What to Expect If You’re Going on a Cruise This Winter

Omicron is changing the game

CDC Issues New Advisory Warning Against Cruise Ship Travel As COVID Cases Soar
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On December 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised its COVID-19 Travel Health Notice for cruising to Level 4, recommending that travelers avoid cruises entirely, regardless of vaccination status. This was due largely in part to the highly contagious Omicron variant; as with infection rates on land, infection rates at sea have been increasing over the past few weeks.

While the Level 4 warning is not an outright ban on sailing, would-be passengers are understandably concerned. If you have a cruise booked within the next couple of months, or if you’re thinking of planning a trip, here’s what you need to know about the current state of the cruise industry, and what changes you might expect on your sailing.

COVID-19 Booster Shots May Be Required

In the wave of Omicron, the definition of "fully vaccinated" is changing, and a number of cruise lines have recently announced that passengers must show proof of a booster shot before boarding.

United Kingdom-based P&O Cruises and its sister company, Cunard Line, is currently requiring booster shots for a handful of single sailings. Cunard, in a letter to passengers booked on its upcoming 28-night Caribbean cruise, attributed the mandate to the "length and complexity of [the] itinerary."

Meanwhile, UnCruise Adventures, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, and Grand Circle Cruise Line are mandating booster shots for all passengers who are eligible, regardless of the length of the itinerary. The updated policy will go into effect on UnCruise Adventures on Feb. 5, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises on Feb. 14, and Grand Circle Cruise Line on April 1. Travelers cruising with the latter must have received their third shot no fewer than 14 days prior to departure, while Hapag-Lloyd Cruises passengers are exempt from getting the booster if they completed their second vaccination (first if they received Johnson & Johnson) "at least 14 full days and a maximum of 3 months ago at the time of embarkation."

"We are aware of the additional CDC focus on larger cruise lines and variants and we continue to take a safe and practical approach to every step of our small vessel experience," says UnCruise Adventures on its website.

Testing and Masking Protocols May Increase

For the past few months, some cruise lines have allowed guests to be unmasked indoors on their ships—but that policy is changing.

"Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) and Virgin Voyages, for example, have been sailing with 100 percent vaccination rates and testing at the terminal, rather than a test that may be a couple days old—so until recently, guests didn't need to wear masks. That changed in the last couple of weeks with the spread of the Omicron variant," Billy Hirsch, founder of CruiseHabit.com, told TripSavvy. "Celebrity Cruises, which sails with very high vaccination rates, now appears to be requiring masks on some or all sailings as well."

And while all cruise lines currently require a negative test to board, you can expect testing policies to change from pre-arrival tests organized by guests themselves to tests at the terminal on the day of embarkation. “NCL originally planned to discontinue testing at the terminal, in favor of guests testing on their own. Given the safety factor, as well as the difficulty in finding testing, the line has announced they'll continue to test guests at the ports of embarkation,” says Hirsch.

Itineraries Might Be Altered

If you’re sailing internationally, it’s very possible that a port might refuse your ship entry at the last minute. That was recently the case with the "MSC Seashore," which was denied access to the cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas due to positive infections onboard.

But some itineraries have changed somewhat more dramatically. Cruise Critic reports that Regent Seven Seas Cruise (RSSC) has altered its 120-day World Cruise sailing on "Seven Seas Mariner" to avoid ports in South America due to logistical difficulties complying with several countries’ testing policies.

In the case of a last-minute single port cancellation, guests are not likely to receive refunds. However, the opposite may be true in the case of large-scale itinerary alterations—RSSC is issuing 30 percent refunds to all guests who continue with the sailing due to the change, or a pro-rated refund plus 15 percent if they choose to disembark early. Guests are also able to cancel entirely for a full refund.

Some Cruises Might Be Canceled Outright

Just this week, a number of cruise lines announced cancellations, most notably Norwegian Cruise Lines, which canceled dozens of sailings through April. You can find details on those sailings below.

  • "Norwegian Pearl" sailings through Jan. 14
  • "Norwegian Sky" sailings through Feb. 25
  • "Pride of America" sailings through Feb. 26
  • "Norwegian Jade" sailings through March 3
  • "Norwegian Star" sailings through March 19
  • "Norwegian Sun" sailings through April 19
  • "Norwegian Spirit" sailings through April 23

RSSC also canceled its "Seven Seas Mariner" sailing from Cape Town to Singapore, set to take place on February 28.

While there’s no indication that there will be a mass shutdown as seen at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s possible that there will be additional cancellations in the near future.

What About the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order?

In October 2020, the CDC issued a Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) that mandates strict COVID-19 protocols on ships, such as having onboard testing capabilities and vaccination requirements for both crew and guests. That order lifts on January 15, and the CDC has no plans to extend it.

According to the CDC website, the public health agency "intends to transition to a voluntary program, in coordination with cruise ship operators and other stakeholders, to assist the cruise ship industry to detect, mitigate, and control the spread of COVID-19 onboard cruise ships." A CDC spokesperson confirmed this stance to Cruise Critic via email.

"The fact that the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding with the [CSO] without the sail order even necessarily needing to be in place is a real testimony to how well that has worked and how we work collaboratively with the industry," said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walenskey at a Senate hearing on Jan. 11.

Some executives in the industry have affirmed Dr. Walenskey's stance, saying that they will continue to follow many of those protocols to maintain safe (or as safe as can be) operations.

“Our plan is to continue to follow protocols that have successfully worked for us since September,” Bob Simpson, vice president of luxury expedition cruising for tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, told TripSavvy. Those protocols include vaccination requirements, repeated testing, and wearing masks. “Most guests report they feel safer onboard than they do at home where so many still remain unvaccinated,” Simpson adds.

Is It Safe to Cruise Right Now?

No form of travel is without risk, and that includes cruising. If you’re considering sailing, it’s important to weigh your own comfort levels against the risk of infection.

It's also worth considering the risk on land or in the air versus the risk at sea. As of January 5, full vaccination rates in the U.S. are at 62 percent, and travelers flying domestically are not required to be vaccinated or provide a negative COVID test (masks, however, are mandatory). Meanwhile, on ships, 95 percent of passengers must be fully vaccinated in order to sail, per the CSO.

“Cruise Lines International Association [CLIA], which is a trade group representing most cruise lines, called the CDC's warning ‘perplexing’ given that cases on ships are relatively low compared to on land,” Tanner Callais, founder and editor of Cruzely.com, told TripSavvy. “The cruise industry has some of the most stringent protocols in place in travel. That includes an estimated 10 million tests per week, or roughly 21 times what's seen on land. Meanwhile, places like casinos, stadiums, and theaters seem to get a pass.”

Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "COVID-19 and Cruise Ship Travel." December 30, 2021.

  2. Cruise Critic. "Several Cruise Lines Cancel Sailings as Omicron COVID-19 Surge Continues." January 5, 2022

  3. Mayo Clinic. "U.S. Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker: See Your State's Progress." January 5, 2022.