On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization identified a new variant of COVID-19. Dubbed Omicron, the mutation caused significant disruption to the travel industry around the globe as countries once again began locking down, limiting tourism, and implementing new testing and quarantine protocols for residents and foreigners alike.
The cruise season in South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, was set to begin just days later. Booked passengers set to jet off to Cape Town in the coming weeks and months found themselves in an unenviable situation: cancel and forfeit their hard-earned vacation dollars; go and deal with new itineraries that were nothing like what they'd booked; or rebook for later in the future and hope for the best.
With nearly two years elapsed since the emergence of COVID-19, port closures and itinerary changes remain a way of life for cruisers even into 2022. Here are a few things cruisers can do to tip the odds in their favor -- no matter what happens.
1. Pick The Right Cruise Ship for You -- No Matter Where It Sails To
Bound for South Africa? You might be headed to India. Interested in sailing to Hawaii? Say "Buenos Dias" to the Mexican Riviera instead.
Full-blown itinerary replacements aren't out of the question during these uncertain times, as countries and individual ports seek to either welcome or discourage tourism depending on local case rates of COVID-19 or variants that emerge from other parts of the world -- and that means staying flexible is key.
One way to stay flexible these days is to ensure, first and foremost, that you are happy with the ship you have booked. Rather than planning a cruise based solely on destination, take a good, hard look at the ship's you'd like to sail on. That ship with the completely-unique itinerary may not end up being the right ship for you if that itinerary were to change.
Obviously, destination is still important. But when researching what ships sail to your chosen destination, pick the one that has the features, staterooms, and dining options that appeal to you most -- and not necessarily the ship that is the cheapest. You'll be far happier in the long run if you're on a ship you like, in a stateroom you enjoy, than you will on a so-so ship that used to have the better itinerary.
2. Consider a Close-to-Home Cruise
Here at Cruise Critic, our editorial team is used to jetting around the world to cover the global cruise fleet. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has given even the most stalwart traveler among us reason for pause.
Shifting documentation and testing requirements, changing local policies and limited flight availability have all made travel to some international destinations more of an ordeal than a pleasure. Flying -- never really a joy, unless one is in business class -- can disintegrate nowadays into a cavalcade of missed connections, sold-out flights, and conflicting rules and regulations.
Little wonder, then, that cruising from a port close to home -- one you can drive to or take a short flight to -- holds greater appeal now than ever before.
That's not to say you should forgo cruises departing from international homeports. From Vancouver to Venice, Southampton to Singapore, cruises with exotic international itineraries offer a wealth of benefits for cruisers. But these countries will not have the same rules and regulations as the United States; mask wearing, vaccination mandates and even issues surrounding whether cruise ships can even enter can all change on the drop of a dime.
Cruising close to home means working around kinks and problems within a country or area you know well, which can take some of the stress away if and when the unexpected happens.
3. Don't Pick a Cruise Because Of One Port of Call
This was always a good rule of thumb in the "Before Times", but we'll say it again: never, ever pick a cruise solely because it goes to one particular port of call.
Sure, we all want to visit Santorini, but high wind and sea conditions might make tendering ashore impossible. Border restrictions might mean an expected arrival into the Seychelles might not happen. Grand Turk could open its borders to cruise tourism -- or not.
Instead, try to view itineraries wholistically: you get to see Alaska, not just Sitka; the Western Caribbean, not just Cozumel. Cruise lines generally do try their best to re-route ships to alternate ports that provide a similar experience, but port closures or weather delays can often affect alternate ports of call. (Another tip: cruise line stops to private islands are generally sure bets in today's fast-changing world).
Missing a port is always disappointing, but it should not make or break your cruise experience.
4. Purchase Trip Cancellation & Interruption Insurance
Another pre-pandemic piece of advice now has renewed importance: trip cancellation and interruption insurance. This can provide extra coverage where cruise lines own policies do not. Those who want to cancel for added peace of mind in the face of new variants can do so with trip interruption and cancellation insurance, which typically must be purchased at the same time the initial cruise reservation is made.
Also make sure you know the ins and outs of your insurance policy. Make sure it covers cruise travel -- some policies still do not at the moment.
"No One Told Me" will never be a valid excuse as far as insurance companies go when you run into trouble. If you're unsure which policy to purchase, work with a skilled travel agent who specializes in cruise holidays to figure it out.
5. Know Your Cruise Line's Refund and Cancellation Policies
Knowing your own cruise line's refund and cancellation policies was a good idea before. Now, it's a prerequisite.
Many cruise lines have changed final payment deadlines and cancellation fees, but no two lines have the same policies. Even if you think you know what the policies are, it's a good idea to check your cruise line's website and familiarize yourself with them -- regularly. These terms have been known to change rapidly throughout the course of the pandemic.
If a cruise line cancels your voyage, the terms will likely be more flexible than if you pull the plug at the last moment for a sailing that is still scheduled to sail.
But when in doubt, try calling your cruise line or travel agent. Explain the situation to them. If you're looking to cancel due to concerns around COVID-19, chances are they'll be willing to work with you to move to a different sailing, issue a Future Cruise Credit, or perhaps -- perhaps -- offer up a full refund.
6. Book Refundable Hotels, Airfare and Shore Excursions
If your ship and itinerary do get the old heave-ho, this last point is of utmost importance: avoid book non-refundable hotel reservations or airfares. At the very least, you'll want something that offers you a future travel voucher.
Hotels often discount non-refundable room rates over their more flexible counterparts, but often the savings come up to thirty or forty bucks. True, that's money saved if all goes according to plan, but if it doesn't you could be taking an automatic financial bath -- guaranteed.
Ditto for airfares. Cheaper "basic" fares often include no frills and fewer protections against cancellations and change fees. Paying a slightly higher fare, on the other hand, can give you the ability to change your flight or cancel as needed.
As with anything else, policies for airlines and hotels vary depending on carrier and property, so it's always best to take a good, hard look at any fare and rate rules you're presented with. Don't automatically assume you'll be able to change a bargain-basement fare because in general, you won't.
It can be difficult to live with the uncertainty of the COVID-reality we find ourselves in at this moment, and travel can certainly be more complicated. But as Cruise Critic's editors discovered this year, all of that melts away when you finally get out there, back on the waves, once again.