What Happens if You Get Sick on a Cruise? – Simple Step by Step Guide


If you are taking a cruise you may be wondering how common it is to get sick onboard and what happens if you do.

Colds, cases of flu, and other viruses spread on cruises in the same way that they do on land. With so many people traveling together it is inevitable that some will get sick.

What Happens if You Get Sick on a Cruise?

Any guests who are unwell during a cruise will be treated by the onboard medical teams. Guests may be quarantined to their cabins if the illness is infectious and could be disembarked from the ship if the illness needs further medical care.

The vast majority of illnesses happening on cruises are simple colds, coughs, and stomach bugs.

How Common is it to Get Sick on a Cruise?

25% of people who have taken a cruise report that they have suffered some sort of illness while onboard. Common illnesses include seasickness, colds, flu, and hangovers.

The 25% figure came from our Facebook group members, many of whom have been on multiple cruises. If you’re not already a member, join us here: Emma Cruises Facebook Group.

It was a similar picture when I asked our Twitter followers if they had ever been unwell on a cruise.

Please do bear in mind that these figures include ANY illnesses and if you were to ask a similar sample size if they had been unwell in the last month, some would say yes!

A lot of the respondents admitted to including hangovers as a reason to reply yes.

What Happens if You Get Sick on a Cruise?

Cruise lines have procedures in place to deal with almost any kind of medical problem or emergency. If in doubt, speak to the crew, it is their job to help.

1 – Guests Should Contact The Onboard Medical Center

In the first instance of any illness, the onboard medical teams should be contacted.

If you have a simple cold this isn’t necessary but any symptoms that could be Coronavirus or Norovirus (the tummy bug) should be reported.

Guests can contact the onboard medical services by phone and this is usually the best way as it reduces the chance of any further spread of contagious infections.

The medical center is usually located low down on the ship and guests are able to go to the center if they need urgent medical care. It is usually best to phone the medical center first as they can either invite you down or diagnose your illness over the phone.

Which Crew Members Work in the Medical Center of a Cruise Ship?

In the medical center, you’ll find a variety of crew members. Most cruise ships have 2 doctors with some of the largest ships having up to 4. There will also be a number of nurses and other roles on board and lots of medical equipment to deal with almost any emergency.

2 – Guests Will be Evaluated by Medical Staff

After contacting the medical staff an evaluation will be carried out to determine the medical issue.

The crew will either:

  • Provide a diagnosis over the phone and suggest treatments (if the illness is very minor)
  • Ask the passenger to come to the medical center for further evaluation (if the issue doesn’t appear to be contagious)
  • The medical team will go to the patient’s cabin to diagnose the problem (if more serious)

If a guest is experiencing pain or an unknown medical issue medical teams may come to the cabin of the passenger in order to diagnose an issue. Crew are equiped to deal with emergency situations and many onboard crew members will have first aid training.

3 – The Guest Will be Given Treatment if Applicable

If the diagnosis is easy and there is a treatment/medication option available this will be given to the guests. It’s worth remembering that you do have to pay for medical expenses on a cruise and these can get incredibly expensive.

It is important that you buy travel insurance before your cruise to cover any medical expenses. If you’re considering cruising without travel insurance make sure you read this story of a US man who died after having a stroke on a Carnival ship without insurance: Cruise Ship Deaths – Annual Statistics, Causes and Real Examples.

It’s usually easier to pay medical expenses and claim these back although this isn’t possible for everybody. Cruise lines have processes in place to deal with this.

4 – Guests Will be Quarantined in Their Cabins (If Required)

If a guest has an illness that could be infectious they will be told to quarantine in their cabins. The quarantine is mandatory if instructed by the cruise staff and any quests caught breaking the quarantine will be removed from the cruise ship.

The crew will look after quarantined guests by:

  • Providing Free Room Service
    (A reduced menu designed to help recovering guests with illnesses. Mostly of bland, illness appropriate foods like toast, soup, and porridge).
  • Providing Free Laundry
    If required the cruise line will do laundry free of charge for guests quarantined to their cabins.
  • Regular Bedding Changes and Cabin Sanitisation
  • Regular Phone Calls From The Onboard Medical Team
    The guests will be phoned regularly to ensure that they are recovering well.

To learn more about being quarantined in a cabin check out this post by a friend of mine who’s daughter caught Norovirus on a cruise.

It’s worth noting that not all guests cruising in the cabin have to quarantine on the majority of ships if the illness is Norovirus. If the illness is Coronavirus all guests would have to quarantine. More about that later in the post.

5 – The Guest May Need Medical Center Treatment

If a guest requires more serious medical treatment such as being on an IV drip they will stay in the onboard medical center.

There is room in the onboard medical center for a number of guests to spend the night if they need specialist equipment or to be monitored.

Staying in the onboard medical center can get incredibly expensive but if a guest is seriously unwell it is the best place for them and really the only option. Only the most serious of cases require a stay in the onboard medical center.

TOP TIP: The medical center does have set opening times although you’ll usually find a member of staff there for emergency purposes, even out of hours.

6 – The Guest May Transfer to On Land Treatment Centers

If a passenger’s medical problem requires more intensive care than can be provided on the ship it may be decided that the passenger should disembark.

