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What to Expect on Your Next Cruise Vacation | Travel

If the thought of a cruise vacation calls to mind self-serve buffets, packed live performances and overcrowded megaships, it may be time to adjust your expectations. After a lengthy hiatus following the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, select cruise ships slowly started welcoming passengers back on board earlier this summer – but with some key differences.

Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, industry leaders have made tweaks to all areas of the cruising experience, from onboard dining updates to safety protocols around shore excursions. If you’re ready to hop back on board your favorite cruise line, read on to learn what you should – and should not – expect on your next cruise vacation. And before booking your getaway, be sure to check guidance from the CDC and local tourism boards, as well as discuss your personal risks with a healthcare provider.

[Ready to plan a cruise? Find the best value sailings on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Vaccination and face mask requirements

Although vaccination policies vary from line to line, most cruise providers strongly recommend all passengers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least 14 days prior to setting sail. Per CDC guidelines, ships are permitted to embark on their voyages if at least 95% of guests have received either one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of Pfizer or Moderna within the aforementioned time window.

Eligible travelers who choose not to be vaccinated may be subject to enhanced coronavirus testing throughout their trips and will likely incur any associated costs (for example, on Royal Caribbean International, unvaccinated guests 15 years and older must pay an extra $136 for mandatory testing). Unvaccinated passengers may also need to purchase travel insurance, and they might be unable to enjoy certain amenities or venues on board, such as casinos, indoor pools, select restaurants or indoor bars, depending on the line. Similarly, facilities like gyms may only be available during certain hours for passengers who have not been inoculated. Vacationers who have been vaccinated should bring their COVID-19 vaccination cards with them, as they may be given a special wristband or token to allow entry into areas of the ship only open to vaccinated guests.

Regardless of vaccination status, most cruise lines still require guests and staff to wear face masks in indoor public spaces. One exception is Norwegian Cruise Line, which requires 100% of its passengers and crew members to be vaccinated in order to sail. As such, travelers are not required to wear face masks on most Norwegian ships, though local mask requirements in individual ports still apply.

Health screenings and enhanced cleaning policies

To keep passengers and crew members safe, cruise lines have partnered with experts around the globe to implement health precautions and new cleaning policies on ships. Before hopping on board, travelers will likely be required to produce a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or rapid antigen COVID-19 test result (regardless of vaccination status, in most cases). The approved test’s results must be acquired between 24 hours and five days of embarkation. (Check with your specific cruise line for exact testing requirements.) Many cruise lines also require guests to fill out a health questionnaire reporting any recent COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, and cruise personnel may test travelers’ temperatures with contact-free thermometers upon check-in and throughout the voyage.

Passengers will also notice updated sanitation efforts during their cruise. Highlights include hand sanitizer stations positioned throughout most ships, disinfection of suitcase handles upon arrival, new hospital-grade ventilation systems and electrostatic sprayers (cleaning tools that use positive and negative charges to help disinfecting solutions stick to surfaces).

Reduced capacities

One thing you may not miss from past cruises is maneuvering through hordes of vacationers on board. Under the CDC’s guidance, all operating cruise ships are currently sailing at limited capacities, though exact numbers depend on the specific cruise line. American Cruise Lines – a river cruise company best known for its scenic sailings around New England and the Mississippi River – began cruising again at 75% capacity in March 2021. In contrast, Celebrity Cruises kicked off the return to U.S. waters in June 2021 with an onboard capacity of 40%.

These restricted sailings offer some surface-level perks: Recent cruisers have reported especially attentive service on their ships, and you likely won’t have to fight for a pool chair or wait in the long lines some pre-pandemic voyages were known for. However, the most important aspect of this policy is its health benefits. With fewer people on board, guests will find it easier to socially distance from one another during their trip – a key component to preventing COVID-19 transmission. In July 2020, Carnival Cruise Line announced it likely would not return to full-capacity sailings until 2022 at the earliest.

Dining changes

While the cruise industry’s beloved all-you-can-eat buffets haven’t disappeared completely, the self-serve component has been eliminated aboard most vessels. Instead, crew members are positioned at each station to load up passengers’ plates with whatever delicacies they desire, and some food items are individually wrapped for guests to grab and go.

