How to prevent Sea Sickness on Cruises

For people considering their first cruise, one of the major questions is 'will I get sea sick?' Unfortunately, it's not a question that has a straight answer, as so much depends not only on your own sensitivity to the motion of the cruise ship, but also on the conditions that you will encounter at sea.

Having said that, there are three things that you can control and that - if you are lucky! - will make a difference:

  • Firstly, the location and season that you choose for your cruise.
  • Secondly, the type and size of vessel.
  • And thirdly, and most importantly, the position of your cabin.
Of course, there is always going to be an element of luck involved, however if you make the right choices you may find yourself enjoying a glorious cruise on seas so smooth and calm that you can hardly tell the ship is moving.

I've heard people dismiss these concerns, saying that these days sea sickness is easily combated by wearing the 'motion sickness patch', or simply by taking yourself along to the onboard doctor and getting 'the shot'. However, these are serious medications, with widespread and sometimes very severe side effects. It is much wiser to optimize your cruise and cabin choices, which will in many cases allow you to rely on less potent remedies and treatments.

Choosing your cruise location / itinerary

The Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have famously calm waters. The sea passage from Seattle to Alaska is famously rough.

Summer is hurricane season in the Caribbean, and a time of strong dry Meltemi winds on Greece's Aegean Sea. Winter brings storms and choppy seas...

The above advise is pretty much common knowledge, but when you're picking a cruise, do your research! Which routes are likely to be calmer? Which areas are particularly stormy? Which time of year is optimal? Are there big seasonal differences in conditions?

I can't advise on particular cruises or itineraries, but there are plenty of resources online, including some really great cruise forums full of helpful and knowledgeable folks. Take a look at the following:

Some tips:

  • Avoid the open ocean. The Atlantic or the Pacific crossing to Hawaii are almost always going to be rougher than a coastal or inter-island cruise.
  • Sea days (full days at sea) can be particularly hard for those prone to sea sickness. You may be able to avoid the extra sea days at the beginning and end of a cruise by flying to a mid point and picking up the cruise there.
  • If available, choose an itinerary that sails mostly at night - the idea being that when you're tucked up in your bunk you'll be less likely to feel sea sick. This is particularly wise in the Mediterranean in the summer - the winds are often strongest in the afternoons and die away to nothing at night.
  • If you're not booking too far ahead, check out the long range weather forecasts. There's no guarantee it's going to be correct, but they may at least help you make an itinerary decision.

Choosing your cruise ship

As any sailor will tell you, when the going gets tough it's not the size of the ship, but the size of the waves that really matters! Having said that, newer cruise ships generally have excellent stabilizers which suppress the ship's motion and can help a lot in rough conditions. The mega cuise ships can be so smooth that you don't feel any movement at all. But of course, you may not want to cruise on a mega ship, or - depending on your chosen itinerary - you may not have the choice.

Individual ships can have very different patterns of movement. Again, the online cruise and travel forums (see above) are the best places to check for a wealth of information.

Cruise ship lineup. Photo by Jemingway,
Cruise ship lineup

Choosing your cabin wisely

If you are prone to sea sickness then making the right choice of cabin or stateroom is very important. One of the ironies of cruising is that the higher the cabin, the more expensive it is likely to be. However, the higher decks and the front of the ship are definitely to be avoided as you'll experience the greatest motion in these areas. Instead, opt for the lower decks, mid-ship - most people agree that this is where you'll get the smoothest ride in any weather. It makes scientific sense, as this is the area closest to the ship's 'fulcrum' (the point that is the very center of the ship, front to back, side to side and top to bottom) and therefore the area that experiences the least motion.

There is less agreement about whether a cabin with a balcony or veranda, or an inner windowless cabin is preferable. Obviously, an inner cabin is going to be closer to the central point of the ship than an outer cabin, therefore minimizing your exposure to motion. However, some people find the inner cabins claustrophobic and need the view of the horizon that a porthole, window and/or balcony offer. Others find that a view of the water makes them queasy and are happy to do without. Access to fresh sea air is a big thing for some people - note that in many cases portholes and windows cannot be opened, therefore you will need to book a cabin with a balcony or veranda to get that sea breeze. It's up to you to figure out what will work best for you.

