Wednesday’s bus crash in Chile that claimed the lives of 12 American cruise ship passengers reminds us all of the potential hazards of touring in another country. The victims were passengers aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium. The crash occurred as the passengers were returning to the ship after visiting Lauca National Park in northern Chile; the bus plunged 300 feet down a mountain ravine.
The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 200 U.S. citizens die each year due to road accidents abroad. While the cause of the Chilean bus crash is still being investigated, it is known that the tour operator was unregistered and not authorized to transport passengers.
Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, was quick to release a statement saying it was “working in close coordination with Chilean authorities to assist in their investigation” and that these passengers were on an independent private tour not affiliated with the cruise line.
Cruise tours vs. independent tours
Cruise lines and cruise directors routinely warn passengers not to take certain independent tours because of known safety issues. One thing is for certain: if a cruise line recommends a tour, it has been thoroughly investigated.
“We only work with well-established tour operators that have done business with the cruise industry in the past,” says Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. Indeed, all the major cruise lines carefully monitor their shore excursion programs for both content and passenger satisfaction. Before a tour is recommended to guests, the cruise line will complete a thorough investigation of safety and maintenance records, as well as an onsite inspection. “We continually send employees on our recommended tours to make sure they are running properly,” says de la Cruz.
Excursions recommended by the cruise lines usually cost more than independent tours, but they are often a better choice for travelers. Besides the safety endorsement, there is also the convenience of not having to haggle in a foreign language or to negotiate in unfamiliar currencies.
Investigate your options
But not all independent tours are unsafe or difficult to deal with. The key is doing some research before you go. Recent travelers to your destination can give you excellent advice. Still, being on vacation can make one lackadaisical when it comes to safety. Don’t hesitate to ask tough questions of independent tour operators. Consider doing the following:
Make sure your tour is with a well-established company that carries insurance.
Don’t be afraid to ask how long the company has been in business or to ask about its accident record.
Never go on a water or air tour if it is windy or looks like it will rain.
If the tour operator will not answer your questions willingly, move on to another operator that will.
Besides asking tough questions, the U.S. State Department advises travelers to “carefully assess the risk potential of recreational activities. Sports and aquatic equipment may not meet U.S. safety standards nor be covered by any accident insurance.”
If you take part in certain high-risk activities like scuba diving, Jet Ski (wave runner) tours, helicopter rides and parasailing, you will be asked to sign a waiver releasing the cruise line from liability, even when the operator is recommended by the cruise line. This is normal practice, but should serve as a reminder that there is no guarantee these activities will go smoothly. They aren’t called “high-risk” for nothing.
While vacationing in Tahiti several years ago, I took a wave-runner tour around Bora Bora that was recommended by the cruise line. About halfway through the tour, my wave runner had mechanical problems; it began to take on water and eventually sank. Experienced guides were quick to assist — and good thing, too, because there were sharks swimming some 30 feet below me as I treaded water. Eventually, I was able to finish the tour on another wave runner. Mishap and all, the tour was the highlight of my vacation, but I can’t imagine ever taking this type of tour without licensed and experienced guides.
I was lucky that day, but another 15 minutes and it could have been the sharks that went away smiling.
Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." or visit her Web site .