From what I've read so far, the capsizing of the Costa Concordia appears to have been perfectly preventable. The captain's foolhardy navigation, as well as his alleged abandoning of the ship (per this Italian Coast Guard transcript), may indeed prove to be criminal. But there are always lessons to be learned from even the most tragic situations. Here are a few:
1. Pay attention to the lifeboat drill. Most cruise ships have a muster drill, often before leaving port. (U.S. Coast Guard requires such drills within 24 hours of leaving port.) Passengers report to their muster stations, typically wearing their life preservers. On some ships, the drill is a video. On others, it's a meeting point that's a lounge. On the Carnival Pride, which sails out of Baltimore, the muster drill takes place on deck within view of your actual lifeboat. Some cruisers try to avoid this interruption that may come just as you're having your first martini on the Lido Deck. Don't.
2. Know the ship. In particular, know where your cabin is in relationship to the rest of the ship. What deck are you on? How many decks are above you? How many below? Instead of taking the elevator everywhere, take the stairs. Note how many flights from your room to the muster station or evacuation point. Check out the vessel diagram on the back of the cabin door.
3. Know your fellow passengers. At the muster drill, assess your fellow passengers standing elbow to elbow with you. Is there someone who may need additional help? Are there children or babies? Disabled or elderly? In an emergency, be ready to offer firm and calm support to help speed things along.
4. Know your crew members. Start with your room steward and go up from there - officers in particular. Ask them questions about their training procedures. Ask about their families. Be friendly. Yes, there are a lot of stories about Costa Concordia crew members who saved themselves first. But 95 percent of the people were safely evacuated from that ship, so there must have been at least a few crew members who knew what they were doing.
5. Stay calm, but expect chaos. Even if an evacuation goes exactly as planned, you can't count on thousands of individuals to remain calm and even-tempered. Act with urgency, but maintain your cool even if others do not.
6. Be a good swimmer . If you are taking a cruise, you really should know how to swim. It just may increase your odds of surviving a disaster. Many of the Costa Concordia survivors swam a short distance to shore - and one woman who could not swim told a newspaper that her husband gave her his life jacket but then she never saw him again. Tragic.
7. Keep your passport with you at all times - and a little cash. You don't typically need any money on a cruise because everything gets charged to your cabin. Many of the survivors ended up on land without money or identification or even shoes. And some passengers reported that the cruise line was slow to offer assistance for clothing and the like. Magellan, a travel store, offers passport wallets that can be worn around your neck or strapped to your chest. Might also be helpful to include emergency numbers or other info about your travel itinerary.
8. Reconsider travel insurance. I've never been a huge fan of travel insurance, but if you're more than a 1,000 miles from home and traveling via multiple modes of transportation, it might come in handy. But make sure you read the fine print about what's covered and stay away from waivers. Look for coverage that lets you cancel for any reason. (By the way, Costa has insurance for its ship in the $500 million range, but the losses could total more than $1 billion.)
9. Taking a cruise has its risks. If you didn't know that before, you know it now. Seriously, though, the risks are very, very small. But they do exist. Fire on a ship is the thing that scares me the most. Sinking is a close second.
10. Avoid watching the film Titanic. Lots of survivors compared their experience aboard the Costa Concordia to the 1997 movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio. That means Titanic was so good it left an impression - or scars - that lasted more than a decade. (That song from Celine Dion didn't help.) Of course, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the grand ship is coming up in April and it might seem the perfect time to watch the movie again. But if you ever, ever plan to take a cruise, skip it.