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Weighing the risks of booking a cruise

South Florida Sun-Sentinel business writer

When the Coast Guard blocked the cruise ship Norway from sailing last month, the vacations of close to 2,000 passengers went down the drain.

Norwegian Cruise Line had to cancel a seven-night cruise from Miami when inspectors decided its sprinkler system might not work in a fire. The cancellation, on what should have been the second day of the cruise, left passengers to disembark with their luggage in tow in search of a new vacation.

The incident dramatized the fact that cruises carry a risk that land resorts don't. When ships break down, collide, run aground or are stopped from sailing by regulators, hard-won vacation time goes to waste.

Mechanical problems are just one type of letdown for cruise passengers. In recent years, several lines have gone bankrupt, some as their ships were in mid-cruise. And others have scrubbed prized inaugural voyages because new vessels were delivered late from shipyards.

All of which raises the question of whether passengers can judge how likely a cruise ship or cruise line is to disappoint them. Experts cite some rules of thumb. In general both very old and very new ships tend to have more problems. Cruise lines in financial straits are another risk factor, as are ships that get low scores on sanitary inspections by the U.S. Public Health Service.

In most cases, the best thing passengers can do is book a cruise through a knowledgeable travel agent committed to their welfare, buy travel insurance that covers the price of their ticket and avoid unfamiliar cruise lines.


Even storms can hit cruises harder than land-based resorts.

Bruce Armitage and Leo Xarras were booked on a 10-night Mediterranean cruise on April 27 but when they arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, they were told the seas were too rough to sail. They decided to take a train to meet the ship at its first port of call. Plans changed several times.

Eventually, the cruise was canceled and the passengers sent to Paris as compensation. But the two New England businessmen said they were misinformed about where the ship would go and missed it at several French ports. Arriving in Paris, they said the cruise line told them they were on their own to get home.

Brad Ball, a spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale-based cruise line, said that when the Armitage-Xarras party reached Paris, they asked for an "exorbitant" refund and were refused.

Ball said it was a rare situation. "This is the first time in three years that a cruise was canceledbecause of weather," he said.

Travel agents say it is very difficult to anticipate such problems. "I really wouldn't know how to tell someone what's not a good cruise line," said Gwen Tannenbaum, a travel agent at Olwell Travel in Fort Lauderdale.

Unlike the airlines, which report to the U.S. Department of Transportation, cruise lines don't file reports that federal agencies compile into easy-to-use statistics on cruise reliability.

Some data are available. The U.S. Coast Guard posts the results of its safety inspections of ships calling on U.S. ports on its Internet site. Although the reports are highly technical, a consumer can see if the Coast Guard has found one or more "deficiencies" in an inspection, which the cruise line is obliged to correct at its earliest opportunity.


Only three ships in the past eight years, the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1994, the Oceanic in 1998 and the Norway last month, were found so unsafe that the Coast Guard stopped them from sailing.

In each case, the ship in question was more than 25 years old.

While old age isn't an ironclad reason to avoid a ship, it does make them more prone to maintenance problems. Older ships also sometimes have retrofitted safety features, such as the leaky sprinkler system on the Norway that prevented it from sailing. It was installed on the 40-year-old ship in 1998, as required by tighter international safety standards passed by the International Maritime Organization in 1993.

Older ships also tend to do worse in sanitary inspections. When the Queen Elizabeth 2 failed an inspection in January 2000, spokesman Bruce Good blamed it in part on construction features of older ships, such as hard-to-clean areas in the ship's galley, that health service inspectors "just don't like." The QE2 passed its January 2001 inspection with a score of 93, which is about average.

Inspection results are also posted on the Internet. Consumers can see which ships have failed an exam in the past two years or research a ship by name.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control study of ship inspections since 1975 found a correlation between low average scores on sanitary exams and outbreaks of diarrhea. Ships graded in the top 20 percent of all vessels had 1.8 incidents of illness for every 10 million passenger days, compared with 8.1 incidents for ships in the bottom 20 percent.

