Have a Safe Cruise

| September 24, 2007

How to plan a cruise and conduct yourself in a manner that will enhance your onboard safety.

On September 19, Congress held another hearing on cruise ship safety. This hearing was far more balanced than the previous one; this time, the message got through that while some crime can happen on cruise ships, cruising is still the safest form of travel there is.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., confirmed that, and added: "I want to make sure we don't send a message to the public that's not fair to the industry."

The Justice Department and FBI both said they believe the current procedures for crime reporting and follow-ups are working well. Representatives of both agencies disagreed with a witness at the previous congressional hearing who had claimed one is safer on land than on a cruise ship. Out of the 12 million Americans who cruised last year, crime affected fewer than 0.01 percent of them. That is a statistic any city would claim proudly.

Still, following the hearing I was asked by a major news organization to give them my recommendations for having a safe cruise. In thinking about this, I decided that beyond the same recommendation others have given, such as "use your dead bolt," I needed to talk about why crimes happen, though rarely, on cruise ships.

A Common Cruise Misconception I believe a lot of cruise ship crime occurs when a person has his or her guard down. How do they get themselves into this situation? In many cases, the victim is sailing solo, or has somehow become separated from her companions. This is a very important consideration.

Should anyone take a cruise as a solo passenger, traveling alone with no one else who knows them personally on board? In my opinion, this is something only a very experienced cruiser should do, because many non-cruise experienced travelers have the wrong idea of what cruising is like. I realize some people might find this a controversial topic and tell me they have done it several times. Understand, I am describing the profile for some crime victims, but I am not saying everyone who fits this profile will become a victim by any means.

Some people think cruises are highly social affairs, with many group activities leading to everyone becoming a big, happy family. They are often made to feel that way if you listen to the cruise director and read the daily programs. But in reality, contrary to shows like "The Love Boat," cruise ships are not much different in a social sense from a hotel or a theme park. Most people on ships interact almost exclusively with the people they came with, and the ship's personnel. Meeting new friends onboard who will become personally involved with a solo cruiser for any length of time is something that can happen, but is not something a solo cruiser should expect to happen.

There are exceptions. Meeting new people is far more likely to happen aboard smaller ships where everyone is in close proximity morning, noon and night. Any ship with fewer than 200 passengers is small enough that a solo person will be readily accepted as part of the group and have plenty of companionship.

But on a big ship, you might meet someone by chance and not see him or her again for days, if at all, making it almost impossible to form any kind of bond.

I once discussed this topic with a woman on a river cruise in France, and she remarked that "the only people you meet on big ships are 'five-minute' people." In other words, after you exchange a few words with them, even if you do see them again, they rarely converse with you. The process of meeting someone whom you really bond with on a ship takes time, often several days.

The Social Dynamics of Solo Cruising First, I need to say that solo cruisers who have their expectations of easily making friends on board in check, who take personal responsibility for their actions and are not likely to get inebriated, are perfectly sane and logical in their choice to cruise alone.

I also believe the safety issues behind solo cruising are completely different, depending upon whether you are a woman or a man, but for either gender, solo cruising on large, anonymous ships is generally a bad idea in my opinion.

Why is solo cruising a safety issue for women? Even with the expectation of meeting new people in check, under the very remote circumstances that there happens to be a predator type onboard, the female sailing solo fits the preferred target profile. A predator would take confidence in the fact that no one will be checking up on you. Additionally, he would feel it is easier to gain your trust.

For female solo cruisers, watching other couples having fun together only magnifies any loneliness, which may cause one to become unduly trusting of strangers -- especially if over-indulging in alcohol. You may find yourself welcoming the attention of what appears to be a friendly single man.

Male solo cruisers face different challenges. I have sailed solo a few times and I believe men have a much harder time meeting people on ships than women do. Although I have had a few excellent solo cruises, one seven-day Caribbean cruise on a ship with about 2000 passengers was the worst cruise of my life and I did not enjoy it at all.

The only singles on this particular cruise were very elderly widows with whom I had nothing in common. Honestly, just having a decent conversation proved to be a true challenge. If I spoke to a married woman, even though my questions were completely innocent I got some very odd looks, like they couldn't understand why I was talking to them. Some were outright rude - frankly as if they thought I was trying to pick them up. The looks I got from their husbands were worse. After a few of those experiences, I spent a lot of time on my own, and found myself feeling pretty lonely and fighting a feeling of desperation.

Fortunately, I was not drinking and so my judgement was not impaired, but I can easily envision someone less stable than I, having too much to drink, doing or saying something he normally would not.

