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Cruising is back, but your onboard experience will change


Sail away, sail away (but with precautions)


Kent German/CNET

When the coronavirus pandemic exploded across the planet early last year, the cruise industry took a particularly brutal blow. After years of steady passenger growth and cruise lines competing with each to launch the biggest and most elaborate ships, suddenly the industry went full speed astern. Ships like the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess were major coronavirus hotspots, with passengers being locked in their staterooms as the disease spread quickly. Some countries also refused to let ships dock, leaving passengers stranded onboard for days. 

It was enough for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a No Sail Order on March 14, 2020, banning cruises from operating in the United States. But 16 months later, as vaccines are making travel possible again, cruising is ready for a comeback. And in some cases, that ship has already sailed. 

There will be some changes from pre-pandemic times, and scheduled sailings may be canceled or moved as the pandemic persists and regulations in ports change. As I discuss below, Florida, home to the country’s largest cruise ports, is trying to ban lines from mandating vaccinations (as most want to do). How companies will adapt to such efforts will be a fast-changing story, especially as two vaccinated passengers on a cruise this week tested positive for COVID-19.

If you’ve spent the last year eager to return to the high seas, here’s what you need to know.

Grand Princess cruise ship

After a COVID-19 outbreak on the Grand Princess early in the pandemic, the ship was stranded at sea for days before docking in Oakland, California, on March 9, 2020 to offload passengers.


Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Can I take a cruise now?

Yes. After a few false starts over the last year, many cruise lines are scheduling sailings for the summer months and beyond. Celebrity Cruises is already back in action with a seven-night (almost fully vaccinated) Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Millennium that left St. Maarten on June 5. Celebrity also has announced upcoming cruises in the Mediterranean, the Galápagos islands and Alaska.

Most of the other major cruise lines, including Princess, Holland America, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Norwegian, also have announced sailings, but with less aggressive schedules than Celebrity. Cunard, however, may not start up again until the last quarter of the year. See our sister site, The Points Guy, for a comprehensive line-by-line breakdown of upcoming sailings (TPG also has a breakdown of cruises by departure port).

Smaller lines are adding to their schedules as well, and some have been operating for a few months. American Queen Steamboat Company, for example, resumed with a Mississippi River voyage on March 15.

Just keep in mind that schedules may change as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Of course, if you book a trip and it’s canceled, you will be able to reschedule or get a refund. Some lines also are letting you cancel ahead of time with no penalty. And as I discuss in the next question, your onboard experience will be different than before COVID-19 hit. 

cruise-ship-at-mykonos

The Celebrity Reflection docked in Mykonos in pre-pandemic times. Celebrity was the first big cruise line to schedule a sailing.


Kent German/CNET

Will cruising be different?

You better believe it, even if it’s just in small ways. The Points Guy’s Ashley Kosciolek is a passenger on the Celebrity Caribbean cruise and detailed the changes she’s encountered during her trip. 

She writes that the ship was only booked half full, and all passengers and crew 16 and older were required to be vaccinated (more on that later) and show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 72 hours old. Passengers were not required to wear masks (more on this later, too), except those under 16 who aren’t vaccinated, and they had to be tested before returning to St. Maarten.

Surprisingly (at least to me), the buffet was open, but passengers were not allowed to serve themselves. Hand-washing stations were in abundance, and there were no social distancing requirements in the restaurants of theaters. But even with all of those precautions, two passengers tested positive for COVID-19 before the cruise ended. The passengers, who were asymptomatic, were isolated in their rooms as were others who had come into recent contact with them. Kosciolek was one of the people who had contact, and she wrote about her experience.

Those changes are just from that one Celebrity voyage, though. Regulations will vary by cruise line, and they’re likely to change (for the better or worse) with little notice. Do your research before booking. 

alaska-galcier-bay-cruise

Following a change in federal law, Alaska cruises will be able to sail from Seattle to the Last Frontier without stopping in Canada.


Kent German/CNET

What about stopping in ports?

