Buying a Cruise? Choose Carefully—It’s Not Always Paradise

Over the next 12 months, Canadians will take more than 750,000 ocean cruises, most of them heading out of ports in the Southern US, mostly from Florida, Texas, or California.

Cruising is the fastest-growing vacation activity for Canadians of almost all age groups, and that’s not likely to change given the number of new vessels. There is no shortage of choice, either in itinerary or price point.

But that does not mean you should make your cruise choice casually, without doing some homework.

Along with the romantic appeal and imagery that cruise lines use in selling their products, there are some darker stories about ships being stranded due to mechanical problems, intrusions of Norovirus, the occasional “man or woman overboard” horror story, and every once in a while a story like one published recently in the Miami Herald concerning ships failing to meet government-established sanitary standards, with spot inspectors finding hazardous food preparation conditions, dirty dishware, or worse.

Let’s first get one thing straight: the vast majority of cruise ships maintain rigorously high standards and your chances of finding somebody else’s egg stains on your breakfast dishes are rare. But when several ships fail to meet the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program inspections within a short time (as occurred last year), the cruise industry and particularly maritime lawyers—many quartered in Miami, the world’s busiest cruise port—all take notice. So should you.

According to the Herald exposé, which was based on official reports of CDC inspectors, during a December 2017 inspection of the Carnival Vista, that cruise line’s newest ship, crew members hid trolleys of potentially hazardous food, dirty equipment, and dishes from sanitation inspectors. Fruit flies in the buffet and in a Parmesan cheese container were included among a laundry list of deficiencies.

On other inspections of Carnival ships, inspectors found corroded machinery not functioning properly, overflowing garbage bins stored near food handling stations, stacks of chipped plates, dirty containers of seeds and seasonings, too-hot butter plates, and raw meats and produce in the open.

On yet another ship, a Missouri couple sailing on their honeymoon couldn’t use their bathroom when they saw black sewage smelling of you-know-what emerging out of their shower drain. They were forced to use bathrooms in the spa for the duration of their five-night voyage.

Enough of the horror stories, except to emphasize that these were rare exceptions to the cruise experience.


Inspection failures peaked in 2017

Nonetheless, the numbers of violations found by CDC inspectors in 2017 were at their highest levels since 1990 when the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program was begun. That year, 15 ships failed their inspections. According to the Herald’s analysis, the second-worst year was 2013 when there were 10 failures. A failure is considered 85 or less on a 100-point scale. And those ships that fail are reinspected within a short time. In the case of the Carnival vessel cited earlier, it passed its reinspection with a score of 98.

And it was not only Carnival ships that failed these inspections in 2017—so did ships from Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and several smaller lines.


Ships the size of little cities—with the same problems

In addition to the sanitation inspection failures cited by CDC, the re-emerging presence of Norovirus and spreads of gastrointestinal illnesses continue to bedevil large cruise lines, but despite the bad publicity, more and more cruise ships keep coming—each of them bigger than their predecessors, and each carrying passenger loads equal to the populations of small cities—passengers who must be serviced 24/7.

In choosing your cruise, understand that though onboard illnesses are rare, they are your responsibility to take care of. Ships clinics and doctors’ services are not free—you will be expected to pay for such services and medications at prices that are commensurate with what you would pay in a US clinic or doctor’s office. On-board medical staff are ordinarily not cruise ship employees. They are outsourced, contracted groups.

And if you have to disembark for landside emergency care, that will be your responsibility, as will your return home—by air ambulance if necessary. Those costs can easily run into the five figures.


Choose your health coverage well

I caution that when making your reservations, you will probably be offered a health insurance option by the cruise line. Understand that the plan offered will likely be crafted for American travellers who have American health insurance against which the claims will be made. Consequently, those plans also have very low reimbursement limits—like $10,000 or perhaps $25,000 in total. That is grossly inadequate for Canadian cruisers whose provincial health insurance would cover only a small percentage of their costs.

Your best option remains the same kind of out-of-country health insurance you buy when you leave Canada for a week or a month or the entire winter for vacations in Florida, Arizona, or Texas. They cover you on the high seas as well—with coverage that is coordinated with your provincial health insurance.

Plan your cruise well. Consider your health needs. And for double assurance, check out the recent inspection histories of your cruise ship on the CDC’s website.


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