Don’t Let Sickness Sink Your Vacation

Travel is exciting and fun, but cruise ships and other crowded vacation destinations are often rife with bugs and viruses. Here are some great tips for staying healthy on the road.


Vacation is all about relaxation, except if you’re among the unlucky travelers stricken with a virus or other ailment.

In recent high-profile cases, hundreds of travelers were clobbered by viruses on the Fred Olsen Cruises trip from “Old England to New England” and on a Disney cruise that sailed from Miami to the Bahamas.

Outbreaks on cruise ships get an especially bad rap — and lots of press.

But in reality, there is a risk of contagious bugs wherever travelers go in large numbers — whether playing the slots in Las Vegas, splashing at water parks, visiting state fairs or trekking at popular national parks.

You can’t control everything, but there are ways you can lower the risk of these vacation wreckers — some that make sense for all crowded destinations and some preparations you can make by studying the hazards in a different country or climate on your itinerary. Here are some to get you thinking and acting to minimize the risks:

Always use hand sanitizer before eating

Photo (cc) by Jade JacksonPhoto (cc) by Jade Jackson

The alcohol base kills bacteria. But don’t just put a squirt on your hands and rub it off, said Vicki Sowards, nurse manager at Passport Health. “Get it in between your fingers,” said Sowards, who is based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It’s also wise to use hand sanitizer after handling restaurant menus, suggests long-time travel journalist David Yeskel. “Carrying a sample-size sanitizer bottle in a pocket or purse provides good second-level protection,” he said.

Insist kids wash hands before and after play

Photo (cc) by Sarah GilbertPhoto (cc) by Sarah Gilbert

Kids clubs and play areas for kids at resorts almost always have hand-washing sinks and sanitizers, but they are often ignored, said Yeskel. He advised having kids clean their hands upon entering and leaving a club.

Amesh Adalja, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said It’s more effective to use soap and water than sanitizer if there’s a choice. He also stressed that kids should be told to avoid others who are ill. “It may not be practical or advisable to restrict children’s activities in the absence of an outbreak,” he said. “Good hygiene is the best defense but will not be an ironclad solution.”

Be choosy about what you eat

Photo (cc) by Phil WhitehousePhoto (cc) by Phil Whitehouse

It’s best to avoid buffets, even those with sneeze guards.

“Even with those shields, bacteria can spread,” said Sowards, who also urged caution with plated meals. “If meat is served and it’s not hot, send it back. Bacteria can grow on it. … It’s also a good idea to avoid anything that’s egg-based (such as Hollandaise sauce).”

Report your illness

Sodanie ChaePhoto (cc) by Sodanie Chae

If you are sick, tell someone in authority on the cruise or even at an all-inclusive resort.

“They will want to know as soon as possible,” said Sowards. “If they have a few people complain, they might make some changes” such as requiring all servers to wear gloves.

Avoid shaking hands and other automatic reactions

Photo (cc) by Enrico PetraroloPhoto (cc) by Enrico Petrarolo

It’s common practice to shake hands, drink from bottles without wiping the top or touch restroom faucets after washing hands. Avoid those actions when you’re on vacation, said Sowards. Instead of handshakes, engage in elbow bumps. “Also be careful in different ports,” said Sowards of both ingesting food in port (more on that below) and bringing it back. “You can import E.coli onto the ship.”Ask the concierge or travel experts for recommendations.

Cruise line caution

Photo (cc) by U.S. Department of the InteriorPhoto (cc) by U.S. Department of the Interior

Look at the Centers for Disease Control’s “Vessel Sanitation Program,” and you’ll find that most cruise ships are without issues that could raise health concerns.

“Despite the undeservedly bad rap that the cruise industry is stuck with regarding the dreaded intestinal illness norovirus, the truth is that the perceived threat to passengers is much greater than the actual one,” said travel journalist Yeskel. “In fact, a recent CDC study showed that of the total number of norovirus outbreaks reported to that agency, only 1 percent originated on cruise ships.”

If you’re considering an international cruise, the CDC regularly posts and updates outbreak reports. Incidents of such outbreaks are quite rare, but you nonetheless should follow the suggestions above — wash your hands, choose foods carefully, etc. — and those below that pertain to landing in foreign countries.

International travel

Photo (cc) by David BerkowitzPhoto (cc) by David Berkowitz

Whenever you travel overseas, all of the above rules apply, plus more.

Learn about your destination, and prepare for an illness from unfamiliar sources — including climate, unsanitary water or food and illnesses that are endemic. Visit a travel clinic before you go. These days many pharmacies will provide vaccines and meds that are commonly recommended for ailments in the area to which you are traveling — such as malaria, typhoid and hepatitis.

As previously mentioned, ask travel experts or tour guides for recommendations before you dine out in a foreign land, especially when you’re in developing countries where health standards may vary from those in the United States.

“When you do eat or drink, pay close attention,” said Sowards, who noted that the tops of containers should be wiped before you open them. “Wipe down the top of a can or bottle before you open it. And when you open it, listen for the ‘pop.'”

Whatever you do, avoid iced drinks, in which bacteria can grow, she said. Also, if you buy fruit to eat on the street, stick to those you can peel, such as a bananas.

If you opt to eat at a food cart or pop-up restaurant, be choosy. “You want to see that there are a lot of customers so you know there is a lot of turnover in food,” Sowards said. “You don’t want food that is just sitting for long periods of time.”

And, of course, ask your local host or hotel whether tap water is safe to drink, learn about altitude sickness if you’re going to the mountains, and pay attention to staying hydrated if you’re in an extra hot climate.

What is your approach to keeping healthy on vacation? Share with us in comments or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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