Are you eager to set sail again? Cruising is back—but with new health and safety protocols. Here’s what you need to know before you book…
After a forced hiatus of more than a year due to COVID-19 lockdowns, cruise ships have resumed calling on US ports. They also have resumed sailing to some of the world’s top destinations, including the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Mexico, Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, the Mediterranean, the Greek islands, Tahiti, South America, the Galapagos and Antarctica.
During this past winter’s Omicron surge, cruise lines did cancel some sailings, and the recent emergence of the BA.2 variant continues to keep cruise-line executives vigilant. Positive cases are being detected aboard ships—just as they are in places where people gather on land—but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that cruise lines implement comprehensive plans to prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus. These measures, developed in partnership with health and safety experts, are among the strictest in the travel industry and include vaccination and testing requirements for both passengers and crew…enhanced sanitizing of public spaces…hospital-grade HEPA filters in ventilation systems…mask requirements (recently downgraded to recommendations)…social-distancing protocols (some of which are being relaxed)…and quarantine for anyone who tests positive while onboard.
On March 30, the CDC lifted its “do not cruise” advisory, noting that “travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings.” And it has established an online Cruise Ship Color Status, available at CDC.gov/quarantine/cruise/cruise-ship-color-status.html, to report COVID-19 cases on ships sailing US waters within the past seven days. Before booking, you can check a ship’s status. Green is best, but yellow and orange also fall within the CDC’s acceptable limits. A red designation means that cases have passed a threshold, and additional safety measures, such as mid-cruise testing and mandatory indoor masking, may be required.
What this all means: Cruising is back—but it’s not quite the same. There are pre-travel protocols, including testing, online health forms and mobile-app downloads, that will have you jumping through hoops, along with evolving onboard measures. To help you decide if a cruise falls within your sphere of personal risk, here are 10 things you should know…
All or most passengers need to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The cornerstone of onboard COVID-19 protocols is the requirement that all passengers—or at least all adults and most children—provide proof of being fully vaccinated. Some cruise lines now also require proof of a booster. Crew members typically need to be fully vaccinated, too. Here are cruise lines’ policies as of late April 2022—but check their websites for policies before booking since requirements are evolving…
All passengers must be at least 14 days past completing their vaccination on Azamara (Azamara.com), Cunard (Cunard.com), Holland America (HollandAmerica.com), Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions.com), Regent (RSSC.com), Seabourn (Seabourn.com), SeaDream (SeaDream.com), Silversea (Silversea.com), UnCruise Adventures (UnCruise.com), Viking (Viking.com), Virgin Voyages
(VirginVoyages.com) and Windstar (WindstarCruises.com). Note: Some cruise lines require a booster to travel and some only require it depending on the destination. Check requirements before your sail date.
All passengers who are eligible for vaccination (anyone age five and older) must be at least 14 days past completing their vaccination on Celebrity (CelebrityCruises.com), Disney
(DisneyCruise.Disney.Go.com), MSC (MSCCruisesUSA.com), Norwegian (NCL.com), Oceania (OceaniaCruises.com) Princess (Princess.com) and Royal Caribbean (RoyalCaribbean.com).
Most guests ages five and older must be at least 14 days past being fully vaccinated on Carnival (Carnival.com), but, depending on the itinerary, it is allowing a very small number of children under age 12 and teens and adults who can provide written confirmation from their medical provider that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
A negative test is required to board. Most cruise lines still require a preboarding negative test for all sailings (small-ship line UnCruise Adventures dropped testing but said this could be subject to change). In most cases, passengers are asked to take a pre-travel test at their own expense and provide a negative antigen result, typically taken within 48 hours of embarkation for vaccinated adults…or, for unvaccinated minors and adults with medical exemptions, a PCR result taken within 72 hours. Some cruise lines, however, are testing all passengers at the port before boarding using rapid antigen tests. Protocols are detailed on the cruise lines’ websites.
Only Viking is testing passengers multiple times (including daily on some itineraries) using saliva-based PCR tests (guests spit into a test tube left for them in their cabin) and processing the tests in labs onboard its ocean ships. Some cruise lines may require additional onboard testing for unvaccinated children (ages two to 11) who are allowed to sail.
Travelers entering the US by air as of early May still are required to test negative for COVID-19 one day before flying. Most cruise lines are offering antigen tests the day before disembarkation (some complimentary, others for a fee) for guests on international cruises who are flying back to the US.
Mask policies vary by cruise line. Masks had been mandatory (and still are while embarking and disembarking and onboard some ships when in certain crowded spaces, such as a theater) but now are mostly just recommended. Crew members, however, typically are required to wear masks while interacting with passengers.
Most ships are sailing but not at full capacity. By May 2022, most cruise lines had the majority of their ships back in service. But quite a few are sailing with only 60% to 80% capacity. This is sometimes intentional, in an effort to enhance social distancing, but also is partly due to lack of demand.
All cruise destinations aren’t yet open. That cruise to Japan will have to wait. Certain countries have not yet reopened their borders to international travelers, and others continue to ban cruise ships altogether—but the Cayman Islands reopened to cruise passengers on March 21 and Australia began welcoming ships on April 18.
Itineraries can change. Because cruise lines need to follow the safety protocols of the ports they visit, there may be a last-minute change to an itinerary. This could include skipping a port if the virus is surging there or, conversely, if cases detected onboard the ship mean it cannot dock due to local protocols.
Passengers who test positive need to quarantine and possibly disembark. There are strict protocols in place if you test positive while onboard. You will be immediately quarantined in a designated cabin under medical supervision and may be required to disembark in the next appropriate port for a hotel quarantine. Most cruise lines have hotel contracts for this purpose, and some will pay for your quarantine stay. But not all do, so travel insurance that covers COVID-19 quarantine is recommended.
Port protocols may be determined by cases in the region. Cruise lines keep tabs on community spread in the ports they visit, which means that shore excursions could be more limited than usual if cases are surging. Examples: Ships may not offer experiences that require you to be indoors in a large group setting or you may be required to wear a mask throughout the excursion. But if cases are low, you generally will be free to wander on your own and shop or try local restaurants.
The buffet experience may be different. Most cruise ships offer a buffet-dining option—and that hasn’t gone away. But on some ships, it’s no longer self-serve and crew members located behind plexiglass partitions dole out the foods you request.
Certain protocols are being relaxed. You still will be asked to use hand sanitizer, and you’ll complete your muster/safety drill electronically rather than en masse. But as the world learns to live with this virus, more stringent protocols at sea are being lifted—just as they are on land.
Bottom line: If you plan to cruise, you’ll need to take these precautions seriously, letting your own risk barometer guide your actions. Plus, you’ll need to be flexible since last-minute changes to testing requirements or itineraries could occur.