Contact Us   Site Map
Travel Planning and Assistance

Seasickness can turn your cruise experience from one you'll remember happily for ever after to one you'll have recurring nightmares about.

Use the information here to put yourself in control of your seasickness, rather than allowing it to be in control of you.

Travel Planning and Assistance
Road Warrior resources
How to Book and Buy Travel
Scary, Silly and Stupid Security Stories
Airline Reviews
Airline (Mis)!Management
Miscellaneous Features
Reference Materials
About the Travel Insider
Looking for something else? Search over two million words of free information on our site.
Custom Search
Free Newsletter

In addition to our feature articles, we offer you a free weekly newsletter with a mix of news and opinions on travel related topics.


 View Sample
Privacy Policy

Help this Site
Thank you for your interest in helping this site to continue to develop. Some of the information we give you here can save you thousands of dollars the next time you're arranging travel, or will substantially help the quality of your travel experiences in other, non-cash ways. Click for more information
Reader's Replies

If you'd like to add your own commentary, send me a note.

What Causes Seasickness

A common and often preventable affliction

For sure, some of the passengers on the Grand Voyager were probably seasick during their Mediterranean cruise when it encountered 50' waves and a Force 11 gale in February this year.

For most of us, though, our concern is how we feel during more normal weather.

Part 1 of a 2 part series - part 2 discusses all the different cures for seasickness.



They say that, when you're seasick, you start off worrying that you might die, and then, after a while, you start to worry that you won't die!

As many of us know from personal experience, seasickness is a debilitating affliction that can destroy the otherwise idyllic experience of a sea journey.  Car sickness and motion sickness can similarly impact on necessary travel.

Understanding the causes of seasickness enables you to work on preventing the problem.  Next week, we'll focus on how to solve the problem if you still remain susceptible to this unpleasant and unfortunate illness.


Motion Sickness in General

There are many experiences that can cause what is generally termed motion sickness.  In addition to being at sea on small boats or large ships, there are plenty of other situations that can bring on motion sickness - in planes, cars, buses, even trains.  Roller coasters and other fair rides, and even high impact movies can all trigger motion sickness.

All have common causes and effects.  While we focus this article on seasickness, the comments relate equally to all other forms of motion sickness.

The Causes of Seasickness

The more we can understand what makes people seasick, the better we can respond to minimize these underlying issues, thereby helping prevent seasickness itself.


This is probably obvious.  Being at sea on a boat or ship that is moving about a great (or, for some people, not so great) deal, and accelerative/decelerative changes in velocity in general, all can cause sea sickness.

A winding road in a car, air turbulence, or anything else involving the sensation of changes in speed/direction can induce motion sickness.

Visual disorientation

The other cause is not quite so obvious.  Visual disorientation and strain.  Visual disorientation is when your body senses you are moving, but when your eyes see no movement.

It can also happen the opposite way - for example, in an Imax theatre, you might receive strong visual information suggesting that you're moving, but your body feels no sense of motion.  This can also make you ill, but fortunately, there's an easy cure for thsi - simply close your eyes.

Strain happens when you've having to continually refocus your eyes, for example if trying to read a book in a car and having the distance and line between you and the book constantly changing.

Medical explanation

The symptoms of motion sickness include nausea, vomiting, and dizziness (vertigo). Early signs are paleness, salivating, yawning, sweating and a general feeling of discomfort and not feeling well (malaise).

Motion sickness relates to our sense of balance and equilibrium. Researchers in space and aeronautical medicine call this sense spatial orientation, because it tells the brain where the body is in space - what direction it is pointing, what direction it is moving, and if it is turning or standing still.

Our sense of balance is regulated by a complex interaction of the following parts of the nervous system :

  • The inner ears (also called the labyrinth) monitor the directions of motion, such as turning or forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and- down motions.

  • The eyes observe where the body is in space (i.e., upside down, right side up, etc.) and also the directions of motion.

  • Skin pressure receptors such as those located in the feet and seat sense what part of the body is down and touching the ground.

  • Muscle and joint sensory receptors report what parts of the body are moving.

  • The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.

The symptoms of motion sickness appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the other four systems -- the inner ear, eyes, skin pressure receptors, and the muscle and joint sensory receptors.

For example, imagine you are riding in an airplane during a storm, and the plane is being tossed about by air turbulence. But your eyes do not detect all this motion because all you see is the inside of the airplane. Consequently, your brain receives messages that do not coordinate with each other. You might become air sick.  Or suppose you are sitting in the back seat of a moving car reading a book. Your inner ears and skin receptors detect the motion of your travel, but your eyes see only the pages of your book. You could become car sick.

Who Gets Seasick

Probably the only person that really matters is yourself - do you get seasick or not, and probably, you already know the answer to that!

One study suggested that 14% of the population gets seasick, but this is a fairly meaningless number.  In an extremely rough sea, way more than 14% of passengers will get sick.  And it shouldn't be taken as a sign of weakness if you get motion sick -  70% of space shuttle crew members experience some degree of motion sickness during the first 3 days of any shuttle flight.  You'll even find that many crew on ships occasionally get sick, too - including, I must add, me too back when I worked at sea, with tiresome regularity!

