Survival Guide: How I Tried to Stay Healthy on a Cruise
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have considered taking a vacation on a cruise ship. Between scary headlines about cruise ship outbreaks of norovirus and my love for all-inclusive Caribbean resorts, I simply never pictured myself boarding a cruise ship.
All of that changed several months ago when I was tasked with interviewing doctors and cruise experts that squashed any fear I had of going on a cruise. My boyfriend and I decided it was time to treat ourselves to a much-needed vacation. We weighed options of a cruise and staying at a resort in Mexico. Once we wrote out all of the pros and cons, we decided to go on a cruise – my very first cruise.
In my pre-cruise research I discovered there are two common health risks on cruise ships I could potentially encounter on my trip: getting sick and gaining weight.
I wasn’t worried about past headlines about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships –I learned that approximately 22 million people board cruise ships each year and the number of passengers who report outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness only reaches into the low thousands, which is a tiny percentage. Plus, I knew about the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), which helps the cruise industry prevent and control the introduction, transmission and spread of gastrointestinal illnesses on ships.
Instead, I was more concerned about the fact that I was cruising in December, a.k.a. cold and flu season. In terms of illness, the most common health risk to cruise passengers this time of year is respiratory illnesses. Just like any other public place, people board cruise ships with colds and coughs and spread them to others by not covering their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze.
Keeping it clean
Just like any other public place, you’re at risk of picking up germs others have left behind on a cruise ship. But I was in a bit of a different predicament: I started my cruise with a cold. I wanted to be careful to not spread my germs to other guests, but I was particularly mindful of not picking up other germs with an already compromised immune system. This meant being mindful of what I touched and being diligent about keeping my hands clean.
So you can imagine my delight when I boarded the Norwegian Star for the very first time and the first person to greet every single passenger was a crew member armed with a spray bottle of hand sanitizer – my inner germophobe rejoiced. That wasn’t the only time I saw a crew member offering guests a spritz of hand sanitizer – every time I walked by the ship’s buffet-style restaurant, there was a crew member waiting to help keep guests’ hands clean.
When there wasn’t a crew member, there was a hand sanitizer dispenser. In fact, it seemed like there was hand sanitizer everywhere I turned – at the entrance of every restaurant, at the start of every buffet line, near the elevators, at the entrance back onto the ship at ports, the fitness center entrance and periodically throughout heavily traveled hallways on the ship. I carried my own travel-size hand sanitizer in my purse, especially on days when I planned to get off the ship at port in case there wouldn’t be a place to wash my hands.
Speaking of hand washing, it has long been touted as the very best way to avoid getting sick and that hand sanitizer is supposed to be used when you don’t have access to soap and water. There were bathrooms located near every restaurant, bar, lounge and theater, that made popping into one to wash my hands easy. Even better, there was a special trash can located near the door in the women’s bathrooms to make it easy to use a paper towel to open the bathroom door without touching the handle with your bare, clean hands.
No matter whether I’m spending a weekend at the Jersey shore or flying to a vacation, I bring a fully stocked mini-pharmacy with me just in case. I stock it with ibuprofen, Benadryl, Band-Aids, sunscreen, bug spray, Pepcid AC and Pepto-Bismol. I know, it sounds excessive, but I like to feel prepared for any situation while on vacation. Since this was a unique vacation for me, there was one more product I brought: Dramamine. I had never been seasick before, but then again I had never been on a cruise and didn’t want to risk not having seasickness medication in case I started not feeling well. And, since I was feeling a bit under the weather before leaving, I also brought cough medicine.
At the end of the trip, the only medication I ever used from my arsenal was the cough medicine and ibuprofen…after all, we did drink a little bit on the trip.
Battling the bulge
Friends and family who have cruised before told me to expect to see a lot of food during my trip. Well, they certainly weren’t kidding. There were countless dining options for every meal and anytime in between. The buffet-style restaurant seemed like it was always open, there was a restaurant that served late night snacks, the pool bar offered up cheeseburgers and ice cream all afternoon and, of course, there was always the option of room service. If you chose to have a meal at a sit-down restaurant on the ship, you could literally order everything on the menu – there was no limit.
After seeing all of that, I understood how cruise passengers could gain a whopping five to 10 pounds during a week-long vacation. In fact, on the last day, I saw five people get into an elevator only for two of them to immediately get off – the emergency alarm went off signaling them that the load was too heavy to move up or down!
