In a long-awaited victory for the U.S. cruising industry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally took the step this week of removing its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships.
This decision does away with the lengthy set of requirements that the agency had established - including pre-boarding COVID test mandates and requiring most passengers to be vaccinated -- that cruise lines needed to adopt to resume full service in the U.S.
Now, the cruise lines are left with the decision: Should they phase out, change or abandon their existing protocols. While the CDC confirmed that it will continue to require cruise ships to report COVID-19 cases and also produce new mitigation guidance, many of the specific guidelines will now be up to the cruise lines.
The question for cruisers is, when do these changes, if any, take place? And will my upcoming cruise be affected?
As of now, most cruise lines are awaiting further recommendations from the CDC before deciding to change or update their policies, Cruise Critic has learned.
Royal Caribbean Group and its subsidiaries -- Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity and Silversea Cruises -- issued the following statement: “We are awaiting the recommendations from the CDC that should be published in the next few days so that we may review them. As always, our top priority is the safety and security of our guests, crew and communities we visit, and that will be top-of-mind for anything we decide moving forward."
Similarly, Carnival Cruise Line updated its website to inform that their current health and safety protocols will remain in place for the time being. "Carnival welcomes the CDC’s decision to replace its current public health protocols with a new set of guidelines for health operations on cruise ships," reads the cruise line's updated statement. "We will review these once they’re available, but there are no immediate changes to Carnival’s COVID-19 protocols."
Carnival's sister lines Princess and Holland America Line echoed this message by providing their own similar statements, while other lines in the Carnival family, like Seabourn, Cunard and Costa Cruises, have yet to provide updates.
Some lines, however, have announced that pre-testing for vaccinated passengers is going away.
Margaritaville at Sea announced pre-cruise COVID-19 testing will no longer be required as of July 23.
On July 21, Virgin Voyages announced that it would get rid of pre-cruise testing, starting July 24 on sailings in the European Union and on July 27 for U.S. sailings. The line will keep the percentage of vaccinated passengers on U.S. ships at 90%.
Earlier this month, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings , which comprises Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas, dropped its COVID-19 testing program starting August 1 for sailings where the departure country didn’t require it, applicable August 1. At the time, the change didn't apply to the U.S.; with the CDC's move, it could, although the company has yet to make that announcement.
A small number of cruise lines, including Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures, were not requesting a negative COVID-19 test prior to embarkation before the CDC's announcement; these lines had ships that were smaller than those governed by the agency.
Similarly, Viking had also lifted its pre-embarkation testing requirement unless local regulations required it. It is worth noting that these same lines, however, don't allow any unvaccinated passengers to sail.
One of the biggest hurdles cruisers have navigated in the pandemic days is the mandatory pre-cruise test that most cruise lines enforce, even for vaccinated guests. On June 12, 2022, the CDC dropped its requirement for travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the country, but that announcement was only applicable to international air travel inbound to the United States.
The logistics of having a test administered and the results available within the required time before boarding a cruise has been a source of confusion and frustration.
After the CDC announcement, at least one cruise line jumped at the opportunity to end the pre-cruise testing requirement on their ships. Azamara will apply this new protocol starting July 15, 2022, though the cruise line emphasized that testing will still be mandatory in ports where it is still required in accordance with country regulations.
“The easing of our testing policy marks a step in the right direction towards a return to normalcy for the travel and cruising industry,” said Azamara President Carol Cabezas. “Cruising is one of the safest ways to travel, and our existing health and safety protocols onboard will ensure peace of mind for our guests and crew as we move forward.”
Azamara still requires that all guests 12 years of age or older must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before sailing with all required COVID-19 vaccine doses. Azamara crew are required to be fully vaccinated. COVID-19 testing will continue to be available to guests onboard as needed.
It is unclear if more cruise lines will follow Azamara in ending their pre-embarkation testing protocols or uphold them as an added security blanket to ensure sailings are as COVID-free as possible.