If you are very sensitive, you may want to check on the direction of the bed(s) in your cabin. Some people find it disorientating and uncomfortable to have their bed facing backwards.

Having chosen your ideal cabin, stick to your choice and don't be tempted by upgrades. Of course, it can be difficult indeed to turn down the offer of a dream stateroom, especially if the upgrade is being offered free ..., but stick to your choice or you may very much regret it later!

NB: If you do end up with a high or badly located (for you) cabin, then it is worth requesting access to the staff quarters (which are always in the lower part of the ship) in very rough weather. Your request may be refused of course, but I have heard of several people who have waited out storms sitting or lying in the corridors of the staff quarters!

What about cruise lines' "sea sickness guarantee"?

Some cruise lines have 'sea sickness guarantees', promising that should you wish to leave the cruise you can fly home from the next port. Frankly, this is a bit of a gimmick and in practice, the cruise lines appear to make it as difficult as possibly for you to do this - it is hard to make the arrangements if the cruise staff won't put you in touch with the right people.

So, if you see a sea sickness guarantee advertised, be sure to ask for full details, and don't rely on it working out!

Sea sickness medications - preparation and on board

Lastly, take a careful look at what each cruise line and/or individual ship offers in the way of medical care and facilities. Many ships now offer acupuncture as part of their menu of spa treatments, however Celebrity Cruises has gone one better and has dedicated 'Acupuncture at Sea' clinics.

As a last resort the ship's doctor will be able to give you an anti-motion sickness shot / injection (usually Phenegren). In addition to bringing relief, this is likely to send you straight to sleep, but this may well be a blessing if your sea sickness is very severe. Note: I say 'as a last resort' because of the severe side effects associated with this injection. Doing a little research on medications in advance of your cruise will enable you to make an informed decision, should you be offered or feel the need for this medication.

Books on Cruising and Cruise Ships

Book recommendation: Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2016 (Berlitz Cruise Guide), by Douglas Ward
Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships
by Douglas Ward

[This text refers to the 2012 edition]
The definitive guide to the world's cruise industry is back for its 27th year! It's split into three parts: The first section defines the cruising experience, helping readers decide on the type of cruise, the cruise line, and the size of ship that is best for them. There is lively background information on the burgeoning cruise industry and what makes it so enjoyable and popular with travelers, along with things the cruise lines won't always tell you, and plenty of snippets of fascinating information gleaned from Douglas Ward's many years of cruising. The second section consists of comprehensive reviews of every major cruise vessel, from large to small, from unabashed luxury and exclusivity to ships for the budget-minded and youth-oriented. The third section provides practical information on booking, budgeting, cruise etiquette, and safety at sea. Once you've made your decisions, making arrangements is a breeze with the website contacts provided for every major cruise line.

About the author:
Douglas Ward is considered by many to be the world's foremost authority on cruising and cruise ships, having worked for 9 different cruise lines over a period of 20 years on. He now writes about cruising and cruise ships and still spends about 8 months a year at sea.

Book recommendation: The Unofficial Guide to Cruises, by Kay Showker

The Unofficial Guide to Cruises
by Kay Showker

This book reports on the nitty-gritty details of more than 100 cruise lines and 500 ships, ranking each for value and quality.

The author reveals industry secrets for getting the lowest possible fares, shares helpful hints for getting the cabin you want most at a price you can afford, and gives strategies for booking hassle-free air connections, making the most of your time and money on board, and figuring out who your fellow passengers will be.

Book recommendation: Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline, by Brian David Bruns

Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline
Where the Crew Lives, Eats, Wars, and Parties. One Crazy Year Working on Cruise Ships
by Brian David Bruns


Dorothy on April 13th, 2015:
I will be travelling through Dubai and need to know if I can take SEA-LEGS medication with me as I have found out I cannot take STEMETIL into Dubai. I suffer from sea sickness and vertigo! We will be on a cruise ship.

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