Taking a Cruise: How Likely Are You to Get Sick?

Photo (cc) by kansasphoto

Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas cut short a 10-day cruise after nearly 700 people on board were treated to something not featured on the itinerary: vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. While a norovirus is suspected, the cause of sickness has not yet been determined.

It was the largest outbreak of illness on a cruise ship in 20 years, CNN says.

In the first month of 2014, there have been three major outbreaks of norovirus-like illness aboard cruise ships that dock in the U.S.

Are cruise ships floating petri dishes?

Earlier this month, 142 people aboard the Norwegian Star of the Norwegian Cruise Line were stricken with vomiting and diarrhea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, the Caribbean Princess from Princess Cruise Lines cut short its journey and docked at Houston on Thursday night after 162 passengers and 11 crew members became ill. Again, a norovirus appears to be at fault.

“In 2013, there were nine reported incidents — seven caused by norovirus, one by E. coli and another in November from a still-unknown cause,” the Houston Chronicle says. That’s fewer than the 16 illness outbreaks on cruise ships reported in 2012. The year 2004 was a particularly bad one, with 32 outbreaks. You can track all of the outbreaks and their causes at the CDC’s website here.

Keeping ships clean

In all fairness to the cruise industry, the number of passengers who contract norovirus or other gastrointestinal illnesses on a cruise ship is actually quite small. The Cruise Lines International Association says only 0.01 percent of passengers were afflicted with norovirus while on a cruise in 2012.

Still, the problem is big enough that the CDC developed the Vessel Sanitation Program and maintains a section on its website specifically addressing norovirus. The CDC conducts two unannounced inspections per year for each ship and has issued a 260-plus-page manual outlining proper sanitation procedures and expectations.

Unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances, cruise ships provide the perfect environment for norovirus to spread. The virus is notoriously difficult to kill, and the close confines of a cruise ship means plenty of opportunities for it to land on railings or doorknobs or in food prep areas.

If someone comes on board with norovirus already in their system, it wouldn’t necessarily take long for it to make its way across the entire ship.

Cruise line compensation varies

So, if there’s an outbreak on your trip, is the cruise line legally required to reimburse you? “For the most part, airlines and cruises are not obligated by law to compensate customers when things go badly on a trip,” Time’s Brad Tuttle says.

Cruise lines sometimes offer compensation, but there’s a wide range.

Passengers on the Caribbean Princess were offered an overnight stay in Houston and a 20 percent credit toward a future cruise, the Chronicle reports.

Royal Caribbean is offering Explorer of the Seas passengers a 50 percent refund and a 50 percent credit for a future cruise, CNN says. Those sick people ordered to stay in their rooms will get a credit for each day they were quarantined.

Would buying travel insurance help in case of an outbreak during your trip? It depends. Writes Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates, on FoxNews.com:

Regular travel insurance will not allow you to cancel a planned cruise just because the ship has had an outbreak of norovirus on a previous cruise, unless you specifically buy a “cancel for any reason” travel insurance policy.

… Trip interruption is different, with the compensation based on a prorated per diem cost of the vacation. But if a cruise line gives the passengers compensation, … then the insurance company will not see your situation as a “loss” and will not reimburse you.

How not to lose your lunch

Norovirus is not limited to cruise ships. It’s extremely contagious and can easily spread wherever people congregate. But you can take steps to protect yourself.

  • Read the CDC’s norovirus website. For instance, it tells you that you’re most contagious while you’re sick and for three days after you recover. Norovirus remains in stool for two weeks.
  • Wash your hands often. Norovirus spreads when we touch a contaminated surface and then either put our hands near our mouth or touch something going into our mouth, such as food. The CDC recommends frequent hand washing, particularly before you eat.
  • Avoid infected people. “Some studies show it can be aerosolized. If you throw up and then flush the toilet, how much of the spray gets into the air?” Allison Aiello, who studies viruses at the University of Michigan, told NBC News.
  • Think twice about the buffet. It’s the perfect environment for the virus to jump from person to person via shared utensils. If you have to hit the buffet, try to go as soon as it opens so you are there when the food is fresh and hasn’t been picked over by hundreds of other hands.
  • Check the cruise line’s record. The CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program also publishes inspection reports.These companies have never failed a CDC inspection during the past 10 years, says MarketWatch.
    • Costa
    • Norwegian
    • Oceana
    • Disney
    • Crystal
    • Seabourn

Have you gotten sick on a cruise? Share your story in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Karen Datko contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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