Everything You Need to Know About Taking a Cruise Right Now

Amalfitan coast with cruise liner


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Amalfitan coast with cruise liner

Ship Shape

What’s making a comeback this summer? Cruising. After a 15-month pause, the U.S. cruise industry is back, and it's used the downtime to pro-actively overhaul the cruise experience while ensuring they meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s long list of requirements for both vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers to sail safely again. If you’re thinking of getting your sea legs in the coming months, here’s what to expect: from mask mandates, vaccination, and COVID-19 protocols, to what happens if you need to cancel your trip.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication.

Prices and policies are subject to change.

Related: 14 Industries That Have Been Hit Hardest by the Pandemic

Travel during COVID-19 pandemic, bottle of coronavirus vaccine and passports

Sail Vaccinated If You Can

Cruising as a fully vaccinated individual will present fewer challenges. Officially, CDC guidelines state that sailings are permitted where all crew is vaccinated and at least 95% of guests are fully vaccinated. However, vaccine requirements are also determined by which port and country the ship is sailing to and from. For now, cruise lines including Princess Cruises, Holland America, Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea, Viking Cruises, and Virgin Voyages are open only to fully vaccinated individuals. Others like Celebrity Cruises are running at a ratio of 95% vaccinated while Royal Caribbean's vaccine requirements vary by port of departure. 

“If you aren't vaccinated, then the cruise experience is going to be different. Cruise line rules vary, but all of them require multiple tests if you don't have the shot, including before and at the end of the cruise,” says Tanner Callais of Cruzely.com. “Some lines also require travel insurance for unvaccinated passengers. And unless you are going to a private island [for an excursion], you're going to have to go on special excursions designed for those without the vaccine. You could also be excluded from some spots on the ship.”

Insider Tip: Take note that unvaccinated guests may face further tests at certain ports of call if they wish to go ashore.

Related: 18 Ways Cruises Have Evolved in the Past 40 Years

Woman with protective face mask on the ferry

Mask Mandates Are a Moving Target

Should a mask be part of your cruise wardrobe? Yes. All individuals will have to don a mask during the entire embarkation and debarkation process and on water shuttle or public transport operations. Public outdoor spaces onboard and shore excursions will likely fall under “just a recommendation,” but this could change according to the cruise line and if a situation develops. Where food, drink, and physical activities are involved, fully vaccinated guests can expect to go maskless, but there will likely be some social-distancing measures in place. Take note, some cruise lines are not allowing neck gaiters, open chin bandanas, scarves, and face masks with valves, and Disney Cruises is asking guests age 2 and up to wear masks in all indoor areas except when eating and drinking or in their staterooms — so mask up accordingly.

Insider Tip: Pack a few different masks so you don’t have to use the same one every day, and ensure you’ve packed ones that are suitable for the climate you’re traveling to.

MSC Meraviglia aerial photo Miami

Expect To Show Your Vaccine Passport

The question of a vaccine passport has proved particularly thorny for cruise lines. In Florida where there’s a law preventing businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has filed a federal lawsuit contesting the law and been granted a preliminary injunction to bypass the “vaccine passport” ban according to Reuters. What does this all mean for cruise travelers? Subject to any further changes, expect to be asked for proof of vaccination and to sail according to the extensive protocols of the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) issued by the CDC. For instance, showing proof of a negative test pre-boarding, observing guidelines for hand hygiene, face masks and social distancing are no longer recommendations but requirements to sail from Florida.

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Man at Work, Pressure Washing a Liferaft Boat

Cruise Ships Have Never Been Cleaner

Aside from the extensive requirements by the CDC, every cruise line has issued new sanitation policies and procedures. Some have used 2020 to update ventilation systems with HEPA filters, expanded medical facilities, and outfitted vessels with isolation cabins just in case. “Cruise lines are doing a fantastic job with sanitizers, washing stations at restaurant entries, cleaning cabins twice a day, and thorough overnight sanitation. It’s important to note that they’ve already been offering this kind of enhanced opportunity; it’s just gotten stronger,” according to cruise journalist and chief content officer at Cruise Media Carolyn Spencer Brown

Related: Pandemic Phrases That Have Infected Our Vocabulary

Couple sitting with manager at the travel agency office and reviewing contract

Cruises For 2021 Might Be Sold Out

If you’ve got your sights to sail away this year, you might be hard-pressed to find a spot. A combination of pent-up travel demand, cruise deals, lower vessel passenger capacity, and cruisers making good on pre-pandemic cruise plans are translating into robust booking numbers for 2021 and 2022. According to Business Insider, mega cruises like Viking Ocean Cruises’ 136-day world cruise for late 2021 has already sold out, Oceania Cruises has also sold out its 2023 "Around the World in 180 Days" cruise, luxury cruise line Seabourn has sold out its penthouse spa and premium suites on its 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn for two world trips in 2022 and 2023, and bookings on the new Disney Wish for sailings starting in June 2022 from Port Canaveral is selling fast. In short, you’ve got to act quickly or wait again to sail the high seas.  

