Cruising is making its eagerly awaited comeback. After a year on pause due to the pandemic, major cruise lines are preparing to set sail, with new protocols and regulations designed to keep everyone aboard safe.
Pent-up cruise demand, coupled with a renewed confidence in travel as COVID-19 vaccinations become more widely available, has travelers eager to book. But it’s also left many wondering what they need to know -- and what they should expect -- when it comes to taking a cruise vacation in this not-quite-post-pandemic world.
For answers, we turned to two cruise industry experts, Randy Osborne and Dianne Vavala, who oversee ocean and river cruise sales at AAA Club Alliance, respectively.
“Cruise lines have been waiting patiently for over a year,” Osborne says of an industry that’s remained largely anchored since March 2020. “All of the cruise lines have been working for months on their safety protocols and have great plans in place to keep cruising safe for their guest and crew members. In the end, the industry will be safer for it.”
Note: The information shared is current at the time of publish.
WHEN CAN I TAKE A CRUISE?
Ocean cruising is back on in the Caribbean, so long as you depart from a Caribbean island. It’s also back in Europe, although some cruise lines are only catering to passengers living within the European Union’s Schengen zone. (U.S. visitors would need to stay on top of any restrictions prior to booking a European cruise.)
For cruises departing from the U.S. (e.g. Miami, New York, Los Angeles), the wait will soon be over. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued an update to its Conditional Sailing Order with the promise that sailings could resume by mid-July -- with the requirement that 95% of passengers and 98% of crew members be fully vaccinated.
DO I NEED A COVID-19 VACCINE TO TAKE A CRUISE?
Consider a full vaccination your golden ticket to sail in 2021. It might be just as valuable as your passport.
In the short term, most cruises will only be available to those who have been vaccinated. Over time, this requirement may loosen up. However, this will ultimately depend on the cruise ship and its geographical itinerary -- as some nations will continue to require visitors to be fully vaccinated before stepping ashore.
WHERE CAN I TAKE A CRUISE?
Let’s first address where most cruises won’t be headed in 2021: Alaska. This is because Canada has banned ships carrying more than 250 passengers from sailing into its waters and ports until February 2022. (If you’re determined to cruise Alaska in 2021, however, there is a loophole: booking with a smaller ship that originates from Alaskan soil and doesn’t travel through Canada.)
Aside from this, most of the rest of the world will be open to cruising at some point in 2021. Some destinations will have stricter requirements than others, however.
Osborne says if you can travel this year and you’re vaccinated, now is the time book to take advantage of 2021 deals. “Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruises have sailings starting in June from several Caribbean locations,” he says. “These are great options and ready to book today with some great offers, some even offering some great air inclusive packages.”
ARE THE GUIDELINES DIFFERENT FOR RIVER CRUISES?
“European River Cruise lines are sorting out details of restrictions as many river cruise itineraries pass through multiple countries and there is still clarification needed,” says Vavala. “They are hopeful for a summer return, but no official relaunch dates have been announced.”
Expect vaccines to play a big role in European River cruising, adds Vavala, as the EU recently announced travel opening back up to U.S. travelers who have been fully vaccinated.
In the meantime, closer to home, U.S. river cruises have been sailing the Mississippi since March, and American Cruise Lines and the American Queen Steamboat Co. recently returned to the Pacific Northwest’s Snake and Columbia Rivers. Full vaccinations are required for all passengers aboard these initial sailings.
ARE CRUISE SHIPS SAFE?
While there will always be inherent risks in traveling via cruise ship, the new health and safety standards proactively put in place by most cruise lines, along with CDC guidelines placed upon U.S.-based cruises, make it safer than ever. “Most cruise lines are requiring testing prior to boarding and are offering free test when disembarkation when required for re-entry into the U.S. from the final destination,” says Osborne.
HOW DIFFERENT WILL THE CRUISE EXPERIENCE BE POST-PANDEMIC?
“All the things that you’ve loved about cruising will still be there,” says Osborne. “[Cruise lines] are elevating the systems as best they can and thinking outside of the box more than they ever have.”
