Can I board a cruise ship if I'm sick?

Sick on vacation

No one is going to call you out for sneezing or coughing in the check-in line for your cruise. But as a matter of course, all cruise lines require that boarding passengers fill out a health questionnaire that asks if you have been vomiting, running a fever or experiencing other symptoms of illness in the past week. If you indicate that you have been feeling sick, you will be pulled aside for a quick checkup. If the ship's medical personnel determine that you're feverish, contagious or otherwise ill, they have the authority to prevent you from boarding.

If I get sick, do cruise ships have doctors onboard?

Most cruise ships will have one or two doctors and up to four nurses onboard to treat sick passengers. Medical staff must meet certain training requirements, but they do not have to be certified in the United States. They work in the ship's medical center, usually found on one of the lower decks. The facility likely contains a pharmacy and several beds. Equipment might include wheelchairs, stretchers, back boards for spine immobilization, lab capabilities for tests, oxygen, EKG capability, defibrillators, cardiac monitors and other equipment to gauge vital signs.

Doctors and nurses can treat minor ailments and injuries, dole out medicine and assess and stabilize passengers with more serious medical conditions. They cannot care for patients who are severely injured or have life-threatening conditions. If onboard medical staff deem a passenger to be seriously ill, they will likely have the patient disembarked at the next port of call or medevaced by helicopter to the nearest hospital for more comprehensive treatment. If a doctor says you are too sick to remain onboard, you must abide by his or her orders. Typically, a member of the cruise line's Care Team will accompany the ill passenger and a companion or family member to the hospital. For more, read our article on getting sick at sea.

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Will an onboard doctor accept my health insurance?

No, the full amount of onboard medical care will be charged to your onboard account, regardless of whether you are fully insured at home. However, you aren't necessarily on the hook for the whole amount. Once you pay the cruise line, you should submit receipts and documentation to your health insurance provider to recoup whatever your insurance will pay for out-of-network emergency care. If you've purchased travel insurance, it will often cover the remaining amount.

Will I get seasick on a cruise?

It's possible. Most cruise ships are built with stabilizers to make the ride as smooth as possible. Even so, people who are prone to motion sickness can start to feel queasy onboard. Even those who never get seasick could find themselves in a bit of discomfort if their ship sails through rough waters or a storm. If you have a tendency to get seasick, book a cabin on a low deck that's in the middle of the ship, as that's the most stable location.

Cruise Critic highly recommends all passengers bring seasickness medicine with them (like Dramamine or Bonine). If you've forgotten to bring medicine with you, you will be able to get it onboard. Some cruise lines offer pills at the purser's desk for free, while others sell it in onboard stores. On particularly rough sailings, most cruise lines will provide medicine free of charge. Other remedies include pressure point wrist bands, eating green apples or ginger, getting fresh air and staring at the horizon. If you feel ill, the worst place to be is inside where there are no windows.

If you are violently seasick or can't seem to get your stomach to settle, you can visit the cruise ship's doctor, who might be able to prescribe a stronger anti-nausea medicine. Unfortunately, seasickness is not a reason to be medevaced from a ship; if you feel you can't continue on your cruise, you leave the ship on your own dime and won't be refunded for missing days.

I've heard about people getting stomach bugs on cruises. How can I avoid that?

Some ships are struck with bouts of norovirus, a contagious stomach bug that spreads quickly in contained environments with lots of people, such as cruise ships, schools, nursing homes and restaurants. You can avoid getting sick by washing your hands (or using provided hand sanitizer stations), limiting person-to-person contact and not directly touching objects used by lots of people (buffet tongs, staircase railings, etc.). If a ship experiences an outbreak, the crew will take measures to increase cleaning efforts and reduce self-service food options. If you get sick, it's best to remain in your cabin until symptoms pass so you won't spread the illness to other passengers.

If I end up spending days in my cabin because I'm sick, can I get a partial refund for my cruise?

Quarantine

In most cases, you will not receive any refund or compensation if you get sick during your cruise and cannot participate in onboard or onshore activities -- another great reason to take preventive measures to ensure you remain healthy onboard. However, some lines might offer partial refunds or future cruise credit to passengers who get sick with norovirus and need to be quarantined in their cabins.

Can I buy medication on a cruise ship?

Yes. Most ship stores sell a limited supply of over-the-counter medications, usually at a marked-up rate from what you'd find at home. Cruise ship medical centers carry a more extensive selection of over-the-counter and prescription medicine, though nothing like your local pharmacy or hospital. Again, fees for obtaining pills can be quite high, and you may or may not be reimbursed through your health or travel insurance when you return home and submit a claim. You can also buy medicine in port, but foreign pharmacies might not carry the same brands you're used to. They also might not have the same regulations as at home and might not accept foreign prescriptions. You are better served bringing a range of over-the-counter medications just in case; as always, make sure you pack any needed prescription medicine.

How can I find out more about getting sick on a cruise?

You might like the following articles:

The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.