The resumption of cruise operations last year coincided with the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations, initially only for adults but now also approved for children under 12.
Most cruise lines have been united in their stance of not allowing unvaccinated adults to sail, while allowing unvaccinated children (usually 12 and under) to sail with vaccinated adults. Disney, Lindblad, Ponant, Princess, Seabourn, Norwegian (U.S departures only) and Holland America further limit this by requiring children aged 5 and older to be vaccinated (with some exceptions), citing the availability of vaccines for children above this age threshold.
So will this all change? Removing the barriers to sail for unvaccinated passengers will certainly increase the amount of people who can cruise. On the other hand, the vaccine requirement is popular with those travelers who are already cruising.
A recent Cruise Critic survey of 3,100 readers conducted in June 2022 showed that a vaccine requirement to sail was the most important safety protocol that cruisers want in place before they feel comfortable booking a cruise, with 73% of respondents placing that as a top priority. Having vaccinated crew members was the second most important requirement, with 71% of respondents noting it as a priority.
Having booster requirements for passengers and crew also fell in the top five most important safety protocols that cruisers want.
Cruise lines will have to weigh whether their vaccine requirements are more of a hinderance or an incentive for their current and potential passengers.
Out of all the COVID-19 requirements, the use of masks or face coverings has evolved the most since cruising returned last year. Initially, the mask mandate was practically universal, but has been gradually relaxed to the extent that most cruise lines now say face coverings are optional but still recommended. Crew almost universally do wear masks.
Some cruise lines, like Celebrity, require unvaccinated guests -- usually children under 12 -- to wear masks at all times indoors, except while eating or drinking. Others, like Celestyal Cruises, require all guests regardless of vaccination status to wear masks throughout all indoor areas, except when eating or drinking, or in outdoor spaces on board, unless they are crowded.
Exceptions to the optional masking stance have been made on a case-by-case basis, when certain conditions are present on board, like a high number of positive cases. Princess recently reestablished the mask mandate onboard an Island Princess sailing out of an abundance of caution, even providing passengers with complimentary KN95 masks to comply with the requirement. Holland America Line, meanwhile, has been enforcing the use of masks on Alaska cruises that sail to and from Whittier and Vancouver.
In that same survey of Cruise Critic members, respondents listed mask wearing by passengers and crew as two of the least important safety requirements needed to feel comfortable booking. It's probably highly likely that cruise lines will get rid of mask wearing altogether, unless a destination requires it or there is a current percentage of COVID-19 cases onboard.
If there was one welcome consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the change in cancellation policies that cruise lines adopted to instill confidence in cruisers in the face of all the uncertainty brought about by the virus.
Across the board, cruise lines relaxed their previously rigid cancellation policies by generally allowing guests to cancel their travel plans in the event of testing positive for the virus, typically within a week or two before sailing.
Most of these more liberal COVID-19 cancellation policies have expiration sail-by dates to the end of the year or the first few months of 2023.
While the CDC order didn't govern cancellation policies, it's one area where cruise lines might act and accelerate the expiration dates, or leave them unchanged. Stay tuned to see what happens.
Here's our advice for people who have a cruise booked and are waiting to see if the CDC's actions will affect their cruise:
Read emails from your cruise line. When a cruise line makes a policy announcement, they always send an email to those who are already booked on the affected cruises first. Make sure you open all correspondence.
Destinations will still have requirements. While the CDC has relaxed its guidelines, many countries still have not. You will still need to take a pre-cruise COVID-19 test to visit Canada, for example, or Greece. And many countries still require visitors to be vaccinated. Cruise lines will have to follow the rules if they want to visit these destinations.
Don't assume there will be big changes. While pre-cruise testing and vaccine requirements might not be popular with everyone, they have been a crucial part of the cruise lines' toolbox in keeping COVID-19 numbers down. Don't expect all protocols to disappear immediately, particularly if a COVID-19 variant surge is underway.
Cruise Critic will continue to update this story with more information as it becomes available.
Updated July 22, 2022