Photo: Artem Pachkovskyi/Shutterstock

What It's Really Like to Catch COVID on a Cruise Right Now

by Morgane Croissant Feb 1, 2024

Back in 2020, few things were scarier than catching COVID on a cruise ship. Today, it really isn’t so bad.

On November 26, 2023, I embarked on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam for a 14-day transatlantic crossing. The voyage started from Rome, Italy, made stops in southern Spain and the Azores, and involved 10 days at sea, including seven consecutive days while crossing the ocean from Ponta Delgada, Azores, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Unfortunately, my last two days on board were spent masked and locked away in my cabin with what was likely COVID.

Holland America's beautiful Nieuw Statendam.

Holland America’s beautiful Nieuw Statendam. Photo: Jesse Adams

It was not the first time that I traveled with Holland America. Back in October 2022, my partner and I sailed to Alaska with the cruise line, and the trip was so perfect in every way that we decided to trust them with our vacation again.

Unlike what we experienced during our Alaskan cruise, however, this sailing was full or nearly full (the ship can accommodate around 2500 passengers), which means that the human density in common areas was much higher. The bars, dining venues, and the theater always felt busy.

Another significant difference between our October 2022 and December 2023 cruises was the level of COVID precautions required by the cruise line. Before boarding our Alaskan cruise, we had to provide proof of our COVID vaccination and the result of a negative COVID test, and while we did not have to wear masks during the sailing, every member of the crew did. This time around, nothing was required of us and the crew members did not wear masks. It was like being back in 2019 — except for the inordinate amount of people coughing and sniffling.

Holland America is, of course, not the only cruise eschewing to ask passengers to provide proof of vaccination or to get tested. Just about every single cruise line out there, just like every airline, resort, or hotel, is doing the same. The terror that COVID induced in us in the first two years of its existence is seemingly behind us. It’s made travel a lot less stressful and a lot more enjoyable. It’s made people a lot more careless, too.

This past November, it only took a few days on board the cruise ship for my partner and I to realize that some people were sick. Sick with what, however, we did not know and I’m not sure they did either. It could as easily be the common cold, bronchitis, as it could be COVID. Many people, whether on cruise ships or at home, have stopped testing themselves every time they have a runny nose or feel a little off.

Tested or not, COVID or not, what gets my goat, however, is when those who are sick decide that protecting others isn’t part of their agenda. On this trip, it seemed obvious that nobody remembered the basic rules of hygiene that we were all recently so careful to apply. Sick passengers on the ship rarely sneezed and coughed in their elbow, or washed their hands after blowing their nose or before enjoying a meal. Very few recalled that wearing a mask was a simple courtesy that could spare others from getting what they have.

Theater on board Holland America's beautiful Nieuw Statendam.

The onboard theater where people were coughing, sneezing, and sniffling to their hearts’ content. Photo: Jesse Adams

Fewer than five days into our trip, my partner and I were spending anxious hours in the theater, bars, and lounges sitting as far away from the obviously unhealthy passengers and using hand sanitizers generously. We are not clean freaks or germaphobes, we just did not want our hard-earned vacations ruined.

But the inevitable happened anyway. Two days before our arrival in Florida, I woke up feeling poorly. I did not cough, I did not sneeze, I did not have a fever, but I did have a runny nose, had a headache, was tired and weak, and felt generally unwell. I made the decision to stay in my cabin until I felt better, and masked up and washed my hands as often as possible so that my partner stayed healthy. I enjoyed the movies available on the TV, the comfy bed, and the great ocean view from our balcony. I ordered room service and used the “Do not disturb” sign on the door so that crew members would not come in. I stayed in my cabin until it was time for me to leave the ship. By then, I felt better, but remained masked and as far away from others as possible until I got home.

The lovely cabin in which this writer spent two whole days isolating. Photo: Jesse Adams
Sunset from the top deck is much nicer than sunset from the cabin where you're isolating. Photo: Jesse Adams

While neither the FAQs page nor the Travel Well section on Holland America’s website mentions what happens to passengers who catch COVID on their ships, cruisers who are active on online message boards Cruise Critic explain that isolation is still the standard procedure for those who feel sick during a voyage.

According to the participants on Cruise Critic, if you feel unwell during your Holland America cruise, a call to the medical center will allow you to get tested by a medical professional who will determine if you indeed have an infectious disease that requires you to stay in your cabin for a few days. On Holland America’s ship, the standard duration of the isolation period seems to be five days (just as the CDC recommends), after which you get retested and examined to gauge whether or not you can mix up with the rest of the passengers again. Until recently, and according to the same message board, Holland America offered Future Cruise Credit (FCC) to those who need to isolate themselves for several days.

Other cruise lines have similar policies. According to their FAQs page, P&O requires a minimum of five days in isolation and offers FCC. The same goes for Virgin Voyages who requires passengers to isolate for an indeterminate amount of time and offers Future Voyage Credit (FVC) for the days spent in confinement.

However, not all cruise lines offer FCC. For example, according to their website, Cunard and Aurora Expeditions also requires several days of isolation for passengers testing positive for COVID but makes no mention of FCC.

Be mindful of the details of your travel insurance regarding COVID — some might cover the trip interruption due to the confinement — and inquire about COVID-specific protocols upon making your booking with a cruise line.

I’m pretty sure I know exactly who got me sick. A handful of days before my symptoms started, an elderly woman sitting a few feet away from me at the Dutch Cafe spent her time blowing her nose, coughing in my direction, and looking generally miserable. It seemed she had no qualms about spreading her germs onto others.

The reality is that nobody appearing sick can be made to cover their mouth when coughing, wear a mask, get tested, etc. It should be common sense, but it’s not. What passengers who are worried about getting sick can do, however, is to wear a mask when in crowded areas, wash their hands regularly, and stay away from others. I never thought I’d go back to doing this, but if it’s a choice between my vacation and wearing a mask onboard a cruise ship, I know what I’ll pick.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.