Despite some high-profile incidents including missing passengers, outbreaks of sickness and equipment failures that left ships disabled at sea, figures voluntarily published by cruise lines suggest passengers are safer on a cruise than on land, on all areas of the ship. Most major cruise lines go to extraordinary lengths to follow security procedures and all are subject to stringent regulations to keep the cruise industry credible and safe. In most cases, passengers experience boarding procedures and security measures no more bothersome than those observed in US airports by TSA agents, while the level of onboard safety during the cruise is upheld.

Pre-cruise Procedures

Security checks begin the moment passengers receive a booking confirmation, since US authorities including the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration screen passengers that are on the cruise list. Cruise ships must present their complete passenger manifesto to a crew member at least 60 minutes before sailing, so passengers should arrive for check-in no later than 90 minutes before sailing with all documents in order, including a valid passport and boarding pass. Avoid delays; cruise lines recommend passengers submit the required details online at least three days before embarkation. Women less than 24 weeks pregnant typically are required to provide "fit for travel" notes from their physicians, while those in their third trimesters usually are not allowed to travel.

Boarding Measures

Arrive to the cruise port early. At the Port Authority Security in the cruise terminal, passengers pass a security checkpoint where all carry-on luggage goes through X-rays and other baggage is checked in. All checked bags on cruise ships are scanned by security personnel for security screening. Passengers must pass through an airport-style metal detector but do not have to remove shoes; they will have a digital photo taken. Most cruise lines employ former police or military personnel as security guards to process boarding checks, and scent dogs may be present to check for drugs, which are among many prohibited items on board. Any sealed alcohol usually is confiscated by cruise ship security and returned at the end of the cruise, both at home port and ports of call during the journey.

Preparing to Sail

The International Convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires all ships hold a muster drill within 24 hours of embarkation, but most cruise lines hold the safety drill at the earliest possible opportunity. Passengers are not required to wear life vests for the exercise but must familiarize themselves with the muster station for their particular level in case of emergency. Each cruise ship cabin has a map outlining the route to the nearest muster station on the cabin door, and the in-cabin TV also has a safety video explaining the procedures to follow in case of emergency.

During the Cruise

The Staff Captain oversees security operations on board, supervising a team of highly trained and vetted security officers responsible for ensuring safety. Closed-circuit television and video surveillance in public areas provides a level of security on a par with that found in most major cities. Nevertheless, assaults and incidents do happen, but statistically less frequently than on land. The Cruise Vessels Security and Safety Act requires all US vessels to report crimes and missing persons immediately to law enforcement and to collect evidence according to strict procedures. Also, lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean publish a voluntary report quarterly of alleged crimes committed on board. Upon disembarking, all luggage and persons go through another round of security.