife. Use a repellent with adequate protection, and wear light, loose clothing with long sleeves.
10. Wear a hat and use sun protection
The sun may be hotter than on board your cruise ship, so protect yourself adequately.
What to do in a medical emergency
Cruise ships are floating cities. They don’t have on-board hospitals, but they do have medical facilities with trained staff available round-the-clock. These are assurance for passengers in case of ill health, but they’re only equipped to treat minor emergencies.
If your illness is serious or you need emergency treatment, you’ll need to be airlifted off the boat, or transferred to a health facility at the nearest port.
1. Don’t book a cruise that doesn’t have medical facilities
If you’re injured or have contracted a disease, you need the assurance you have somewhere to go for help, especially in the middle of the ocean.
2. Assess how capable your cruise liner is of handling a medical emergency
If you have a heart attack or a serious fall, most cruise lines will fly you via helicopter to the nearest port for treatment at a health facility. However, you’ll be expected to pay the costs so make sure you have adequate travel insurance arranged prior to departure.
3. Expect all treatment administered on board to be charged to your cabin
You’ll need to pay the bill directly to the cruise ship, including any treatments, emergency flights, and doctor’s fees. Take out adequate travel insurance before you travel to alleviate any concerns.
If you’re involved in a medical emergency:
1. Seek medical treatment immediately
The number for the medical facility will be posted next to your cabin telephone or in the ship’s directory.
2. Let the crew know you’re feeling unwell
If you’re alone, it’s even more important to do this as the crew can get you help if needed.
3. Call or email your travel insurance company
If you’ve already received medical attention from a hospital (or cruise ship hospital), contact your travel insurer as soon as possible. Your travel insurer’s emergency assistance team may also be able to assist or advise you on what you need to do next.
If you experience symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhoea let the ship crew know immediately.
They’ll put you in cabin confinement to avoid an outbreak amongst other passengers.
Influenza and Norovirus can spread quickly.
What to do in a non-medical emergency
Cruise ships, like planes, are safe ways to travel and don’t often have mishaps. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions. When a ship sinks or passengers are evacuated, they make the news in a big way.
The muster drill is the first place to gain an understanding of what will happen during an emergency. Ensure you pay attention.
It’s also a good idea to keep your passport and important documents in an ‘emergency bag’. You may have to return home by flying out of an international port.
1. Sinking ships
The standard evacuation signal is seven short horn blasts followed by one long blast. If you hear this, it’s time to evacuate.
- Stay calm and remember your muster drill location
- Avoid the elevators as electrical systems may fail
- Use handrails and watch for objects that may be loose
- Put your life jacket on and get to the lifeboats as quickly as possible
2. Tidal waves and storms
The climate can change rapidly at sea. Huge waves and storms are part of a cruise captain’s life. Walls of water slam into ships and batter even the sturdiest of vessels. Improvements in technology and better weather radars enable scientists to measure freak weather patterns.
Ships pass strict stability tests before they’re allowed to operate, and are capable of manoeuvring through storms, skirting giant waves, and handling huge swells.
What the Australian Government can and can't do
The Consular Services Charter offers assistance to Australians travelling overseas. The Crimes at Sea Act means Australia can prosecute within a maritime zone off its shores. However, crimes committed further out at sea are under the jurisdiction of the next port, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. For example, if a crime occurs on the way to Singapore, when the ship arrives in Singapore, local authorities will board the vessel and follow local law.
The Consular can assist with
- Replacement passports
- Details of local doctors and hospitals in a medical emergency
- Details of local lawyers and details of interpreters if you’re the victim of a serious assault or other crime
- Visiting or contacting you if you have been arrested to check on your welfare
- Providing advice in a wide range of other cases including the death of relatives
- Contacting friends or family on your behalf
- Making special arrangements in cases of terrorism, civil disturbances and natural disasters
- Providing small emergency loans in exceptional situations
The Consular can't assist with
- Guaranteeing your safety in another country
- Giving you legal advice, interpreting or translating documents
- Intervening in another country's legal matters
- Searching for missing people, including those gone overboard
- Investigating crimes or deaths on board, unless the crime was committed in Australian waters
- Getting you out of prison or preventing you from being deported
- Posting bail or paying your fines or legal expenses
- Paying for medical, psychiatric services, medications or reimbursing any cancellation fees
Important contact information and resources
Register your trip on Smartraveller. They’ll send you an alert if there’s an imminent threat such as an earthquake, terrorist attack or tsunami. They’ll also let your family know your status overseas.
If there isn’t an Australian Embassy in the city you’re travelling to, go to the nearest consular which provides help to Australians.
The Australian Government provides 24 hour consular assistance.
- +61 2 6261 3305 from overseas
- +61 421 269 080 for SMS
- 1300 555 135 from within Australia
- World Health Organization
- Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
Information about vaccinations:
You’ll also need the contact details of your:
- Travel insurer
- Travel agent
- Cruise company
Cruising may conjure up images of happy hour, exotic island destinations, food buffets, and port excursions, but with so many people boarding cruise ships each year it’s easy to overlook safety precautions. Take time out before you travel and do a little research to minimise the risks associated with life on the high seas. Whether you’re embarking on your first cruise or your fiftieth, you must take adequate health and safety measures so you can disembark refreshed, relaxed, healthy, and with great memories of life on board.