Norwegian Cruise Line has hand sanitizers at every food station and entrance to all public rooms.
Norwegian Cruise Line has hand sanitizers at every food station. So use ’em!

If you’d rather not catch this messy bug, here’s what to know.

Being sick aboard a ship used to simply mean seasick. Not anymore. Norovirus, formerly Norwalk virus (from a gastroenteritis outbreak in 1968 at a public school in Norwalk, Ohio) seems to be in and out of the news year-round.  No one likes to sensationalize a cruise ship passengers plagued by this gross virus more than the media.

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. While not de rigueur, 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.

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 two 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, "Happy Happy, Washy Washy."
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 to prevent YOUR spreading the virus to others but will also help to fend off the bug for you. 20-seconds of scrubbing (sing the Happy Birthday song; it’s about 20-seconds) with hot water is sufficient.

2.  DON’T TOUCH RAILINGS, ELEVATOR BUTTONS AND CERTAINLY NOT BATHROOM DOOR HANDLES. Any surface that people slide, grab or touch is the enemy.

3.  STATEROOM SAFETY.  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. Don’t spread norovirus in your own space.

4. AVOID THE BUFFET.  Why? The buffet is a huge contender for spreading norovirus.  Before the outbreak is noted by the ship, utensil handles aren’t yet reversed. I’ve seen people cough into their hands and then grab the serving spoon. I leave the buffet line without hesitation.  Sometimes hot food gets warm (especially if it’s towards closing time).  Breeding ground for the virus and bacteria.

5. USE THE HAND SANITIZERS IN ADDITION TO THOROUGH WASHING.  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.

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 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 (like me) are prone to the virus.  But if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure to avoid norovirus, I’m all for it.

19 Comments on Avoid Norovirus on a Cruise Ship With These Five Easy Tips

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

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


  10. 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.

  11. 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.


  12. 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!


  13. 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!


  14. Hi Scott,

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


  15. Great tips! I also suggest staying healthy BEFORE your cruise! Make sure you take your vitamins to keep your immune system at 100%! Then rent the movie Contagion! You’ll get the hint about protecting yourself!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. I wish more people in the news media would read this piece. If angered me to hear last week on the radio a report from Houston concerning Princess Cruise Line’s CARIBBEAN PRINCESS. The news announcer said, “Another cruise related tragedy.” A tragedy? No one died, I’m sure those effected by the virus might have wished they had, but really. It’s no wonder people who have never cruise might be hesitant to try one when they constantly hears this type of “journalism.”

    Thank you for a well written and informative article.

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