In my daily non-vacation routine, I watch what I eat, monitor portion sizes and cook almost every meal for myself. I quickly realized that it wasn’t hard to find something healthy to eat at nearly every meal. At breakfast, there was always an option to have eggs, whether scrambled or an egg white omelet full of veggies. They always had fresh fruit, yogurt and granola too.
Lunch and dinner were a little more difficult…there just was more temptation for delicious and not-so-healthy dishes. If we decided to have a sit-down lunch, we went to the ship’s steakhouse restaurant. I can’t resist a great steak – so I’d order the New York strip steak with a shrimp cocktail appetizer. If we were on the go or lying by the pool, we’d opt for the quick grilled lunch offered out by the pool. Lunch options were a little more limited here, mostly cheeseburgers, turkey burgers, hot dogs, French fries and a pasta dish. I would order a hamburger or turkey burger without the bun…yeah, I know that sounds incredibly boring, but I knew I’d eventually have a scoop of strawberry ice cream and a big dinner later in the day.
And, speaking of dinner, the food by and large was really delicious. Just like the other meals on the ship, I could always find healthy dishes that also tasted great for the final meal of the day. I started nearly every dinner with a fresh garden salad with balsamic vinegar. Although most of the dinner entrees changed each night, there was always a fresh seafood and chicken option. If I couldn’t decide between two entrees, I would order both and then decide once they were in front of me which one I wanted, after a taste test of course.
I have a major sweet tooth, so dessert was always the biggest temptation for me. Since I was on vacation, I chalked it up to treat myself since dessert isn’t something I have often at home. I can’t say I regret my decision to order the rich chocolate volcano cake, espresso brownie or bananas foster throughout the cruise.
But, it’s not just the food that can pack on pounds during a cruise – alcohol does that too. I’m a 20something on vacation, so yeah, I’m going to drink! I’m not a big drinker at home, but there’s nothing more refreshing than an ice cold beer or fruity drink when it’s sunny and hot lying out by the pool.
Instead of getting big, frozen drinks filled with syrups, cream, chocolate and more, I would order either Prosecco or a rebellious fish drink – it’s made with vodka, passion fruit liqueur, Cointreau, a splash of orange juice and topped with Prosecco with a fresh berries mixed in.
When we stopped in Mexico, we erred on the side of caution and skipped any mixed drinks that could potentially have water or ice in them that could make us sick. Instead, we ordered bottled beer and bottles of water.
Working it out
At home, I go to the gym five to seven days a week, so I couldn’t fathom spending seven days on vacation without working out. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice the fitness facility was! We went there during the first day of our cruise and were also surprised at how many people were also working out. For about an hour, my boyfriend and I went from treadmills, to a rowing machine, weight machines, dumbbells and mats for an ab workout to wrap the workout up. I saved a few different workouts to follow on my phone before the trip so I could walk into the fitness facility with a plan.
What I didn’t plan on was not feeling well at the end of that first workout. I’ve never been seasick before, but something about the exertion in the fitness facility at sea didn’t mix well for me. The nausea didn’t start until I was close to the end of my hour-long workout, so I still got work done. After a water break, the nausea subsided and we ran on the quarter-mile track around the ship with gorgeous views of the ocean.
During other days on the cruise, it was more difficult to get to the gym. We reached our ports at 8 a.m. each day, which was already an early start for us on vacation. By the time we would get back on the ship from exploring the town each day, we were hungry and anxious to soak up a few more hours of sunshine. Although we didn’t make it to the fitness facility those days, we still tried to find ways to stay active. Mostly, we walked everywhere on and off the ship –we’d only take the stairs on the ship (and boy there were a lot of stairs on that ship). We’d also try walk as much as possible while on land and walk from one end of the ship to the other and back at night between the restaurants, shows and lounges with entertainment. We also stopped at the golf driving nets, basketball court and ping pong tables along the way for a little bit more fun and movement.
To end our trip with a bang, we went back to the gym during our last day at sea. It was a lot less crowded than it was the first day of the cruise.
Well, it was an incredible vacation! We got to relax, spend time together, visit exotic destinations, eat delicious food and enjoy entertainment every night. I never wanted this trip to end and, I’m not going to lie, getting back into my work and gym routine was difficult. I’m still dreaming about those rebellious fish drinks and chocolate volcano cakes.
But, looking at the health aspect of this trip, the scale said I didn’t gain weight, although I definitely felt sluggish when I returned to my typical workouts. I also never got sick in any way during or after the cruise. My little cold diminished halfway through the cruise, I never got norovirus, and I never got a cold or flu during or after the trip.
To me, that all adds up to one successful – and healthy – cruise!