When people hear we love cruising, one of the first questions they ask is if cruises are safe during a pandemic. Spoiler alert: cruises are actually the safest way to travel during a pandemic – and beyond a pandemic. We’re going to elaborate on why, and all that the cruise lines and industry are doing to ensure the health and safety of their passengers.
This extends long before the pandemic into the present day, including adjustments made to the ships and cruise lines' procedures as a result of the pandemic.
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At the end of 2021, with a pandemic resurgence happening in the United States with the Omicron COVID-19 variant, the CDC said that people should avoid cruising despite their vaccination status. We disagreed with this, as did Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
In a statement, CLIA responded:
The decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard—far fewer than on land—and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.
No setting can be immune from this virus—however, it is also the case that cruise provides one of the highest levels of demonstrated mitigation against the virus. Cruise ships offer a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccination levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land.
While we are disappointed and disagree with the decision to single out the cruise industry—an industry that continues to go above and beyond compared to other sectors—CLIA and our ocean-going cruise line members remain committed to working collaboratively with the CDC in the interest of public health and safety.
Cruises have safely resumed around the world, and here are some of the reasons why cruises, above other vacation options, are the safest…
It’s in the Cruise Lines’ Best Interest to Ensure Health & Safety Protocols are in Order, so they can Sail Safely
No other travel sector is as closely monitored or scrutinized as the cruise industry. Not hotels, nor destinations themselves, or airlines. The cruise industry does more reporting on health and safety than any of those travel areas. And that’s not new because of COVID.
It’s partially for this reason that it is in the best interest of cruise lines to have their protocols buttoned up. This includes how to make their messaging clear to passengers and potential guests, as well as the crew being aware of all health and safety procedures.
Specifically, it's in their best interest to have their COVID procedures in order for guests to feel safe and secure when cruising. The cruise industry is big business – and they need to make money and stay in business.
They want people to return to sailing and resume their wonderful vacations as they did before Coronavirus.
The cruise industry employs countless people, from shoreside employees to port workers, to corporate team members. They work in offices, onboard and shoreside. All these people want and need, to work. The safer cruise lines make it to sail, the more secure those people’s jobs are.
The cruise lines have their health and safety protocols in order because that means everyone wins. Including them.
Cruises Require Passengers to be Vaccinated to Sail
Slowly but surely, more and more cruise lines have announced that they require proof of vaccination to sail. Some are even requiring proof of TRIPLE vaccination (two shots, plus a booster).
As the allowance of vaccinations for children ages 12 and younger are updated according to CDC guidelines, cruises also stay up-to-date with their policies, which reflect those changes.
And, because most small-format cruises skew older, not younger, you’ll likely to be amongst an entire ship of vaccinated passengers, from crew to guests. This is even better for guests who are concerned about COVID safety when it comes to cruises.
Though vaccines don’t prevent COVID, they reduce the chances of getting it or at least the severity of those symptoms if you do get the virus. It’s well known that if you get COVID after you’ve been vaccinated, the symptoms are typically less severe and more manageable.
The health concern with non-cruise vacations right now
Conversely, if you sign up for a non-cruise vacation, you have no idea if other guests – at your hotel, or on a tour, or even on your airplane – are vaccinated. This means that the airplane ride to get to your cruise’s point of embarkation is potentially riskier than the cruise sailing you’re about to board. Because you don't need a negative COVID test or proof of vaccine to board many flights, especially if they are domestic US flights.
Flying to your Port of Embarkation versus Driving
If the thought of traveling on an airplane is your biggest concern in regards to booking a cruise right now, we recommend a cruise within your country. You’ll likely want to find an option with the same ports of embarkation and debarkation that you can drive to. (A cruise that begins and ends at the same port location is called a “closed jaw cruise.”)
This way, you don't have to get on an airplane. You can leave your car at the port parking lot while you sail.
Cruise Lines Test for COVID, Onboard
Because you can still get COVID, even if you are vaccinated, cruise lines test for COVID onboard. This makes cruises the safest way to travel because it's likely you can't get a COVID test inside your hotel room on land. (That is unless you order a mail-in kit.)
The number of tests they give passengers and crew depends on multiple things. This includes the particular cruise line you're sailing with and its policies, and the ports you’ll be traveling to. (And the health and safety regulations in the ports' countries.)
You may need to take a test every day and wait 15 to 30 minutes for the results in your stateroom before you’re allowed to go about your day. Or, you may only need to test upon debarkation to get back to the United States.
