Ever since the emergence of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in South Africa in late November 2021, the impact on daily life -- and cruising -- has been felt around the globe.
And with the rise in cases, so have the myths around the omicron variant and cruising, particularly where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is concerned.
What is the reality for people thinking of setting sail soon? Here's what you need to know about cruising in the time of omicron.
Are Cruises Still Operating?
Yes, with some exceptions. Cruises from Brazil, for example, have been suspended and cruises still aren't sailing in parts of the world like Australia, which has remained shuttered to most cruise traffic since March 2020.
If you are scheduled to sail from a North American homeport in the coming months, your cruise is still scheduled to depart unless you hear otherwise from your cruise line.
Has the CDC Ordered Cruises to Stop Sailing Due to Omicron?
No. The CDC has only issued guidance recommending Americans avoid cruise travel. This same guidance -- known as Level 4 -- also applies to nearly 90 countries globally, including Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom.
The move drew comment from the cruising industry trade organization, Cruise Lines International Association, which called the guidance "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."
"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," the organization said in a statement provided to Cruise Critic.
Can The CDC's New Guidance Stop Me from Cruising?
No. Essentially, the CDC's guidance is just that -- a recommendation.
Have Cruise Ships Been Affected by Omicron COVID-19 Cases Onboard?
Yes, cases of COVID-19 have been found aboard ships around the world as omicron has spread. Data released by Royal Caribbean shows that the line's entire COVID-19 caseload since restarting operations in June 2021 has represented a positivity rate of 0.162 percent, or 1,745 people out of a total of 1.1 million passengers.
While cruise ships are, like any other form of travel, not immune to cases of COVID-19, these tend to be isolated and mild thanks to mandatory vaccination requirements, masking mandates, testing requirements and the fact that ships are sailing well below capacity.
What Have Cruise Lines Done in Response to Omicron?
Cruise lines started modifying onboard mask policies, banned smoking in shipboard casinos and began experiencing disruptions to itineraries and onboard services as limited cases of omicron began to appear onboard.
Will My Cruise Still Set Sail as Planned?
Yes, it is likely your cruise will depart as scheduled.
Will My Cruise Visit Its Scheduled Ports of Call?
That is a little more complicated. Ports have been turning away ships for valid or arbitrary reasons -- usually small numbers of COVID-19 cases onboard, but also sometimes due to changing regulations that have been implemented, such as the need for PCR testing upon arrival.
Many cruises are currently experiencing itinerary changes, so it is important to remain flexible. Your Caribbean cruise will go somewhere in the Caribbean -- but perhaps not to the exact three or four ports you thought you were going to visit.
For those who would rather not live with the uncertainty around itinerary changes, numerous cruise lines are amending their cancellation policies to allow passengers to shift their booking to a later date.
Will I Need a Booster Shot to Cruise?
The writing is on the wall on this one: If not now, then very soon, you will need a booster shot to take a cruise. A few lines have already required this, including Cunard and P&O U.K., have notified passengers that they are required to be fully vaccinated with booster shots as of early January.
Other cruise lines have updated their guidance on vaccinations to strongly encourage passengers intending to sail in the near future to be fully vaccinated with a booster shot at least one week before embarkation -- a fact many eagle-eyed Cruise Critic readers have been keeping tabs on.
Can I Cancel My Cruise Because of Omicron?
Generally speaking, yes -- though policies vary from line to line. Many will be favorable to you rebooking your cruise for a later date or taking a Future Cruise Credit. If you're right up to the departure date wire, however, don't expect a cash refund: unless specifically spelled out, cruise lines are not required to provide a full refund once you're past the final payment dates outlined in your cruise contract. You did read your cruise contract, right?
Either way, a polite call to the line's customer service department or your preferred travel agent might yield positive results -- though keep in mind that, like every call center in the world right now, wait times could be long.
Should I Take a Cruise Right Now?
Travel is, and always has been, a personal decision. We can't say whether you should do one thing or the other, as it requires myriad factors to be taken into consideration.
This could include the need to look at whether you want to risk being potentially quarantined should you test positive, whether you have dependents or at-risk individuals at home that depend upon you for care, or other factors.
Those looking to set out on any form of travel -- not just cruise -- should consider their personal health, vaccination status and individual situation before deciding to travel.