Have cruises really become more dangerous?


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.”