Q – We’ve been listening to the horrific news reports about the virus that got everyone sick on the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. We have never cruised and are scheduled to take our first stab at cruising this October with two other couples from our church. As luck would have it, we’re booked on the same ship. My husband and I can’t fathom what it must be like to be sick at sea like those poor people and we are thinking about cancelling our cruise. Just how high is the risk of it happening on our cruise?  We booked directly with the cruise line and the agent handling our reservation seemed to downplay the incident. We can use a little travel truth.

A –  Well, first of all, every traveler is entitled to an honest and straightforward response as regards issues of personal safety and hygiene. When that doesn’t happen, it makes our blood boil.

The 600 or so guests and 95 crew on the Explorer of the Seas were suffering from a “Norovirus”. A norovirus can be passed through contact with a person who has it. It can be passed by drinking or eating an item that is contaminated. It is also possible to get it by just touching an area that has been tainted.

Norovirus outbreaks are common and generally unreported when they happen off cruise ships. They occur in office buildings, stadiums, concert venues, movie theaters, and shopping malls. An outbreak can be triggered by a single carrier and the disease can infect and spread rapidly. The illness usually passes in a few days but it is debilitating and serious when it occurs.

The percentage of norovirus outbreaks is significantly higher on larger cruise lines, particularly those that cater to a mid-range and budget travelers. When you are on a ship carrying several thousand guests, each of whom paid an average of $150 per day for their cruise, logic would dictate that on-board services do not rival those provided aboard ships costing three and four times that amount per day. Personally, when we travel with our families, we avoid mega-liners with thousands of guests. Of course, when we are working on a story or inspecting one of the large ships for our client reports, we try to pack a few quarts of Purell,  sani-wipes, and we wash our hands twenty times a day.

If you believe that a budget cruise line provides the same levels of cleanliness and vigorous safety inspections found on a smaller, more expensive, luxury vessel, you are being naïve. But this is an extremely complex subject because it is likely that the virus on the Explorer and most of the other viruses reported on other lines such as Carnival, Princess, and NCL. were brought onboard by guests. So, one could argue, how hard the crew works to keep the ship clean and sanitized is largely irrelevant if an infected guest is coming onboard.

We think you should cancel your cruise. We do not say this because we think you will get ill. In fact, Royal Caribbean has a fairly good record when it comes to issues of sanitation and hygiene. We think you should cancel because you are already experiencing anxiety about a vacation you should be looking forward to with great anticipation. Instead of a floating mini-city, try to find something more intimate and refined for your first cruise experience.

By the way, for the record, we’ve experienced more than 130 cruises and we have far more concerns when visiting indoor shopping malls and movie theaters.