With the recent tragedy of the Costa Cruise line’s Concordia, a few of our readers asked that I review the safety tips that I’ve written about before as well as share some new ones. Many issues involving safety are applicable to all modes of transport, not just cruises. On vacation, you want to relax and enjoy. Don’t let worry immobilize you, but don’t leave your common sense at home. Always be aware of your surroundings.
Research before you book. For cruises, there are many websites that provide reviews written both by actual travelers, as well as travel professionals. I tend to like those that emphasize reviews from travelers rather than professionals. Google “cruise reviews” or check out sites such as cruisecritic.com, cruisemates.com, or cruisereviews.com. Remember, though, everyone is different. What someone might love, you might hate; what another person can’t tolerate, you might find perfectly satisfactory. And, there are some people who just like to…dare I say live to …. complain.
Before you leave on your trip, make copies of your passport, insurance cards, and any other important documents such as plane or train tickets. I pack a copy in each of our suitcases and also scan them into a file that I store on a website that is available to me from any internet access. Free sites such as Dropbox are useful for this. I keep an additional color copy of our passports in my wallet. I also record the international phone numbers for all of my credit and ATM cards should I need to contact customer service for any reason. Some people carry an extra passport photo to facilitate replacement if theirs is lost or stolen. Remember that cruise ships abroad will usually hold your passports throughout the cruise to facilitate clearing customs.
If you so desire, you can register with the US Department of State Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui. You will be askedto provide information about your anticipated trip and this, in turn, will help embassies and consulates to assist you in an emergency. You also can sign up to receive travel warnings or alerts for the countries you are visiting. Travel warnings are also available at travel.state.gov.
As a general rule of safety, the first thing you should do when you arrive onboard a ship or plane, check into a hotel, or seat yourself in a theater is to familiarize yourself with the nearest exit, as well as others available should the nearest be blocked.
Usually one of the first things to occur after final embarkation time on a ship, or within 24 hours, is the muster drill. We tend to become blase about such things, but it is important. If, by chance, there isn’t one as there wasn’t for 600 passengers who boarded the Concordia at Civitavecchia, make it your business to find out the relevant information. Often it is posted on your stateroom door or available on the TV. On many of the largest cruise ships, the drill is actually a video in the ship’s theater and sometimes no one has to put on a life vest. Also, the life vests may be physically located at the lifeboat stations, not in the staterooms which makes sense on a large ship. However, I would not want to be among thousands of people scrambling for my muster station in an emergency. Be aware ahead of time the path you would need to take. If you have critical medications, carry them with you at all times.
The Concordia incident has resulted in cruise lines reevaluating their safety protocols and at least two major lines have already changed some of their procedures, including the timing of muster drills.
On a cruise you are more likely to catch a bacterial or viral illness than needto abandon ship. There is a lot of attention paid to this because illness on cruise ships is tracked and therefore reported more than outbreaks that occur in other locations. The typical sage advice prevails. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid the public restrooms. Use Purell often. Many ships now have Purell dispensers at each stair level as well as outside restaurants. Bring along antibacterial wipes to wipe down items such as TV remote and door knobs when you first enter your cabin. Familiarize yourself with the CDC’s website for the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp. It provides facts and hints for healthy cruising, as well as a list of ships in the VSP and the dates when 3% or more of the passengers and crew have had gastrointestinal distress. It also posts a report card of results from its inspections that include a review of such factors as cleanliness, pest management, water quality of ships in the program. On one of our cruises, I was very pleased to see the staff constantly cleaning the stair handrails; I wondered if they paid the same attention to the elevator buttons.
Finally, as I’ve mentioned in past columns, make sure you have travel medical insurance as Medicare and many other medical plans will not provide coverage outside of the United States. Consider buying a policy that provides not only medical insurance but also trip interruption or cancellation insurance. There are various insurers and many options available. Websites such as www. insuremytrip.com, www.squaremouth.com, and tripinsurancestore.com provide quotes from assorted companies and for differing levels of protection. Some companies offer annual policies for frequent travelers. Investigate the insurance company to make sure it is licensed. Find out who the underwriter is and check them out at ambest. com. Before purchasing insurance, make a list of questions you have regarding the coverage and make sure all of them are answered in writing. Bewaretrip insurance sold by tour operators and cruise lines. Often they will offer insurance coverage pro forma when booking the trip; too late you discover that some events aren’t covered or that cancellation means the issuance of a travel voucher rather than money back.
There is a difference between primary and secondary travel medical insurance. Primary plans are just that, they pay first and then your personal medical plan is billed. With secondary plans, your personal insurance is billed first; this can mean a lot more paperwork and time delay. Again, beware of plans sold by tour operators; often all they offer is secondary coverage. Find out if pre existing conditions are covered, as well as medical evacuation.
Many frequent travelers subscribe to services such as Medjet Assist. For an annual fee, these services will provide non emergency medical evacuation to the hospital of your choice. Emergency evacuation coverage for divers and non divers is a benefit for members of the Divers Alert Network.
Accidents can happen anywhere…. ships, planes, buses, cars, when we are walking, when we are in the bathtub. Those that occur on the first two receive a lot of publicity, but the reality is that the chances of accident are small. The difference is that when we board a public conveyance, we surrender our perceived control of the situation to the trust of what we hope are trained, responsible professionals. As a traveler, I would like to think that there are more Captain Sullenbergers out there than Captain Schettinos.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.