Sun-seekers are expected to head to the Caribbean this winter aboard cruise ships giant, small and in-between. A Caribbean cruise through these picture-perfect islands will offer passengers powdery beaches, clear turquoise sea, palm trees lightly swaying in light breezes, icy rum drinks and opportunities to explore on the water and on shore.
Passengers will also, unfortunately, find changing rules, masking mandates, new health regulations and shifting itineraries thanks to COVID-19 and the omicron variant. That said, flexibility -- and perhaps booster shots -- will be key in planning your perfect 2022 Caribbean cruise this winter.
While cruising to the Caribbean in 2022 will still be a fun and enjoyable experience, here are some factors to consider before setting sail.
Currently, cruise lines have some sway in terms of who comes onboard their ships. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed ships to return to service this summer under guidelines that encourage all guests to be fully vaccinated, with exceptions made for kids who don’t yet qualify for vaccines. Crewmembers are also vaccinated, and pre-cruise testing for COVID-19 is required for all embarking passengers.
The CDC rules are currently scheduled to become voluntary on Jan. 15, though major cruise lines have vowed to keep them in place at least deeper into the winter, with Norwegian Cruise Line stating vaccinations would continue to be mandated for all sailings "indefinitely".
Currently, two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine are enough for cruise guests to be considered fully vaccinated. That may change. At some point, boosters will be required. During his company’s fourth quarter earnings call, Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation, made a point of saying that many of the company’s guests are already boosted, but stopped short of saying that would be a requirement. He said the nine-brand cruise company was in the process of delivering booster shots to its crew -- with about one-sixth of the crew currently boosted.
On December 21, the European Union approved a plan that would make vaccine passes only valid for nine months, after which time all residents would need a booster to be considered fully vaccinated. While no cruise line has formally announced any changes as of yet, you may need a booster to cruise this winter.
As a precautionary measure, cruise lines have not been operating at full capacity -- most, in fact, have been operating at 70 percent or less. With the rapid spread of the omicron variant, those numbers could dwindle further as some people get cold feet about cruising this winter.
There will still be the same array of activities and entertainment offered onboard, but with fewer people involved. Some cruisers will consider this a plus -- you won’t have to fight for a lounge chair at the pool!
Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line are among the cruise lines that have beefed up their rules at least through January 2022 to require that all guests, no matter their vaccination status, wear a mask indoors when not actively eating or drinking, or in your cabin. You will also likely be required to wear a mask in crowded outdoor areas. Lines such as Viking already had masking rules in place.
Local rules may impact what you can see and do at ports of call. For instance, there is the possibility that onshore activities may be limited to outdoor attractions. Masks and social distancing rules may apply, and for cruises carrying unvaccinated children, so-called "bubble" excursions will continue to be operated in select ports of call.
The good news is that on cruise line's private islands, all passengers are allowed to roam freely, regardless of age.
Cruise line private islands will provide the dreamy day at the beach you are seeking, complete with outdoor BBQs serving jerk chicken and ribs and staff delivering delicious rum drinks right to your beach chair. You’ll have opportunity to dip your feet in the surf and sand, and pretend you are on your own fantasy island.
If other islands demure, itineraries may be adjusted to stop more than once at these paradises open only to cruise passengers. Disney Cruise Line already does this on some itineraries, its Castaway Cay being a fan favorite. Royal Caribbean offers two-day stays on its Perfect Day at CocoCay, while MSC Cruises also offers itineraries with multiple calls at its Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.
There is always the reality you could miss a planned port call. For instance, strong winds caused the Caribbean Princess to miss St. Kitts on its December 16, 2021 sailing. With the new omicron variant, port cancellations are likely to become common and more last-minute as some islands potentially become squeamish about welcoming cruise guests.
If you cruise this winter, your itinerary may change, a port day replaced by a leisurely day or days at sea -- enhanced by a fun roster of shipboard activities.
This may be a bonus. When Carnival Panorama recently decided not to visit Cabo San Lucas due to a cumbersome last-minute testing requirement put in place by the port, and instead spent a day at sea, Carnival Cruise Line boosted the spirits of guests with $50 in onboard spending credit.
For cruises sailing the Caribbean, diverting to the cruise line's private island is usually an option, and there are many cruise-friendly countries that still have their borders -- and ports -- open to fully vaccinated travelers.
The Caribbean still offers all the charms it always has, and a Caribbean cruise can be a great way to reset after a busy and stressful Holiday period. Just go into it with a flexible attitude, and expect the unexpected -- at least for a little while longer.