Update: I wrote this article way back in 2015. Here we are in 2020 faced with a deadly outbreak of coronavirus around the world and what I preached back then is finally becoming mainstream. These common-sense hygiene tips apply even more now than they did five years ago.
I can’t tell you how many times over the last decade I’ve watched in absolute horror as people at a cruise ship dining table reach across to shake hands. What were they thinking?
Whether coronavirus, norovirus or any human coronavirus, vigilant hygiene on a cruise ship is more important than ever. (Sure, maybe it’s nearly inevitable that a virus will spread on cruise ships as we’ve seen with Diamond Princess and now possibly Grand Princess.) But you can avoid norovirus and hopefully coronavirus if you are careful. Very careful.
But here are the absolute basic hygiene and common sense rules to follow, written in 2015 and now more than ever if you have not canceled your upcoming cruise. And for any future cruises once coronavirus outbreak has diminished or finally gone.
If you’d rather not catch norovirus (worse, cornoavirus), here’s what to know.
Being sick aboard a ship used to simply mean seasick. Norovirus, formerly Norwalk virus seems to be in and out of the news year-round. Whether it’s helpful or harmful to sensationalize cruise ship passengers plagued by this gross virus is debateable. (And now we see this with coronavirus.)
Cruise lines issue Code Red, a term used when at least more than five people become ill over five consecutive days. These actual numbers to qualify for a Code Red may vary with each cruise line. According to the CDC, somewhere between 19 and 21 million people in the U.S. contract the norovirus each year.
Don’t blame the cruise line.
If you think the cruise line is at fault, consider this. In order to board a cruise ship, passengers must complete a health questionnaire that asks if they have had symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, fever or sore throat.
Many cruise guests have either flown or driven a great distance and spent a lot of money for their cruise. Do you think anyone might actually not tell the truth on that form? A “yes” answer may required medical exam by the ship’s physician prior to boarding or denial of boarding.
So yes. People lie. And people don’t purchase travel insurance, either. Guess what spreads like wildfire once the ship is underway? Norovirus. Ship’s fault? Not hardly.
What some of the cruise lines do in anticipation of norovirus carriers coming onboard?
Cunard and Holland America Line: No handshaking at any of the “meet the officers” parties. Signs are posted at the ballroom or lounge entrances. If the officers want to avoid norovirus spreading like wildfire on their cruise ship, who am I to question it.
Holland America takes a preemptive strike and for the first three days of every voyage on every ship, none of the passengers can serve themselves at the Lido buffet. Serving utensils are turned with the handles away from the guests and only waiters stationed generously throughout the serving line, can dish up the grub.
What you can do to avoid norovirus on your next cruise?
1. Wash your hands.
This not only helps you to avoid norovirus spreading to others but will also help to fend off the bug for you. 20-seconds of thoroughly scrubbing your hands (slowly sing the Happy Birthday song; it’s about 20-seconds) with hot water is sufficient.
2. Don’t ever touch railings, elevator buttons and certainly not bathroom door handles.
I watch (again in horror) as people slide their hands along staircase railings. Many people do need to hang on to the rail for stability. But others who don’t should not be sliding their hands as they go up and down the stairs. Instead, what I do is hover my hand over the railing so that if I need to grab on, I can.
Any surface that people slide, grab or touch is the enemy. And think about this…your stateroom attendant wear gloves when cleaning your bathroom and probably others, too. Then, without taking off their gloves, open and close your stateroom doors. I never leave my stateroom after it’s been cleaned without using a tissue to touch the door handles.
3. Stateroom safety and precautions
Wash your hands immediately upon returning to your stateroom. Who knows who might have inadvertently touched the corridor door handle or what you might have accidentally touched en route to your stateroom. Avoid bringing norovirus in your own space.
Those throw pillows and colorful bed scarf? Tell your room steward to remove them. Spray the tv remote and/or keep it in a thin plastic bag. It’ll still work.
4. Avoid the buffet – depending on your ship’s vigilance
Why? The buffet is a huge contender for spreading norovirus. Before the outbreak is noted by the ship, utensil handles aren’t reversed. When I see people cough into their hands and then grab the serving spoon, I leave the buffet line without hesitation.
5. Use hand sanitizers in addition to thoroughly washing your hands.
You wash your hands before leaving your stateroom but without realizing it, touch a railing on the stairs or an elevator button. Always use the hand sanitizers. Carry your own, too, because once seated in the dining room, the menus and chair arms can be contaminated.
6. Wash your hands again after ordering your meal in the dining room.
This may sound nuts, but think about it. Someone with a virus sits down to eat in the dining room. This person will not only handle the menu, but most likely grab the bottom of their chair or chair arms to move closer to the table. As soon as I order and hand the menu to the waiter, I push away from the table and go to wash my hands. When I return, I do not put my hands on the underneath of the chair seat and slowly work the chair closer to the table in little hops.
7. Muster drill
If your ship handles muster drill by lining people up in rows outside on deck under the lifeboats, you do not want to be at the front of the line. Get there early and stand at the very start of the line, with your back to the ship. If you’re at the front, everyone behind you is a potential cougher who doesn’t cover their mouth.
Sounding paranoid, am I? Yes, a bit. But being sick (or worse now…getting coronavirus) isn’t worth the slight embarrassment of offending someone by not shaking hands or avoiding crowds of people in a confined space.
Coronavirus, norovirus or any virus – common sense precautions should always be taken.
If it sounds like I’m a bit paranoid, I am. I have friends who have experienced this debilitating bug and it sounds like no fun at all. And it’s no fun for the crew either. When an outbreak or norovirus occurs, there is a 24-hour sanitizing procedure in place every day until it’s under control. No rest for the weary.
The next time you hear or read about an outbreak of norovirus on a cruise ship, realize that it isn’t totally the fault of the ship or the cruise experience. In my opinion, ignorant or self-entitled passengers are the main cause for spreading the illness. While many crew members stationed at restaurants do try to spritz everyone’s hands, they are not policemen/women. Guests sneak past thinking they don’t need it and so it goes.
Of course, even the most cautious of cruisers are prone to the virus. All it takes is one small bit of forgetfulness. But if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure to avoid norovirus and now coronavirus, I’m all for it.
Related articles from Cruise Maven
- Cruise ship denied ports in Asia, heads to Alaska
- Coronovirus updates for Westerdam and Diamond Princess
- Holland America Maasdam Review
I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels, collecting recipes along the way. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath…stop for a local meal and a glass of wine along the way.