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Whether it’s your first or 100th cruise, you may be wondering what you need to know before booking your next sailing. One thing is for sure: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the cruise industry has changed worldwide. Most cruise ships haven’t sailed for a year. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not approved U.S. ships to sail yet. But there’s good news on the horizon as cruise lines gradually prepare ships and crew for a safe return to cruising in 2021.
Although the cruise experience will be different, the cruise industry is preparing to safely welcome passengers onboard in the near future. U.S. cruise lines are currently on a voluntary operational pause. The exceptions are small ships that do not fall under the direct requirements of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But plans are underway for cruise lines to sail the high seas sooner rather than later.
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 in 2021?
Cruising policies and protocols vary by cruise line and country. For example, the U.K. just waived its ban on cruising to allow for round-U.K. sailings for U.K. residents only. In the U.S., the cruise lines are still awaiting guidance from the CDC for 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 2021: What are the CDC guidelines?
The CDC established a Framework for Conditional Sailing Order that introduces a phased approach for resuming passenger operations. The Conditional Sailing Order applies to ships that carry 250-plus passengers. During the initial phases, cruise ship operators must demonstrate adherence to testing, quarantine and isolation, and social distancing requirements to protect crew members. Later phases will allow passenger travel.
With things in flux, there is no industry-wide protocol in place for safety guidelines and procedures. However, U.S. cruise lines have submitted an extensive safety plan to the CDC for consideration. It includes things like capacity limits, testing requirements and onboard safety guidelines.
“The industry is still waiting for next steps from the CDC, including what protocols they expect to be implemented across all lines,” says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic.
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.
Virgin Voyages has taken the lead, announcing that it would require all passengers and crew to have a COVID-19 vaccine before sailing when cruises resume in the U.S.
Passengers can be assured that most cruise lines will vaccinate all crew members, which will make for a very safe return to cruising, says 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 says.
Cruising 2021: Which Ships Will Sail?
While it’s difficult to say which cruise ships will sail this year and when, several have already resumed sailing. It’s safe to guess that we’ll see even more resume sailing in the coming weeks and months, says Gray Faust.
The CDC still has not approved ships to sail from the U.S., so they’re unable to sail from U.S. ports. However, ships are able to sail from select ports outside the U.S.
“One trend that’s emerging is that some lines are moving their ships to the Bahamas and Caribbean. These are open to adult passengers who have been fully vaccinated, and children and teens who test negative for COVID-19,” says Gray Faust.
Local orders in those Caribbean ports do not require that passengers be vaccinated, although they do need to be tested for COVID. That’s the same for all travelers – cruise, or not, says Gray Faust.
Which Ships are Sailing from the Caribbean?
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are the first big-ship cruise lines to announce a return to sailings in the Caribbean. 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, says 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.
Carnival Cruise Line has not made any such decisions or announcements. “Our decisions will be informed with input from our global medical and science experts and the requirements of the places we operate and visit,” says Carnival Cruise Line News Desk Senior Manager Vance Guilliksen.
Will Alaska Cruises Return in 2021?
Transport Canada’s ban on cruise activities will likely impact most major cruise sailings to Alaska in 2021.
“Right now, it’s looking unlikely that large ship cruising will return to Alaska in 2021,” says Gray Faust.
That said, there are small ships that will be returning to Alaska this year. 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.
There’s been some discussion around waiving U.S. laws that require the larger ships to dock at a foreign port – in this case, Canada. While there’s currently an extended ban on cruising in Canada, it’s yet to be seen where those conversations will lead.
Princess Cruises and Holland America – the two leaders in the Alaska cruise market – have cancelled all their sailings from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska for May and June, 2021. Several smaller cruise lines, including Seabourn and Cunard, already have canceled all their Alaska sailings for 2021
Still sailing to Alaska are a handful of smaller cruise lines. These smaller ships are a great choice for people who want to explore Alaska’s remote areas. Among these cruise lines are Lindblad Expedition, Uncruise Adventures, and American Cruise Lines, which depart from Seattle, as well as ports in Alaska.
What Will Cruising Look Like Onboard?
Cruise director Rutter says 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 says.
The COVID protocols onboard ships that have resumed sailing in Europe and Asia are similar to what we see on land, says 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 2021
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 for 2021
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 2021
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
Azamara, a small luxury ship, will begin sailing July 1, 2021.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for an intimate cruising experience with fewer passengers onboard, consider small luxury ships that have sailings for later in the year and in 2022 including Oceania, Silversea, and Windstar.
Cruising 2021 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.”