Related: 25 Cruise Ship Mistakes to Avoid for Smooth Sailing

Woman on cruise ship with protective face mask

Cruises Have Gotten Cheaper, For Now

Wave season (this period typically runs from January to March where cruise lines offer some of the best cruise deals) may be over but most cruise companies are still extending sales — some as much as 60 — or promotion deals to entice cruise passengers back on board. Discounted rates are just the start, they’re also throwing in a bunch of freebies: room upgrades, 2-for-1 deposits, kids sail free, door-to-door transport service, exclusive shore excursions, complimentary bars, and Wi-Fi. So before confirming your booking, do your homework and make sure you’re not leaving some extras on the table. At a glance, Carnival is offering 5-day Western Caribbean cruises departing Miami from $244 per person, Norwegian Cruise Lines has slashed the price of its 7-day Mexican Riviera cruise departing from Los Angeles to start at $573, and Royal Caribbean is pitching its 6-night Western Caribbean cruise with Perfect Day at Coco Cay leaving from Fort Lauderdale from $769 per person. 

Airport lockdown, Flights cancellation on time table

Cancellation Policies Have Become More Flexible

Cruise cancellation policies are notoriously strict but in light of the ongoing pandemic, more flexible procedures have been introduced so passengers can book with peace of mind. “The biggest concern I've heard is 'What happens if my cruise is canceled?' Luckily, the major cruise lines have very generous policies to help guests if this happens,” according to Seth Kenefick of Cruises Inc. “If your cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship is canceled due to COVID, they have three options for you to choose from: You can receive a 125% future cruise credit for you to use on a future sailing, a full refund of the fare you paid, or 'Lift and Shift' which lets you schedule a cruise as similar to the one you originally booked, the following year.” 

Insider Tip: Using a travel adviser may even save you money as they have access to exclusive deals. Also, you won't have to wait on hold with the cruise lines if anything goes wrong.

Digital International Certificate of Covid-19 Vaccination.

You Need To Have Your Paperwork In Order

Check, double-check, and when in doubt print out everything. Traveling during a pandemic requires paying attention to the smallest of details. “I’d recommend that you brush up on protocols for information before traveling. You don’t want to be that person at the airport who gets turned away because you didn’t have the right country-specific forms filled out, or you forgot your COVID vaccination card,” says Spencer Brown. While the cruise lines are doing a thorough job of reminding passengers to fill out health questionnaires and alerting them to the requirements of various countries, ultimately the onus is on the traveler. 

Related: From Harry Potter to Louis Vuitton: Convenient and Clever COVID-19 Vaccine Card Holders

Dining Room Buffet aboard the luxury abstract cruise ship

Buffets Will Be Served

A highlight of every sailing, cruise die-hards will be delighted to know the buffet experience lives on, and it’s gotten better. Most ships have introduced hand washing stations at the entrance (even though guests won’t be touching the serving cutlery) and a one-way system to move around the buffet. “When you see an item of food that you'll like, simply ask the crew member behind the screen and the food will be dished onto a plate and passed to the guest. Social-distancing measures are also in place when eating with every other table being closed to provide extra space per passenger,” says cruise blogger Emma Le Teace of Emmacruises.com, who sailed recently on MSC Virtuosa in the United Kingdom.

Life belt on deck

Muster Drills Have Gone Virtual

If you’ve always hated the mandatory in-person group safety drill, it has now been made a virtual in-room experience (yes, we see you cruisers cheering). According to Le Teace, passengers can now watch the safety video in-cabin before proceeding to dedicated muster stations to register their completion of the drill, ensuring everyone knows where to go in case of an emergency evacuation.

Cruise Ship

This Might Be The Best Time To Visit Alaska

Thanks to the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act (ATRA), all major lines are sailing to Alaska this year. According to Cruise Industry News, there will be a total of 83 voyages open to fully vaccinated guests offered by all the major cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Silversea, Princess. etc.) on routes that tour spots like Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Tracy Arm Fjord, Glacier National Park, and Endicott Arm. 

“One extraordinary perk of these sailings right now is related to capacity. The views sailing through Alaska can be stunning, with wildlife, glaciers, and small islands passing closer to the ship than most would imagine. Often, however, on some larger ships, open decks can be well-attended with guests vying for a good spot to take it all in. Because capacities are capped, there are far fewer guests competing for space, making for an even more personal and relaxed experience than what is already offered by cruising the last frontier,” says Billy Hirsch of CruiseHabit.com. “On land, there will be fewer visitors as well although guests will need to abide by mask-wearing, social distancing, and other [local] practices. Still, getting to Seattle and sailing to Alaska may be one of the best ways to safely feel a world away without taking longer flights, or deal with the uncertainty around international travel.”  

