15 Questions and Answers About Cruise Health Protocols Required to Sail

Perhaps no industry was impacted as much as cruising when it comes to the health crisis. Not only were ships shut down for roughly a year and a half, but when they returned, they did so under new oversight and new protocols.

With the return of sailing, there have been new protocols put in place. Here’s what to know — from masks to vaccines.

In short, every cruise passenger had a number of new rules to adjust to in order to set sail. Meanwhile, while most rules aboard cruise ships are similar, each line may have small differences in place that mean the protocols are not “one size fits all.”

Below, we’ve answered some of the biggest questions about taking a cruise today when it comes to the new rules in place for cruise ships.

One thing to note: These answers cover cruises in broad fashion. It may be that your specific line has slightly tweaked protocols. You’ll want to double check anything directly with your cruise line.

Do I have to be vaccinated to cruise?

For the vast majority of passengers who take a cruise, yes you will be required to be vaccinated. For ships leaving the United States, this typically means any vaccine approved by the FDA, the WHO, or the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

So vaccines like those from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and more are accepted. Each cruise line has their own set of acceptable vaccines. If you didn’t get one of the major types, then it’s a good idea to check directly on the cruise line’s website as to what vaccines they accept. 

For passengers over 12 years old, some cruise lines sometimes allow some religious or medical exemptions, but these are rare. Others simply require every passenger boarding the ship to sail vaccinated.

In other words, if you are 12 years or older, then expect to be required to have the vaccine in order to take a cruise.

Do I have to have a booster to sail?

For many of us, we were vaccinated long ago. Since then there has been a push for the public to get a booster shot to enhance the protection offered. In fact, the CDC recommends cruise passengers sail with their vaccines “up to date,” meaning having a booster if eligible.

For most cruise lines, including the major players like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, booster shots are not required, but are encouraged at this time. Crew members are boosted as applicable.

Some boutique lines that cater to older passengers and with smaller ships like Azamara do require you to be boosted if applicable.

Our suggestion? Get your shot boosted if possible. If you have the booster, then you don’t have to worry if the rules change.

Do kids have to get the shot?

This depends on the age of the child. Children older than 12 usually need to be vaccinated in order to sail. There are sometimes exemptions for those with medical or religious issues that mean they can’t get the shot. However, in most cases being over 12 years old means needing a shot.

In fact, some ports currently don’t let passengers older than 12 even get off the ship if they are not vaccinated.

Children under 12 can often sail without the vaccine, although a handful of cruise lines do require vaccines of all passengers. You’ll want to check directly with your line for their specific policy at the time of sailing. Just keep in mind that unvaccinated kids will often have more restrictions placed upon them while on the ship.

In other words, yes, smaller kids can sail unvaccinated, but they will have a more “normal” time if they have the shot.

Can I sail unvaccinated?

That will depend on your cruise line’s specific policy. If you are over 12 years old and simply aren’t vaccinated — and it’s not due to a medical or religious issue — then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be allowed to sail.

If you do have a legit medical/religious reason for not having the vaccine, then you’ll want to call the cruise line to talk through your options.

Just keep in mind that if you do sail without the shot, the experience will be different than sailing vaccinated. This can mean being required to purchase trip insurance, undergoing more testing, and possibly not being allowed into certain parts of the ship or certain ports of call.

Bottom line: You’ll have a much easier and better time if you cruise with the vaccine.

Are masks required on the cruise ship?

Mask on a cruise ship door

For most cruises masks are no longer required around the ship. Masks rules were put in place during the Omicron spike, but have since eased. Should another wave occur, don’t be surprised if the requirements come back.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be some spots onboard or times that you will need to mask up, depending on the situation. For instance, federal requirements say that masks are required in cruise terminals, at least for right now. Places on the ship where there are people crowded close together might also require a mask.

Still, for the most part cruises have moved toward no longer requiring a mask as of the time of this writing.

Do I have to get a test before I sail?

Yes. Testing is a (nearly) universal requirement before taking a cruise. In general the cruise lines require you to get a test on your own a couple of days before your cruise. Your cruise line will lay out exactly what type of test you need and when it is required.

Typically any sort of professionally-administered test is accepted. It’s only those take-at-home tests that you do on your own that aren’t permitted. There are some cruise lines that allow you to take at-home tests, but they must be supervised virtually.

When you arrive at the pier, you’ll show your results to the staff to prove that you tested negative.

What happens if I test positive before the cruise?

Of course there is always the possibility that if you take a test it comes back positive. In that case, you’ll want to contact the cruise line as soon as possible. Don’t head to the port if you test positive.

In the case of a positive test, the cruise line will work with you to issue a credit for your trip. This credit will allow you to rebook at a future date, so you don’t have to worry about being out any money. It will obviously disrupt your scheduled cruise, however, and you won’t be able to sail.

