Going on a Cruise? Medical Travel Tips from Dr Ruth Handford

Cruising is an increasingly popular way to take a holiday, and the number of people choosing a cruise has shot up over the last decade. It is a great way to see the world, and is a popular choice for the over 50’s, as well as for large group and family holidays.

Here are some medical travel tips which those of you who are planning a cruise may find useful.

Think ahead!

Wheelchair Users

Most cruise ship operators will have a strict limit on the number of wheelchair users permitted on board for each cruise. Please ensure you book well in advance if you need to use a wheelchair whilst on board ship.

It is sometimes possible to take a personal wheelchair for use when leaving the ship, for tours and trips. However, make sure you check before you travel with the cruise operator to ensure this is booked in advance.


Required and recommended vaccinations will vary depending on where you are travelling to, and for how long. Make sure you have a detailed itinerary of your cruise, and discuss it with a travel clinic at least 2 months prior to travelling. It can easily take this long to have a course of immunisations. Different cruise companies may also have their own requirements, so check carefully what is needed in advance. If you are not adequately immunised, you may not be permitted to leave the ship in some areas.

You may or may not require malaria prophylaxis, again depending on where you are travelling to. Mosquito bite prevention is important even if you don’t have to take this type of medication. Most cruise ships will provide mosquito nets if required, but make sure you have plenty of repellent with you, and long sleeved shirts and trousers are sensible in mosquito-dense areas.

Ships’ doctor & medical care

There is a medical team on board most cruise ships. This usually consists of a doctor and some nursing staff. They are able to provide emergency care and first aid, but have a limited supply of medication and facilities on board. It is important to remember that this is a private medical service, and you will be charged if you need their assistance. If you require medications, blood tests, xrays etc – these will also be charged for.

If you require medical care beyond the scope of the on board team, you will be evacuated off the ship at the next port, or by helicopter. This is hugely expensive, and it is vital to ensure you have comprehensive insurance which will cover this should you need it.

Travel insurance for cruise holidays

Make sure that your travel insurance provides cover for cruise holidays, including any emergency treatment provided by the ship’s doctor and evacuation by helicopter if medically necessary.

Goodtogoinsurance.com covers cruise holidays as standard. Find out more about travel insurance for cruise holidays.

Taking medication

Whenever you travel, it is essential to take an adequate supply of any regular medication you take. This is particularly important on a cruise, as the supply of non-emergency medication on board ship is very limited, and you may not have much opportunity to visit a pharmacy on land.

Make sure you take a copy of your repeat medication list with you too, as this can be very useful should you become unwell or lose your medication.

It is sensible to have a day or twos supply of medication as hand luggage when you are en-route to your cruise ship, just in case there is an issue with accessing your luggage immediately.

Common medical problems on board ship

The most common ailments seen by cruise ship doctors are chest infections, minor injuries, travel sickness, and diarrhoea or vomiting infections.

Bearing in mind these are common, plan ahead and take simple over the counter remedies with you in case you are affected.

If you suffer with regular chest infections, see your GP in advance of your trip and discuss taking ‘just in case’ antibiotics with you.

Travel sickness can be mitigated using simple medications from the chemist, so make sure you stock up before you go.

Diarrhoeal illnesses can spread quickly on board a ship, so it is vital to try to prevent them occurring. Ensure good handwashing and use alcohol hand gel regularly. If you become unwell, let the on board medical team know and stay away from communal areas to avoid spreading the infection. Keep well hydrated, using rehydration sachets available from the supermarket or chemist.

Flu can also spread quickly on board ship – make sure you are fully immunised against this prior to travel if you are eligible for the vaccine. Check with your GP if you are not sure.

Managing your existing medical conditions on board

If you are diagnosed with a longstanding medical problem, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung problems, make sure you take adequate supplies of regular and emergency medication.

For diabetes, it is worth speaking to your GP or practice nurse about preventing hypoglycaemic attacks (low blood sugar), which may be more likely if you are more active on holiday than usual.

Sufferers of chronic lung problems such as COPD may be wise to take antibiotics and steroids with them, just in case an infection develops whilst away. Having this medication with you and knowing when to start it can be vital in minimising ill health.

If you have ever had angina, or a heart attack, make sure you have some rescue medication with you – usually called GTN and in the form of a spray or dissolvable tablet that goes under the tongue in the event of an angina attack. In extremes of weather or if you are more active than usual, an angina attack could happen even if you haven't had one for years.

Health and wellness on board ship

A cruise is a great opportunity to sit back and relax, letting someone else do the hard work in the kitchen! A wide variety of food and drink is often available, and can be a real high point of a cruise type holiday. Try to enjoy a variety of foods, in moderation. Limit fatty and sugary foods, and try some new and interesting fruits and salads that you may not have at home.

Lots of people gain weight on a cruise, as with any holiday. Be mindful of the fact that you may not be as active on board ship as you might be on dry land, making it all the more easy to pile on the pounds.

Set yourself small goals to overcome this – walk around the ships deck once or twice a day; explore parts of the ship you otherwise wouldn’t see; and try to use stairs instead of lifts if possible. Make the most of opportunities to try new activities – like climbing, golf, yoga, and dancing. There is usually a gym on board larger ships, and a short ride on the exercise bike can be very beneficial.

Other considerations

The ships deck can get slippery when wet, and it is not uncommon for people to trip or fall. Make sure you take sensible footwear and are very careful when moving around the ship.

It is vital to use high factor sun protection when on board ship, as it is very easy to underestimate the power of the sun when the sea breeze is cooling you off. Ensure you cover up and regularly apply sunscreen.

Always consult your own doctor before travelling

These travel tips are intended to provide general information to those going on a cruise holiday. They do not replace a visit to your doctor . If you are planning a holiday you should consult your doctor to ensure that you are fit to travel and discuss any specific health requirements you may have.

About Dr Ruth Handford

Dr Ruth Handford is a GP with over 10 years' experience of working in both hospital and primary care. She is particularly interested in caring for the elderly in the community, child health, and family planning. Ruth lives and works in a rural community, and is kept very busy by her job and young family.

Important Information: These travel tips are intended to provide general information to those going on a cruise. They do not replace a visit to your doctor . If you are planning a holiday you should consult your doctor to ensure that you are fit to travel and discuss any specific health requirements you may have.

Travel Insurance for Cruise Holidays

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office recommend that you have travel insurance in place every time you travel abroad. Make sure your policy provides cover for cruise holidays and that your insurers are aware of any medical conditions you have and are happy to provide cover for them.