Avoid Norovirus (and Worse) on a Cruise Ship With These Seven Important Tips

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? 

Avoid norovirus by washing your hands at dining entrances.
Starting around 2017, new cruise ships installed hand washing stations at Lido buffet entrances. As you can see, this looks relatively unused at dinner time.

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. 

Norwegian Cruise Line has hand sanitizers at every food station and entrance to all public rooms.
Norwegian Cruise Line (and now EVERY cruise line) has hand sanitizers at each food station. So use them!

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?

At Cunard's cocktail parties, there is no handshaking allowed. While not de rigueur, elbow bumping is ok!
At Cunard’s cocktail parties, there is no handshaking allowed. Elbow bumping is ok!

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 is cautious at their buffet service.
No self-service at the Lido buffet at the beginning of every cruise. Handles are turned backwards and guests are served.

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?

On a country music cruise aboard the Norwegian Pearl, Lonestar sings a parody about Norwegian's spritz-happy crew,
On a country music cruise aboard the Norwegian Pearl, Lonestar wrote and sang a parody about Norwegian’s sanitizing spritz-crazy crew, “Happy Happy, Washy Washy.”

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.

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  1. Hi Phil,
    Thank you for your comment and I totally understand your (and probably thousands of others) situation. I am not a medical professional, but from what you wrote, if this medical issue was applied to my husband or mother or even sister, I would advise not going to Europe next month. Cruise lines (and airlines) are being extremely lenient with cancellation or rebooking trips so this is a good time to seriously think about contacting either your travel agent if you used one or contacting the air and cruise lines to rebook or cancel your trip. Personally, being in my 60s, I still would not travel abroad until this epidemic runs its course. Just my thoughts. I wish you both a wonderful voyage when you do go and safe and healthy travels ahead for all of us.
    Thank you again for writing.

  2. my wife has a compromised immune system because of medication for rheumatoid arthritis. do you know if this is justification for a change of the cruise we are scheduled for this april 9th. it looks like it will be too risky to go to england and france and all i want is to schedule another cruise to where it is safe. probably next winter. if this cannot be done i stand to lose around 6000.00$.

  3. Hi Gary,
    Thank you for reading the article and taking the time to write your comment. I totally agree. It’s a terrible situation going on right now. Too bad the cruise lines can’t revert back to the days of real brass railings.

  4. The problem is largely the cruise line’s fault. Brass surfaces kill microbes including norovirus almost immediately on contact. If all the touch surfaces were bare naked brass, not clear coated, as they formerly were on ships before plastic, those surfaces would self-sterilize constantly throughout the day. Those red plastic serving tongs in the picture are the cruise ship’s fault.

    Maybe update your post here and push the cruise lines to fix their problem. As I write this, cruise ships are quarantined with coronavirus. Brass or copper touch surfaces would have killed the coronavirus too.

  5. Congratulations, Joyce! You did exactly the right things. It’s really tough to remember all the precautions to take, especially when your eye itches! I can’t imagine being in the same stateroom with someone who comes down with Noro. Good job! Thanks for your comment.

  6. My husband got sick on a recent cruise, but I did not. I followed the hand washing/sanitizer suggestions. I used a tissue on taps, flush handles, remotes, etc. I also kept my hands away from my mouth, nose, and eyes-which took a conscious effort.

  7. Hi Aida,
    Congrats on your first family cruise. I would suggest that you talk to your doctor and ask what medications you should bring with you. Aside from meds, I always have some type of Clorox wipes for surfaces and hand-cleaning wipes, too. But your doctor is your best advisor, especially with children.

    Have a great time!

  8. My husband and I will be going on our first cruise with our 2 boys, 13, 7. We are looking forward to it. What can we bring just in case we come down with something?

    Thank you.

  9. Hand sanitizer does nothing for norovirus! You must wash with soap and water and cleaning must be done with bleach or Lysol hydrogen peroxide cleaners!

  10. Hi Kimberly, Thank you for your comment. I really think that most times, the ship does above and beyond what it can to prevent a GI issue. It’s people who refuse to wash their hands or don’t use sanitizer that many times are the culprits. I’m glad all worked out well and sorry to hear of your group getting sick. I hope your next cruise is fabulous!

  11. Thank you for the informative article. Three of my friends and I have just left a cruise ship with a very unpleasant gastrointestinal issue. The morning we left the ship we spoke to several people who were experiencing it as well. I will not name the ship or the cruise line because I feel that they did everything they could to keep everyone safe and healthy. The ship was incredibly clean, washing stations were present at all buffets, crew encouraged people to wash their hands upon entering buffets, and the crew and chefs were highly attentive to everything happening on the ship at all times. I think it’s very possible this illness could have a source other than the ship itself. Having said all of that my friends and I have been inconvenienced and uncomfortable but we have all been able to work upon return and are almost all better now. I’m not terribly upset about it, it’s life. I enjoyed the cruise, I enjoyed the destinations we visited, and a good time was had by all!

  12. Also, taking a strong probiotic during the cruise, lowers your chances . it prevents the virus doesn’t adhere well to the walls of your intestines.

  13. Thanks for sharing this article about avoiding the norovirus. Hope it is helpful to your readers.


  14. It’s important to note, though, that alcohol-based hand sanitizers actually do NOTHING to prevent the spread of norovirus. Norovirus is different from the common cold/flu in that its cell walls cannot be ruptured by alcohol (the active ingredient in hand sanitizer). The only thing–other than physically removing the virus from your hands via a rigorous scrub with soap and water–that kills norovirus is bleach.

    Hand-washing will save you. Hand sanitizer will not.

  15. Hi Dan,

    There’s an old newspaper saying, “if it bleeds, it leads.” So it seems to be with anything related to a cruise issue and the press. Such a shame, too. Thanks for your comment.


  16. Hi Ali,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I’ve seen the same disgusting habits at buffets…in hotels, too. Clever idea to sanitize the light switches etc. Wishing you happy and healthy travels!


  17. Hi Patricia,

    Thanks for your comment. People simply want to blame someone else, it seems, and a cruise line is a prime target. Every ship really has to be sure that the person at the entrance to the restaurants spritzes everyone’s hands. Sadly, the lotion isn’t sufficient to kill all germs, but it’s better than nothing. Lucky you not getting sick on that cruise!


  18. Hi Scott,

    I totally agree! Except for the movie….yuk! But it does get the point across. Happy, healthy travels!


  19. Excellent article. I’ve had it but on land thankfully and it’s very unpleasant. But in 2011, there was an outbreak on my QM2 cruise. First reported case in Madeira, 2nd November and there were still cases when we returned to Southampton on the 10th. Despite all warnings, there were still far too many people ignoring them. Many would come back in port, not sanitise their hands then head straight for the buffet, also walking past the machines and crew (it wasn’t enforced). I was surrounded by sick people on my deck and was grateful not to catch it. I’m fed up with people blaming the cruise lines when it’s not as if they don’t know what to do to prevent it.

  20. Great article! I am one who usually eats at the buffets and sadly I have seen people actually lick their finger then swipe the serving spoon to get the chopped egg onto their salad plate then stick the spoon back into the eggs. I have notified crew many times when I have seen people literally stick their fingers in something and then taste the sauce. Sickening!! These are adults, not children!!! I travel with Lysol wipes and the first thing I do upon entering my cabin for the first time is wipe the light switches, the phone, the TV remote and the button to flush the toilet.

    Using the paper towel to open a community restroom door is something I have always done and something I taught my daughter to do as well. It’s amazing on a ship how many people don’t wash their hands after using the restrooms.

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