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Everything You Need to Know About Navigating COVID-19 on Cruise Ships

Wellness Cruises
by John Garry Mar 3, 2022

Cruising during COVID is not just lazy sea days, alluring coastlines, and all-inclusive perks — it can also include cabin quarantines, canceled trips, and last-minute itinerary changes.

As the Omicron variant started spreading across the US in December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told travelers to avoid cruises, regardless of vaccination status. Since then, the cruise ships COVID-19 warning level has remained at level four — its highest.

But for those eager to travel, cruise ships may offer safer environments than many dry-land destinations regarding pandemic precautions. What’s important for travelers to weigh is whether the potential pitfalls are still worth the wonders of sailing. Cruise ships don’t operate as they did in 2019; adjusting expectations is necessary for navigating the high seas in 2022.

If you’re preparing for an upcoming trip or considering a cruise sometime soon, here are answers to the most pressing questions so you can enjoy your vacation without getting tossed overboard by a tidal wave of surprises.

I haven’t cruised since the pandemic began. What should I expect?

The most important thing to know is that the cruise you pay for might not be the cruise you get. Countries can deny entry to ships with high COVID-19 caseloads, and sick crew members may cause staffing shortages on board.

“You should expect your itinerary to change,” says Jaron Barney, a ship entertainer who has worked and traveled on multiple major American cruise lines as a performer and guest in the past year. “It’s best to bring a go-with-the-flow attitude because if your heart is really set on one destination, you’ll likely be heartbroken.”

In January, St. Thomas didn’t allow Barney’s ship to port, and guests were kept at sea for an extra day. “There was a whole cruise full of people who thought that they were going to get a sunny beach day,” he says. “Instead, they were stuck on a boat with nowhere to go.”

Barney notes that most cruises don’t refund travelers for itinerary changes unless the journey ends prematurely. “If you’re okay going to a different island than expected, or having a sea day you don’t expect, then you’ll be fine,” he adds.

Travelers should also expect new rules and regulations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Most ships require guests to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. Some companies — like P&O Cruises and Cunard Line — may also require booster shots. Mask mandates are standard in interior ship spaces, and reduced capacity on ships means you’ll likely travel with fewer passengers. You can also expect enhanced cleaning protocols, new air purification technology, and expanded medical capabilities on board.

As dystopian as some of these systems may sound, Barney says it makes the experience feel safer. “There’s no panic,” he says. “It’s just business as usual.”

How do I know if a cruise ship’s COVID-19 protocols meet my standards?

“I would encourage travelers to check in with their cruise lines directly to familiarize themselves with the protocols in place,” says Laziza Lambert, Director of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Be sure to check your cruise line’s website before booking your trip and again closer to your trip. COVID-19 policies can change at a moment’s notice.

“Every cruise line has a different way of approaching things,” says Barney, and individual ships use slightly different rules. He recommends searching for individual ship information via Reddit.

“There are so many message boards with plenty of information available,” he notes. “If you do a little bit of digging, you can figure out what each ship has been doing to deal with COVID.”

To see if your boat is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak, check the CDC’s cruise ship color status. Ships marked green have no reported COVID-19 cases, while those marked red are above a COVID-19 case count that prompts a CDC investigation.

As of February 2022, most ships currently operating with passengers were marked yellow — meaning the number of COVID-19 infections meets the threshold for a CDC investigation.

“No setting can be immune from COVID-19,” says Lambert, which is why ships “place such great emphasis on comprehensive mitigation protocols that encompass the entire cruise vacation experience.”

“It’s also important to underscore that the vast majority of cases identified on cruise ships are asymptomatic or mild in nature due to the cruise industry’s robust protocols and extremely high levels of vaccination,” she adds.

Luckily, many companies offer last-minute cancellation policies for anyone uncomfortable with current infection rates. Norwegian’s Book With Confidence allows guests to cancel within 24 hours of embarkation until the end of March as long as the public health emergency remains in effect; Royal Caribbean offers a 48-hour cancellation window for cruises booked by March 31 that depart by September 30.

What happens if I test positive for COVID-19 before my cruise?

For anyone who tests positive 14 days before embarkation, you won’t be allowed on the ship, but you will receive an FCC (Future Cruise Credit).

If you test positive at the departure site, some cruise lines will assist by coordinating and paying for new travel arrangements and the necessary isolation period. But remember to check the fine print — not all COVID-19 policies are created equal.

What should I do if I develop COVID-19 symptoms while onboard?

If you experience coronavirus symptoms while sailing, isolate yourself in your room and contact the ship’s medical center for further instructions. Dedicated health personnel will be able to test you for the virus and provide necessary care.