Babies under the age of about two seem immune from seasickness.  Children are more susceptible than adults, and the older you get, the more resistant you become (at last - a benefit of growing old!).

The type of motion also has an impact.  The most seasick causing motion is one with about a five second cycle of repetition.  This might be why some people get sick on big ships (with about a 5 second cycle of moving from one side to the other and back) but not on small boats (which move with much quicker motion periods.

Women seem to be more susceptible to seasickness than men.  People of oriental race seem more susceptible than westerners.

How Likely is it You'll Get Seasick on a Cruise

Modern cruise ships are incredibly stable, and their captains do all they can to avoid rough weather, even to the extent of skipping ports and rearranging the itinerary if necessary.

The gargantuan size of a modern cruise ship adds to its stability, and almost every ship is also fitted with stabilizers to cancel out most of the ship's movement.

Best of all, most cruise itineraries have only short periods at sea - often at night, while you're sleeping - alternating with days in ports.

Most people will find modern day cruising comfortable and without any associated sea-sickness.

Getting - and losing - your Sea Legs

If you're on a multi-day cruise, you'll find that eventually - usually within 36 - 72 hours - your body adapts and trains itself to ignore the conflicting messages it is getting.  In other words, you have got your sea legs and are no longer susceptible to seasickness.

There is an interesting (and sometimes uncomfortable) opposite to this.  You've probably noticed, when stepping back onto land after being at sea, that at first it feels as if the land is moving - this being due to your body automatically anticipating the boat's movement and having to adjust back to the 'normal' that involves no continual motion.

Some people find this 'phantom' movement so real that they become seasick again when they return to shore.  This is called 'mal de debarquement' (as opposed to 'mal de mer' or 'mal d'embarquement' for regular seasickness).

Minimizing the Causes

Usually the sickness causing situation is of temporary rather than permanent duration, and so if you can minimize the impacts on you, there is a better chance you'll last out until you're back in calm conditions once more, with both your dignity and your stomach intact.

A stitch in time saves nine

At the first suggestion of rough weather, take the following precautions so you don't even start to feel unwell.  The more unwell you feel, the more likely it is that you'll get worse and worse.

Minimizing movement

If you're on a boat, try and get as close to the boat's center of motion as possible.  This is in the middle of the boat, close to the waterline.  If you are at the bow or stern, you'll experience more motion than amidships.  If you're on the port or starboard railing, you'll again get more motion than if you're in the center of the boat.  And if you're on the top deck, once again you'll be feeling more pronounced movements than if you're lower down, close to sea-level.

In trying to find the optimum place on a boat, it might be necessary to consider some compromise so you are also in a place with fresh cool air and a view outside.

If you're on a plane, the middle section of the plane, about where the wings are, moves less than the front, and the back section seems to move most of all.

And, as just about everyone knows, the ride is smoother (and the visuals better - see next point) in the front seat of a car or near the front of a bus.

Minimizing visual disorientation

You should focus your eyes at a distant point, preferably the unmoving horizon.

Don't face backwards.  This aggravates the feeling of visual disorientation.

If you're unable to look at a far-away and hopefully unmoving point of reference, then closing your eyes might be better than staring at close-by things and adding to the sense of spatial confusion caused by feeling the sensation of movement but with no apparent movement visible.

If nothing else, closing your eyes might help you to relax.

Don't read and don't watch television.

And also

If you are with other people and are embarrassed at feeling unwell, try and find somewhere private where you can suffer stoically and alone.  The fear of being sick is a powerful magnifying factor that can make you very much more likely to become sick than if you're not so worried at the thought of possibly being sick.

Some people advocate lying down, and/or closing your eyes.  The primary benefit of this is that it might help you to relax, and perhaps even to go to sleep.

Giving yourself a steady stream of cool fresh air definitely helps, although I have no idea why that is.  Avoid strong smells in general and the smells of engines and gasoline/diesel in particular.

Try to avoid other travelers who may also be seasick.  There's nothing like the sudden and powerful combination of sight, sound, and smell of another passenger vomiting to bring you past the 'point of no return' as well.

Try to be healthy and well, so your body has more natural resistance.  Don't be hung over, don't be drinking alcohol, and avoid any food extremes that might give you an upset stomach, even when on dry land.  You definitely don't want to have a lot of food and liquid sloshing around in your stomach, so eat and drink in moderate balanced portions.

Try and be well rested.

Lastly, be prepared, so if you do need to be sick, you're able to do so with a minimum of mess.  If you use a bag, you should double bag if possible in case one bag has any holes or comes apart at a seam.

Read more in Part 2

In Part 2 we discuss the wide variety of medical and non-medical, scientific and non-scientific cures that are offered as a remedy for sea-sickness.

Related Articles, etc

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.


Originally published 11 Mar 2005, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



Your Feedback

How Would You Rate this Article


Was the Article Length and Coverage

Too short/simplistic
About right 
Too long/complex

Would You Like More Articles on this Subject


Back to Top