Now, having said this, I do know women and men who sail solo frequently and enjoy it. Once again, the key is in knowing what to expect from a solo cruise -- not having expectations of making friends easily onboard. Woman actually do have it easier for a few reasons, some cruise lines actually cater to single women by giving them male hosts to dance with on board. Plus, realistically, fellow passengers more readily accept a woman sailing alone on a ship because she is non-threatening. In fact, she is even alluring in that she would likely welcome polite conversation.

Male or female, as my female friend who often cruises solo tells me, a good set of dinner companions will make or break the vacation for a solo cruiser. Sharing a dining table is the one opportunity to form a bond with fellow cruisers. They might offer an invitation to dine in a specialty restaurant, or to go dancing with them. On cruises with open seating, I think it is very important for the staff to take note of any solo travelers onboard and reach out to them. Having regular singles meetings on board, and just giving the solos a phone call once in awhile is a good idea.

On my 7-day cruise I had absolutely nothing in common with my dinner companions even though I tried. I found they didn't feel any affinity for me, either. So the best opportunity I had for meeting people on my cruise was a bust.

Writing this reminds me of a cruise with my significant other, where we watched a single man we had met try to interact with other people. He would walk up and sit down at their tables uninvited, and they would talk to him politely for a few minutes before they had to "be somewhere" -- and as soon as he left they would shake their heads and roll their eyes.

These Social Dynamics and the Safety Issue Getting to my point somewhat belatedly, one of the best ways to remain safe on a cruise is to use the buddy system. There is safety in numbers. The same is true on tours, even though I think passengers should realize that once they are off the ship they are no longer under the jurisdiction of the ship staff or FBI - local jurisdiction takes over. On tours, however, if you are solo make sure the tour guide knows, and do try to talk to people, especially if you are a woman.

Obviously, if you are a solo cruiser one of the most important steps you can take is to seek out other solo cruisers. Go to the singles mingles you see in the programs. Exchange a few phone numbers and agree to meet for meals. Discuss what tours you may be taking, and if both of you are in agreement, try to meet up and go together. The more someone on board knows you, the safer you will be.

What if there is a solo male on the ship? Obviously, most men are not dangerous and I do not want to leave you with that impression. But a lot can be said for how much he interacts with the other solo passengers on board. In order for a solo male to establish that he is trustworthy, he should make an effort to participate in some singles group activities, making sure people know plenty of personal details about him.

When women who have no companions become the victims of serious crime and there are no witnesses it makes the investigation and subsequent prosecution very difficult. These are the kinds of cases that can become "he said/she said" issues. These are the worst kinds of cases, for the victims and for the cruise lines.

Though some industry critics have suggested that cruise ships are a haven for predators, I state from experience that the word "haven" is sensationalized nonsense. There have been a few "predator" types of cases, however, though the serial or "repeat offender" aspect of these cases is not apparent. More likely, a man who is short on social skills who decides to sail solo, or a crew member who has been onboard a ship for close to a year, may be suffering from so much loneliness or fatigue that he would try something he normally wouldn't do -- especially when alcohol is involved.

Likewise, a woman who is sailing solo and lonely might be tempted to put herself in a precarious situation she normally wouldn't consider. Possibly with the type of man described above, or with a group of rowdy guys who are pretending to be her friend.

Different Types of Cruises The chances of a bad encounter are probably greater on short cruises on the less expensive cruise lines. These will have the greatest number of solo cruisers on them and a greater consumption of alcohol per person. Inexperienced solo cruisers may be inclined to over imbibe, drinking into the early morning hours.

A shorter cruise is also more likely to attract rowdy groups of immature, heavy drinking young men. This can result in situations similar to college campuses where group behavior crosses the lines of sexual and social propriety.

The passengers on a seven-day or longer cruise on the other hand, are usually more mature and sedate family members cruising together.

If you are a young, single woman and want to go on these short cruises, we highly suggest you take a friend along. Monitor each other for alcohol intake, and don't let yourselves get separated. Stick to meeting guys who are also traveling with a buddy.

Singles and Other Special Interest Cruises -- The Safer Alternative Now that I have warned against taking a cruise solely for the purpose of meeting new people, I have to say that I have made new friends on cruises whom I still know, enjoy a great deal and have seen again and again. The key is to go on a cruise where you have something in common with the other people going, and where there will be several events with one on one interaction. This way, you will surely become known to a good number of people.

It is best to travel with professional group cruise organizers whose job it is to keep track of everyone in the group. People who all know each other well often take the CruiseMates Cruises we offer. I am proud to say that unlike other cruise web sites where any reader can put together a "group" cruise (and we hear reports that the subsequent cruise was not good for solo cruisers because there was only one planned event on the entire cruise - a single cocktail party) our CruiseMates Cruises are all hosted by a CruiseMates staff member, who organizes events and gets the group together during the cruise. Everyone has a name and meets everyone else. This is not something we do to make money; it is a sideline of the web site we do just for the fun of getting people together and taking advantage of group discounts.

