I am a cruise writer who suffers from seasickness. But of the approximately 170 cruises I have been on in my life, I have only actually been sick twice, once in particularly strong waves off the coast of Corsica and once when the Pacific was misbehaving off Baja.
I’ve avoided motion sickness on a cruise by bringing the best motion sickness medicines for cruising and by being familiar with factors that contribute to not feeling great—and how to avoid them. For those who don’t know what seasickness is, it starts with your brain getting conflicting information from your inner ear and eyes.
“Inside the cabin of a rocking boat, for example, the inner ear detects changes in both up-and-down and side-to-side acceleration as one’s body bobs along with the boat,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “But, since the cabin moves with the passenger, one’s eyes register a relatively stable scene. Agitated by this perceptual incongruity, the brain responds with a cascade of stress-related hormones that can ultimately lead to nausea, vomiting, and vertigo.”
Here are some tried-and-true tips and advice for how to avoid motion sickness on a cruise.
Carefully pick your ship and destination
The medications currently available for motion sickness are strong enough that I recently felt only slightly off while crossing the notoriously rough Drake Passage (sometimes referred to as the Drake “shake”) between Cape Horn and Antarctica, albeit while the seas were mostly cooperating.
Still, you can ensure a smoother ride by sticking to destinations with relatively calm waters. Popular cruise itineraries tend to be on routes that are less prone to rockiness, such as in the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Alaska’s Inside Passage. Once you venture deep into the Atlantic and Pacific, you never know what you’ll get. You may want to keep this in mind if you are a first-time cruiser testing your sea legs.
You’ll experience virtually no seasickness on most river cruises. A great option for those who fear getting seasick are the mostly calm inland waters traversed by river ships.
Modern cruise ships have stabilizers, for a relatively smooth ride wherever you cruise. On big ships with thousands of passengers, you’ll typically feel little movement. Smaller ships may be more of a challenge, but here too you’re likely to find stabilizers. A new generation of expedition ships from brands such as Lindblad Expeditions and Aurora Expeditions are designed with an inverted bow, known as an X-Bow, for a smoother ride.
Choose the right cabin
If you are worried about getting seasick, don’t book a cabin or suite at the very front (or forward end) of the ship, at the very back (aka the aft) of the vessel, or on the upper deck of a ship. These staterooms often feel the most movement. You are better off finding a cabin dead center in the middle of the ship, the most stable area. Also, you might want to make sure you book a cabin with windows so that you can look at the horizon when the ship starts rocking—while it doesn’t work for everyone, keeping your eyes on the horizon can offer a stabilizing effect for some.
The best motion sickness medicines for cruises
If you are worried about being seasick, pack some seasickness medication—options include Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) and Bonine (meclizine). There is a downside to these medications, in that they may cause drowsiness. (There are some nondrowsy options available as well.)
My rule of thumb is to take a half a pill when I first get onboard and until I feel my body has adjusted to the movement of the sea (which may or may not occur after a couple of days on the water). If you have kids who have a tendency to get carsick, you may want to ask your pediatrician about Dramamine for kids that you can give them when they board and as you figure out how they are responding to the movement of the water.
I also listen carefully to the captain’s daily announcements, which usually include a weather forecast for the day ahead. If waves are predicted to be high (more than 15 feet by my standards), I will make sure to take motion sickness medicine—because the reality of the meds is that they don’t really help once you feel sick, so plan accordingly.
If you forgot to pack medication and are feeling ill, ask at the guest services desk or the medical center—they will likely have medicine and the pills are often free.
What if it gets very choppy?
If I am on a route known for rough weather, such as in the Antarctic, I switch out the over-the-counter pills for a prescription Transderm Scop (scopolamine) patch, which goes behind your ear and steadily delivers medication for up to three days. It’s strong and not for everyone, so ask your doctor whether it’s right for you. A downside to the patch is it can make you very thirsty. The patches are also expensive and may not be covered by your health insurance.
In a worst-case scenario, if you are suffering in very rough seas, the ship’s medical team may be able to give you a shot, which can help keep you from getting sick (aka vomiting) but not necessarily from feeling bad.
Acupressure wristbands, ginger pills, and candied ginger are among the nonmedication ways to deal with seasickness, and some people swear by them. It sounds completely counterintuitive, but you’ll also feel better if you aren’t hungry, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends eating small amounts of food frequently to help prevent motion sickness. Fortunately, finding food is not a problem on most cruise ships. The CDC also recommends staying hydrated, while limiting both alcoholic and caffeinated beverages.
AFAR’s senior travel news editor Michelle Baran, a fellow sufferer of seasickness, says the wristbands work for her to help avoid getting seasick on a cruise; she also chews mint-flavored gum to help ward off stomach problems when sailing. Similar to seasickness medications, the wristbands will often only work if they are slipped on before the water actually gets choppy (she just puts them on and keeps them on for the duration of the cruise). She will also drink a bubbly soda such as ginger ale or cola and will make sure to look at the horizon to stabilize if she gets motion sickness on a cruise—though, like me, she has mostly managed to avoid seasickness by being prepared with medications such as Dramamine and using the above preventative measures and remedies.
Being out on deck in open air sometimes helps, but my own fail-safe remedy if I am feeling ill and all else fails is to lie down and shut my eyes, and either sleep or listen to music or the TV in my cabin.
Why am I still dizzy after a cruise?
Some people feel like they are still moving when they get off a cruise ship, as their body adjusts to being back on dry land. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this is totally normal, and the symptoms in most cases disappear within a day or two. If they don’t, you may have a rare syndrome known as Mal de Debarquement (MDD) that is still under study. The Clinic recommends you consult with your doctor if the symptoms persist.
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