(12:33 p.m. EST) -- Cruise lines have begun to alter policies around testing and vaccination for children as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.
On Friday, Royal Caribbean sent an email to booked passengers advising them that, after December 17, 2021, it would begin requiring unvaccinated children aged 2 to 11 to obtain a PCR test no more than two days prior to arrival.
Additionally, unvaccinated passengers between the ages of 2 and 11 will also need to complete complimentary antigen testing pierside.
Children who only have one dose of an approved vaccine are considered unvaccinated until 14 days after their second shot.
Prior to this announcement, children were able to take the more cost-effective antigen tests pre-cruise instead of needing a more expensive PCR test. Pierside, the prior requirement for a PCR test has changed to antigen.
Royal Caribbean covers the costs associated with the pierside antigen tests for unvaccinated passengers aged 2 to 11. Costs for pre-cruise PCR testing are the responsibility of the passenger.
Vaccinated passengers can still obtain the less-expensive antigen tests in order to embark the ship.
Changing Requirements for Kids to Cruise
It's the latest change in a week filled with indecision for younger cruisers, after Celebrity Cruises initially said Tuesday it would require all guests ages 5 and up to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The new rules -- which were to take effect on February 1, 2022 -- have since been walked back by the line.
The line now simply states on its website that, "All crew and guests who are eligible to be vaccinated must be vaccinated in order to sail with us."
As of Friday, Celebrity has modified its policy for unvaccinated children aged 2 to 11 to be identical to Royal Caribbean's.
With vaccines more readily available for kids in the U.S., Disney Cruise Line in mid-November became the first cruise company to set its vaccine requirement at age 5 and up – for all sailings on or after January 13, 2022.
Passengers who are not eligible to be vaccinated, including those age 4 and under, must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test result (at the passenger's cost), taken between three days and 24 hours prior to embarkation.
Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line are effectively also requiring vaccines for kids – including on upcoming holiday sailings from the U.S. – since they require vaccines of everyone onboard.
To be fully vaccinated, kids ages 5 and up must receive their second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech (the only brand currently available for kids ages 5-11) at least 14 days prior to sailing.
As of Nov. 17, according to the White House, an estimated 2.6 million children in that age group have gotten their first shot.
Some Cruise Lines Have Yet To Weigh In
Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line and MSC Cruises have not issued vaccine requirements for children under 12.
Earlier in November, Royal Caribbean Senior Vice President of Sales Vicki Freed told travel agents that the line was aware of Disney's decision. She said that if Royal followed suit with a vaccine requirement, it would not be instituted until after December.
Carnival plans to operate vaccinated voyages that have at least 95 percent vaccinated passengers through March 2022. All unvaccinated passengers, including kids, need to apply for a limited number of exemptions, which can be hard to get.
"Given our experience with sailings in previous months, we know we cannot honor most requests for exemptions, so now that U.S. health officials have approved the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5-11, getting children into the fully vaccinated category will allow more of them on board, and allow them access to the guest experience our current guests are enjoying," the line said.