The safety of tap water on a cruise ship is a common concern. Many patrons new to cruising will have initial concerns or worries about their cruise ship’s tap water.
The water quality on your cruise ship generally meets the same standards as the drinking water in your home. If you sail from a U.S. port, the water quality must adhere to government-regulated standards. These standards are on top of guidelines cruise companies implement themselves to ensure their reputation.
The last thing you want to worry about is the potability of the drinking water in your cabin room. Knowing how and where cruise lines obtain water for their cruise ships can help alleviate any concerns or anxieties related to water safety.
Government Regulations on Cruise Ship Water Potability
Cruise ships get their drinking water from a shore supply and store it in tanks, or they manufacture potable water while at sea through a process like reverse osmosis or distillation, much the same way shore-based desalination plants work.
That is not to say accidents cannot happen or violations do not occur. Just like your municipal water supply, sometimes things go wrong. However, in these rare incidents, your captain and cruise staff will always notify you, and such cases are treated as serious emergencies.
Under a federal law first passed in 1944, any ship carrying at least 13 passengers with a foreign itinerary that includes a U.S. port is subject to random unannounced inspections of its drinking water at least twice every year. Inspectors perform these from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of its Vessel Sanitation Program.
When inspectors check a ship, they look at a wide range of factors relating to sanitation, and the ship receives a score on a 100-point basis. The latest 2018 CDC operational manual inspectors use to make a sanitation report is 291 pages long, with 19 pages devoted to water potability. It says all water was taken aboard from shore supplies “must be from a potable source that meets World Health Organization (WHO) standards for potable water.”
CDC inspectors evaluate everything from how a ship’s drinking water is stored and how pipes are laid out to the water itself. Typically taking between 8-10 hours to complete, these inspections will check for things like:
- Presence of E. coli
- Chlorine (halogen) and acidity levels
- Functioning of alarms that alert for high or low chlorine levels in the water supply
- Logs and documentation that provide details on the ship’s history of water quality assessments
The CDC inspectors can even give the staff in charge of the potable water system an on-the-spot verbal test to see if they know enough to adhere to the manual’s guidelines. If an inspector finds the ship cannot properly chlorinate its drinking water, it is considered an imminent public health risk, and the inspector can issue a no-sail order.
One of the best things about the CDC’s inspection program is that you can search for inspection scores for individual ships and cruise companies online through the CDC’s report directory, complete with everything from the worst violations to ships that passed flawlessly. We made a list based on the cruise ships’ sanitation reports with the best and worst scores based on the most recent data, which you will find at the end of this article.
Cruise Ships Have the Incentive to Keep Your Drinking Water Safe
Failed sanitation inspections or sick passengers are the last things a cruise company wants to be known for. Every company is looking out for its self-interest, which means they have a strong incentive to keep your water safe to drink. Here are statements about drinking water from just a few of the major cruise line companies:
Carnival Corporation: “Our potable water is regulated by the Centers for Disease Control U.S Public Health Service Vessel Sanitation Program (CDC-USPH-VSP). Among various other requirements, the water on board is halogenated to USPH standards, regardless of where/how the water is obtained.”
Royal Caribbean: “Yes, tap water is provided on your cruise to drink, and it is very safe to drink. Every Royal Caribbean ship has a meticulously maintained water treatment/storage system that supplies all of the ship’s potable water.”
Norwegian Cruise Line: “All of our ships produce water by the guidelines and requirements as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Centre for Environmental Health.”
Princess Cruises: “Freshwater comes from two different sources: produced water (seawater that is either evaporated and re-condensed or produced by a reverse osmosis plant and treated with minerals and chlorine); or bunkered water, which is purchased from port communities and stored in designated potable water holding tanks. We bunker water from ports where we know water is plentiful, high in quality, and costs less than the fuel needed to produce water onboard.”
How Safe Is Cruise Ship Drinking Water?
In reality, “safe” water is a relative term. In 2000 E. coli-contaminated drinking water in a Canadian city killed seven and sickened hundreds more. Contaminated tap water in Flint, Michigan, was a national election issue in 2016. That same year the mayor of Milwaukee announced that anyone living in a home built before 1951 should install a water filter to prevent drinking water contamination.
Just as municipal drinking water supplies can have problems, so can those on cruise ships. In theory, market forces should have a much stronger immediate influence on the cruise industry than on a city government. Nevertheless, some have pointed out that government oversight of the cruise industry is relatively lax compared to other private-sector businesses.
“Local authorities can close a restaurant, they can fine a restaurant, and that’s powerful,” said a Miami-based attorney specializing in maritime law. He spoke with a reporter from the Seattle Times for a February 2018 article about cruise industry regulations. But, he said, “That just does not exist on cruise ships.” That referenced the perhaps-too-cozy relationship between the cruise ship industry and regulators.
Even though the Vessel Sanitation Program is under the CDC’s auspices, you might be surprised to learn that the inspected cruise ship companies pay for their inspections, with the price going up proportional to ship size. And it is not altogether unfair to say that with that payment comes influence.
According to the Seattle Times report, Carnival, Royal, Norwegian, and other cruise companies were all involved in creating the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program’s guidelines for 2011. Like any other industry, balancing regulations and hiring insiders who know how to regulate can be tricky.
Even with the closest relationship between the cruise industry and regulators, the self-interest to avoid bad press from passengers who got sick drinking a ship’s water is still just as powerful as ever.
In 2016, Norwegian Cruise Lines initiated a new policy that will not let you carry factory-sealed bottled water on your person unless it is for baby formula or a medical device. Even with the best legal department and the most specific indemnification clause, you can bet that with a policy like that, the odds of winning a class action lawsuit are near-perfect for passengers sickened from the ship’s water.
The most vocal critics of a possible cozy relationship between government regulators and the cruise ship industry cannot point to any significant illness outbreak or passenger injury caused by contaminated drinking water.
According to a January 2018 article in Bloomberg about cruise ships’ secrets, the real threat to passenger health is from other passengers. “Nothing is scarier to cruisers than a Norovirus outbreak–which ship doctor De La Rosa says is almost always caused by a passenger who has brought the illness aboard, rather than poor sanitary conditions on the ship.”
Best and Worst Cruise Ship Sanitation Scores
Using data from the most recent 2018 CDC inspection reports, these cruise ships scored the best and worst. Remember that CDC inspections are based on a 100-point scale and evaluate the ship’s overall sanitation and potable water quality.
Of the 154 inspections completed as of early November 2018, 14 ships (9%) scored a perfect 100. Those were:
- AIDAVITA – Aida Cruises
- Amsterdam – Holland America Line
- Carnival Breeze – Carnival Cruise Lines
- Celebrity Reflection – Celebrity Cruises
- Crystal Serenity – Crystal Cruises
- Disney Dream – Disney Cruise Lines
- Emerald Princess – Princess Cruises
- Grand Princess – Princess Cruises
- Regal Princess – Princess Cruises
- Rhapsody of the Seas – Royal Caribbean International
- Sea Princess – Princess Cruises
- Serenade of the Seas – Royal Caribbean International
- Star Princess – Princess Cruises
- Zuiderdam – Holland America Line
And from those same 154 most recent sanitation reports, six ships (4%) scored below 86, which the CDC considers as being not satisfactory:
- Kydon – Ferries Del Caribe – scored 78
- Safari Endeavor – Un-Cruise Adventures – scored 79
- Silver Wind – Silversea Cruises – scored 79
- Carnival Liberty – Carnival Cruise Lines – scored 80
- Grand Celebration – Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line – scored 80
- Ocean Dream – Japan Grace – scored 85