How Safe is Your Cruise? Crime on Cruise Ships Compared to U.S. Cities

When we step onto a cruise ship, something bad happening is usually the furthest thing from our mind. And in fact, overall cruising is a remarkably safe way to vacation. Millions of cruise passengers sail each year with no problem whatsoever.

That’s not to say, however, that incidents don’t take place on cruise ships. Any time you get a large group of people together in one space, the chance for a crime to be committed is present.

That said, to get a better sense of cruise ship safety, we decided to look at some statistics on cruise ship crime, and compare them to American cities.

What we found was surprising…

Crime Data Reported By Cruise Lines

Just a few years ago, finding information on crimes occurring on cruise ships was difficult. In 2010, however, the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act (CVSSA) required the cruise lines to begin reporting major incidents. These reports are released quarterly on the Department of Transportation’s website.

Specifically, these quarterly reports cover eight different major crimes that occur on cruise ships embarking and disembarking in the United States:

  • Homicide
  • Suspicious Death
  • Missing U.S. National
  • Kidnapping
  • Assault with Serious Bodily Injury
  • Firing or Tampering with Vessel
  • Theft greater than $10,000
  • Sexual Assault

The reports are then broken down by cruise line and whether the offense was committed by a passenger or a crew member.With these regular reports, we can get a better sense of the crimes that occur on cruise ships and impact passenger safety.

For our analysis, we looked at crimes occurring in 2014. While 2015 and 2016 cruise ship crime numbers are available (and we will detail them later), data from the FBI for comparison to U.S. cities is only currently available for 2014.

Overall, here are the raw numbers of reported crimes according to the CVSSA statistics for 2014. Remember, these figures encompass all cruise lines sailing from the United States for the entire year.

  • Homicide: 0
  • Suspicious Death: 6
  • Missing U.S. National: 1
  • Kidnapping: 0
  • Assault with Serious Bodily Injury: 9
  • Firing or Tampering with Vessel: 0
  • Theft greater than $10,000: 0
  • Sexual Assault: 18

Considering that Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) reports there were 11.21 million U.S. cruise passengers in 2014, these numbers are extraordinarily low. But when we dig a little deeper, we find that crime appears to be more of an issue than it appears at first glance.

Method of Comparing Cruise Ships to U.S. Cities

There’s no doubt that the absolute numbers of crime on cruise ships are low given the millions of people that travel each year. For comparison, Detroit, a city of about 700,000, recorded 300 murders in 2014 — compared to zero for cruise ships.

But what if we break down the crime rates to account for population? After all, while there are more than 11 million passengers sailing each year from the United States, the vast majority of those were on a cruise ship for one week or less. A city’s population stays relatively constant.

To better compare to American cities, we took the 11.21 million cruise ship passengers and divided by 365 — the number of days in the year. This figure of about 30,700 gives us a much better sense of what the average “population” of cruise ships is on any day of the year.

In other words, if all the cruise ships sailing from the United States were considered a “city” on any given day, the population would be 30,700. This isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way to make comparisons.

With this figure, we can adjust our crime rates to report the crimes per 100,000 people, the way that the FBI reports their crime rates each year.

After adjusting our crime rates on cruise ships to crimes per 100,000 people, we’re ready to compare. Since the FBI doesn’t measure the same crimes for cities as we see on cruise ships (e.g. missing U.S. nationals or tampering with the vessel), we focused only on major crimes that are similar to what’s seen on land.

Murder, Suspicious Deaths, And Sexual Assault on Cruise Ships

In 2014, cruise lines reported zero murders on their ships under CVSSA rules. Therefore, they have a murder rate of 0.0 per 100,000 population:

Murder on cruise ships

However, there is a category in the reporting for “Death (suspicious)”. Since this is a relatively vague category, we wanted to include these deaths to see how this compares to the murder rate in major cities.

Cruise ship suspicious deaths

You can see from the chart, even if you include suspicious deaths into the calculation, it’s about the same as visiting Miami.

Finally, we took a look at sexual assaults on cruise ships. For our comparison, we had to make due as FBI statistics only cover “Rape” and the CVSSA cover “Sexual Assault”. While definitions of both of these terms can vary, the principle is the same.

As you can see, sexual assault on cruise ships occurs with a similar regularity as you might find on land.

Sexual Assault on cruise ships

In other words, your risk according to these statistics is about the same as visiting New Orleans or Las Vegas.

Why These Crime Figures Might Be Low

One more thing to keep in mind is how these statistics were reported. In 2014, each CVSSA quarterly report included this disclaimer:

“The number of matters “no longer under investigation” provided on this Internet site is necessarily different than the aggregate numbers of matters required to be reported to the FBI per the above. A matter may be reported but not opened as a full investigation if, for example, there is insufficient evidence of a federal crime within FBI jurisdiction or prosecution is declined.”

What this means is that if a crime is still under investigation, then it won’t be included in the crime stats. As well, if a passenger reports a case but there is insufficient evidence to open a full investigation, then it won’t be reported in the statistics above.

In other words, it’s reasonable to assume that the actual crime rates on a cruise ship are higher than what’s reported in the 2014 and 2015 statistics.

The Los Angeles Times even reported on the issue, stating:

“The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 was designed to give passengers a more accurate picture of shipboard crime and assistance if they became victims of assault, rape or theft.

“But since the law’s hard-fought passage, reported crimes disclosed to the public have plummeted from more than 400 a year to a few dozen, dramatically understating the number of deaths and sexual assaults and other crimes on cruise ships…

“A subtle change in the law’s wording — requested by the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard and inserted by the Senate Commerce Committee staff — allowed the agencies to release to the public only the number of closed cases no longer under investigation.

“This change runs counter to the common practice of law enforcement agencies across the nation, which disclose the number of reported crimes in their jurisdictions whether there is an investigation or not.”

In response, beginning in 2016 the reporting method has changed. Now the report covers “Alleged Criminal Activity Occurring On Board Cruise Vessels” instead of “Cases no longer under investigation by FBI”.

In the first two reports under these new guidelines, the number of reported crimes has risen sharply. Here are the reports for the first six months of 2016, compared alongside reported issues for all of 2014 and 2015:

Offense20142015First Half 2016
Homicide001
Suspicious Death645
Missing U.S. National113
Kidnapping000
Assault with Serious Injury939
Firing or Tampering with Vessel000
Theft greater than $10,000074
Sexual Assault181339

What’s most alarming is the rise in sexual assaults.

In just one half of 2016, the reported figure for alleged sexual assault has doubled the entire year of 2014, tripled 2015, and is on pace for 78 total reported cases this year. That’s quadruple the amount of sexual assaults in 2014 and six times the amount reported in 2015.

It’s obvious that safety on a cruise ship can improve. Yes, your overall odds of having a sexual assault happen on a cruise are very small. If there were 78 assaults for 11.2 million passengers, then you stand a 0.0007% chance — or about 1 in 140,000 — of it happening to you. But when looking at the new figures compared to previous years, it’s a disturbing trend.

We continue to believe that cruises offer one of the safest vacations around, but just like vacationing anywhere, being on a cruise is no excuse to not use common sense, be aware of your surroundings, and don’t take risks you wouldn’t take back home.

Data Sources:

Cruise Line Incident Reports via Transportation.gov
Crime Rates per 100,000 people via Wikipedia (Data from FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program)