One of the most concerning unknowns of cruising during a pandemic is catching COVID-19, particularly the possibility of being stuck in cruise ship quarantine. If you're sailing during the pandemic, especially during a time when there is a variant surge like we've seen with omicron and delta, we recommend being proactive with your precruise planning, starting with your cruise packing list. It's an easy way to help turn a possible worst-case scenario of a cruise ship COVID-19 outbreak, unexpected quarantine or pandemic travel delays into something manageable.
Our biggest hack? Prepare for the worst, expect the best.
Pack and plan like you've got a quarantine add-on to the end of your cruise. Will you have to use it? Probably not. Will it make your life easier to be prepared, just in case? Absolutely. Plus, it'll set you up in case there are any other travel delays during your journey, or if you decide to extend your vacation because you just don't feel like heading home quite yet.
Bring Enough Medication to Last Through a Quarantine
Pack however much necessary prescription medicine you would need to possibly last through a full sailing and additional quarantine period. Running out of medication can be a life-or-death situation. Short-notice or emergency refills can be hard to come by, particularly if you're traveling out of the country or even the prescribing state for your doctor.
While you're at it, it can't hurt to pack a "cold kit" to bring onboard, too. There's no direct treatment for COVID-19, but you can help mediate symptoms with a collection of cold medicines like decongestants such as Mucinex, fever reducers such as Tylenol or paracetamol, anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen and aspirin, throat lozenges and nighttime medications like NyQuil. Remember, you won't be able to run to the drugstore to get this if you end up needing it.
Double-Up on Wardrobe Essentials
Being able to do laundry might be a long-lost luxury if you find yourself unexpectedly stuck in quarantine. To keep things fresh, pack extras of all the essentials, namely underwear. If you've got the room, we also suggest throwing in a few extra pairs of socks, bras, and a few sets of comfortable clothes that you wouldn't mind lounging around in for days. Even if your cruise destination is warm, packing in a sweatshirt or sweater in case you get the chills isn't a bad call, either.
Pack Your Own Supply of Rapid COVID-19 Antigen Tests
Feeling sniffly? Got a scratchy throat? Annoyingly, the staple symptoms for SARS-CoV-2 are all over the place, especially with the arrival of omicron. Variants can now cause symptoms as innocent as a runny nose or headache to a full-blown fever and loss of smell.
Having a couple of FDA-approved emergency-use rapid antigen tests on hand gives you the option to self-test if you come across any could-it-be symptoms and can help suss-out whether you need to head to the ship doctor. Over-the-counter rapid tests are also a good indicator when trying to determine when it's the right time to schedule a PCR test to get out of quarantine.
Good to know: The sensitivity (and therefore accuracy) between tests varies, though data shows rapid antigen tests can be a reliable marker for catching COVID-19 infections when taken when you're experiencing symptoms.
Toss in a Few Extra N95 or KN95 Masks
Though they might not be the most comfortable, N95 and K-N95 masks offer the most protection against the virus. Trust us, if someone on your ship tests positive for COVID-19, an N95 or K-N95 mask is going to start looking pretty sexy. And, if you test positive, it might be just what the doctor orders. Save yourself the stress of trying to find one at the 11th hour and just throw a few in your suitcase before you leave for your cruise.
Stock Up on Snacks
This one can be tricky because not all cruise lines allow passengers to bring their own food onboard. However, if your ship allows you to bring snacks, bring 'em. Make sure they are something you like, are hearty and somewhat healthy, and don't have too much sugar or salt.
Avoid the temptation to eat them while onboard; these snacks are for nibbling if you end up quarantined in a hotel, unable to leave your room to hit up the vending machines. Hotels will usually offer in-room delivery of all meals to those under COVID-19 quarantine, but if you don't like what's on the menu, get peckish between meals or have a dietary restriction, these snacks can be a godsend.
Get the Good Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is always recommended, and, in times of COVID-19, it's often required. We suggest shelling out a little extra for a higher level of COVID-19 cruise insurance coverage during these unpredictable times. It could mean the difference between four-star or two-star hotel quarantine quarters, having medical costs covered for treatment in a foreign country, the ability to get transportation home if you get stranded, or even just sleeping at the airport during an extended flight delay instead of in a comfy hotel bed.
