You can take a cruise again. Just don't expect a 100% return to normal
Masks won't be required, but some cruises will mandate vaccinations and additional restrictions for nonvaccinated passengers.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Cruising is making a comeback more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced the industry to go full astern. In Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe, major lines have scheduled sailings planned through the first half of next year, and bigger and more elaborate ships are on the way.
There will be some changes from pre-pandemic times, and scheduled sailings may be canceled or moved as COVID-19 variants persist 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 inoculations a requirement. How the lines are adapting -- most recently, Norwegian Cruise Line has sued over the ban -- is a fast-changing story.
If you've spent the last year eager to travel and 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 well into 2022. Celebrity Cruises was one of the first lines 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.
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 no schedule is guaranteed. 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 that first 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 recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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 about 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 made necessary changes, the agency would grant permission for sailings to depart from the US 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.
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.
Most lines say they'll require vaccinations of passengers and crew, generally for guests 16 and older. Younger passengers who don't have the jab may be subject to restrictions -- check before you book. Even with a vaccination, you'll likely have to show a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. Sailings from Florida are a different story, though. Vaccination requirements are running afoul of a new law there banning such mandates, and cruise lines are reacting in different ways (see next two questions).
Bans or not, it makes perfect sense that cruise lines are requiring inoculations. Ships like the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess were major coronavirus hotspots early in the pandemic, with passengers being locked in their staterooms as the disease spread quickly. Even before the pandemic, cruise ships had outbreaks of norovirus. Passengers aren't the only people onboard a cruise, either. Remember that crew members live in cramped quarters and interact with hundreds of passengers daily.
What's happening in Florida?
Mostly what's happening in Florida is Gov. Ron DeSantis, who emerged early as a staunch opponent of any vaccine requirements. A potential 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis is determined to use vaccination as another culture war battle. 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). 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 and Celebrity will only be recommending vaccinations for Florida sailings (while requiring them elsewhere). Passengers who won't or can't show proof of vaccination at boarding will be treated as unvaccinated and must follow additional protocols. The result is a vastly different onboard experience.
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. What's more, some activities and areas on ships like the spa, gym and a few restaurants will be off-limits completely. Unvaccinated guests may also need to buy travel insurance and must book a Celebrity-run shore excursion at ports 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 has planned Florida sailings for later this year, Norwegian has already threatened to do just that. Then on July 13, the company also sued Scott Rivkees, Florida's state surgeon general (he's responsible for enforcing the ban). It asked a federal court to invalidate the law and cruises resume with vaccine requirements.