As the global COVID-19 vaccination program gathers momentum so does the hope of getting back onboard a cruise ship. Unfortunately, we can't gaze into a Cruise Critic crystal ball and tell you exactly when that is going to be.
Although limited cruising on certain big ship lines has resumed in the Mediterranean and Singapore, there is still no word when cruising will resume from the U.S. for lines that come under U.S. jurisdiction. At present, big ship lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival are still waiting on the next set of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the phased resumption of cruises.
However, what we can predict is that now is a very good time to set your sights on small cruise ships. Here are some of the reasons why 2021 is a good year for small ship cruising:
The definition of small ships generally covers vessels carrying fewer than 1,300 passengers, but the reality is that many are much smaller than that and accommodate just a few hundred passengers or even fewer. Even the biggest small ship can dock in ports and tiny harbors that are totally inaccessible to larger cruise ships. Itineraries feature, for example small islands in Greece, rather than just the marquee destinations of Santorini and Mykonos. For example, Greek line Variety Cruises -- which operated one ship, the 49-passenger Galileo last year -- calls in at some of the smallest and untouched islands such as Milos, Paros, Antiparos and Folegandros, as well as Santorini and Mykonos. And aside from local yachts and fishing boats most likely you will be on the only cruise ship in port that day and not have to share the destination with other passengers.
Staying safe is a number one priority right now, and even with the vaccination rollout there are folks who are going to want to stick with people they know when they start traveling again. For the ultimate small ship cruise -- and ideal for a family reunion after time spent apart -- there are sailboats, catamarans and small cruise ships that can be exclusively chartered by groups of family and friends who can create their own travel 'bubble'. These charters are available around the world in destinations including the Caribbean, Alaska, Asia, Galapagos, South Pacific, Mediterranean and Europe. At smaller end of the scale are vessels available through companies such The Majestic Line, which sails along the coastline and islands of Scotland on a quartet of ships sleeping up to 12. The Maine Windjammer Association has a fleet of nine tall ships carrying 16 to 40 passengers and 4 to 10 crew members. No previous sailing experience is necessary and passengers can participate in all shipboard activities, from taking a turn at the wheel to raising and lowering the sails (but this is not obligatory). Yachts and ships of various sizes are available through other companies including AdventureSmith Explorations. Whilst normally booked by corporate organizations there are ships available for private charter that carry 150-plus passengers; perfect for if you have a very large family and lots of friends!
After months of lockdown and a year of living under various restrictions, getting back to normality is certainly very welcome but also feels pretty strange. Many people are going to want to steer clear of crowds, and even seasoned cruisers might feel overwhelmed getting back on a ship carrying thousands of passengers. If you fall into that category -- or fancy dipping a toe into the world of cruising for the first time -- a small ship sailing is a great choice to ease back into travel and enjoy that first post-COVID vacation. Carrying fewer passengers, you never feel part of an anonymous crowd; or indeed any kind of mass group. Small ship cruising is heavily focused on destinations and cultural enrichment; an ideal antidote to so many months without travel. And when you step ashore the low passenger numbers, coupled with smaller and less crowded ports of call, make social distancing easy.
The CDC regulations apply to ships operating in U.S. waters that carry 250 or more passengers or crew. This means smaller ships are not subject to the jurisdiction, and indeed several managed to sail successfully when the 2020 No-Sail Order was in place. These small ship cruise lines -- which sail mainly sail on expedition and coastal cruises -- are in pole position to recommence sailing before their larger counterparts. The U.S. Small Overnight Passenger Boat Operators Coalition comprises lines, including American Cruise Lines, The Boat Company, Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures, that are U.S.-flagged, U.S.-based, and with all or the majority of crew members from the U.S. which puts them in a prime spot to sail within federal guidelines. Further afield, European-based small ship cruise operators such as French-owned Ponant ran pilot cruises for its domestic market and the next step will be to open sailings to international passengers.
The 2021 Alaska season was scuppered for the majority of lines when Transport Canada extended its ban prohibiting cruise vessels in all Canadian waters until February 28, 2022. However, U.S.-flagged vessels with less than 100 passengers and crew which sail exclusively in Alaska without visiting any foreign ports are exempt from the order. Seattle-based small ship Alaska line UnCruise Adventures has announced that it plans to sail in Alaska in 2021 and other operators not covered by the ban include Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines and Lindblad Expeditions. Any sailings will involve stringent health requirements and UnCruise will implement a triple test process that requires a PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival, a rapid antigen test at check-in and a third upon embarkation. As part of the COVID-19 safety measures sailings will also miss out visits to small cultural communities. Ontario-based small ship operator St. Lawrence Cruise Lines and Maple Leaf Adventures, which operates out of Victoria, have both said they will offer sailings to Canadian residents.
One of the (many) joys of small ships cruises is that with fewer passengers there is a less crowded onboard atmosphere and there are no lines -- or very short ones -- when it comes to getting on and off the ship or going to the onboard restaurant. For the foreseeable future ships are expected to operate at less than full capacity to allow for social distancing and increased health protocols, which means even there will be even fewer passengers than normal so plenty of room for everyone to adhere to the guidelines. The logistics of operating a small ships means that they are much easier to manage so staggered mealtimes and organizing shore excursions in 'bubbles' can be planned and quickly put into operation as needed. Small ships have a very high crew to passenger ratio, often 1:1, resulting in very high levels of personal service and attention to detail, which also means always having crew members on hand to answer any questions or issue reminders about health protocols.
Small ship cruising has always been about discovering destinations in depth. With so much of the world being out of bounds to U.S. passport holders -- and indeed other nationalities around the globe -- for so long, surveys have shown that many people are looking to take vacations closer to home when tourism resumes. For those reluctant to embark on international trips when borders reopen, a small ship cruise is great stepping stone to sating the travel bug and discovering some of the scenic and cultural wonders that are within easy reach through a domestic flight or drive to the cruise embarkation point. Companies including Tauck and American Cruise Lines offer small ship itineraries geared towards North American travelers to destinations including the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest. Further afield, lines are offering new itineraries that focus on one country with no cross-border sailing, such as the first round-Britain season with Norwegian-owned Hurtigruten on vessels including the 530-passenger Fridtjof Nansen which is the newest in the fleet. Then there are small lines that only ever operate in one region, such as Hebridean Island Cruises and The Majestic Line which explore the coast and isles of Scotland.
As cruising gears up towards a restart there are some great offers to entice people back onboard. But these deals aren't going to be around forever and many specialist cruise agents predict that once sailing resumes demand will outstrip supply, particularly on small ships that can only carry a finite amount of passengers. As ships fill up, these offers will be withdrawn and fares will increase. And, after all this time on dry land, if you have decided to push the boat out and treat yourself to a top suite, there are only a limited number of these on small ships so you need to book early to secure them.