How to judge a cruise ship
Would you go cruising again? It's a question I've been asked a lot this week, as people take in the shocking stories and pictures of the doomed Costa Concordia.
My answer is a hesitant 'yes' -- but from now on, I'll do my homework extra carefully.
Before she ended up on her side last weekend, there were ominous signs that all was not right on the ship. A quick scan of online reviews by previous guests are less than enticing.
"Butlins-on-sea"; "hairy pizza"; "stale staff"; "disastrous disembarkation"; "horrible"; "beware"; and the ominous "stay away!".
The scathing comments, posted on Cruisecritic.com -- the industry's version of TripAdvisor -- paint a picture of a vessel where life at sea was anything but smooth sailing for some of those who boarded her for a well-earned break.
Before last weekend, cruising was one of the few tourism sectors defying the global recession -- and thousands of Irish people have already booked cruises for the coming year. If you are one of them and are having second thoughts, bear in mind that the chances of a repeat of the Concordia disaster are infinitesimal.
Hundreds of cruise ships take millions of passengers safely and comfortably around the world's oceans every year. But it does make sense to take precautions to protect yourself on board.
First, choose a cabin on the upper decks and make sure its door opens with an old-fashioned key, not an electronic card that could leave you trapped inside if the power fails.
If you're worried about feeling claustrophobic, book a verandah.
As soon as you board a ship, work out your fastest escape route and practise putting your life jacket on several times. No matter how you are travelling -- by sea, air or road -- invest in a waterproof waist pack for your passport, cash and mobile phone, and keep it attached to you at all times.
When booking a cruise, don't rely on your travel agent's word alone. Visit a website such as Cruisecritic.com and take on board the comments.
Don't judge a ship on the number of pools or restaurants it has. Companies that keep their liners spotlessly clean with happy staff and good food are more likely to put safety first.
Last weekend's horrific disaster has shattered the image of cruising as an ultra-safe mode of transport. We never thought it could happen in the 21st century, but we now know that just one rocky reef can cause a vast ocean liner to topple over and sink.
We also know that emergency plans can go out the window in the face of impending disaster.
And we've discovered that although a near-death situation often brings out the best in the human race, on the Costa Concordia, it brought out the worst.
As one passenger put it, it was a case of every man for himself.
Women and children were reportedly pushed out of the way as they tried to escape, fights broke out in the struggle to get out of the stricken vessel and injured people were trampled over and left for dead.
The most alarming fact about the tragedy is that significant human error appears to have been the cause.
The coming weeks will shed more light on the bizarre behaviour of the captain and some of his crew.
But international regulations that monitor safety at sea must also be reviewed and strengthened to ensure that a catastrophe of this nature never happens again.