The dining updates don’t end there; in some sit-down restaurants, guests may find new technologies in place to limit contact between patrons and servers. For example, Disney Cruise Line is experimenting with digital menus on its app in place of physical menus at all of its eateries, while Royal Caribbean International has adopted QR codes for easy menu access on travelers’ smartphones. Aboard Princess Cruises‘ ships, guests will be able to order poolside food and drinks straight from their mobile devices. Typically, guests will not need to purchase an internet package to access the cruise line apps and digital menus. Many cruise lines are also implementing staggered mealtimes and limiting the number of diners per table to keep crowds at bay.

Tweaked amenities

To enjoy ship amenities amid the pandemic, reservations are the name of the game. Depending on the cruise line, passengers may need to reserve specific time slots to enjoy venues and activities on board, from gyms to socially distanced live shows. This helps limit the amount of people in a facility at any one time and allows the cruise line to contact trace should any coronavirus cases pop up during the sailing. Check with your cruise line to see if you need to make advance reservations prior to boarding or if reservations can be made with the crew after you board. What’s more, lines like Royal Caribbean International will only allow vaccinated travelers to participate in certain onboard events, including some nightly stage entertainment.

On some ships, including Carnival Cruise Line vessels, kids clubs for age groups that are not yet eligible to be vaccinated will remain closed. Clubs catering to vaccine-eligible age groups may require children and teens to show proof of vaccination to participate. In contrast, Holland America Line – which requires all guests to be fully vaccinated – will offer all of its usual entertainment options aboard U.S. sailings, from live music to enrichment activities.

Shore excursion updates

Before booking your trip, be sure to research the COVID-19 policies in the individual ports you will be visiting. Some cruise lines, including Silversea Cruises, have adjusted their itineraries to only include low-risk ports, but cruisers may still need to adhere to strict mask mandates or show their vaccination cards to get off of the boat or dine indoors while on shore. Travelers should expect to follow all local guidelines while visiting each port.

Excursion rules vary by cruise line. For example, on Princess Cruises, only vaccinated guests will be permitted to leave the cruise ship when they arrive to different destinations. Vaccinated travelers on Princess ships can participate in tours and excursions operated by the cruise line or explore on their own. In contrast, MSC Cruises offers separate excursions for fully vaccinated and partially vaccinated groups that provide different levels of safety. Aboard some cruise lines, including Seabourn Cruise Line, tour bus capacities for each shore activity may be limited to a small number of people to encourage social distancing. Be sure to book your shore excursions early as spots will likely fill up quickly due to the capacity restrictions.

Positive test protocols

As many travelers have learned over the past year and a half, it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19 while on vacation. As such, cruise lines have prepared a plan of action in the event passengers on board do test positive.

While protocols following positive test results vary by line, in most situations, infected passengers or crew members will be quarantined on board and disembarked from the ship if and when possible. Ship captains will likely make an announcement about a positive test result on board, and officials will perform contact tracing to determine when and where the afflicted guest or worker contracted the virus and pinpoint who else may be affected. If necessary, passengers who came into contact with the individual may be isolated in their rooms until they are cleared with a negative test. Cruise ships now have extra medical staff on board to swiftly test and care for travelers, and if transmission numbers remain low, it is possible for the cruise to continue on as planned. However, if a certain threshold of COVID-19 cases is detected on a ship, the voyage will likely be altered – either by limiting stops in certain ports or canceling the rest of the itinerary.

Additionally, the CDC created a color-coded system to keep track of the health status on every ship operating in U.S. waters in near-real time. Ships with a green status have no identified COVID-19 cases on board and are sailing as normal. On ships with an orange designation, a small number of passengers or crew members have tested positive for the virus, but the number remains under the threshold for investigation by the CDC. Yellow-labeled ships have met the organization’s threshold and have therefore triggered the need for investigation. Ships marked in red – the most serious designation – have exceeded the CDC threshold of virus cases among passengers or crew members, undergone investigation and will be required to return to port immediately or postpone upcoming voyages.

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