: Cruises are finally returning to U.S. ports — here’s what will be different post-COVID

United States

Americans will soon be able to the sail the open sea once again, after COVID-19 shut down the cruise industry.

But how will these first cruises compare to the pre-pandemic experience? According to travel experts, that will depend on whether or not you are vaccinated.

On Wednesday, Celebrity Cruises became the first cruise line to have one of its ships receive the green light from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume operations out of a U.S. port. The Celebrity Edge is set to sail out of Port Everglades in Florida on June 26 for a seven-night cruise around the Caribbean.

Celebrity Cruises became the first cruise line to have one of its ships receive the green light from the CDC.

Celebrity, which is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises RCL, +3.20%, will require passengers over the age of 16 to be vaccinated fully against COVID-19. Starting in August, that mandate will extend to travelers 12 years and older.

It is not yet clear how the mandate will work for ships sailing out of ports in Florida, since Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued an executive order earlier this year prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers.

It’s a major milestone for the cruise industry, which has been prohibited from sailing out of U.S. ports since last year as a result of the pandemic. “Someday is here,” Celebrity President Lisa Lutoff-Perlo tweeted TWTR, -0.97% to celebrate the news.

Celebrity won’t be alone for long. In a Facebook FB, +0.12% post, Royal Caribbean CEO and President Michael Bayley announced the company had received CDC approval to do a simulated sailing of the Freedom of the Seas. “Boom!” he exclaimed in the post.

‘Anything that happens on these first few sailings could be modified for future sailings.’

— Stewart Chiron, a travel industry expert

Cruise lines have ramped up their technology offerings in recent years, including the development of mobile apps that allow people to use their phones to open their staterooms or order a drink. These mobile apps could become more important in the COVID era.

The one thing cruise passengers can be sure of — for the foreseeable future, at least — is that nothing is set in stone. As the pandemic evolves, requirements will change. Travelers should be prepared, even for circumstances to change while onboard.

For instance, a country could decide to halt international arrivals before the ship has the opportunity to make the port-of-call. Additionally, don’t expect policies from one ship to carry over to another. “Anything that happens on these first few sailings could be modified for future sailing,” said Stewart Chiron, a travel industry expert.

Last October, the CDC released its first guidance on the policies it expected cruise lines to follow to resume operations, which it has since updated on multiple occasions as the circumstances of the pandemic have changed.

Before October, the public-health agency had issued no-sail orders that banned cruise ships from operating.

Under the CDC’s latest set of guidelines, cruise operators essentially have two options:

  1. They can run a simulated voyage with volunteer passengers to test their ships’ ability to manage the COVID-19 era to receive full approval to sail again if fewer than 95% of passengers will be vaccinated.
  2. Or they essentially can opt to only allow vaccinated passengers onboard the ship. Most cruise lines have required crew members to be vaccinated.

Other companies are also quickly ramping operations back up again. Norwegian Cruise Line NCLH, +2.70% has signaled its plans to resume operations later this year, and three cruise lines owned by Carnival Corp. CCL, +2.00% — Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Line — are planning to begin offering cruises between Seattle and Alaska again later this summer.

In other regions of the world, cruise lines have already resumed operations, including in Europe and Southeast Asia. In some cases, a small number of passengers onboard these ships have tested positive for COVID-19, though no major outbreaks have been tied to cruise lines in recent months.

However, the cruise industry came under serious scrutiny at the start of the pandemic when ships were associated with super-spreader events.

Here’s what travelers can expect from these first sailings out of the U.S. since the pandemic began:

Vaccinated tourists

The newest guidelines from the CDC for cruise ships with vaccinated passengers, released in late May, reflect the new recommendations the agency has made on the land. Much like how vaccinated Americans can return to normal life and don’t need to wear masks or social distance in most settings, the same is now true for them on fully-vaccinated cruise ships.

“For vaccinated people going on a cruise, it’s going to seem a lot like it did before the pandemic,” said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor at travel website Cruise Critic.

Vaccinated passengers will not be required to get COVID tests prior to or after their trips. And travelers won’t need to worry about putting their masks on during long meals, at the casino, during a spa treatment or while seeing a show on the ship.

‘For vaccinated people going on a cruise, it’s going to seem a lot like it did before the pandemic.’

— Chris Gray Faust, managing editor at travel website Cruise Critic

“It’s really appealing for people because it’s an environment where they know everybody’s going to be vaccinated,” Gray Faust said.

Of course, if a vaccinated American opts to go on a cruise that isn’t requiring people be inoculated against COVID, they won’t have these same luxuries — but they may have areas where they can relax and take the mask off. The CDC allows cruise lines to designate parts of these general-access ships to be only for people who are fully vaccinated, including casinos, bars or restaurants.

No cruise lines have announced plans to do this yet, but it’s likely some will, according to Gray Faust. “The cruise lines have been working with the CDC to develop these guidelines.”

Simulated voyages

To get approval from the CDC to sail ships where fewer than 95% of passengers will be vaccinated, cruise lines must run simulated voyages with volunteer passengers, such as the upcoming sailing with Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.

“To date, more than 250,000 people have volunteered to participate in our return to sailing efforts,” a Royal Caribbean spokesperson said. “There are logistics to figure out and we will share details once they have been worked through.”

But the guidelines shared by the CDC provide a glimpse of what the experience may be like for these volunteers. Passengers on these ships must either present proof of being vaccinated against COVID-19 using a vaccine authorized in the U.S. or by the World Health Organization. Failing that, they must present a certified statement that they don’t have medical conditions that would place them at high risk of a severe case of COVID-19.

The voyages can last anywhere from 2 to 7 days, and must include an overnight stay. The voyages will act as tests for the cruise line’s policies for embarkation, disembarkation, dining, entertainment and medical treatment. Ships can visit private islands or engage in port-of-call excursions, but mask wearing and social distancing are expected.

Travelers will be expected to be tested on the day they board, the day they get off the ship, and once more within 3 to 5 days after the trip to ensure the virus did not spread.

Excursion options

What travelers can do when the ship makes port in different countries will largely depend on that location’s own rules. Travel expert Chiron is set to participate in Celebrity’s first sailing out of St. Maarten since the pandemic began on June 6. The ship will visit Aruba and Curacao, but what passengers can do at each stop varies.

“I’m told that in Curacao they are requiring passengers to take the cruise line tours to remain in the bubble,” Chiron said. “Where, in Aruba, which is the second port, there they’re allowing passengers to be on their own.”

Some locations may also have rules requiring people to have a recent COVID test before disembarking.

Harnessing technology

As for apps, Royal Caribbean has expanded the online check-in features, so that guests can select a scheduled time that they will board the ship. This will “help eliminate crowds by managing the ebb-and-flow in parking lots, drop-off areas and terminals to allow for physical distancing from car to stateroom,” the company said.

Additionally, Royal Caribbean is reinventing how the muster process works. During a muster drill, guests are familiarized with the safety procedures on each ship and what to do in the case of an emergency. Typically, these drills were done in person with most of the ship’s passengers assembled at once.

Passengers on Royal Caribbean ships won’t need to congregate for an in-person muster drill.

Now, the cruise line is offer “eMuster technology” — guests can get the information they need on their mobile app or on the stateroom TV to complete the briefing. And then they are asked to check in at their assigned muster station before the ship sets sail. The new process will reduce physical interaction, the company noted.

Other cruise lines have gone a step further in using technology in light of COVID. Some cruise lines in Europe have implemented contact-tracing devices among passengers to monitor people’s actions in case a passenger falls ill, Gray Faust said.