While understanding the specifics of maritime law can be tricky at best, and near impossible at worst, learning how to stay safe on board cruise ships is pretty straightforward. Although you can never control the actions of other people, you can easily affect your behavior and thus make yourself less likely to fall victim during your vacation. According to Jay Herring, a former I/S manager who worked on board Carnival cruise ships for about two years and is also the author of The Truth About Cruise Ships, the key is to stay sober and stay alert — but this can be hard, as cruises are geared to keep passengers anything but.

“It’s the ultimate vacation,” said Herring during an interview. “Passengers want to drink and unwind, and you’re surrounded by a lot of people from all over the country and the rest of the world that want to do the same. You don’t have to drive or go to work in the morning, and since you really don’t have any responsibilities, people let their guard down.”

The effects of the alcohol are also amplified by the perceived lack of consequences and the “built-in anonymity” of cruising. The vacations are designed to be ultra-relaxing, and passengers can easily slip into a false sense of security. And while cruises are laid back, they can also be disorienting for many passengers. Meeting staff members from all around the world, being on the open ocean, and visiting foreign ports offers near-constant distraction, and in this distraction it’s easy for passengers to forget basic safety rules.

In his book, Herring explains how many passengers seem to, “leave their common sense on land,” once the ship leaves port. He tells stories of passengers complaining that their cabin — which was supposed to have an ocean view — has no window. A staff member is then dispatched to examine the room and realizes that the passenger has not moved the curtain and thus did not discover their window despite its size. Stories like these are common, and it’s one of the reasons that cruise ship crews often refer to passengers as “cones,” which, according to Herring, is derived from either the fact that vacationers stand around like a traffic cone or because they have lost their common sense and are acting like an alien from the movie Cone Heads.

Fortunately, serious crimes on board cruise ships are relatively rare, says Herring. “I never saw [any serious crimes] myself nor did I ever hear other staff members talk about it happening while I was working,” he said. “If you’re a criminal, you’re not going to pay a bunch of money just for the opportunity to rob someone. Plus any time there is an incident, it’s highly publicized, and that can give people a negative perception that doesn’t match reality. Twenty-seven million people take cruises annually, and I imagine if you compared the crime rate of all of those cruises with the crime rate of a major city, the cruise ships’ numbers wouldn’t be anywhere near the city’s.”

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