Behind their promise of paradise, cruise ships can often cover up some less than idyllic secrets. These could include work violations or even disappearances... So if you're one of the early 30 million people who set sail on cruise liners each year, here's what to watch out for. You've probably been totally unaware of the potentially unsavory things going on behind the scenes.
40. Decks are more polluted than most city streets
Cruise ships release appalling amounts of pollutants into the air. An average liner’s exhaust is 100 times more toxic than a motor vehicle’s fumes – and much of this smog hangs around a ship’s upper deck. But the worst part? According to research by conservation charity NABU, cruise passengers regularly breathe in air that’s more polluted than any found in city streets. Yikes.
39. Crew members work long hours for very little money
Yes, while working on a cruise may sound like a dream job, the reality for ship staff can be downright nightmarish. Agonizing 100-hour weeks aren’t unusual, and the Miami Herald reports that crew members at companies such as Royal Caribbean are paid only $400 a month. The upshot of all this? Cruise lines regularly recruit from developing countries where labor laws are less stringent.
38. Cabin crews have an unspoken social hierarchy
Though cabin crew are often isolated from the outside world, life below deck follows societal norms to an uncomfortable degree. As former cruise ship performer Danielle Gauer revealed to Cruise Law News in 2013, a ship’s staff maintain incredibly strict hierarchies. Basically, menial workers often sleep in the lowest decks. They and other low-ranking crew are also quietly dissuaded from fraternizing with officers.
37. Every corner of a ship is covered by CCTV
Think you’re going to get some peace and privacy on board? Well, think again! Because of the surprising number of crimes reported on a typical cruise, security is naturally a big deal. That means ships come equipped with more CCTV equipment than a bank vault – leaving no corner unobserved.
36. Pirate attacks are a very real danger
There’s more to worry about on a cruise than choppy waters or getting your valuables stolen. You may also experience a pirate attack. Yep, although these are rare, they’re a very real threat. Between 2005 and 2012 six different cruise ships were raided – including the MSC Melody. But at least crews are now trained to deal with such assaults. Some cruise companies even employ ex-military security guards to help keep passengers safe.
35. Cruise ships are a great place to put on weight
On a diet? Best not go on a cruise, then! You see, with all the fattening meals and sedentary activities cruise ships offer, you’re actually likely to gain weight during your trip. A 2012 survey by Bon Voyage discovered that leisure-loving seafarers usually put on one pound a day each.
34. You can get free ice cream
If you’re a big fan of ice cream, then listen up. This info could save you a whole lot of dough on ship. You see, while premium brands such as Ben & Jerry’s cost a bundle on cruises, there are actually free alternatives available. According to the website Cruise Critic, you won’t need your wallet at either the “hard-serve stations” or the buffet’s soft-serve machines.
33. Cruise ships are one of the leading causes of oceanic pollution
Some ships can carry as many as 9,000 people, meaning they naturally make plenty of gray water. This includes dirty H20 from showers, sinks, washing machines and dishwashers. Where does all that waste go? The sea, of course! According to an EPA Discharge Assessment Report, even a 3,000-person vessel can deposit over 200,000 gallons of gray water into the ocean per day. Naturally, that’s not good for marine life. And as they also dump sewage and other chemicals, cruise ships are therefore one of the seas’ leading polluters.
32. Cruise companies exploit labor and tax laws
Cruising.org notes that in 2018 the industry made around $53 billion in the U.S., but very little of this profit actually goes back into the economy. It’s all down to so-called flag-of-convenience tactics, which involve companies registering their ships in foreign countries. That way, they can avoid paying tax altogether. This loophole also makes U.S. businesses exempt from American labor laws – meaning they can legitimately give their employees smaller salaries.
31. There are flexible menus
You may be surprised to hear that cruise restaurants are actually incredibly flexible when it comes to your food preferences. If you love dessert, for instance, you can have a three-course meal made up of the sweet stuff. Entrées can also be made appetizer-size should you wish. Nice!
30. Many passengers have been left stranded on shore
If you’re itching to head to your next destination, you’ll probably get irritated with fellow passengers returning late to the ship. Ocean liner captains have little patience for this, too. In fact, due to scheduling conflicts and port rules, they often leave latecomers behind at rest stops. In 2016 the crew of one luxury vessel even set sail without two people whose children were still on board!
29. Falling overboard is a common occurrence
Boat decks may have plenty of safety features, but passengers still fall overboard every year. And the numbers are higher than you’d think. In 2015 alone, 26 people were lost at sea during cruises. Though some of these cases were apparently suicides, others were accidents likely triggered by alcohol consumption.
