You are here

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

Cruise ships are back in business, but new rules mean changes
Kent German June 23, 2021

Masks won't be required, but some cruises will mandate vaccinations and additional restrictions for nonvaccinated passengers.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.