Two years ago, in March 2020, the global cruise industry completely shut down with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. From North America to Australia, cruise lines grounded their ships in a move that was unprecedented.
With the swift rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program that started in December 2020 -- quickly gaining pace in the U.S. and U.K. from early 2021 -- most cruise lines were able to resume sailing again by summer 2021 -- with adjustments. Additional admin and forms, such as an online health questionnaire, mandatory testing, social distancing, vaccine and mask mandates have all played a role in what it's like to cruise right now.
Due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, which has seen the Delta variant followed by Omicron sweep around the world, cruising's return has been anything but smooth sailing (indeed in Australia, the government has only just confirmed a restart date for cruise).
As the COVID-19 pandemic gradually shifts towards the endemic stage, here's a look at what it's like to cruise right now and how close to normal cruising is.
Most Cruise Lines Require Passengers to Be Fully Vaccinated
Cruise lines require passengers and crew that are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to be fully vaccinated. This generally means if you want to enjoy a cruise vacation, you’ll need to have received both doses of the initial round of vaccines at least 14 days before sailing.
We’re seeing a growing number of cruise lines, including Azamara, Cunard Line and Silversea Cruises, require those eligible to have received the booster dose in order to sail, too. Anyone not eligible to receive the vaccine, simply won't be able to sail with these lines anytime soon.
Other lines currently only recommend passengers receive the booster shot. As the pandemic continues to evolve, we expect to see more lines update their health protocols to mandate boosters.
Cruises lines geared towards families with kids -- including Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and MSC Cruises -- have made exceptions to allow families to travel with unvaccinated children. Typically, under 12s aren't required to be vaccinated to sail on these lines, though additional protocols are in place and some lines including Carnival require the over-fives set to apply for a vaccine exemption, of which a limited number are available.
Additional protocols may mean limited access to some venues, extra testing and mask mandates.
Lines Are Moving Away From Mandating Masks
The general theme here is moving towards lines recommending, not requiring masks to be worn onboard for vaccinated passengers.
Lines including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Carnival, Holland America Line, Oceania Cruises and Disney have all loosened their protocols on mask wearing in recent weeks, with Viking's owner, Tor Hagen, confirming mask mandates will be removed from April 1, 2022.
Cunard is an exception and still require passengers to wear masks onboard when moving around the ships and in venues such as the theater. Even if your cruise line no longer requires you to wear a mask onboard, you’ll need to wear one in cruise ship terminals and in certain settings.
Lines Are Still Mandating Pre-Cruise Testing
Almost all cruise lines require passengers -- vaccinated and unvaccinated -- to test prior to embarkation in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s directives that a negative COVID-19 (PCR or antigen) should be presented upon boarding. This might involve testing 48 or 72 hours before boarding and for some lines at the terminal, too.
For unvaccinated passengers, mainly children who are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a pier-side test is required, usually in addition to an initial test taken 72 hours before embarkation.
For vaccinated passengers, there are subtle nuances as to when a passenger should test and this depends on being either up to date with vaccinations (including booster shot at least seven days before embarkation), or fully vaccinated (a primary series of COVID-19 vaccines with final dose at least 14 days before embarkation), it's typically 48 hours before.
Some cruise lines, including Princess Cruises and Carnival, will offer testing at the cruise terminal for a fee, but these tests have to be pre-booked and they are limited.
Disney Cruise Line is among a handful of cruise lines testing (paid for by the line) at the terminal before boarding.
UnCruise Adventures becomes an exception to this rule when the small-ship expedition line drops mandatory pre-cruise testing from March 25, 2022.
Passengers who've recovered from COVID-19 within three months from embarkation date (providing they've 10 days past their COVID-19 infection), do not typically require a pre-embarkation test.
Cruise Lines Are Still Sailing Well Below Full Capacity
Expect to see far fewer passengers on your next cruise. COVID-era occupancy means that almost all cruise lines are voluntarily operating at less than full capacity with some still operating at less than 50%. This is out of a combination of caution, but also a lack of demand.
On Wonder of the Seas’ inaugural cruise in the Caribbean, the ship sailed at 60 percent capacity. Whereas a recent MSC Seashore sailing, also in the Caribbean, sailed at 23 percent.
Cruise blogger Emma Le Teace whose YouTube channel, “Emma Cruises” draws over 100,000 subscribers, was on the low-capacity MSC Seaview sailing and says it led to a premium cruise experience, on a budget.
Social Distancing Has Been Considerably Relaxed
Spaced out seating in restaurants, reduced capacity at programmed events and theater shows with additional table service have all been applied to help passengers and crew to adhere to social distancing onboard. However, these measures are relaxing, including onboard Carnival sailings with passengers no longer required to maintain physical distancing.
Whereas in the early days of COVID-era cruising, passengers were required to keep to their bubbles, mixing among vaccinated passengers is now normal. Parties that include unvaccinated children are typically assigned a table of their own.
Cruise lines, including Princess Cruises with its MedallionClass technology, have also leveraged their digital apps to encourage passengers to make contactless reservations, order drinks and book activities.
Health Measures Have Been Enhanced
Cruise lines have continued to reassure passengers with their comprehensive enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols, including the use of medical-grade disinfectant, hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers available throughout every ship.
Lines have enhanced their air-filtration systems, too, removing the majority of pathogens, including COVID-19.
Viking for example has installed an HVAC system that means air is purified with new short-wavelength ultraviolet (UV-C) lights and high-density filters, killing 99.99 percent of all airborne viruses and bacteria.
Lines have also equipped their ships with more medical personnel, including nurses and doctors trained to manage a broad range of medical conditions, including COVID-19. Royal Caribbean's ships are staffed by a minimum of two doctors and four nurses and Viking's ship have an onboard testing lab.
The Cruise Ship Self-Serve Buffet is Back!
Just when you though the self-serve buffet had gone the same way as the muster drill (see below), a number of lines including Carnival and Royal Caribbean have confirmed their return.
Other lines are operating a hybrid buffet, where you can help yourself to drinks for example, but not to food.
While other are keeping it strictly service by crew.
Tables and chairs in dining areas are also sanitized between uses.
Most Lines Have Introduced the "E-Muster" Drill
The muster -- or lifeboat -- drill is a mandatory safety measure that occurs on every cruise ship once all passengers have embarked, before leaving port.
Before COVID-19, passengers would be gathered together in large groups, crammed into a public space to take part in a safety drill that mimics a nautical emergency.
Since COVID struck, the muster drill has been modernized with lines including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises creating the far more convenient e-muster to allow for drills to take place with safe social distancing.
Passengers can watch the muster drill and listen to the emergency signal on their mobile devices using the cruise lines’ apps or on their cruise room television. To complete the process, passengers typically have to check in at the physical muster station to complete the process.
Most lines are encouraging passengers to complete their mandatory muster drill as soon as they get onboard. Carnival limits the number of drinks passengers are able to order before a muster drill has been completed, while Viking has taken the approach of locking you out of your cabin television until you’ve completed your muster drill.
Bottom Line: What’s It Like to Cruise Right Now?
Cruising right now is getting back towards a new version of the pre-COVID normal. Cruise lines closely monitor and react to the CDC's guidance and the evolving nature of the pandemic -- regularly tweaking and updating their health and safety protocols.
Cruise travelers are, arguably, much safer on a ship, where vaccination rates are 95 percent (and therefore higher than ashore), stringent testing measures are in place and capacities are capped. Some processes that have evolved as a result of COVID-19, such as the e-muster drill are, on the whole, for the better.