Related: 17 Cruise Costs You Might Not See Coming

Corridor on a cruise ship

Some Destinations Won’t Be Coming Back So Soon

Cruise season may already be underway, but some popular cruise destinations (like South America) may be on hold for a while due to slow vaccination roll-out. In a live Q&A with WendyPerrin.com in late May, cruise specialist and WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Cruises Tom Baker stated: “2022 will be a safer bet. If there is one destination that won’t bounce back as fast or as quickly this year, it will be South America.” Also expect last-minute changes to ports of call, for Carnival Cruises’ September sailings, CruiseCritic has reported that Key West and Grand Turk stops have been eliminated while the Bahamian island of Bimini has been added.

vaccinated person using digital health passport app in mobile phone for travel during covid-19 pandemic

Gear Up To Go Contactless

Don’t leave your mobile phone at home. If your SOP has been to do a digital detox (ship Wi-Fi can be so unstable) while cruising, you’ll need to lose this habit fast. Part of new cruise protocols includes moving everything from menus, daily programs, and payments online, via an app, or in a contactless fashion. “When dining in a restaurant or having a drink in the bar all menus are viewable on guests' phones," says Le Teace. “MSC also has wristbands that are used to pay for things. So apart from touching things like elevator buttons and possibly railings that are cleaned very regularly, there are very few [shared] touchpoints.”

Tropical Paradise

Sail Vaccinated If You Want To Go Ashore

Depending on the cruise itinerary and various ports of call, many cruise liners are not allowing guests off the ship unless they're vaccinated, or on a bubble excursion (i.e. organized by the cruise line). “This is part of the go-with-the-flow mentality. Cruise lines want to operate shore excursions as necessary but have to adhere to the rules of the country,” Spencer Brown, who sailed with Silversea to Greece and Iceland. “And those rules can change. Literally the night I boarded my Silversea cruise, Greece reduced the bubble-excursion requirement, in which you can only visit land in specified groups and cannot travel independently.”  

I'll take care of your skin.
Aja Koska/istockphoto

Expect To Be Pampered More Than Usual

For many, the allure of cruising is all about the onboard experience. And with ships boasting everything from mega water slides and nightly entertainment shows, celebrity chef restaurants, and luxury on-board golf, pool, and spa amenities, it’s hard to get bored while sailing. For now, with lower passenger capacity, you can also expect less wait time for popular attractions (although reservations might be required) and enhanced extras extended to keep passengers entertained. For instance, luxury cruise line Silversea has bundled door-to-door transfer services and complimentary daily shore excursions like its new S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste) program where guests were invited to tour a cheesemaking factory in Mykonos and have hands-on experience making cheese under the instructions of a third-generation cheesemaker.

Miami Cruise Ship Terminal
Art Wager/istockphoto

Stick To Cruising From Ports Within Driving Distance

Like it or not, planning for the dealing with COVID-19 related incidents is part of present-day travel planning, and one scenario to prepare for is if there’s a guest or crew who tests positive for COVID-19 onboard. Cruise lines have already set in place transport protocols to ensure the ship can return to port and debark all guests. Tanner however recommends cruising from a port closer to home. “Stick to ports where you can drive to the ship. While the new protocols seem to be working, if you fly to the port and there is an outbreak on board, you might be delayed getting home as travel arrangements are made outside of commercial travel. If you drive to the port, however, CDC rules allow you to use your car to go home, giving you more flexibility for getting home.”


Related: 20 Bucket-List Cruises Worth Saving For

Ambulance outside a cruise ship on Antigua
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

If The Worst Happens, They’re Staffed and Equipped

Cruises want to instill confidence in the public as they return to sailing and many are offering dedicated medical facilities designed for COVID-19 outbreaks. Aside from isolation and quarantine areas, rapid PCR testing, and onsite result facilities, some are equipped with hospital-grade ventilators, telemedicine consultations as well as a team of doctors and nurses. Before confirming a cruise, have a closer read of their health protocols. Do note that not all are offering pro-rated cruise fare refunds if a cruise is cut short for reasons related to COVID-19, hence travel insurance is advised, and in some cases, mandated before being allowed on board. 

Insurance concept. Travel insurance.
Andrei Sauko/istockphoto

Travel Insurance Might Be Mandatory

This is no longer a nicety, it’s essential. And when it comes to going on a cruise, it may be part of the deal. “As it stands now, some cruise lines may require you to have some form of travel insurance. Even if your cruise line doesn't require it, I still highly recommend getting it,” says Kenefick. “Make sure to look for a policy that includes things like trip cancellation insurance, emergency medical/evacuation, trip delay coverage, and trip interruption coverage.” For instance, Carnival Cruises is requiring travel insurance for unvaccinated guests above age 12 traveling for Florida and Texas-based ships to the tune of $10,000, per person, in medical expense coverage and $30,000 for emergency medical evacuation, without COVID-19 exclusion. 

Happy friends drinking sangria wine at exclusive boat party - Young people having fun in summer vacation - Focus on left man hand glass - Travel, friendship, holidays and youth lifestyle concept

Cruising Is Getting Sexier

Tattoo parlors, a vinyl record store, Marvel-themed dining experiences, cruising is no longer just for the retiree set. New ships like Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady and Disney Wish are part of a new breed catering to the growing number of millennials keen to get their sea legs. Drawing them in with hip designer staterooms, festival-style on-board entertainment and dedicated adult-only zones, it’s a long-overdue disruption to a legacy industry. Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady is set to sail from Miami to the Caribbean in October 2021. Disney Wish is scheduled to debut in summer 2022 from Port Canaveral.