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Cruise ships are back in business, but new rules mean changes

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Sail away, sail away (but with precautions)


Kent German/CNET

After years of steady passenger growth and cruise lines competing with each other to launch the biggest and most elaborate ships, suddenly the cruising industry went full astern when the the coronavirus hit. 

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. Then on March 14, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a No Sail Order banning cruises from operating in the United States. 

Sixteen months later, cruising is now ready for a comeback as vaccines are making travel possible again. And in some cases, that ship is already sailing. 

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. Florida, which is home to the world’s largest cruise ports, has banned cruise lines from mandating coronavirus vaccinations even though most of the companies want to make such vaccines a requirement. How the companies are adapting is a fast-changing story. 

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 Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Millennium that left St. Maarten on June 5 and required passengers 16 and older to be vaccinated. Celebrity also has announced upcoming cruises for the Mediterranean, the Galapagos Islands and Alaska.

Most of the other major cruise lines, including Princess, Holland America, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Norwegian, also have announced sailings. Cunard, however, may not start up again until the last quarter of the year. See our sister site, The Points Guy, for a comprehensive 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 pandemic continues. Royal Caribbean postponed a sailing of its Odyssey of the Seas by four weeks to July 31 when eight crew members tested positive for COVID-19.

Of course, if you book a trip and it’s canceled or postponed, you’ll be able to reschedule or get a refund. Generally, 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 was a passenger on the Celebrity Caribbean cruise and detailed the changes she encountered during her trip. 

She writes that the ship was booked less than half full, and all passengers and crew 16 and older were required to be vaccinated (more on that later). What’s more, passengers of all ages had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 72 hours old before boarding. Embarkation times were staggered to avoid crowds, and masks were required when arriving. 

Passengers weren’t required to wear masks once on the ship (more on this later, too), except those under 16 who aren’t vaccinated, and they had to be tested before returning to St. Maarten on June 12. The buffet was open, but passengers were not allowed to serve themselves per CDC recommendations. Hand-washing stations were in abundance, and there were no social distancing requirements in the restaurants of theaters. 

Those changes are just from that one Celebrity voyage, though. Regulations will vary by cruise line and ship, and they could change (for better or worse) with little notice. Think about what kind of environment will make you comfortable and do your research before booking. 

princess-cruises

Cruise lines must get CDC approval to resume sailings.


Kent German/CNET

But didn’t some people on that cruise test positive for COVID-19?

Yes, two passengers who shared a cabin tested positive for COVID-19 on June 10. The passengers, who were asymptomatic, were isolated and a few others who had come into recent contact with them had to remain in their cabins while they were tested. Kosciolek was one of the people who had contact, and she wrote about her experience. No one else ended up testing positive by the end of the trip.

Stewart Chiron, a travel expert known as The Cruise Guy, also was onboard the Millennium. In an email he told me that despite the positive tests, he felt Celebrity’s safety protocols worked well. “The mood on Celebrity Millennium after the captain’s evening announcement [on June 10] didn’t change anything onboard. Passengers continued to enjoy normal activities including dinners, shows, lounges, casino, shopping and having fun.”

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? 

In May the CDC announced a series of changes for cruise lines, designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. They include screening passengers before embarking (either by way of a COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination), isolating and contact-tracing any passengers who test positive during the cruise, and installing hand-washing facilities.

Once a cruise line has made necessary changes, the agency will grant permission for sailings to depart from the United States under two scenarios: 95% of passengers and 95% of crew must be fully vaccinated, or lines can conduct a simulated cruise and practice the CDC safety measures with a group of volunteers. 

But as I explain below, a federal judge has struck down those regulations after a lawsuit from the state of Florida.

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 bring 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’ll require vaccinations of passengers and crew. And if a jab isn’t 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 requiring them. Even before the pandemic, cruise ships had outbreaks of norovirus. Passengers aren’t the only people onboard a cruise. Remember that crew members live in cramped quarters and interact with hundreds of passengers daily.

cruise-ship-miami

Miami is the largest cruise port in the world, 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. 

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.)

Cruise lines that have scheduled Florida sailings are mostly backing down for now (see next question), but the issue is far from resolved. As a potential 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis is determined to use vaccination as another culture war battle. It may feel odd that he’s taking on such a huge industry, but the governor has consistently resisted coronavirus lockdowns as harmful to business. Jim Walker, a maritime attorney told the Washington Post, “this stunt to me just reeks of political buffoonery.”

Florida also sued the CDC over its cruising regulations. After mediation between the two sides failed, US District Judge Steven Merryday blocked the agency from enforcing the rules in Florida starting July 18. Instead, Merryday ruled that the CDC can only make recommendations.

How are cruise lines adapting to Florida’s regulations? 

Royal Caribbean will only be recommending vaccinations for Florida sailings (while requiring them elsewhere). Celebrity (owned by the same parent company as RC) has changed its policy for Florida as well: Passengers who “decline or are unable to show proof of vaccination at boarding will be treated as unvaccinated and subject to additional protocols, restrictions, and costs for COVID-19 testing.” 

Those requirements include having to take three COVID-19 tests during the cruise (at $178 each per person), wearing masks except when eating or drinking, and being restricted to designated seating areas in the dining rooms, casino and theater. At ports, unvaccinated guests must book a Celebrity-run shore excursion or they may be prevented from leaving the ship completely.

Alternatively, lines 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 such as the Bahamas. Though it’s scheduled Florida sailings starting in the late summer, Norwegian has already threatened to do just that. 

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