Everything You Need to Know About the Cruise Industry’s Return to the High Seas

From pre-embarkation health screenings to new air filtration systems on its ships, here’s what the cruise lines are doing to keep coronavirus at bay.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship at Sunset

by NEA Member Benefits

Dec 18, 2020

Perhaps no mode of travel has been as negatively impacted by the threat of the novel coronavirus as the cruise industry. It was one of the first hospitality sectors to shut down to travelers after passengers became ill and needed to quarantine during an Asian itinerary back in February.

Cruise lines immediately began to voluntarily cancel voyages as they worked with health officials to understand the situation and start brainstorming solutions. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-sail order in March banning cruise ships from sailing from U.S. ports. That order was extended several times but finally expired October 31. It was replaced with a three-phase plan to get cruise ships sailing again, which is outlined below. Late March or early April is the earliest cruise lines could begin sailing in a limited capacity again.

Throughout the shutdown, cruise lines have been consulting with experts, testing new protocols and planning their safe return to travel. Several lines, including MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, successfully sailed over the summer in parts of Europe (though due to travel bans, Americans weren't able to participate in those trips).

Wave season kicks off next month and continues through March. It’s the time of year when cruise lines usually promote the year’s best sales and offer additional perks for booking. You might also have Future Cruise Credits to use to rebook a trip you previously had scheduled. So, now’s the time to learn more about the future of cruising and how the world’s top lines plan to keep their crews and passengers safe.

Just be aware that close-in itineraries—those during the first few months of the year—may change as cruise lines get their ships certified and plan the safest voyages possible. For Caribbean voyages, that may mean visiting the line’s private islands in the Bahamas and skipping some other popular ports of call that might not yet be ready for an influx of tourists. 

New CDC requirements to sail

First, it’s important to know that no cruise ship can sail from a U.S. port without first achieving benchmarks set out by the CDC. The first step is for the cruise line to present its safety plan to officials. That’s the easiest hurdle since cruise line executives and their teams have been crafting these plans for months with the help of medical experts.

Two of the world’s largest cruise corporations—Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holding—joined forces to create what they called a “Healthy Sail Panel” that consisted of top health experts, such as Scott Gottlieb, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary and Utah governor Mike Leavitt. (Carnival Corporation created a similar health task force.)

The Healthy Sail Panel issued a report that outlined 74 things cruise lines can do to lower the chance of a COVID-19 infection onboard its ships. Some of the recommendations, such as limiting cruisers to cruise line-sponsored or -verified shore excursions, were implemented in cruising's European comeback over the summer with good results.

Once a cruise line has presented its safety plan to the CDC (no cruise line has done so as of press time), it will then be required to complete “simulated voyages” to point out any weak points in the plan and ensure the cruise ship's ability to limit the risk of COVID-19.

After that, the CDC will certify ships as sail-ready if they meet specific requirements. That means some ships from certain cruise lines may resume sailing before others. There is no one date when all ships will begin sailing again.

How cruise lines will protect travelers and crew

If you go to any cruise line website, you’ll find details on its plans to keep its valued crew and travelers as safe as possible from COVID-19. 

Here are some things that most cruise lines are implementing:

Pre-cruise and embarkation

  • All crew will undergo extensive training to learn about the new, enhanced safety protocols and their health will be closely monitored.
  • Some cruise lines, such as Seabourn and Silversea, will require pre-embarkation COVID-19 testing. (Check with your cruise line to determine if pretesting is required for your ship/itinerary and what type of test is needed; generally speaking, the requirement is for a PCR test.)
  • Cruise lines will implement staggered boarding times to help maintain social distancing at the cruise terminal.
  • Thermal cameras in terminals and/or onboard will monitor the temperatures of crew and passengers. (A fever can be a sign of the illness, but since many people infected with COVID-19 don't show symptoms, temperature checks alone aren't enough to protect sailors.)
  • Passengers will undergo enhanced pre-embarkation health screening, including things such as touch-free temperature checks and health questionnaires. (Those at risk will go through an additional health evaluation by the ship’s medical staff.)
  • Some cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean and Princess, have streamlined the safety muster drill, which can now be seen on the TV in your cabin or steamed to an app on your smartphone.

Onboard the ship

  • Cruise lines will use safe disinfectants to sanitize staterooms and public areas frequently.
  • Additional handwashing facilities and hand-sanitizing stations will be positioned in high-traffic areas of the ship.
  • Face coverings will be required and rules vary per line; expect to wear a face mask in designated parts of the ship and whenever social distance can’t be maintained.
  • As part of Costa’s safety plan, at mealtime, tables will be spaced apart and you’ll only dine with your travel companions.
  • Buffets may still exist, but you’ll tell a server what you’d like and he/she will prepare a plate for you.
  • Expect reduced capacity in the ship’s theater, spa, fitness center, shops, casino, pools and kids clubs.
  • Shows in the theater will take place more often but with reduced capacity to maintain social distancing.
  • Some ships, such as those from Carnival Corporation, will use HEPA filtration systems for ventilation; Princess will use HEPA filters in its medical centers and MERV 13 filters to remove airborne particles and replace the air in public spaces and staterooms every five to six minutes.
  • Carnival Corporation says its medical centers will have dedicated air filtration systems, medication, testing capabilities and dedicated isolation/quarantine rooms.
  • If a coronavirus infection is discovered, robust plans are in place for rapid response and contact tracing to alert others that may have interacted with the patient.

In port

  • You may be required to book a limited-capacity, ship-sponsored shore excursion and abide by all the rules if you plan to disembark the ship in port. (The idea is to create a safe “bubble” around guests to keep the ship free of coronavirus.)

All of these measures, and more, are being put in place to mitigate the threat of coronavirus onboard cruise ships and to ensure the safety of the crew and passengers that love cruise travel so much.

If you’re ready to book a cruise for 2021, 2022 or even 2023, don’t forget that NEA Travel offers member discounts—up to $1,200 off—and extra perks on cruises from dozens of lines, including Carnival, Disney, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Viking and more.

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