Most cruise travelers sail happily and healthily, but anytime you step out of your daily routine, you let your physical guard down and become susceptible to all sorts of troubles. From Norovirus to swine flu, seasickness to dehydration and hangovers to jet lag, cruise ship passengers can easily succumb to a number of ailments.
Have we made you nervous? Don't be. It's relatively easy to stay healthy on a cruise ship if you take a few simple precautions. All you really need is a mental checklist and a few minutes a day. (Note to self: Pack the hand sanitizer, refill that water bottle, and apply sunscreen.)
While we can't guarantee you won't get sick -- for all you know, your germy coworkers may have already infected you before you embark on your trip -- here are our top 10 tips for staying healthy and minimizing your chances of getting sick on your next sailing.
Wash your hands. The number-one way to avoid getting Norovirus or other illnesses on a cruise is to thoroughly wash your hands -- more than you ordinarily would -- before and after you eat, after you use the restroom, when returning to the cruise ship after a day in port and every time you touch a stranger or an oft-touched item like a stairway railing or a slot machine. In this way, you'll kill any germs before they can infect you. In addition to ramping up hand-washing, also take advantage of the hand sanitizers strategically placed around cruise ships in the dining areas, by the gangway and even in various lounges and public spaces. But note that using a hand sanitizer is not a replacement for basic hand-washing.
Drink the water. Staying hydrated is a great way to stay healthy, whether it's during a hot day at the beach or in the stale air of an airplane on the way to your port of embarkation. Bring a reusable water bottle, and fill it up in the ship's buffet restaurant, or buy beverages ashore. If you're especially prone to dehydration in hot weather, try a sports drink like Gatorade, which contains electrolytes. Alcohol can also dehydrate you, so if you plan to spend plenty of time in the onboard bars, make sure you swap your beer or cocktail for a glass of water every so often.
Don't drink the water. I know we just told you to drink a lot of water, but in some destinations -- like Mexico or Egypt -- it's not necessarily safe to drink local water. Check the U.S. State Department's Web site (or the equivalent in your country of residence) for country-specific travel warnings; the section on "Medical Facilities and Health Information" will mention any restrictions on drinking water. In these destinations, you will want to drink only beverages in sealed bottles.
Also, avoid ice and fruit where you'd eat the skin, as well as uncooked vegetables. Bring your own drinks and snacks from the cruise ship to be safe -- though do be careful about breaking local laws in port that prohibit bringing meats and cheese ashore -- and when in doubt, ask whether items have been made or washed with local water.
Fight jet lag. You don't want to miss out on the first half of your cruise because you're so jet lagged that you're not sleeping well or sleeping at all the wrong hours. While everyone's body handles jet lag differently, one recommendation is to arrive at a far-away cruise port a day or two in advance. You can spend those early days in port getting acclimated to the time change so you don't collapse on your first day onboard. Other tricks include not taking a nap on your first day and staying up until a reasonable bedtime; spending a lot of time outside to take in as much natural light as possible; and choosing a medical remedy, such as melatonin, which helps your body's circadian rhythms adjust to a new time zone. (Just check with your doctor to make sure this option is right for you).
Wear sunscreen. You can just as easily get burned walking the streets of Europe in the summer, kayaking or scenic cruising in Alaska, and doing just about anything in the strong sun of Australia as you can by sun-lounging poolside. While it can be a pain to apply and re-apply your SPF 30, you will be in greater pain if you burn -- which can also prevent you from enjoying the next few days of your cruise.
Pace yourself at the buffet. It's very easy to eat yourself sick on a cruise ship, and night after night of rich, multi-course meals can take its toll on your tummy. You're less likely to feel queasy, bloated or sluggish if you eat wisely onboard. Plus, you won't come home weighing 10 pounds more than you did before vacation. We're not saying to skip the bacon or the tiramisu, but do consider limiting yourself to one full plate at the buffet, skipping one course at dinner (or eating half of every dish) or having a light lunch so you can indulge more at night. Also, if you eat at a slower pace, you will more thoroughly enjoy your food. Just make sure to stop eating when you're full. Remember, you're on a cruise ship. There will always be more goodies to savor whenever you get hungry again.
Chew ginger candies. Or eat green apples, wear acupressure wristbands, head outside for fresh air, look at the horizon, or book a low-deck, mid-ship cabin. Why? All of these tricks are ways to beat seasickness. You can also take over-the-counter meds like Dramamine, or ask your doctor about the Transderm patch. Alternately, book a very port-intensive itinerary (try Oceania or Azamara) in order to spend as few days at sea as possible. River cruising on Europe's normally placid waters is also a good bet for those worried about seasickness. And, Alaska's Inside Passage voyages are typically calm.
Take the stairs. It's quite tempting to become a daiquiri-guzzling, lounge chair-hogging, late-sleeping, food-demolishing couch potato on a cruise -- especially on warm-weather itineraries with lots of sea days. And, while you shouldn't have to spend precious vacation hours sweating it out in the gym, it's not a bad idea to slot a little bit of movement into your lazy, crazy days of cruising. One easy way to do this is to take the stairs. Not only will you use your muscles a bit every day, but you won't have to stand around waiting for an elevator. Another option is to take advantage of the promenade deck or outdoor jogging track to take a brisk walk.
Go easy on the alcohol. Yes, I've drunk my fill of mango mojitos and sung Billy Joel songs at piano bars until the wee hours of the morning -- and I've loved every minute of it. But, if you're looking to stay healthy onboard, excessive drinking is not the way to do it. Try to avoid boozing it up until you're sick or so drunk that you can't get back to your cabin. A hangover is the least of your worries -- excessive drinking can put you at risk of getting into a fight, becoming sexually compromised or even falling overboard. If you do plan to party, designate one of your travel companions as the sober one who can watch over the group and keep everyone safe.
Tell the truth. Our last tip is more about keeping everyone else healthy. Many cruise-ship illnesses come onboard on embarkation day with each new crop of passengers. These days, most lines ask guests to fill out forms indicating whether they've experienced certain symptoms in the past week. If you've been feeling under the weather, please answer these questions honestly. You will then meet with someone from the ship's medical team to determine the best course of action. It does not mean that you are automatically kicked off the cruise. While contagious cruisers may find themselves quarantined in their cabin for the first day, you are doing a great service to the rest of the passengers and crew by not spreading your virus around the ship and causing more travelers to become ill.