For cruisers, the emergence of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has put one fear front and center: Will I have to quarantine on my cruise if I get sick?
Involuntary quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test result is not the norm. Cruise lines have strengthened protocols, from enhanced mask regulations to the outright banning of smoking in onboard casinos. Ships require passengers to be fully vaccinated and even some cases, boosters are now required.
Still, if you are intending to travel or cruise during this time, you should take a good, hard look at what types of quarantine are possible, and prepare for a quarantine, just in case. For cruisers, there are four specific scenarios: testing positive at embarkation, testing positive during your cruise and staying on the ship, testing positive during your cruise and being forced to leave the ship or testing positive post-cruise.
Cruise Quarantine Scenario 1: You Test Positive for COVID-19 At the Terminal Before You Board
While all cruisers leaving from U.S. homeports must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than two days before sailing, at-pier testing is becoming more common. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, is continuing its at-pier testing for all embarking passengers, while family-friendly cruise lines are testing all children coming onboard at the cruise terminal.
If you test positive for COVID-19 at home during the mandatory two-day testing period, you simply don't travel to your ship.
If you or a family member -- or a member of your traveling party -- test positive pierside, the outcome is very different.
First, understand that while the cruise line will provide a representative to you, you will be largely under the authority of the local health officials, who will likely determine where you quarantine, for how long and who picks up the tab.
Understand, too, that you don't have to test positive for this scenario to occur. If your child is positive, you could be quarantined. If your friend is positive, you could be quarantined. Any member of your traveling party testing positive results in the entire party being denied boarding.
If you are denied boarding prior to embarkation, your cruise line's capacity to intervene is limited.
"(Royal Caribbean) does not have control over what any country will require for quarantine," writes Sunshine3601 on a thread Royal Caribbean's testing policies for its ship in Barbados, Grandeur of the Seas.
"Anyone that is traveling, especially internationally, should have travel insurance that will cover COVID quarantine accommodations, testing, medical if needed, etc. etc. ... If you plan on a precruise holiday and test positive prior to boarding the ship then I do not think Royal is responsible for taking care of your expenses."
Our tip: Researching the quarantine policies of your country of embarkation, if it is not the United States, is a wise idea.
Barbados publishes a 25-page interactive document it updates regularly with the latest protocols, which clearly spell out what options travelers have who test positive while on the island: quarantine at a designated facility (at the traveler's expense); mandatory documents to be signed related to their restricted movement on the island; medical services to be approved at the expense of the traveler; and mandatory use of an on-person monitoring device and BIMsafe app.
Within the United States, quarantine information can be unclear -- or, in the case of Florida, nonexistent. Florida Health's COVID-19 webpage for travelers does not include a single piece of pertinent information for those who have tested positive and need to quarantine.
Also consider that, unless you drove to the port of embarkation, it is unlikely you will be allowed to board a flight or train home until your symptoms have passed or five days have elapsed, according to new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For embarkation in a foreign country, CDC guidance does not apply, as their authority is limited to the United States. Your mandatory quarantine period could be longer.
Another tip: Purchase good travel insurance, and pay particular attention to the trip delay and medical section. This is the section that will cover any travel expenses that you have because your trip has been interrupted.
Cruise Quarantine Scenario 2: You Test Positive For COVID-19 Onboard Your Cruise Ship and Can Quarantine Onboard
Testing positive while onboard your ship for COVID-19 is, believe it or not, one of the better scenarios.
Under this scenario, affected passengers are moved to new quarantine cabins set aside for that specific purpose on a single deck of the ship. This is done under the guidance of the health and safety staff onboard. Meals are delivered to cabins, with the possibility to order off room service menus, and drinks can be delivered to cabins. Passengers have also reported being given free Wi-Fi access and complimentary on-demand movies.
Other than being confined to your room, you are still on the ship, with all the care and service that entails. Your accommodations are complimentary (or, at least already paid for). Your food is complimentary. Your standard of comfort is quite high versus land-based quarantine where accommodation levels can vary wildly. And you have the services of the ship's medical center at your disposal.
Keep in mind, however, that you might not be allowed to stay in your same cabin. Cruise passengers have reported being moved from their suite or balcony rooms to inside or oceanview cabins on lower decks that have been designated as quarantine rooms.
Cruise Critic members have been reporting their experiences on the message boards.
"They’ve not denied me anything so far," writes member Parkerson, who described in detail their stay in quarantine aboard Celebrity Equinox on this comprehensive thread. "My nightcap was a double Monkey Shoulder, neat. Room service didn’t know what that was, so I told her to tell Lito or Hero in the Craft Bar that it was for me and they’d know. 15 mins later it arrived."
Celebrity Cruises informs passengers that if they test positive for COVID-19 while on their voyage, the line will: "cover the cost of necessary COVID-19 related medical treatment onboard the ship; coordinate and cover the costs of any required land-based quarantine for you and members of your Traveling Party; and coordinate and cover the costs of travel arrangements to get you and members of your Traveling Party back home."
But Parkerson -- who was given the option to quarantine away from their spouse, who tested negative -- reports that passengers in quarantine have to advocate for themselves to obtain answers around specific questions relating to their quarantine, disembarkation or procedures.
"I've found that the first line of guest relations can’t help with anything above the most simple requests," writes Parkerson. "Ask for a supervisor. ... They usually can assist."
Communication can be an issue, as some passengers have reported on the boards. Some quarantined passengers took to Cruise Critic to appeal for help.
Member dollyd was forced to get fellow quarantined passenger Parkerson involved to get specific help.