28. Celebrity passengers may be on the ship
Are the crew looking a little busier than usual? Well, there could be a famous face on the ship keeping them on their toes. Royal Caribbean employee Andrei told Bloomberg, “The hardest thing to do is host a celebrity on board. We usher them into shows after the lights go dark, and we grab them to leave five minutes before the show is done.”
27. Cruise passengers sometimes cheat on their partners
Ever fantasized about a holiday fling? We won’t tell... And folks sailing the high seas are no different. A 2015 survey by Cruise found that four in five passengers, well, knocked boots on ship. But in a surprising twist, 20 percent of the people questioned also claimed to have cheated on their partners on board – often when their spouses were on the same trip. Scandalous!
26. Staff have neat ways of dealing with seasickness
Nothing can ruin a cruise quicker than a bout of seasickness. But if you’re turning a little green at the gills, grab a crew member, and they’ll supply you with some neat remedies. Plain crackers and ripe apples will arrive at your door. And if they don’t work, medicine will also be available for no charge.
25. You should watch out for the subliminal messaging
Subliminal messaging? On a cruise ship? How Orwellian! But it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. It can even be useful. Those constant notices about keeping your hands clean can prevent nasty diseases from spreading. That said, the messages aren’t all in aid of keeping you fit and well. They’re also in place to push you into splashing more cash around the boat – everywhere from the casino to the coffee shop.
24. Cruise staff get little to no sleep at sea
Working on a cruise liner certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Besides the grueling 100-hour weeks, staff sometimes go for as long as ten months without a single day off. And they shouldn’t expect healthy sleep patterns, either. Bruns has claimed that he often had as little as four hours’ shuteye each night while on ship.
23. Staff have special codes for when things go really wrong
Of course, accidents are bound to happen at sea, but cabin crew are keen to avoid setting off mass panic when they do. That means ship staff use secret codes when things get hairy. And some of these euphemisms are ones you’d never guess. “Mr. Mob” refers to someone falling overboard, for example, while “Zulu, Zulu, Zulu” is used when a fight breaks out.
22. Passengers frequently disappear from ships
Being at sea naturally makes it difficult for cruise passengers to slip away unnoticed. But that hasn’t stopped a large number of travelers from mysteriously disappearing over the years. From 1995 to 2011, a startling 165 people were reported missing from cruise ships. They include Rebecca Coriam, who vanished from Disney Wonder in 2011. Be careful, then, if you’re ever on the top deck.
21. The cabins may be magnetic
How about this for a fascinating fact? Since the vast majority of cruise cabins are made up of metal, that means your room is likely to be magnetic! So, any notes or tickets you may have lying around the place could easily be secured on a wall with another magnet. That way, they’ll never get lost.
20. Morgues are a common feature on all cruise ships
Given how long most cruises last, crew must be prepared for all eventualities. And, yes, that includes death. All cruise ships are required by law to include morgues, although sometimes a single mortuary isn’t enough. During a particularly fatal cruise in 2007, one ship reportedly ran out of space to store its cadavers. Horrifying.
19. Sexual assaults happen with alarming regularity
The ocean can be a dangerous place – even if there are no pirates hovering around. But for female cruise passengers, the biggest threat can often be found on board. In 2016 39 sexual assaults were recorded on cruise ships. Even more disturbingly, in 2010 a ship’s captain was jailed for indecent acts on a 14-year-old traveler.
18. Cruise ships are a breeding ground for disease
If you’re not worried about piling on the pounds, though, then maybe this will put you off. Cramped cabins make vessels a perfect breeding ground for the norovirus – an incredibly infectious stomach ailment that is worryingly common on oceanic voyages. Shockingly, the bug hit 252 passengers on board a Fred Olsen ship in 2016.
17. The staff are trained to defuse sexual advances
As onboard romances between passengers and crew are forbidden, staff must be prepared if folks attempt to woo them. Royal Caribbean has even put together a training program to help its employees fend off advances. And there are clever ways of heading amorous cruisers off at the pass. In 2018 cruise director Dru Pavlov told Bloomberg, “Whenever I take photos with people, I always give a thumbs up. My hands are visible, so no one can claim any inappropriate behavior.”
16. Booze can be saved for you
Not everyone can drink a whole bottle of wine in one sitting – even if they’re up for the challenge. But guess what? If you’re done with your drink on a cruise, the alcohol won’t go to waste. Instead, a member of the crew can note down your room number and hold the rest until you’re ready for another glass. Pretty cool, right?
15. Cruise lines forbid relationships between passengers and crew
Although sexual activity between passengers is fairly common, the same can’t be said for interactions between staff members and travelers. As ex-cruise worker Brian David Bruns revealed in his 2015 book Cruise Confidential, fraternizing with passengers could have serious consequences for the crew. “Being caught means instant firing and being dropped off in whatever country the very next port is in,” he explained.
