When booking a cruise, here’s how to choose less scary destinations

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Halloween or any time of year, tourists who are too relaxed while on vacation may be subject to more tricks than treats due to evil that walks among us or lurks in the shadows. As sure as well wishes of “safe travels” by loved ones cannot be guaranteed in this topsy-turvy world, a momentary lapse of awareness in the presence of unsavory souls can be the difference between a trip as sweet as Skittles or as sour as Lemonheads.

Still in our Debbie Downer costume, we must note that cruise vacations are not exempt from holiday hazards at the hands of heisters, or worse. While it’s almost always smooth sailing for passengers onboard, conditions onshore can get choppy if one isn’t cautious.

The Department of State’s travel advisory list indicates smooth sailing in and around near-trouble-free Australia. Here, a Carnival ship heads toward Brisbane. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Whether arriving by land, air or sea, tourists are prime targets for crime because they typically carry fat wallets and other personal valuables while being distracted. Lacking in the local landscape, language or culture adds to a visitor’s vulnerability. Those coming by ship can be more at risk because they are typically less likely to report an incident so not to eat into their fleeting time in port.

Scary stuff, but consulting with a travel advisor named Uncle Sam in advance of your trip could quell some nerves. The U.S. Department of State offers country-specific safety and security information at www.travel.state.gov/destination. The Bureau of Consular Affairs’ travel alerts and advisories are especially beneficial when choosing a cruise itinerary. Looking at voyages to the Caribbean that include calls to Roatan and Puerto Quetzal? Popular as these stops in Honduras and Guatemala are, respectively, the U.S. government strongly suggests you think otherwise as rampant crime is a chief reason both countries at press time were at Level 3, the tier that comes with the warning of “reconsider travel.”

Petty crime is reportedly prevalent in Ocho Rios and other Jamaican cruise ports. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Not everything is “irie” in Jamaica, either, as the local slang for “all right” contradicts alarming crime statistics that earn the home of three of the most popular ports in the Western Caribbean — Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios — the second-most severe level. Jamaica is notorious for its reckless drivers, sketchy tour guides and aggressive vendors whose wares aren’t necessarily the kind allowed back on the ship.

The fact that cruise lines go where trouble follows, sometimes several times a day at a single port considered high risk by the U.S. government, isn’t lost on maritime lawyer and TikTok star Spencer Aronfeld (www.aronfeld.com).

Low on crime and high on relaxation, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, a Caribbean island shared by the French and Dutch, gets Level 1 status by the U.S. government. (Photo by David Dickstein)

“Cruise lines have an obligation to keep passengers safe, and yet they still make calls in countries and port neighborhoods deemed dangerous to visit by the State Department,” said the Miami-based Aronfeld. “Every season, tens of thousands of passengers are dropped off in ports in Level 3 countries without warning. What the cruise lines are doing in the process is lulling people with a false sense of security.”

There is no specter of sugarcoating where the current fighting between Israeli and Hamas forces is involved. Since the latest war in the Middle East broke out on Oct. 7, cruise lines making calls to the Israeli ports of Ashdod and Haifa have either canceled voyages outright or altered itineraries to send ships elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Celebrity, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Oceania, Princess and Regent Seven Seas are among the cruise lines that have announced schedule changes effective through at least November, if not the indefinite future.

While no place is 100% safe, dozens of cruise favorites around the globe are in solid standing with the bureau and other influencers that publicly track crime statistics. Level 1 countries that roll out the welcome mat on gangways include Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Curacao, French Polynesia, French West Indies, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Singapore and Sint Maarten/Saint Martin (so, the Dutch and French sides of the island).

Cayman Islands, considered the safest Caribbean country for visitors, is graced by a string of inviting resorts along Seven Mile Beach. (Photo by David Dickstein)

With more than a million visitors in post-pandemic 2022, nearly 75% arriving by ship, George Town in Cayman Islands is the busiest international cruise port in a Level 1 country. And why not? Cayman has stunning tropical beaches, world-class luxury resorts, superb food and extremely low crime that many contribute to the nation’s high quality of life. At the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa, for example, a perfectly sunny day this past summer was made even more idyllic when not a single peddler or suspicious character shared the white sandy shore with us holiday makers — a rarity in the Caribbean, where on most beaches the wise don’t all go into the ocean together; someone must always stay back to mind the stuff.

As tourists take fun photos at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, thugs could be focused on taking other things. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Destinations given Level 2 status come with an “exercise increased caution” advisory. Mexico is on that sublist mostly due to such violent crime as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery, which the U.S. government says is “widespread and common” south of the border. Turkey also was at Level 2 at press time, but for different reasons; the government considers it a target for terrorism. The average tourist, however, is more likely to encounter snatching and pickpocketing within the country’s economic and cultural capital of 16 million people; frenetic Istanbul is a common stop on Mediterranean cruise itineraries. Venice is in the same gondola. Petty crime against visitors is a big issue there, which makes wearing a money belt as smart as getting gelato where the longest lines are. Rome, Florence, Pisa, Naples and even Vatican City are other havens for unsaintly activity in and around Italy. Infamous as Italy is for its petty crime on tourists, the main reason the country is at Level 2 is, like Turkey, the threat of terrorism.

Not all nations share the same dangers, of course, but each does have its good and bad sections — something that the State Department’s travel advisories don’t often factor in. After all, if the United States was listed, would it be fair for Honolulu, considered the safest American city with over 300,000 people, to be lumped in with St. Louis, supposedly the most dangerous? If it were, all of America would likely be at Level 2 or 3. The U.S. Department of State does issue a warning for one domestic cruise destination: While in Puerto Rico, travelers are advised to take necessary precautions to avoid such petty crimes as theft and muggings. Like on the mainland, PR also has its share of public protests, something else to avoid.

Tourists are advised to stay away from public protests, even on American soil in Puerto Rico. (Photo by David Dickstein)

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The U.S. government’s one-size-fits-all approach for its advisories effects cruise mainstay Haiti as well. The country is assigned to the same Level 4 (“do not travel”) category as Russia, Ukraine, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, but several cruise lines operate private destinations there. These private islands, as they’re called, are regarded as some of the safest places in the world for shore excursions. That why it’s probably best to heed these travel advisories, but not as gospel. To wit, Jeddah is an up-and-coming cruise port in Saudi Arabia — the region is rich in UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites — and while reported crime on tourists is low there, the country, itself, is at Level 3. Justification for the harsh ranking is an apparent threat of missile and drone attacks on civilian facilities, but the hot zones indicated by the State Department are far from Jeddah and likely inconsequential to cruise ships.

“I know it might be hard for Americans to believe, but Jeddah is one of the world’s safest ports,” said maritime lawyer Aronfeld. “They don’t have the same day-to-day crime that tarnishes so many otherwise amazing cruise destinations.”

Whether traveling to Montego Bay, Newport Bay or anywhere on holiday, taking a few precautions can make a globetrotting world of difference. Here are some common-sense tips for safekeeping:

Be extra cautious where and when risks are moderate to high.
Avoid isolated areas and travel in groups when possible.
Leave valuables in your stateroom or hotel safe, and what you do wear or carry should always be secured, if not inconspicuous.
Two words: money belt.
Two more words: drink responsibly.
Go on YouTube and TikTok to familiarize yourself with local scams.
Have local emergency numbers handy including your country’s nearest embassy or consulate.
When personal safety could be at risk, ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”
Trust your instincts.

Safe travels!

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