Getting sick on a cruise ship can not only put a serious damper on your vacation, it can result in unanticipated financial loss and out-of-pocket expenses. A little advance planning and the consistent practice of key hygienic habits can go a long way towards keeping your body and budget healthy while on vacation.

Weigh the costs

Ship infirmaries aren't exactly emergency rooms or hospitals. They are more like urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, handling mostly minor illnesses, ailments or the occasional broken bone. Passengers with serious health emergencies are usually transferred to the nearest land-based medical facility. Many minor health issues that the infirmary would be happy to charge you for could probably be taken care of yourself if you’re properly prepared.

It costs around $45 on most ships just to see the nurse and about $90 to see the doctor. After-hours visits, diagnostic tests, medications and so on are often additional. And, if you go to the infirmary with any type of gastrointestinal distress, regardless of the cause, they will assume you have norovirus and confine you to your cabin for 48 to 72 hours.

Before your cruise

Cruise lines employ enhanced passenger health screening to prevent illness from being brought aboard the ship. Generally, you will be asked to complete a health questionnaire, but a secondary screening may also be conducted by the ship's medical personnel. One cruise line has even utilized thermal imaging cameras to detect fever-level body temperatures in embarking passengers. The worst-case scenario would be denial of boarding if signs or symptoms of influenza or gastrointestinal illness are present, but this does not happen often. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself:

  • Prevent illness: Reduce your chances of becoming ill during the week before your cruise by routinely engaging in proper hand washing, keeping your hands away from your mouth, avoiding sick people whenever possible, getting plenty of rest, eating well and staying hydrated.
  • Purchase trip insurance: While many lines claim that they will do their best to arrange for you to travel on an alternate sailing if denied boarding for health reasons, they are under no legal obligation to do so. Buried in cruise ticket contracts are clauses that basically say that they have the right to keep you from boarding the ship, kick you off the ship, confine you to the ship’s hospital, or transfer you to an off-ship health care facility, all at your expense. Trip insurance will keep you from taking a loss on your vacation if you become sick on or before your cruise.


One illness you will definitely want to protect yourself against on a cruise ship is the highly contagious gastrointestinal bug known as norovirus. Though norovirus occurs more often in nursing homes and schools, it is frequently associated with cruising. It is the close living situations on cruise ships that helps spread the illness, but the good news is that in 2012 only 2791 of the 10.1 million passengers sailing on Cruise Line International Association member vessels contracted norovirus, compared to the 20 million land-based cases reported to the CDC in any typical year in the United States.

Still, contracting this illness on a cruise ship can ruin your vacation as a result of the loss of two to three vacation days that you paid good money for, not to mention the stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. You will also be required to remain in your cabin until you're symptom-free. Cabin mates may also be quarantined to the cabin even if they are not sick. And yes, staff members check on you to ensure compliance.

  • How you get it: You can become infected with norovirus by consuming food or beverages that have been contaminated with the virus, by physically contacting virus-contaminated objects and then touching and eating food or touching your mouth, or by sharing food or utensils with someone who has norovirus. Infected persons can be contagious before symptoms arise and after symptoms have abated, so it's possible to spread the illness before even realizing you're sick.
  • How you can avoid it: The best defense against contracting or transmitting norovirus is proper hand washing. Click here for all the details on when and how to wash your hands to effectively avoid illness.

What you can do to protect yourself

Norovirus isn't the only ailment that you should prepare for at sea. Everyday maladies such as the common cold, allergies, heartburn, headache, backache, indigestion, sore throat or a toothache can strike at sea just as surely as they can at home. Don't let these simple conditions become additional expenses because you had to purchase over-the-counter medicines at inflated ship prices or go to the infirmary for treatment. Ship infirmaries do not take insurance, so even if you have vacation coverage, you'll have to pay first and file a claim for reimbursement later.

Bring a small first aid/medical kit containing your regular prescription medications as well as various over-the-counter remedies so that if anyone comes down with a minor ailment, you can treat it yourself. Many medicines already come in travel sizes, or you can purchase the full-sized product and transfer a small amount into travel bottles. This is what I pack:

  • A small leak-proof bottle of rubbing alcohol
  • Travel-sized package of assorted bandages
  • Small tube of antibiotic ointment
  • Small tube of hydrocortisone cream
  • Ibuprofen
  • Motion sickness tablets
  • Dry eye relief drops
  • Sinus relief spray
  • Allergy tablets
  • Nasal decongestant tablets
  • Anti-diarrhoeal caplets
  • Activated charcoal capsules
  • Chewable heartburn relief tablets
  • Mouth pain gel

Also, most cruise ships today have touch-free hand sanitizers in many areas around the ship, such as at the entrance to dining venues and at the point of entry when returning to the ship from a port of call. You may also want to carry a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket or purse for occasions when soap and water are not available such as on excursions. I use hand sanitizer after touching serving utensils in the buffet restaurant, menus, salt and pepper shakers, bottled condiments like ketchup and steak sauce, and pens used to sign bar or sales receipts.

This is a guest post by Deidre from Dania Beach, FL
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