Ports could have their own requirements, like not being able to leave the ship if you didn’t book a shore excursion. Your departure country also may have its own vaccination or testing regulations for arriving tourists stricter than your cruise line. Again, do your research.

As for countries that haven’t opened their borders to full tourism yet, your ship won’t be stopping there at all. That means for the time being, Alaska cruises won’t be departing from, or calling at, Canadian ports. Until recently, that would have made Alaska cruising impossible due a federal law that prohibited foreign-flagged ships (which virtually all cruise ships are) from carrying passengers between two US ports without stopping at a foreign port. But last month President Biden signed a bill that temporarily lifted that regulation. Now ships can sail from Seattle to Alaska nonstop.

cruise-ship-at-sydney

But until Australia opens its borders you won’t be able to cruise there.


Kent German/CNET

What are the CDC regulations regarding cruises? 

Cruise lines must implement a series of changes designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some are required and others are recommended. They include screening passengers before embarking (either through a COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination), isolating and contact-tracing passengers who test positive during the cruise, and installing hand-washing facilities.

Once they’ve made the changes, the agency will grant permission for sailings to depart from the United States under two scenarios: Ships must carry at least 95% vaccinated passengers and crew members, or lines can conduct a simulated cruise and practice the CDC safety measures with a group of volunteers.

princess-cruises

Cruise lines must get CDC approval to resume sailings.


Kent German/CNET

Will I have to wear a mask? 

Despite some early noise that the agency would require masks onboard, it’s not doing so (phew). Social distancing measures are recommended in crowded areas, but they aren’t required either. Crew members, on the other hand, are urged to wear masks when outside their cabins.

Cruise lines will likely supply masks, but definitely your own. Either way, the CDC still requires masks on airplanes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation. And you’ll probably need one when checking in for your cruise.

Are they requiring vaccinations?

Most lines say they will require vaccinations of both passengers and crew. And if a jab is not mandated, a negative COVID-19 test before boarding likely will be.

Though vaccination requirements are running afoul of a new Florida law banning vaccinations, it makes perfect sense that cruise lines are going that direction. Even before the pandemic, cruise ships had frequent outbreaks of norovirus

cruise-ship-miami

Miami is the largest cruise port in the country, but Florida has banned vaccine mandates.


Kent German/CNET

What’s happening in Florida?

Mostly what’s happening in Florida is Gov. Ron DeSantis. Eager to be seen as a leader for one loud corner of the political spectrum, he emerged early as a staunch opponent of any vaccine requirements. On April 2 he issued an executive order prohibiting businesses and government agencies in the state from requiring proof of vaccination. A month later he signed a bill passed by the Florida Legislature that confirmed the ban. Florida also has sued the CDC over its cruising regulations. Mediation between the two sides has failed so far, and the case is in the hands of a judge.

DeSantis insists that cruise lines operating from Florida will be fined “millions of dollars” if they require vaccination for passengers (as employees, a ship’s crew is another matter). Naturally, cruise lines, Florida’s tourism industry and mayors of the cities where cruises depart say otherwise. (Passengers flowing into Florida to board ships spend money onshore.)

How the battle will play out remains to be seen, but it’s likely to end up in court. Cruise lines have scheduled Florida sailings for later this month. But as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis is determined to win and use vaccination as another culture war battle. As the governor has consistently resisted coronavirus lockdowns as harmful to business, it may feel odd that he’s taking on such a huge industry. Jim Walker, a maritime attorney told the Washington Post, “this stunt to me just reeks of political buffoonery.”

How are cruise lines adapting to Florida’s regulations? 

If no agreement is reached to exempt cruise lines from Florida’s law, they could follow Royal Caribbean’s route by only recommending them for Florida sailings (while requiring them elsewhere). But as even vaccinated passengers were able to test positive on the Celebrity Millennium, that policy may prove unwise.

Alternatively, they could decide to pull ships from the state altogether and have cruises depart from other ports in other states without such a ban or other countries like the Bahamas. Norwegian has already threatened to do just that. Or they could just pay the fines and keep their policies in place.



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