Familiarize yourself with the details of all pre-cruise requirements
Don't get stuck on a return flight home because of a simple oversight on any requirements needed to cruise. Make sure you know – and fully understand – what kind of pre-cruise COVID-19 tests (Is it PCR or antigen?), acceptable proof of vaccines or exemptions, and all paperwork are required.
More and more there is no one-and-done action for all of these things, and you may need to dive deep into the details in order to schedule tests so the results are valid up until you step foot on the cruise ship. Ensure that paperwork is accurate and complete for both the cruise line and any countries you will be traveling to and through throughout your entire journey, to and from your own front door.
Then double-check your work to make sure you've filled out everything correctly, printed out copies of anything you'll need to show to officials and that you've gotten everything squared away within the required pre-cruise window of time. If you're unsure of anything, ask. Taking a peek at resources like the Cruise Critic messageboards and social media cruise groups is a great way to stay up-to-date on any changing information or ask for clarfication from cruisers who have already navigated through it all.
Pack Printouts of All Your Pandemic Documents
Create a small suitcase pocket file of any important documents that highlight your rights and coverages when it comes to COVID-19 and your cruise. Got travel insurance? Print out the policy terms and stash them in your suitcase. Found an elusive statement on cruise line liability in the case of positive onboard COVID cases? Print it out and put it in your suitcase.
Having easily accessible hard copies of these documents will make life so much easier in the chance you'll need them. You'll know exactly who is responsible for what and how to proceed without having to waste time frantically looking it up in email or online. (And we all know how spotty internet on ships can be right when you need it most).
Good to know: Err on the side of being extra prepared and go ahead and print out or write down important phone numbers, like international numbers for your travel insurance, bank, airline, cruise line – as well as the address and local number for your country's embassy in each country on your itinerary.
Load Up on Entertainment
If we learned anything during lockdown, it was that we need more than just the TV and our phone to survive. If you thought your cruise ship cabin was cozy, just wait until you're quarantined in one. It can give a whole new meaning to the word cabin fever -- unless you come prepared.
In addition to the quarantine itself, know that the process of moving from the ship to a hotel or hotel to the airport during quarantine can take time. Before your cruise, download some of your favorite movies, TV shows and games onto a device, pick out a handful of books, or bring along some lightweight activities such as coloring books, word puzzles or a notebook.
Know that you may have to quarantine off the ship
Most cruisers can probably stomach the thought of having to quarantine on their ship, even if being stuck in your room during vacation isn't ideal. However, certain circumstances may lead to a quarantine off the ship.
As part of their pandemic protocols, many cruises are keeping shore excursion options limited and within a controlled bubble that doesn't expose passengers to anyone not already in their ship's bubble. Anyone that breaks away from this bubble, even to peruse a local craft market, may be denied boarding back onto the ship.
Likewise, if you happen to test positive before reembarking at a foreign port, there is a possibility you will not be allowed back on the ship and may be forced to stay where you are. Where you quarantine may be out of your hands – and even those of the cruise line, as in many cases, the local authorities take over. The quality of these accommodations can vary depending on what country you're in and how many total tourist quarantines are going on in the area.
Good to know: Bring and print out contact numbers for the local embassy, as well as the cruise line and ship numbers. It's not a bad idea to get involved with cruise lines on social media, as we've seen situations where people raising a stink within various Facebook groups can elevate their issues within the cruise line.
Make Sure Everyone has a Flexible Schedule
Flexibility is key when it comes to cruising during the coronavirus pandemic. Current circumstances are best for travelers who thrive in their flexibility, can take last-minute changes in stride and aren't set on specific destinations.
If you've got kids, pets, plants or other responsibilities that you'll have to handoff while you're hitting the high seas, make sure whomever you have in your stead also has flexible availability and can roll with last-minute changes. In a worst-case scenario, such as quarantine requirements or flight cancelations, babysitters, pet sitters, house sitters and anyone else that would be affected by any delay you experience should already be aware and available to to stick around longer than expected -- depending on the circumstance, that could mean days.
Bring Your Work with You
No one wants to work on vacation, and we're not suggesting that here (we firmly believe that vacation is the time for you to unplug). Should you experience any kind of delay in getting back to the office as scheduled, however, having basic work materials on hand – laptop, copies of current files, etc. -- can end up saving your butt. If you're well enough to work, it can also save you from burning through your PTO or sick days.