Older ships also generally rack up more deficiencies in Coast Guard safety inspections. One example: the 50-year-old Independence, operated by American Classic Voyages Inc., had 20 deficiencies in its most recent Coast Guard exam. None of the deficiencies was serious enough to prevent it from sailing. They ranged from jammed fire dampers and faulty insulation on refrigeration lines to improper electrical arrangements and a broken crank on a watertight door.

All of the deficiencies except one were fixed by a March 7 follow-up exam. Most exams turn up between 0 and 3 deficiencies, with an occasional exam finding 10 or 12.


But if consumers should be wary of very old ships, the same applies to very new ships. When ships are late out of the shipyard, consumers suffer. An American Classic Voyages ship, the Cape Cod Light, initially set to debut Aug. 4, has so far canceled 12 cruises due to construction delays.

And new ships can carry new technologies that aren't yet perfected. Carnival Cruise Lines and Celebrity Cruises have pulled ships from service in the past year to fix a new type of propulsion system. The new propellers increase maneuverability but have suffered from leaky seals, premature wear and faulty bearings.

Tim Gallagher, a spokesman for industry-leader Carnival, said such problems should be kept in perspective. "Cruise ships are big, complicated machines. On occasion, there are going to be mechanical issues that are going to affect your cruise. Those kind of things are going to happen," he said.

"The good thing is that all cruise lines have an outstanding track record of taking care of their guests when things go bump in the night," he said. For example, when the Norway cruise was canceled last month, passengers got a full refund, a free future cruise, free drinks for two days and $300 in shopping credits.

"No other segment of the travel industry compensates their clients as much as cruise lines do when something goes wrong," Gallagher said.

Travel agents can offer consumers some guidance on financial stability and deteriorating service. The lines that have closed suddenly in recent years, including Regency Cruises in 1995 and Premier Cruises and Commodore Cruise Line last year, failed in part because travel agents shunned them.

While it can be hard to get official financial data, travel agents say signs often emerge before cruise lines go under. The Regency closing was heralded by months of minor problems reported by passengers who would return from cruises with sour stories to tell their agents.

But not everyone got the word. When Regency stopped sailing, it left thousands of passengers in far-flung ports when port authorities at the request of creditors arrested ships.

Tannenbaum, of Olwell Travel, said she keeps tabs on cruise line finances through trade publications and will book a cruise line rumored to have problems a month in advance, but not a year in advance.

"I try not to book them too far out," Tannenbaum said. "In this business, they just shut their doors."


U.S. Coast Guard

  • For cruise ships calling on U.S. ports, it conducts quarterly exams, which focus on crew training, and annual exams that look at ship maintenance and design.
  • Results from the exams are posted on a Coast Guard Internet site: psix.uscg.mil/Default.asp. You need to know the name of the vessel, and if more than one vessel is listed under that name, search those vessels listed as "passenger."
  • This site will tell you the number and nature of any "deficiencies" found in a Coast Guard inspection. Centers for Disease Control
  • Does semi-annual inspections of cruise ships calling on U.S. ports for sanitation. This branch of the U.S. Public Health Service grades ships on a scale of 1 to 100. Only ships scoring 86 or better pass inspection. Results from the exams are posted on the CDC's Travelers Health Internet site: www.cdc.gov/travel/cruiships.htm. Choose "Summary of Sanitation Inspections of International Cruise Ships." Several types of searches are provided.
  • This site will tell you what type of sanitary lapses a ship has and how serious those lapses are. CruiseOpinion.com
  • Commercial Web site that features consumer reviews of ships. Not restricted to health or safety issues. International Council of Cruise Lines
  • The trade association for the cruise industry posts a comprehensive set of Internet links on the cruise industry at www.iccl.org/resources/links.htm. Source: Sun-Sentinel research
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