It may be possible for the guest to wait until the next port if their needs aren’t life-threatening. In this case, the passenger may be disembarked at the next port or at the next port which has appropriate medical facilities.

Airlifting or Emergency Docking

In the case that a guest is seriously unwell and the ship isn’t scheduled to dock soon an emergency airlift may have to be completed.

This only happens in the most serious of situations and can realistically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is another reason why you NEED travel insurance when you cruise.

Emergency Docking

An alternative for a ship is to make an extra stop. I took a British Isles cruise a couple of years ago where a passenger became unwell, we were cruising around the Scottish highlands at the time and there were no accessible cruise ports.

Instead of air lifting off the passenger what the cruise ship crew decided to do was to sail as close to land as they safety could and then pass the passenger to land using a tender boat. I remember watching the small boat speed off from our ship.

This can be an easier, and considerably cheaper option for a cruise line.

Logistics of a Medical Disembarkation

As medical conditions often happen very suddenly, with the patient needing to disembark, guests may not have made preparations to leave the ship. In this case, the ship’s staff will pack your entire room, into your cases, so that you don’t have to worry about that side of things.

Once the patient and their party are on land, the cruise company’s shore side staff take very good care of you. They will phone the other person in the party, to assess how well they can deal with the situation and either fly someone out to help or just keep regular contact to make sure they are coping.

What Are The Common Causes of Onboard Illness?

Seasickness

Some people do get seasick when taking a cruise. This is more common if the cruise encounters bad weather but it can happen at any time to almost anybody.

Guests who are already prone to motion sickness are more likely to feel seasick on a cruise and the majority of passengers do not get seasick.

If you do get seasick, there are many ways to prevent and treat it.

I’ve been on 22 cruises to date and have been seasick on 4 or 5, during this time I’ve devised a number of ways to prevent and treat seasickness. These include what I eat, where I sleep, what I wear, and where I cruise.

To learn more about how to prevent and treat seasickness, check out this post:

I think the fact that I carry on cruising despite being one of the most travel-sick people I know says a lot. I’m much more likely to get travel sick in a car or coach than a cruise ship.

Infection Viruses (Norovirus and Coronavirus)

Cruise ships do on occasion have outbreaks of Norovirus or Coronavirus.

What Happens if You Get Coronavirus on a Cruise?

Guests who test positive for Coronavirus on a cruise will be quarantined in their cabins until it is appropriate for them to disembark the ship. At this time guests will be quarantined in appropriate medical facilities or hotels.

If a guest tests positive for Coronavirus while embarking a cruise they will be denied boarding but won’t be held for quarantining. Guests in this situation would need to go home and quarantine themselves.

This video explains the process in more detail:

What Happens if You Get Norovirus on a Cruise?

Guests who contract Norovirus on a cruise are asked to quarantine in their cabins. The crew provides the guests with clean towels/sheets and delivers food free of charge to the passengers. The guest must continue to quarantine in their cabin for 24 hours after their symptoms have gone.

It is worth remembering though that Norovirus is definitely not a cruise ship disease.

The graph below shows where people are most likely to get Norovirus.

norovirus on a cruise graph how likely

Cruise lines are subject to much stricter regulations when it comes to recording illnesses than on land hotels/restaurants. This is why outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships are widely reported compared to other outbreaks.

The standard of cleanliness of a cruise is incredibly high.

Your chance of getting Norovirus on a cruise is roughly 1 in 5500, on land its 1 in 15!

Are Guests Entitled to Refunds if They Get Sick on a Cruise?

The cruise lines do not provide any form of compensation or refunds for guests confined to their cabins due to illness.

There are a number of travel insurance policies that do provide a cash lump sum in the event of cabin confinement but this is not the norm. When purchasing travel insurance be sure to check if the policy includes ‘cabin confinement’ if this is something you’d like.

viking cruises umbrella
Me with the Viking Sea in Norway

Cruise Line Partial Refunds/Compensation

The cruise line may provide compensation if there is a large outbreak of Coronavirus or Norovirus onboard if this significantly affects the cruise.

For example, if the cruise ended earlier than planned the guests would most likely receive compensation and/or discounts off a future cruise.

Where Can You Buy Medication on a Cruise?

Cruise ships do not have full pharmacies onboard but will usually have a section of an onboard shop dedicated to medicines.

This is normally part of the gift shop/general store onboard.

Here you can find treatments for common problems such as headaches or colds. For more series medical conditions all cruises ships have an onboard medical center that carries a greater variety of medicines. 

Can You Get Prescriptions Filled on a Cruise?

Although medicine is available onboard it’s not usually possible to get prescription medicines if you leave yours at home.

It’s always advisable to bring more medicine than you think you’ll need. If you did run out, your medicine may have to be sourced from a local port which is not ideal.

To learn more about the best way to buy medication on a cruise, including where you can get free seasickness pills from, check out this post:

Do Cruise Ships Have Dentists Onboard?

To conclude:

Guests who get sick on a cruise have a number of options available to them based on the severity of the illness. They may be able to treat the illness with over the counter medicine or they may require a visit to the onboard medical center. In serve cases, guests may need to be airlifted off the ship.

Want to learn how to cruise well on a budget? Start here: How to Cruise For Less

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Emma Le Teace

Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community and website. You can learn more here: About Me.

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