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After taking a pretty hard hit the past couple of years, cruising is making its way back to the travel scene. With the help of social distancing and frequent sanitation, families can still have an enjoyable vacation, be pampered, and enjoy activities such as live shows, pools, and spa treatments. Keep scrolling to learn all you need to know about cruising, from vaccination and testing requirements to all you can do and expect when you take sail.
Ready to sail? Here’s what you need to know before you book your next cruise.
Read More: What to Pack for a Family Cruise
What Are the Rules for Cruising?
Cruising policies and protocols vary by cruise line and country, according to Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic. In the U.S., cruise lines are following guidance from the CDC for the next steps in moving towards a resumption.
Ships sailing out of the Caribbean are following the testing and safety guidelines of those countries, and are also implementing vaccination requirements.
Cruising: What are the CDC guidelines?
In order to resume cruising safely, the CDC continuously updates and releases new rules as part of the Conditional Sail Order (CSO). The CSO applies to ships that carry 250-plus passengers. The CDC has been meeting frequently with cruise lines since it updated its guidance for test cruises and restricted startup sailings. The updates include rules for vaccinations, mask wearing, social distancing and shore excursions.
The CDC adjusted its guidelines for cruises, said Gray Faust. Now they are much more in line with what you’d find on land. Passengers who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks or social distance.
What makes a cruise different than land-based travel options, such as resorts or hotels, is that a number of lines have introduced ship-wide – and some even fleet-wide – vaccination requirements for those who are of age to receive a vaccination. There’s no need on these ships to have specific requirements for vaccinated passengers, as it’s a requirement to board.
“We’ve heard positive feedback from guests around these updated guidelines, many of whom are looking forward to a cruise experience more along the lines of what they’re used to in pre-Covid times,” said Gray Faust.
Some lines which attract families are not able to implement a full vaccine requirement, as children under the age of 12 are unable to receive a vaccination at present. For those guests, a negative PCR test will be required. And masks will still need to be worn onboard in areas like indoor public spaces and areas where distancing is difficult.
Passengers who decline to show their cards are considered unvaccinated. They must go through a more thorough testing regimen, at their own expense. This includes presenting proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days before the cruise. In addition, they must take an antigen test before boarding, a test mid-cruise and finally a test to get back into the United States. Children under 16 are exempt from these costs until the end of July, with that age dropping to 12 on August 1.
Additional CDC Rules
- The CDC order requires social distancing of at least 6 feet between individuals who are not traveling companions or part of the same family.
- Pool loungers and tables will also be set up to be socially distanced. Hot tubs will be restricted to members of the same family or your own travel companions.
- Entertainment venues and activity areas, such as fitness centers and spas, will be limited to reservation-only time slots.
- In addition to social distancing and limited capacity in restaurants and bars, the CDC requires ships to “eliminate” self-serve food options such as buffets, salad bars and drink stations.
Can Kids Sail?
Now that kids ages 12 and older can get the Pfizer vaccine, they’re welcome to sail too. If a cruise line decides that it is going to sail with children under 12 who can’t get vaccinated yet, it will either have to go through the test cruise process or limit the number of kids onboard to 5 percent. Vaccines are currently in trials for children between 12 and 15 years of age, with health officials saying that the age group might be able to get inoculations by early June.
What Are Cruise Lines Doing?
Cruise lines have implemented contactless facial recognition at check-in, shore excursion bubbles, electronic contact tracing and pre-cruise testing and/or vaccination requirements.
Norwegian Cruise Line has committed to sailing ships with 100 percent vaccinated passengers and crew through October. Royal Caribbean is set to do weekly sailings from Nassau beginning June 12. Guests sailing on Adventure of the Seas next month will not be required to wear masks while visiting Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at Coco Cay, according to Vicki Freed, the line’s senior vice president of sales.
Crew on the sailings will be vaccinated, as will adult guests and workers on Coco Cay.
Passengers can be assured that most cruise lines will vaccinate all crew members, which will make for a very safe return to cruising, said Paul Rutter, a seasoned cruise director with a major cruise line.
“Cruising has always been a leader in safety and security, and they will demonstrate this again with increased sanitation and COVID protocols. The cruise industry knows they have to get this right straight out of the gate, as any outbreaks onboard can be devastating for the industry,” he said.
Cruising: Which Ships Will Sail?
Several ships have already resumed sailing or announced upcoming sailing dates. It’s safe to guess that we’ll see even more resume sailing in the coming weeks and months, said Gray Faust.
