What Happens If You Get Sick on a Cruise Ship?

Know your options, your rights, and your risks.

The start of 2020 brought a wave of COVID-19—the new coronavirus—flowing around the globe and, right along with it, an even bigger wave of fear and misinformation. COVID-19 has many people second-guessing their travel plans and wondering what happens if they do get sick on a cruise ship, whether it’s with the coronavirus or something else. We consulted the experts to help you with your travel planning and to make sure you’re armed with the information you need—just in case.

Should you travel at all during the COVID-19 epidemic?

Well, that depends on a lot of different factors. Generally, it’s best to rely on the advice of public-health authorities like the World Health Organization (WHO). And check out Fodor’s, which is updating its travel advice regularly during the outbreak, including what’s going on with cruises. Even during the best of times, travel planning is both an art and a science, so you’ll want to know these science-backed ways to plan a perfect vacation.

Health checks before you even get on board

Before you board a cruise ship, you’ll be asked some health questions and likely have your temperature taken by walking through a thermal-imaging scanner. You might be sent for secondary screening with a doctor. “It’s always important to answer any pre-boarding health questionnaires truthfully and to report any signs of illness to the ship’s crew as soon as symptoms arise,” says Cruise Critic‘s editor-in-chief, Colleen McDaniel. Don’t worry—it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be allowed to board. Being honest not only affects your health and the health of everyone on board, but it could also affect the care you receive and any compensation either from the cruise line or your travel insurance if something goes wrong. Here are more cruise safety rules people don’t take seriously enough.

What if I’m denied boarding?

The Cruise Lines International Association requires its members to have “robust” plans to prevent and respond to an outbreak of a communicable disease to help ensure the safety of all passengers and crew members. In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, that means passengers with even a slight fever or cough might be denied boarding. The same goes for passengers who have recently been in one of the coronavirus hot spots. According to Cruise Critic, cruise lines are modifying their booking and cancellation policies in the wake of COVID-19.

Whether you’re concerned about coronavirus or something else, you should know how to get a refund if a world crisis forces you to cancel a trip.

If you don’t feel well after you board

Every cruise ship has a medical bay of some kind. Depending on the size of the ship, it might be staffed by a nurse, paramedic, or one or more physicians. Some ships even have X-ray capabilities. Medical staff can treat some illnesses and prescribe medication (sometimes they even have the meds on board), as well as tell you if what’s troubling you is something more serious. Travel health insurance will usually reimburse you for onboard medical expenses.

What if you have something more serious?

If medical staff are concerned about your condition, they may advise (and even require) you to seek the advice of specialists onshore. William Spangler, MD, Global Medical Director with AIG Travel, says, “Since most of these ships go to the same place every week for six to eight months, they usually have a pretty good idea where they’re going to send someone.” Port agents will often arrange a taxi or even an ambulance to the treatment center for you. In the best-case scenario, your appointment will be quick, your issue resolved or aided by the specialist, and you can hop back on board your ship to heal while watching the scenery go by.

life preserver hanging on the railing on a deck of a cruise ship. seascape background.danielsbfoto/Getty Images

Sometimes you won’t be allowed to return to your cruise

Unfortunately, sometimes your illness or condition “will not allow your return to the ship, either because it’s so serious, or because the captain and/or the physician decide that they’re not comfortable with you getting back on,” notes Dr. Spangler.

Other times, the ship’s itinerary poses a problem. For example, if the ship has a number of days at sea before it reaches the next port, the ship’s doctor and captain might be worried that you couldn’t get the help you need if your condition worsens and could deny you boarding. That means you may need to stay at your destination or fly home. And in that case, you’ll be very pleased with yourself if you had the foresight to buy travel health insurance. Here’s some advice on when travel insurance is worth it—and when it isn’t.

Travel health insurance

Many experienced travelers won’t leave their home country without good travel health insurance. They know it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and, if they get sick or injured, coverage of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical expenses.

A good travel health insurance company can help you find the closest medical facility that is best suited to treat your condition and, assuming it’s not nearby, help you get there, even if it requires a plane, helicopter, or a boat trip. If your condition is very serious, many travel health insurance policies will help a family member get to you or arrange a medical evacuation for you to get home. If you had to pay for these services out of pocket, Dr. Spangler says the price tag could range “from $20,000 easily into the six figures.” Most home health insurance plans would not cover such expenses, and if they did, the expenses wouldn’t be paid up front.

Common shipboard illnesses and injuries

Most people, even during the COVID-19 epidemic, don’t get sick aboard cruise ships. If they do, it’s usually with common and minor illnesses. Seasickness isn’t as common aboard cruise ships as you might think, as ships have stabilizers to create comfortable conditions. But because a lot of older people tend to book cruises, Dr. Spangler says shipboard doctors commonly see injuries from falls, followed closely by cardiopulmonary issues, gastroenteritis, norovirus, and upper-respiratory infections.

Just FYI, if you’re sharing these 12 things that germ experts wouldn’t, you’re putting yourself at an increased risk of getting sick.

What happens if you get a contagious disease on a cruise ship?

Norovirus—which presents with symptoms we commonly associate with food poisoning—is very common and very contagious. Often “mistakenly called “stomach flu,” it can occur any time people are in close quarters, like on cruise ships or in day-care centers, old-age homes, and schools, says Infection Control Today. The CDC estimates there are about 20 million cases of norovirus annually in the United States every year. In 2020, COVID-19 is the contagion everyone is talking about, but note that the WHO says COVID-19 “does not transmit as efficiently as the flu,” according to the data currently available.

Regardless of the disease, if the ship’s doctor orders you to stay in your cabin and you disobey, you can be kicked off the ship. And, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, sometimes a country can quarantine a cruise ship and not allow any passengers off. This is what happened with the Diamond Princess in Japan. However, as the Guardian reports, experts believe that this might have increased rather than decreased transmission of the disease.

How to stay healthy on a cruise

Washing your hands—well—is the best way to stay healthy on and off a ship. When talking about how to protect yourself from COVID-19, Dr. Bonnie Henry, one of Canada’s provincial health officers, advised: “Wash your hands like you’ve been chopping jalapeños and you need to change your contacts.” And COVID-19 is just one of the diseases you can prevent just by washing your hands.

A 20-second scrub with soap and water is best, according to the CDC, but otherwise, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Cruise ships have hand sanitizer available at every restaurant. Use it when you enter and when you leave the restaurant, as well as before and after you touch the serving spoons at the buffet. You’re not only protecting yourself from getting sick—you’re also minimizing the spread of your germs. That keeps everyone, including you, much safer.

Other actions recommended by the WHO to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other contagious diseases: Avoid touching your face, practice good cough etiquette, maintain a distance of three feet from people, and stay home if you’re sick. You should also wash your hands immediately after touching these 10 things.

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Johanna Read
Johanna Read, Canadian writer and photographer, writes about travel (including under COVID-19), wildlife, food, health and wellness, and responsible tourism. She aims to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Johanna also writes occasionally about public policy, leadership, and management. She draws on her management consulting work (where she specializes in organizational culture and employee wellness) and on her background as a Government of Canada policy executive. Her BAH (psychology and sociology) and MPA (health policy) are from Queen's University. Johanna's bylines include Reader's Digest, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, USA Today, and Canadian Traveller. See her portfolio; follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.