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When the Costa Concordia ocean liner hit rocks and began sinking off Italy in January 2012, killing 32, many travelers began questioning cruise ship safety, especially the competence of ship captains and crew.
But deaths and injuries on cruise ships are extremely rare. For instance, in 2011, more than 16 million people safely cruised the world's waterways, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the North American industry's main marketing group.
Still, when you embark on a cruise, as on any vacation, you need to be cautious and take some precautions. Toward that end, here are 6 cruise ship safety tips.
1. Study Your Surroundings
When you board a ship, you're typically handed a map (if not, pick one up at the purser's office). Study the layout. Give yourself a tour of the ship. Also check the cruise ship safety chart on the back of your cabindoor for the route to your assigned muster station, your designated area to congregate in the event of an emergency. If there is a safety video playing on the TV, take time to watch it.
2. Heed the Safety Drill
You will be required to attend a safety drill. Yes, it might come at a time when you'd rather be sitting by the pool, and to seasoned cruisers, it will be a boring exercise. But do as instructed. Grab your orange life jacket from your cabin, head to the assigned muster station (as indicated by the big letter on your life jacket) and listen to the crew instructions. This is not the time to take photos or chat. It is the time to really learn what to do in the event of an emergency.
3. Locate the Life Jacket
Most ships will require you to try on your life jacket at the drill — you can typically find it in a closet in your cabin. But even if not instructed to do so, try it and make sure it fits. If you have kids, make sure your cabin is equipped with an appropriate infant or child life jacket. Notable features include a whistle you can blow to draw attention.
4. Follow Fire Safety Rules
The biggest concern on cruise ships isn't rocks or icebergs, but fire. Rules established by the IMO require smoke detectors, sprinklers and other fire safety measures. But you need to play your part. Smoke only in designated areas. Dispose of cigarettes properly (fires have even been caused by passengers throwing butts over the side of ships). And don't try to make your cabin more romantic by lighting candles.
5. Do Your Homework First
Surprisingly, there's no one official source where you can check the safety record of cruise lines or ships, but a quick Google search can point you to news stories that will at least alert you to any disconcerting patterns. For ships calling at U.S. ports, be assured that inspectors from the U.S. Coast Guard come onboard every year for crew training and an evaluation that includes checking the condition of lifeboats.
6. Register Your Name
If you're traveling overseas, before leaving home register in the U.S. Department of State's free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This will allow officials to assist you in the event of an emergency. Keep the name of your travel agent and travel insurance provider (if any) close at hand, in case you need their assistance — for instance, in arranging a flight home.