Whether that test is a rapid test or a PCR test also depends on the cruise line. For instance, some cruise lines have enough PCR tests onboard to test all passengers just once or twice during a cruise. Yet they may be able to administer rapid tests daily. If the cruise line needs to test all their passengers at a particular port with PCR tests, and they don't have enough onboard, they may contract a third party to do those tests onboard, as needed.
Consider if testing onboard is a determining factor of whether or not you'll sign up for a cruise. If so, it’s best to ask the cruise line you’ll be sailing with for their most current policies regarding testing.
Cruise Lines must Abide by the Rules and Regulations of their Port Cities and Countries
Not only are cruises the safest way to travel because they test onboard, but they have to abide by the regulations of their port cities.
For example, if you’re going on a Danube River cruise that leaves from Nuremberg, Germany, they’ll abide by Germany’s current rules. If you need a negative COVID test and proof of vaccination to arrive in Germany, then the cruise line will likely mention it in your booking information.
Naturally, it's in the best interest of the cruise line to communicate port regulations to you. (Especially ports of embarkation and debarkation.) They need to abide by the rules and regulations of the port cities. They also want their passengers to be able to safely and efficiently get onboard.
Cruise Lines Simplify what Could Otherwise Be a Confusing Process when it Comes to COVID Regulations When You Travel
A lot of people are not traveling internationally right now because of the “red tape” you need to cut through. It may be intimidating to simply get the paperwork done to travel to a foreign country! Then you need to figure out what is required to get back home.
What documents do you need to fill out beforehand? Where can you get a COVID test in a foreign country so you'll be allowed back in the United States?
We used to love staying in a country a few days following a cruise, pre-pandemic. That way, we could explore on land afterward to see more of the city and its surrounding areas. But now, we come back to the United States as soon as the cruise ends.
Why? Because cruises simplify the logistics of figuring out how to get a COVID test to return to the United States. They test onboard.
For example, our last stop on a Danube River cruise with Emerald Cruises was in Budapest, Hungary. Instead of staying in Hungary afterward, we decided to return to the U.S. the day the cruise ended. We were so grateful that Emerald Cruises took away the guesswork of where we could get a COVID test to return home.
It was very easy to get our COVID tests onboard. Which meant we don't have to worry about finding a testing location ourselves, in a foreign country.
Cruise Lines are Sailing with Reduced Capacity
While airplanes have been back at 100% capacity for a while, cruises are sailing with reduced capacity. Cruises aren’t just safe during a pandemic, but you may have more fun on them because of this. The reduced capacity is another reason why it is the safest way to travel during a pandemic.
If you sign up for a cruise, you may feel like you have the “ship to yourself.” (This is especially true on big ships. You may discover that smaller ships suddenly feel more spacious too.)
Cruise Lines and Port Destinations Can Easily have Groups Travel in Bubbles, or Pods
If needed, cruise lines can assign guests to the same pods or groups. The guests travel in a sort of “bubble” with the assigned group.
They do this to reduce the potential spread of Coronavirus, should someone on the trip test positive. Some port cities conduct tours in pods as well.
Masks Need to be Worn Onboard
Expect that you’ll currently need to wear a mask onboard in shared spaces. This may include lounges, lobby areas, and restrooms. This is a precaution taken to ensure the safety of guests.
If you're in the privacy of your stateroom you can unmask.
The mask-wearing policy off-board is guided by the rules and regulations of the destination. While you may not need to wear a mask in areas on the beach in St. Maarten, for example, you may need to wear a mask as you walk around in a small group or pod on a shared tour.
Some Cruise Lines Have their Own Insurance, including Housing Agreements, in the Event You Get COVID Onboard
If you catch the COVID virus during your trip while you're staying onboard, and the cruise line needs you to disembark to quarantine on land, some cruise lines have housing agreements figured out to help you do so. This means you won’t feel abandoned or stranded in the event you test positive while cruising.
This is why it's extra important to opt into a cruise line's additional-cost insurance policy right now and to make sure you read through it. Or, at the very least, understand what their included, baseline insurance (if they have it) covers.
For example, Viking’s Travel Protection Plan can be added to their cruises. It includes necessary medical, quarantine or repatriation expenses.
Cruises are Safe during a Pandemic Because They can Track COVID Onboard
Cruise lines can use technology to track their passengers' whereabouts on ships. For example, Royal Caribbean’s RFID bracelets allow them to know where you were in case you get COVID. Or, it helps them track a person's close contacts if he or she gets COVID and they need to inform and tests passengers who were nearby.
