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What Will U.S. Cruise Ships Look Like When They Return? Unpacking The Latest CDC Rules

Fran Golden

May 27, 2021

Read time
6 min read

We want to know: How do you feel about sailing in 2021-2022, and about cruising's COVID-19 protocols? Take our survey and let us know.

Since the pandemic began, there has been endless speculation, as well as back and forth, on what cruise ships might look like when they resume sailing from the U.S.

Now, it seems, there are answers -- at least for summer 2021 cruises.

In the latest changes to the agency's Conditional Sailing Order, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have established different sets of rules for ships with fully vaccinated guests and crew (both defined now as 95 percent -- a change from the previous 98 percent threshold), as opposed to ships that do not meet the criteria or do not have a vaccine requirement.

To make it even more confusing, the rules might vary for people, even if they are on the same ship. The CDC has left it open for the cruise lines to designate certain areas of the ship, such as a self-serve buffet or the casino, solely for the use of vaccinated passengers. The agency clearly wants to encourage vaccines.

And even as we say we now have answers, everything is subject to change, as both the CDC and cruise lines update their protocols. Of course, any onboard COVID-19 outbreaks may turn the CDC rules on their head, and lead to further changes.

Here's what you should know about the CDC rules for summer 2021 sailings.


For everyone

The CDC says masks must be worn by port personnel, crew and passengers at the pier. Onboard requirements will likely depend on whether you are vaccinated or not. You are not required to wear a mask in your cabin.

On ships with a vaccine requirement

It's up to the cruise line, but the CDC says it's okay to go with no masks required for passengers and crew, both inside and outside.

On ships without a vaccine requirement

If you are vaccinated: The CDC says fully vaccinated passengers and crew do not have to wear masks outdoors. The cruise line can also designate some areas of the ship for vaccinated guests only, with no masks required. The areas might include casinos, bars, spas, entertainment venues and dining facilities, including self-serve buffets.

If you are not vaccinated: The order permits temporarily removing your mask only for brief periods for eating and drinking. You do not need to wear a mask when doing activities that may get the mask wet, such as swimming at the beach or in your ship's pools. The cruise line, at its discretion, can deem you don't have to wear a mask outdoors – though the CDC is still recommending mask use in crowded areas. Otherwise, you need to mask up.

Social Distancing

On ships with a vaccine requirement

The CDC is not requiring social distancing.

On ships without a vaccine requirement

For vaxxed passengers: No social distancing required in specific areas for vaccinated passengers and crew, which might include casinos; bars; spas; entertainment venues; and dining areas, including self-serve buffets.

For vaxxed and un-vaxxed passengers: Except for the vax-designated areas, physical distancing protocols will be in place -- requiring 6 feet of distance between individuals who are not traveling companions or part of the same family. This applies to dining, elevators and stairwells, entertainment venues and activities such as gyms and casinos, as well as pools and gangways.

The CDC further suggests cruise lines use "wearable proximity alerting technology" so people know if they are breaking distancing rules.

Embarkation screening

On all ships

At embarkation, cruise lines are required to screen all passengers for "signs or symptoms" of COVID-19. All passengers will also be asked if they have had contact with the virus within the past 14 days.

If you are vaccinated: If you have symptoms, you may still board at the cruise line's discretion if you have documentation of recovery from the virus or take an antigen or PCR test at the pier that shows a negative result. If you have been exposed but have no symptoms, you may board.

If you are not vaccinated: With symptoms, you will be denied boarding unless you have documentation of recovery from COVID-19. If you have been exposed, at the cruise line's discretion you may board only if you have documentation of recovery and are asymptomatic.


On all ships

If you are vaccinated: No test is required at embarkation or disembarkation.

If you are not vaccinated: You will receive a PCR or antigen test on embarkation day. You will receive a second test at disembarkation if your cruise is for more than four nights. You will also receive a test between cruises if you are doing back-to-back sailings.


Vaccine requirements are at the discretion of the cruise line. Most of the Alaska cruises require all guests to be vaccinated. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are making an exception for a limited number of kids who do not yet qualify for a vaccine, while also meeting the CDC's threshold of 95 percent of guests being vaccinated Celebrity Cruises will have the same kids' rule in effect for its startup sailings on Celebrity Edge out of Fort Lauderdale


On ships with a vaccine requirement

Everyone may linger over their meals and social distancing is not required.

On ships without a vaccine requirement

Based on CDC requirements, you should expect changes in restaurant and bar layouts to ensure social distancing or at least 6 feet -- at least for unvaccinated guests. Cruise lines are also required to encourage outdoor dining and beverage options as well as room service.

If you are vaccinated: You may enjoy a leisurely dinner. Depending on your ship, you may have access to dining areas designated for vaccinated guests only and without a social distancing requirement, which may include a buffet.

If you are not vaccinated: Social distancing rules will apply and you may remove your mask only briefly for eating or drinking – the CDC says extended meal service without masking up is a violation of its rules. The CDC is requiring cruise lines to eliminate all self-service food and drink options for unvaccinated guests. The cruise lines are also required to encourage outdoor dining and room service.

Shore Excursions/Independent Port Exploration

On all ships

According to the CDC, "Participating in a shore excursion and group transportation increases a person's risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 by bringing people in close contact with others, often for prolonged periods."

If you're vaccinated: The CDC says at the discretion of the cruise line you may explore independently at the ports of call. Depending on the country's own requirements, you may have to wear a mask indoors such as when visiting museums.

If you are not vaccinated: Tour companies are required to facilitate social distancing and adhere to mask wearing requirements throughout the tour. Cruise lines are urged, but not required, to prohibit independent exploration by unvaccinated passengers at ports of call.

Updated May 27, 2021
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