There are also a number of lines that will be sailing from Greece – and open to vaccinated Americans – beginning in June, with many returning in July.
Which Ships are Sailing from the Caribbean?
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are resuming cruises in the Caribbean beginning in June. These cruises are open to American cruisers and will sail from Caribbean ports, allowing the lines to bypass the current pause in service in the United States.
The Caribbean is the most popular destination among North American cruisers. Adventure of the Seas will sail from the Bahamas, and Vision of the Seas from Bermuda. Celebrity Millennium will sail from St. Maarten. Sailings for the three ships are scheduled for June.
TravelingMom Tip: You’ll need a passport to sail on international routes. Here’s what you need to know to get passports for your kids and mistakes not to make.
When Will Ships Return to U.S. Ports?
In the United States, it will probably be a staggered return, said Gray Faust.
“We’ll see only select ships sailing from select ports – likely drive-to ports, to start – as the industry kicks back into gear. Which ships and ports those will be is still to be determined by the lines themselves.”
In addition, protocols will vary by line. Some cruise lines will require adults to be fully vaccinated. Negative COVID tests will be required for kids under age 18.
Alaska Cruises Will Resume
Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Lines will all offer week-long sailings from Seattle for vaccinated passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line also has cruises for sale from Seattle on Norwegian Bliss.
All cruises are open to vaccinated passengers who have received their final dose of an approved Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 days before the cruise and can show proof. While Norwegian had already announced that it would sail with a 100 percent vaccine mandate, it’s the first time that the three Carnival brands have made a similar announcement for cruises leaving from the U.S.
Small Ships Sailing to Alaska
Still sailing to Alaska are a handful of smaller cruise lines. They fall under the CDC capacity limits of fewer than 250 passengers, are American-built and crewed and stay mostly in Alaska waters, so they’re not impacted by current restrictions. Those ships on lines such as UnCruise, American Cruise Lines, Alaskan Dream Cruise and Lindblad, have started or are about to start their 2021 season, and from their accounts, demand is up. Lindblad recently added more ships in the region to handle the demand.
What Will Cruising Look Like Onboard?
Cruise director Rutter said cruising 2021 will be completely different. Expect close to 50 percent capacity, with many big events and activities scaled down.
“It will be a great chance to get away, be with family, and be pampered while you are onboard,” he said.
The COVID protocols onboard ships that have resumed sailing in Europe and Asia are similar to what we see on land, said Gray Faust.
For example, mask wearing and social distancing in public spaces are required. The cruise lines have adopted enhanced cleaning and sanitation efforts. Expect to make reservations for meals, shows and other forms of entertainment. There still will be buffets, but the food will be served by cruise employees rather than self-serve, says Gray Faust.
On the upside, reduced capacity on the ships will mean fewer lines and crowds onboard.
How much you take advantage of onboard offerings, such as spa treatments and swimming in pools, is very much a personal decision, just as it is on land. Cruise lines are taking serious steps to make sure their open venues and experiences are safe for cruisers. But it’s a decision best made for each individual traveler or group.
Traveling with kids? As of right now, it’s still early to tell what to expect from the kids’ clubs onboard.
“Cruise lines are working to determine the full onboard experience – including kids clubs, and other areas of the ships. So while we might expect some changes to the usual experience, we’re unsure of specifics at this time,” says Gray Faust.
When Should You Book a Cruise?
Now. There is high demand for a limited number of spots on cruise ships that will operate at 50 percent capacity. So don’t expect to get a great deal.
“Because of the current high demand for cruises, as well as expected limited sailings, we’re actually not seeing very many deals available. Cruise lines have been able to keep their pricing relatively stable,” says Gray Faust.
The limited capacity and need for reservations is another reason to book now, says Gray Faust, to ensure you can get reservations for the experiences you want onboard.
Plus, she said, some cruise lines are implementing mandatory cruise line shore excursions, in order to keep the travel bubble in place on land. “So that’s also worth keeping in mind – you might have less of a choice of excursions (with limited capacity) than you’re used to,” she says.
Consider Small Deposits for Cruising
As always when booking a cruise, travelers have the flexibility to just pay an initial deposit at the time of booking. Final payment generally isn’t due until around three months prior to your sail date.
Alex Ziselman, a travel advisor with A2Z Travel LLC, recommends booking early and considering a refundable deposit.