Which brings me back to ship safety. If you are single, straight or gay, I recommend sailing on group cruises organized by companies that specialize in people like you. For single people, your absolute best bet is singles cruise operators who will match you up with a roommate (if you want) and make sure you have plenty of companionship throughout the cruise. Several singles cruise companies are listed in our Single Cruisers area with a complete calendar of singles cruises through 2008.

You can also find a roommate through our message boards. I have seen quite a few people get together and become friends online and subsequently sail together. We cannot become involved with any decisions you make to sail with anyone you meet, online or otherwise, and I recommend you get to know this person very well before you choose to cruise with them. I have seen a few such arrangements go sour as well. But having a good roommate will save you money and make your cruise safer.

No matter what, when cruising it is very important to establish communication protocols with people on land and to check in with them regularly as described below. Make sure they can contact you, and make contact with them regularly.

Further Safety Tips Beyond the buddy system, what else should all cruisers do to remain safe?

  • When on the ship, stay with your buddy. Do not walk on empty, dark decks at night where other passengers can't see you, either with your buddy, alone, or especially with a stranger. Today's ships are so big that even with 4,000 people on board you can still find secluded areas. Stay away from them.
  • Always use the deadbolt on your cabin door.
  • Ship personnel might ask to enter your cabin during the day, but never without knocking. Never open your door without asking who is there. Do not let a passenger in. If it is a crewmember after dark, or if you are alone and it just seems odd, ask them to have the front desk call you to explain why they are there.
  • Be wary of people who say they need to fix something in your cabin after dark while you are in the cabin. Routine maintenance is usually done during the day while you are out of your stateroom.
  • On most cruise ships room stewards are not allowed to open drawers, which is why they leave your clothes folded on a chair or table. This doesn't mean valuable items in drawers are safe, but it does mean that if you see a room steward looking in your drawers you should ask at the front desk if that is normal procedure.
  • Put your valuables in the room safe. This includes your camera, cell phone, sunglasses, passport, etc. And there is no reason to bring expensive jewelry on a cruise no matter how formal it is.

I have had dozens of room stewards, and have never lost anything. But I have walked past empty staterooms where a steward in the process of cleaning left the door open for a few minutes. I have seen cameras, laptops, earrings and even plane tickets left in full view.

Before You Leave

  • Set up a system of communication with people on land while you are on your cruise, guaranteeing that you will email them at least two or three times. Almost every cruise ship has Internet access, and if not you can find an Internet cafe in port.
  • If you are not good at email, it is easy to find cell phones that work worldwide. Ports in the Caribbean often have "call centers" right off the ship. These are primarily for crew members to call home, which means they are inexpensive.
  • Leave detailed information with your family and friends about where you are going. This includes the name and phone number of your travel agent, the name of the ship and cruise line, your cabin number, the cruise line customer service phone number, your itinerary and your air flight numbers and ETA times each way.

Summing Up You are much more likely to make friends on a ship with fewer passengers than on one with thousands of passengers. This is not a concrete rule. If you are on a mega-ship, and there happen to be a lot of single people on board, you may make plenty of friends. But for the record, I believe taking a cruise as a solo with the idea that you will definitely meet plenty of new people onboard to keep you company is a mistake.

I have been on many cruises, as a cruise line employee and as a passenger. Today I am married and lucky enough to have companionship whenever I cruise. I believe travel is more exciting when you have someone to share it with. If it is a romantic partner, that is even better. In other words, unless you really know what to expect, and you are OK with the idea that you may not meet anyone or have much company at all during a cruise, you should not sail solo.

So, my first recommendation for having a safe cruise is a simple one; convince a friend to go with you. Think of it as the buddy system. Couples or family members populate the vast majority of cruises. During the cruise they focus on each other, and while they will talk with a solo cruiser, they do not actually feel as if they are sharing the experience with one.

While cruising is still the safest form of travel, bad things can happen anywhere. I will admit I personally feel so safe on cruise ships that even I don't follow every rule I have laid out above. That is how safe cruises really are and which is why staff people on ships often do not know how to react when something terrible occurs. They have no experience to guide them.

Some of the reports I have read about things happening on ships amaze me, but all you have to do is watch the evening news to remember how cruel human beings can be. Anything is possible, no matter how implausible it may seem. For any misunderstandings or incompetence by the cruise lines, I apologize to any victims who might be reading this.

In my two years on ships I have no personal experience with crimes at sea, but maybe someday I will learn my lesson the hard way. If I do, I know it is like defensive driving - sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least you can make such misfortune less likely.

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