Remember that the cruise lines don’t want you to sail if you are a positive case, so they are generally happy to give you a credit for a different sailing once you are feeling better.

Am I going to be tested on the cruise?

In most circumstances, if you are vaccinated then you won’t be tested on the cruise ship. So once you’ve got your pre-cruise test completed, you’re done. 

Now, if you start having symptoms on the ship, they may require you to test. As well, if you are a close contact of a positive case onboard, then you should expect to be tested. For the vast majority of passengers, this is never the case.

Sailing unvaccinated? Then you will see more testing. This includes a pre-cruise test and testing at the terminal. On cruises of five nights or longer, there will also be another test before disembarking.

If sailing a back-to-back cruise cruise — even if vaccinated — then expect to take a quick test at the end of the first cruise.

What happens if I get sick on the ship?

With testing beforehand and vaccines required, the number of cases on ships is relatively low among passengers. For instance, at one point Royal Caribbean Group said they had about 1.3 million passengers sail, with about 2,500 cases among them — or roughly 0.2%.

So what happens if you end up being sick on the ship? While it can vary (sometimes cruise lines have opted to remove passengers at the next port and fly them home), at the least you should expect to be quarantined in a cabin until the end of the trip or the proper amount of time has passed.

Contact tracing will also be performed to see if anyone you had close contact with is a positive test.

According to the CDC:

“All travelers onboard the cruise ship with signs and symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, must be isolated and tested for SARS-CoV-2 infection immediately upon notifying medical staff of symptom onset.”

What happens if someone else gets sick on the ship?

For many people, they don’t worry so much about themselves getting sick. Instead, they worry about what will happen if someone else gets sick. We all saw the images of passengers quarantined on ships at the start of the pandemic.

Those days are over. If someone else gets sick on your ship, expect them to be quarantined and then contact tracing performed to find anyone else that might be impacted.

Apart from that, you’re unlikely to see much disruption and the cruise will likely continue as planned unless a large number of people test positive. In that case, it could be that ports of call are skipped, masks are required, and other steps are taken to limit any spread.

Even then, you won’t be stuck on the ship once it returns to port. Cruise lines have plans in place for dealing with outbreaks on ships, including getting passengers off the ship to allow them to go home or into quarantine if needed.

Do I have to distance on the ship?

In general, no. If you’re expecting bars to have every other seat roped off or staff with whistles and measuring tapes keeping distance between people, that’s definitely not the case. Life onboard — especially in outdoor areas — is much like it was before.

That said, there might be some times where you see more space between tables to encourage distancing. Or if you are in an area that’s designated for seating both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests, then more space might be around each table or seat.

But in general, distancing is not required.

How do I know if there have been Covid cases on the ship?

Specific numbers regarding cases aren’t normally released to the public. But the CDC does require ships sailing under its voluntary program (of which nearly every ship has opted into) to report cases on a daily basis to the health agency.

From there, the CDC assigns a color status to each vessel. Green indicates no possible cases on the ship. Yellow means cases in fewer than 0.3% of passengers and crew onboard (3 cases per 1,000 people). Orange indicates more than 0.3%, while red means there is considerable spread.

These figures are updated each weekday on the CDC website. As well, Cruzely tracks the historic trends in color status to provide some context to the trend of possible cases.

Is everything open onboard the cruise ship?

Yes. When cruises first returned, there were some areas — such as the kid’s areas — that were still closed. These days everywhere on ships is now open again. So if you’re the fan of wide-open pool decks or cozy, tucked-away lounges on the ship, you can enjoy it again.

How much longer will protocols be in place?

The protocols for cruising again are numerous. In fact, there are dozens, if not hundreds of changes, most of which don’t directly impact passengers and you’ll likely never notice.

But it’s the rules around masking, testing, and vaccinations that are most noticeable to passengers. While masking is already being eased after the Omicron wave, expect things like testing and vaccines to stick around for longer.

In fact, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the FDA and head of a health panel for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, was asked when he sees vaccines no longer having to required to sail.

“The short answer to the question is, I think this is kind of a springtime (2023) thing from a CDC policy standpoint,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “They are going to want to make a decision around this after we get through another fall and winter with Covid and see if we are truly in an endemic phase with this.”

In other words, expect these rules to stick around for a bit longer at least.

Is it still fun to take a cruise?

If you haven’t sailed since cruising has returned, you might have an impression that sailing is now more rigid, with protocols keeping you from being able to relax and have a good time.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, once vaccinated and have your negative test, then the experience on the ship is largely identical to what it was before the health crisis. There might be more emphasis on washing hands and reminders to let the medical team know if you feel symptoms, but cruising is still cruising.

Want to have a drink and lounge by the pool? Hang out in the casino around a busy blackjack table? Take in a show in the theater? Have a romantic dinner in one of the ship’s restaurants? Everything that you know and love about sailing is still there, just in a safer environment thanks to testing and vaccines.

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