Getting tested is the best way to ensure you receive the help you need. If you contract COVID-19 during your journey and don’t get tested on the ship, the cruise might not cover isolation-related expenses once you’re back on dry land. Moreover, if you don’t comply with the ship’s testing protocols, you might be asked to disembark early and pay your way home. Communicating about an illness benefits the collective health of everyone on board and offers you the maximum amount of protection.

What happens if I test positive for COVID-19 during a cruise?

Passengers who test positive can expect to be isolated in a cabin until they recover, or when it’s time to disembark. Those still infectious at the end of a trip might need to continue isolating on shore before heading home. Many of the other details vary from one shop to the next.

When Brandon Smith, a cruise ship vlogger on YouTube, tested positive on a Royal Caribbean trip in early January, he was brought to a designated quarantine floor and housed in a “bare bones” room. When Barney tested positive for the coronavirus on January 10, he was told to remain in his assigned guest cabin.

Most major cruise lines offer passengers prorated refunds if illness cuts their vacation short; they also cover costs for onboard medical treatment. But don’t expect to receive top-notch care. While Smith received an average of four daily phone calls from staff, Barney only received one hurried phone call at the beginning of isolation. No one asked Barney about his medical history or followed up afterward.

Aside from nurses and doctors dressed in PPE, you aren’t likely to see anyone else during isolation. Room service and housekeeping staff will leave meals and other necessary items outside your door. Family and friends aren’t permitted to visit unless they’re isolating with you.

If I test positive for COVID-19, what happens to my travel companions?

Not all ships treat COVID-positive passengers and their contacts the same. On some cruises, your travel companions will be asked to quarantine and get tested for COVID-19. Once they test negative, they’ll be allowed to leave their room and move freely about the ship. On other ships, close contacts won’t need to quarantine or get tested unless they experience symptoms.

What are my food options in isolation?

Guests usually receive three meals a day and have access to the regular room service menu. “For the most part, [ships] will be pretty accommodating,” says Barney, though potential staffing shortages may mean longer wait times than usual. “If you need a cup of coffee or a cocktail, [the staff] will go out of their way to ensure you get it and have a positive experience.”

Still, Barney recommends packing extra snacks in your suitcase. “When you’re stuck in your room, a bag of Doritos can go a long way.”

What can I do for entertainment?

Most ships offer isolated guests complimentary or discounted internet service and access to pay-per-view movies. But when the movies run out, don’t count on the internet to help alleviate boredom.

“Everybody who cruises a lot knows that the WiFi isn’t great,” says Barney. Prepare for extended downtime by downloading movies, tv shows, podcasts, and books before boarding the ship. “You’re not going to be able to stream stuff on Spotify or Netflix,” he says.

If you’re stuck in a room with someone else, consider bringing a travel-size board game and headphones — that way, you can enjoy activities both together and apart.

Do I have to get tested at the end of the cruise?

End-of-trip testing isn’t necessary for cruisers, but it might be required to return to your country of origin. Rules vary among cruise lines, so if you must provide a negative COVID-19 test for travel, make sure you understand what your ship offers.

Holland America and Princess currently provide guests with complimentary tests, but others, like Celebrity Cruises, charge passengers up to $95 per test. Carnival and Disney don’t provide post-cruise testing at all, forcing guests to figure out what to do once they’ve disembarked. This lack of on-ship testing can cause a conundrum, leaving travelers who test positive post-cruise without a safety net should they need to change their travel plans or isolate at a hotel.

How should I pack and prepare for an upcoming cruise?

The potential of contracting COVID-19 before or during a cruise leaves a lot to consider. Comprehensive travel insurance from a company like World Nomads may help pay for unforeseen travel costs not covered by your cruise line. If you’re worried about expenses, consider traveling with a credit card to help pay any exorbitant bills.

When packing, bring extra prescription medication, clothing, and snacks in case you’re away from home longer than expected. A laptop can facilitate working remotely, and a phone with international calling capabilities is helpful at foreign ports. Extra masks (preferably KN95s) and rapid antigen tests can be helpful as well.

All this preparation could be for naught, however — and that’s a good thing. “The incidence of COVID onboard cruise ships continues to be significantly lower than on land — even as new variants have emerged,” says Lambert.

Lambert is confident about the safety of cruising; she’s currently planning a ship adventure for later this year. Barney joins his next cruise in March. They aren’t the only ones hitting the high seas, either. According to CLIA’s 2022 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook, passenger volume will surpass 2019 levels by the end of the year. With a little bit of planning and a lot of flexibility, here’s hoping it’s smooth sailing for all.

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