Many cruise lines have hired respected medical teams to help consult on new safety protocols that provide peace of mind without diminishing the cruise experience. Along with elevated cleaning and sanitation standards and social distancing directives, expect:
- Ships sailing at reduced capacity. Cruise lines that are already sailing are doing so at 50 to 75 percent capacity to reduce crowds and make social distancing easier.
- New pre-departure protocol. Expect to fill out a health questionnaire as well as have a negative COVID test prior to boarding. Most cruise lines also will assign you a specific boarding time to stagger the boarding process.
- Health checks. Temperature checks will be taken upon boarding and re-boarding, either manually or using an automated thermal camera. Some lines will require daily COVID testing of passengers and crew.
- Health labs and testing onboard. Viking Cruises in November of 2020 unveiled the first full-scale laboratory for daily, non-invasive COVID-19 testing onboard one of its ships. Other cruise lines are investing in the same. This ability to conduct daily PCR testing while sailing provides a new level of safety for passengers and crew.
- Face masks in common areas. Be prepared to wave “hello” to fellow passengers while wearing a face mask when in public areas of the ship. (Perhaps consider investing in a transparent face mask so that your smile is obvious.)
- Enhanced air filtration systems. Some lines are even installing independent air handling units in staterooms so that they don’t share air with other areas of the ship.
- Streamlined processes. Expect reduced queuing and better crowd control throughout the ship. This includes safety drills, which will be staggered or be completed via a video inside your cabin.
- More touchless interactions. Expect to use a cruise app to make reservations for activities and meals aboard the ship. You may even be able to order meals to your cabin.
- Changes to dining options. Self-service stations, such as coffee bars and cruise buffets, will no longer be self-serve. Expect to be served your coffee, etc., by cruise staff. Dining areas will require reservations and may feature plexi-glass between tables to keep a safe social distance. Other areas aboard the ship, such as lounges and outdoor decks, may be converted into dining environments, as well.
HOW WILL CRUISES HANDLE SHORE EXCURSIONS?
Shore excursions (the land-based adventures offered in each port destination) will be redesigned to minimize risk and to follow each port destination’s unique guidelines. As a general rule: group sizes be limited; there will be spaced seating on transportation; and in some cases, guests will utilize audio headsets to allow for physical distancing.
In some ports, you may not be able to disembark unless it’s with a cruise line-sponsored excursion. In other words, you may not be allowed to DIY your day on land. “[Access] is going to be based on the local rules of each town or port,” says Vavala. ”Those rules are changing every day.”
Being fully vaccinated, however, may open those DIY shore opportunities. For instance, passengers aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s initial summer sailings will not have to take shore excursions in a bubble because the line mandates that everyone aboard be fully vaccinated.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO TAKE A CRUISE VACATION?
For both ocean and river cruises, Osborne and Vavala encourage clients to consider 2021 travel to take advantage of current deals and last-minute availability. But if you want to be more conservative or need more time to plan, look to 2022 or 2023.
Just don’t wait to book, especially since ships are expected to sail at a reduced capacity and demand is likely to exceed supply.
“Things will fill up in the next few months,” says Vavala, who notes that select river cruise itineraries are already booking up into 2023. “With capacity limits, space will sell out quickly. If you wait too long, you may not get what you want.”
HOW SHOULD I BOOK MY CRUISE?
Given the unknowns and nuances that inevitably come with cruising post-pandemic, it’s no wonder that both Osborne and Vavala have seen more people leveraging travel agents.
“We’ve actually seen a lot more people coming in who’ve never used a travel agent before,” says Osborne, who says agents not only help to customize the cruise vacation to your goals and budget, but also provide something that’s priceless: peace of mind.
Osborne and Vavala also recommend investing in something else: travel insurance. “Travel insurance is always a good idea as it adds a level of safety and peace of mind for the traveler,” he says.
To connect with an experienced AAA travel agent who will be up on the latest surrounding post-pandemic cruises and can advise on appropriate travel insurance, click here.
Check out AAA’s COVID Traveler Information page for helpful resources to plan your next vacation.