14. Cruise lines aren’t accountable for customer deaths
While passenger mishaps are surprisingly common at sea, you can only claim a small amount of compensation from cruise companies. Thanks to the Death on High Seas Act, travel businesses are only legally required to cover passengers’ funeral costs and lost wages. Even more alarmingly, there’s no official record of cruise-related fatalities. All of this means corporations don’t really need to take any accountability.
13. There’s a jail on the ship, too
Yes, if you behave very badly on board, you’ll be thrown in the ship’s brig. And even compared to a normal jail cell, this space is pretty tiny – making it the last place you’d want to end up on vacation. Keep on your best behavior, though, and you’ll never have to visit.
12. Certain ships have ‘genies’
Nope, that’s not a typo – Royal Caribbean does indeed employ “genies.” But you don’t need to rub a lamp to summon them. These guys are essentially servants for folks in the Royal Suites Star Class. Whatever your requests may be, it’s their responsibility to make them happen. Yes, they do indeed make wishes come true!
11. Waste goes through a rigorous treatment process
Ever wondered what happens after you flush the toilet on a cruise? Well, that waste doesn’t get dropped off straight into the water below. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, its “members agree to process all sewage through a... treatment system that’s certified in accordance with international regulations prior to discharge.” That means your, um, bodily secretions are almost as well looked after as you are.
10. STDs are rife at sea
Even if passengers do get raunchy in the cabins, cruise lines don’t usually cater to sexually active travelers. In fact, only 30 percent of ships are said to sell condoms on board. And the result? An alarming spread of STDs at sea. The epidemic is so great, in fact, that in 2014 the U.K. government urged cruisegoers to pack contraceptives before setting sail.
9. Certain drinks are free
Keep this in mind before you next rush off to the bar on a cruise. Depending on your ship, certain drinks won’t cost you a dime inside the restaurant. These freebies apparently range from fruit juices to iced tea. Sounds like a good deal, wouldn’t you agree? Especially if you overdid it the previous evening...
8. There are code names for support groups
Look at the daily planner on a cruise, and you may just spot meetings for “Friends of Dorothy” and “Friends of Bill W.” Well, these are actually code names for separate support groups. If you’re of a certain age, then you may have already cracked that first one. “Dorothy” references the Wizard of Oz character, meaning her “friends” are members of the LGBTQ community. “Bill W,” on the other hand, is William Griffith Wilson – one of the men behind Alcoholics Anonymous.
7. You can get into shows without a ticket
You’ve got your heart set on watching the ship production of Mamma Mia!, but the tickets have all been snapped up. What do you do? Well, don’t give up for starters. Head over to the entry line before the show begins. If a passenger can’t make it, you may be able to take their seat completely gratis.
6. There’s a knack to making dinner reservations
If you’re unsure when to visit a cruise restaurant, then contact reception. Staff there can get a hold of the menu for the next seven days, and you can then figure out which sitting suits your tastebuds best. It’s as simple as that!
5. The Outbreak Prevention Plan helps keep you safe
Thanks to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, no cruise line can operate without an Outbreak Prevention Plan (OPP). And the aim of the system is clear: stopping the spread of disease. OPPs have three different stages, although you should probably worry a little if you get to the third. At that point, passengers can’t touch any food. The onboard bedding is also placed in red biohazard bags – just in case.
4. Cruises have ways of handling drunk passengers
Unrestricted access to alcohol? Things can get pretty messy in a hurry! Mind you, just because you’ve booked one of those packages, it doesn’t mean you can go over the top. You’ll be closely watched throughout the trip, and your SeaPass card can be deactivated for a time if you end up misbehaving.
3. There’s a good reason why there’s no deck 13
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you if you can’t see a 13th deck on your ship. The company that owns your boat has just made a conscious decision to ignore the number altogether. And, yep, you got it: it’s all down to 13’s association with bad luck. Something tells us they’ve just lost Jason Voorhees as a potential customer...
2. The menu may tell you who’s on board
The next time you go on a cruise, keep your eyes on the restaurant menu, as it may clue you in as to who’s on board. You see, cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean naturally plan ahead. And as different folks from different countries all have their distinct food preferences, those may be reflected in the ship’s food provisions. If the passengers are mostly American, for example, there’ll likely be a lot of eggs and chicken in storage.
1. The ‘burn book’
Got a question for a crew member? Well, before you ask them, make sure it doesn’t sound too dumb, or you may be a laughing stock on board for years to come. Cruise director Pavlov has kept note of some of his more embarrassing exchanges, including such queries as “How long does it take the crew to get home every night?” and “Is the toilet water drinkable?” Oh boy.