The tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia may well be the biggest travel news story of 2012, and feverish media coverage of the event has doubtless made many think twice about booking a cruise ship ticket.
But if taking to the high seas in luxury has always been a dream vacation of yours, don't give up on the idea just yet.
Taking a cruise remains a hugely popular and growing leisure activity: there were around 19 million passengers who chose this mode of travel last year, the great majority without major mishap. Travel by ship is still much safer than travel by motor vehicle, for example, and the risk of a Titanic-type disaster befalling you is extremely small.
Nonetheless, there are important health and safety considerations, which are not dissimilar to those any sensible traveller should keep in mind in a new city. Indeed cruise vessels are often called “floating cities”, with populations typically of over 2000 passengers and crew. As with any city, you need to keep your wits about you and avoid risky situations.
Some tips to stay well and safe on board:
Check in with your doctor before you book your voyage and discuss your itinerary to ensure you have the appropriate vaccinations for the areas you'll be visiting. Get a dental check-up too; few cruise vessels employ a dentist.
Do some research into the cruise line's safety and sanitation reputation. You can access records of cruise ship inspections with the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vessel Sanitation Program.
Know the ship's layout and emergency procedures, including the location of your life jacket and the lifeboats. All ships must hold an emergency evacuation drill within 24 hours of setting sail.
Gastro infections are not uncommon on cruise ships; Norovirus is the most common and notorious. Your best defence is to practise frequent hand-washing, with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Rather avoid shaking hands with lots of other people.
Most cruise ships will have anti-seasickness drugs available, but make sure beforehand. Alcohol, and fatty and spicy foods can exacerbate sea-sickness. Stay hydrated and get lots of fresh air (weather permitting), and aim to have a good night's sleep the day before your cruise.
There's a tendency for people on cruises to “party” pretty hard; incidents of falling overboard, and violent crime reported on cruise ships have often involved excessive alcohol and drug-taking. Enjoy yourself, but with care and moderation, always.
- Olivia Rose-Innes, Enviro and Travel Health Editor, Health24, January 2012
A comprehensive overview of cruise ship and air travel health risks
How to survive in cold water