The Experienced Cruiser’s Guide to Cruising – Addendum

I’ve written about jazz cruising before, here, here, and here.

One of the things I hear a lot from novice cruisers who are curious but hesitate to book a cruise is “I don’t want to get sick with that stomach bug.”

And with an article like this one, I think their concerns are valid.

Here’s the thing: any illness on a cruise ship can spread in record time, if only on the account that on a boat, it’s like a canned hunt: you can’t really go anywhere to escape it. You’re in the middle of the sea with some thousand-odd people, and you’re not going anywhere your ship isn’t going, which in turn means that 1. the ship needs to be very well-equipped to handle any health concerns and safety concerns, and 2. the passengers need to take very basic precautions.

Norovirus is a nasty little bug, too, and I’m sure anyone who’s reading this had it at some point or another. You may know it commonly as the stomach flu, and I’m sure that this just made some of y’all cringe. Rightly so. It’s not an illness to be taken lightly; even though it comes and goes within 2-3 days tops, you can’t hold a thing down and if you’re lucky – if you’re very lucky – it’s just limited to the vomiting. You’ll still be weaker than a newborn kitten by the time it’s done, and have a good time eating anything other than toast, plain rice, bananas, and ginger ale or black tea to drink for another few days until your stomach stops rebelling.

This, on a cruise ship? Not fun in the least. Never mind for a minute that you’re supposed to be on vacation, but if you’re sick on a ship, you’re basically confined to your cabin. And I am not sure, but I wouldn’t put it past a cruise line to quarantine sick passengers – in the interests of containing a contagion, it’s actually the smartest thing to do.

I’ve been sick on a cruise before. Capital Jazz 2013. What happened was basically this: I had a little throat-tickle when I got off the plane in Florida. That tickle got to a light cough because when I was in the hotel, the A/C was strong. And I couldn’t turn it down, so I basically had an igloo in the middle of 90-degree Florida heat. That cough got worse in the 24 hours I spent in the hotel. I had no other symptoms, so I figured it’d pass with the Caribbean heat.

Nope! It got worse. The cough still got worse, and I couldn’t get a full breath of air into my lungs. Cue headaches, fever, etc. That little throat-tickle evolved into full-blown bronchitis in a matter of three days.

You can imagine what that did to the overall quality of my trip. This is how I discovered that the Carnival ships’ med bay is comparable to a small hospital, and they checked me out and treated me for only $50. It made the trip much more palatable, but I did not have an easy time of it, and would love to sail that it again – without my lungs remonstrating with me.

But here’s the thing: foodborne illnesses are a different ballgame than respiratory. Bronchitis is actually non-contagious; as long as I got plenty of sleep and kept the coughing to a minimum, I would not have been a source of concern (which is how it happened). Foodborne illnesses usually have the same source, and can affect nearly anyone. So stories like the one I linked above are not unique. This is actually something that can happen often, and would happen more frequently but for some precautions.

What are those precautions? Honestly, basic common sense, but just in case:

1. Do not eat anything that’s been sitting out for a prolonged period of time – doubly so if it’s (a) meat or (b) dairy-based.

If your burger wasn’t grilled in front of you, don’t eat it. Usually, on Carnival, Guy Fieri’s Grill sees enough action that you don’t ever have to worry about having fresh burgers (and they’re bloody delicious, too), but I cannot say the same for the potato salad in the buffet line. I do not trust anything that contains sour cream or mayonnaise unless it was set out in front of my own eyes. Reason: easiest way to get food poisoning. If you’ve never gotten sick from bad dairy, I envy you.

For the love of cheese: ignore the hot dogs unless, again, they were done right in front of you. Processed meat in general is high in salt, and depending on what else you’re eating, it may not sit so well. From experience, skip the turkey at the deli. You don’t want your stomach telling you what it thinks of you for days to follow.

2. Use the sanitizer stands very liberally.

They’re on every ship, at every entrance, to every public place. Use them. This is how you prevent any bug spreading in the first place: antibacterials. Seriously: I don’t care what excuse you have. Use. The damn. Sanitizer stands.

3. Watch your dinner orders (especially seafood and shellfish)

Here you have a little more flex on the account that, generally, cruise ship dining has pretty great quality control. I’ve gotten five-star meals at the steakhouse and it’s a pretty excellent atmosphere to boot, but most crucially, I did not feel any cause for concern insofar as quality. I love a medium-rare filet mignon; I also know that it’ll be very fresh and well prepared in the steakhouse. Would I trust the same thing in the main dining room? Probably not as much. Would I trust the main dining room to have a solid shrimp cocktail? Yes, but I’d probably still watch the shrimp.

I had an incident where I was at a Sheraton hotel (not a cruise, but related) in…2011? I think, and asked for a shrimp cocktail. It arrived raw. As in, the shrimp was still gray. You don’t have to be a foodie to know that well-cooked shrimp is usually pink and kind of firm to the touch. Yes, that got the Sheraton a few terse words, but you’d think that it’s common sense to boil the shrimp thoroughly before serving it.

Some years ago, I had an episode where I got sick as a dog off seafood bisque. Which is primarily lobster and shrimp-based. I was out of commission for two days, and my body didn’t like it to such a degree that I couldn’t eat any shellfish for two years without getting violently ill. That passed and worked itself out, but I’m sure you can understand why I’m cautious with my food, as well as why I only ever go to two or three places in the entirety of NY for fresh oysters.

Just FYI – you cannot pay me to have oysters on a cruise ship. Those MFers have to be alive up until they’re shucked to serve, and if I’m in a floating gigantic tin can for 7 days, I have no guarantee to that.

And crucially…

4. In the event you are sick, please limit contact with other people.

This is nothing personal. Seriously, it’s common sense: if you’re sick, make sure other people won’t be sick right along with you. Misery might love company, but not on a huge ship in the middle of nowhere for 7 straight days! Seriously: if you are sick, please, please quarantine yourself for a day or two, or hit up the med bay for something that will make life a little more tolerable. But please, for the love of cheese, do not get other people sick.

Ultimately, you can avoid getting sick a lot more easily than most people think. So please take the norovirus articles with a grain of salt; this is a situation that, while very bad on a lot of levels, is actually very much avoidable and salvageable.

Until the next trip…