This contact tracing ensures the safety of all passengers and crew onboard.
Conversely, if you travel by land for a land vacation, most areas have no way to track COVID cases and then inform you that you may have been exposed. You’re taking the risk of potentially getting COVID by coming into contact with someone who has it (whether they know it or not, being asymptomatic and unaware).
Cruise ships are safer in this way because you’ll likely know if you’re at risk due to another passenger getting the virus.
Cutting Edge Technology is Used to Sanitize and Clean All Areas of a Cruise Ship
Cruise ships quickly went to work to outfit their ships with the latest technology and cleaning techniques as soon as the pandemic hit. As they continue to make strides in this area, companies continue to come out with amazing devices to ensure that all germs are killed. Thus, health issues spread through germs onboard are lessened.
Long before COVID-19, cruise ships had hand sanitizing stations in dozens of locations onboard. They have even more now! Some have also added more “traditional” handwashing stations (aka a sink with soap) at additional key places onboard. (Example being right before you enter a restaurant.)
Cruise ships have been – and remain – places where they make sanitization a priority and commitment to high cleaning standards.
Protecting Your Investment: It's Safe to Book a Cruise Right Now
Of course, you're concerned about protecting the money you invest to take a vacation. Another reason cruises are the safest way to travel right now is cruise lines' great rebooking policies. In this regard, it’s one of the best options out there. We're cruising now too and practice what we preach.
We book with confidence: We know the policies of the cruise lines we're interested in, in case we need to rebook because of COVID. Additionally, we know the policy of the cruise line in case they need to reschedule our cruise for any reason.
Cruise lines’ policies have changed with the times and many will allow you to rebook without penalty before your sailing. Some even reward you with more Future Travel Credits (FTC) if they need to reschedule your cruise because of COVID. For instance, many river cruises rebooked guests from 2020 cruises for 2021 and beyond with 125% FTC.
We advise looking into the particular policy of your individual cruise line to remain educated about the topic. Look for something like a “Travel with Confidence” or “Health and Safety” tab on their websites, where you’ll find terms and conditions of rebooking. You will also be able to find info about current COVID procedures onboard. (Here's a good example on Viking's website.)
Tips to Cruises Safely and Efficiently During COVID
Periodically check your cruise line’s policies before you sail
This is most important to know twice:
- Before you book to make sure you’re comfortable with the cruise line’s current policies.
- One or two weeks before you sail.
You may even want to check again within a few days of sailing to stay educated, in case any new regulations arise.
Bring your vaccination record card with you
Though you may have already uploaded photos of your vaccination card to the cruise line’s website ahead of time, (and to your embarkation country’s digital health form), it’s best to bring it with you.
We do multiple things with our vaccine cards when we travel:
- Upload it to any online documents as needed in advance. This includes docs for the cruise line and your destination country's online health forms, according to current regulations.
- Store photos of our vaccination cards on our phones, so we always have a digital copy.
- Carry the physical card with us. You need it to enter some restaurants, shops and such in countries nowadays, like France. (And even in major US cities too, like New York City.) Once in a while, they won't accept a photo of the card; you need the actual card with you.
Get a PCR test before you leave
Check what timeframe you need to have proof of a negative COVID test for your particular point of embarkation. A good rule of thumb is that the test cannot be older than 48 hours. In some cases, 72 hours is acceptable.
We always star the message with the test results in our email. We also screenshot the email in case we can’t get online at the airport. It’s also a good idea to print the results, if possible, in case you can’t access your phone, in the event your battery dies.
Buy travel insurance
No matter what, if the pandemic has taught us anything in terms of traveling these days, it’s that you need good travel insurance. Make sure you have a policy that covers COVID-related expenses should you find yourself in a situation where you need to stay in a country longer because you test positive, or cancel a trip because of it.
We recommend insurance from Travel Insurance Master. They let you compare insurance plans from their 10 providers and cover important things like cancellation for medical or work reasons, and travel delays or trip interruption. Select “cruise” as your trip type upon checkout.
Current cruise line policies will likely allow you to rebook before the cruise begins, but that may not cover you if you need to change course onboard because of COVID. If you're unsure, explicitly ask the cruise line for details.
If you stay in the area where you are cruising abroad after your cruise ends you'll definitely need additional travel insurance to be safe.
For more information, facts, and figures from CLIA, visit their COVID Facts and Figures page.