“When you book early you can always reprice if the pricing goes down. But if it goes up, your lower rate is locked in. This would only apply to a refundable deposit rate,” says Ziselman, a member of American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA).
What is the Cancellation Policy?
Since cancellation policies vary by cruise line, it’s important to understand your cruise line’s policy.
“All lines have adjusted their policies to be far more flexible than they’ve been in the past,” says Gray Faust.
For example, cruisers are able to cancel their cruises much closer to a sail date than before. And cruise lines are offering cruise credits worth more than the value of your originally booked cruise. These apply to sailings that have been canceled. In fact, many lines are offering cruise credits worth around 125 percent of the originally booked cruise.
Along with more relaxed cancellation policies, most cruise lines are flexible about rescheduling, says Jonathan de Araujo, owner of The Vacationeer Travel Agency.
Things to Consider Before Booking a Cruise
Whether you’re booking a trip directly with a cruise line or a travel agent, ask questions and do your research. Travis Blanchard, founder of Splash Bytes recommends the following:
- Research all travel restrictions. Each place and city has its own travel and documentation requirements.
- Know the medical protocols. Some cities won’t just accept simple travel authority passes from the place of origin. They also require tourists to undergo COVID-19 tests such as swab tests or rapid tests.
- Bring extra budget. “There are tons of hidden charges that this pandemic have caused us,” says Blanchard. Some of those fees are for sanitation, infection control and many more. It’s wise to bring extra money on your next trip for unexpected expenses.
Invest in Travel Insurance
There are many reasons to consider travel insurance. From flight delays that prevent you from arriving on time to your embarkation port to lost luggage.
Look for policies that cover medical emergencies, trip cancellation, trip interruption, medical evacuation, and lost, damaged, or stolen luggage.
TravelingMom Tip: Protect yourself while traveling with Medjet. 2021 Medjet Members hospitalized with active COVID-19 infections are now eligible for Air Medical Transport within the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Learn more about how to become a Member here.
Tentative Cruise Schedules for Summer
Ocean cruise lines continue to cancel sailings to comply with the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order. Some lines are already sailing and others hope to resume in the coming months. Major cruise lines like Carnival, Disney, and Celebrity Cruise are in a pause for the next few months. Others, like Norwegian and Princess Cruises have delayed sailings until June 30, 2021. Cunard extended its pause for Queen Victoria to May 16, 2021.
That means for now, forget about sailing from Miami or Fort Lauderdale. However, Carnival is optimistic about the June 5, 2021, launch date for its newest ship, Mardi Gras from Port Canaveral, FL. The 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras will be the first ship in the industry with an onboard roller coaster.
Domestic and Global Ocean Cruises Sailing Now
For those who can’t wait to start sailing again, American Cruise Lines welcomes passengers aboard the Independence, a small ship with fewer than 250 passengers. The ship sails along the coastal southeastern U.S. Vaccines are required to sail.
While the pandemic has shut down most cruises, there are some areas of the world where several ships are sailing. However, in most cases, these are single-nationality cruises calling at a limited number of ports, and usually in the country of origin. Nearly all are in Europe or Asia.
For example, MSC Cruises offers seven-night cruises around Italy and to Greece for Italians. World Dream Cruises and Royal Caribbean offer three- and-four night sailings from Singapore for Singaporeans only. Ponant offers cruises to citizens and residents of Qatar.
Small Luxury Ships in Europe and the Caribbean
If you’re looking for other intimate cruising experiences with fewer passengers onboard, consider small luxury ships that have sailings for later in the year and in 2022. These include Azamara, Oceania, Silversea, and Windstar.
Cruising on River Boats
Viking is among the river cruise companies that have resumed sailing in Europe while others are planning summer itineraries with limited passenger capacity.
U.S. River Cruises Sailing Now
American Cruise Lines’ American Jazz is sailing on the lower Mississippi River. Open to all passengers.
American Queen Steamboat Company is operating, with American Duchess and American Countess sailing on the Mississippi River. Open to all passengers. Required: COVID-19 testing prior to departure, vaccines required as of July 1, 2021.
What about Cruising in 2022 ?
Cruise lines are bullish on the future of the industry. Many are seeing the vaccination roll-outs worldwide as a game-changer for the return of travel, and cruising specifically.
“It’s still early to tell what 2022 could look like, from safety protocols to how many ships are back to sea,” says Gray Faust. “But we’re hopeful that travel will return to more normalcy in the year to come.”