Our tips: Have someone on the ship to spell out specifically what kind of meals, drinks and medical attention that you will be receiving, and in what general timeframe, prior to being moved to your new quarantine stateroom.
And don't be afraid to take to social media or a site such as Cruise Critic to get help.
Getting home after a cruise ship quarantine is most straight-forward if you left from a port that's within driving distance of home. These passengers can simply get in the car, drive straight home, and self-isolate until symptoms pass or they test negative.
If you flew to your port of embarkation, or took a rail service like Amtrak, your journey will get more interesting -- albeit possibly better than in Scenario 1 described above, as COVID-positive people are not permitted to use any sort of commercial transportation.
A letter sent by Celebrity Cruises to passengers reveals the line will cover $150 per day in rental car expenses for those who elect to drive home but who did not drive to the port of embarkation themselves.
It also shows that, for those who need to quarantine in place, the line will cover hotel expenses up to $350 per night, along with $100 in meal costs. Hotels must be booked by the passenger and can be any hotel of their choosing -- so long as they will accept COVID-positive guests.
The responsibility for arranging -- and initially paying for -- hotel accommodation and or rental cars is solely on the passenger.
Our tip: Make sure you have a good cellular data plan and plenty of apps loaded up on your phone in order to secure last-minute hotel bookings.
Cruise Quarantine Scenario 3: You Test Positive on Your Ship and Must Leave the Ship In Another Country
The best scenario is if the cruise line allows you to stay on the ship for your quarantine. In some cases, however, the lines will ask you to leave the ship in another country and quarantine under their rules.
This scenario is the trickiest and possibly the least pleasant. In most cases, the cruise line is not in control of the accommodations or services that you receive. You are now under the direction of that country's port authority and don't always have a lot of choice in your hotel or testing situation.
That's not to say that the cruise line will abandon you. Passengers forced to quarantine in Iceland and Malta this summer reported that Viking Cruises did their best to make things more comfortable for them, sending fans, puzzles and food gift baskets. But it's definitely not the fun vacation that one envisioned when they booked.
Our tips: During a surge, it might be best to postpone international travel and stick to cruises that are closer to home with embarkation ports within driving distance.
If you do board overseas, make sure you understand the quarantine and testing requirements of the countries where you're traveling -- how long will they make you quarantine and how many negative tests are required before you can leave? Bring phone numbers for the port officials, the ship and cruise line personnel and even the U.S. embassy.
Finally, even if you can't pick your hotel, travel insurance with generous trip delay coverage will make any forced stay more pleasant -- perhaps you will be able to upgrade to a room with a balcony, for example, or be able to order better food and drink. It will also cover airline change fees.
Cruise Quarantine Scenario 4: You Test Positive for COVID-19 When You're Off the Ship but Before You Fly Home
This is primarily a scenario for non-U.S. citizens cruising out of the United States, or U.S. and international citizens cruising from a foreign country who need to obtain either a negative antigen or PCR test before arrival back in their home country.
At the resumption of cruise operations in summer 2021, many cruise lines were providing Canadian and international guests with complimentary onboard antigen and PCR tests on the last day of their cruise.
Fast-forward to early 2022, and things are different, with policies that vary wildly between lines. Some lines -- like Royal Caribbean -- are now electing to do these tests shoreside via a third-party provider, while other lines like Carnival and Disney don't even offer post-cruise testing at all.
By taking these tests off the ship and having passengers test on land, it puts the onus on the passenger to follow the directives from the local health authorities and puts all associated costs squarely on them or, if they're fortunate enough, their COVID-19 insurance policy. If you're flying back to Toronto and you test positive for COVID-19 at a Walgreens, you're stuck.
"Note that while the test is still free at this point in time, it occurs only after you leave the ship, so if you test positive you will be required to cover any costs for quarantine yourself if you cannot fly back to Canada," writes waiting2retire in a thread on the Princess Cruises message board. "This is what led me to cancel my January 9 cruise. The cost of a possible quarantine would have exceeded the cost of the cruise itself in my case!"
Waiting2retire is right: If you tested positive on the ship, Princess Cruises would be on the hook for any hotel stays and meals associated with an eventual quarantine on land, just as the line states they will do. But once you're off the ship and test positive for COVID-19 as part of standard testing for re-entry into countries like Canada, the line no longer has a responsibility to provide you with anything.
Quarantine costs can add up. A hotel at $250 per night (not unreasonable in the Miami or Fort Lauderdale area) for five nights runs $1,250 before taxes and fees. Meals for five nights for two, conservatively, would be in the $500 range. And that's before airfare changes and additional costs for new PCR tests to return back to your country of origin.
Who makes all these arrangements? In most cases, you do.
Our tip: It all comes back to travel insurance and making sure you have a policy with good coverage for COVID-19, as well as trip delay costs. Also make sure you know the rules surrounding your country's re-entry and plan your time accordingly.
Cruise Quarantine Bottom Line
While cruising is still one of the safest forms of travel, cases of COVID-19 do occur on cruise ships, as they do on land at resorts, airports, daycares, hotels, schools, parties and gatherings and other enclosed settings.
Realize that during this unprecedented period, it pays to have a credit card with a wide balance available; that you and your trip are insured; and that you've familiarized yourself with the entry and testing requirements of your cruise line and port of embarkation. Travel with enough medication for double your trip length, pack a cell phone with an extended data plan and international calling, and do everything you can to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Chances are, you'll never need to use what you've put in place. But if you do, you can make a calm, informed decision that will make all the difference between a nightmare quarantine scenario and one that, while not ideal, is survivable.