By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/21/2010 3:53:27 PM ET 2010-10-21T19:53:27

The debut of two brand-new new cruise ships — Cunard’s new Queen Elizabeth earlier this month and Royal Caribbean’s massive 16-deck Allure of the Seas in December — coincides with the beginning of “wave period,” a time of year when most people book their cruise vacations.

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But talk of cruises inevitably raises the subject of cruise safety. A few weeks ago, a 79-year-old British man disappeared from a cruise ship in the English Channel. He’s only the latest in a list of passengers who either vanished or fell overboard.

The cruise industry contends a trip on the high seas is safer than a drive to the airport and a stay at a hotel. But just how safe is it?

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There is little evidence that people are not booking a floating vacation because of safety concerns. But this summer, President Obama signed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act, which requires cruise lines to report all deaths, missing persons, theft, sexual harassment and assaults. However, the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t yet published the data and did not offer a timeline for its release.

Until that happens, experts say, safety can depend on your behavior.

Stay in your cabin and order room service for the duration of your cruise, and short of your ship sinking, you’ll probably be just fine.

But stay up all night drinking, do your “I’m-the-king-of-the-world” impression from the bow of the ship, and take the unauthorized shore excursion to the slums — well, maybe not.

That’s not to say the cruise line isn’t responsible for your well-being. It’s just that there’s only so much it can do to keep you out of harm’s way while you’re at sea.

Sexual assaults
Cruise industry representatives claim sexual assaults are practically unheard of at sea — according to the industry, you have a less than 0.1 percent chance of becoming a victim onboard. However, as cruise expert Ross A. Klein testified before a Senate hearing in 2008, the rate of sexual assault on cruise ships is almost twice the U.S. rate of forcible rape — about 56.9 per 100,000.

“It is common knowledge in our field that cruise ships are flat-out dangerous for women,” said Amelia Stinson-Wesley, the former executive director of a battered women’s shelter and rape crisis center. “Not as dangerous as countries at war where rape is used as a weapon of war, but more dangerous than even a college campus and certainly more dangerous than the general population of most cities in the United States.”

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Passengers can protect themselves by taking some common-sense precautions, including keeping your cabin door locked, not opening your door for strangers and checking in with a travel companion, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Stomach ailments
Gastrointestinal outbreaks spread easily from person to person and can occur aboard cruise ships or in hotels, nursing homes or day care centers.

But there’s a reason the Norwalk virus is sometimes also called cruise-ship sickness: because it happens on cruise ships. Here are the ones reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (These are just the ships where 3 percent or more of passengers or crew reported symptoms of diarrheal disease to the ships medical staff during the voyage.)

More people are at risk for gastrointestinal illnesses while traveling than ever, according to the CDC. “Cruise ship passengers and crews are also at risk for new patterns of old diseases or newly recognized causes of diseases,” the agency warns.

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You can prevent an infection by frequently washing your hands, carefully washing fruits and vegetables before eating them and cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces, according to the CDC.

Sick at sea
Cruise experts say today’s ships are so big, you won’t even know you’re at sea. Mention the word “seasickness” and those same insiders reassure you with talk of stabilizers and almost-always calm waters.

But waves still happen. And seasickness happens. Ann Azevedo took an Alaska cruise during the spring and on the way back, she encountered some rough weather. “The decks were shut down,” she recalled. “The weather information on the TV stopped updating. We tried to go to bed, but there was no way we could sleep — we were near the bow, and every fourth wave or so would hit with a shattering boom. They were breaking across our balcony — and we were on the ninth deck.”

That’s no exaggeration. Some waves are even bigger, like this set that hit the P&O Pacific Sun in 2008.

Rough weather can normally be avoided by steering clear of cheap off-season cruises (the Caribbean during hurricane season or Alaska during the late spring or early fall).

Is there a doctor on board?
Medical care on cruise ships isn't necessarily up to Western standards. “The last place you want to become ill or injured is on a cruise ship far away from a U.S. port,” said Jim Walker, a maritime attorney and cruise expert based in Miami. “Cruise ship medical care is limited. Ship doctors are usually from foreign medical schools. The shipboard facilities are often inadequate and the medical care is sub-standard.”

David Deehl, an attorney in Miami who has handled multiple cruise line cases, agrees. “I have seen my share of people injured on cruise ships,” he said. It is difficult to say exactly how many people are injured or get sick on cruise ships, although the government’s yet-unreleased numbers may shed some light on that question.

Cruise lines don’t assume liability for the medical care you receive on a ship, according to many cruise contracts, so experts recommend taking out a good travel insurance policy with a provision for medical evacuations.

Even with all of these unacknowledged dangers, it’s possible to have an incident-free cruise vacation, and a vast majority of passengers return safely from their cruise.

Knowing the perils — not downplaying or ignoring them — is a key to avoiding them.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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