After the last year, who isn’t thinking about a vacation? And while cruises were certainly one of the hardest-hit areas in all of the travel industry, there are hints of optimism as the world looks to combat the health crisis and get back to sailing.
In fact, cruise lines have repeatedly mentioned a promising level of demand for sailing, especially given that there is no exact timeline to returning. There is no doubt that after roughly a year of without sailing, millions of passengers are looking at cruising again and thinking about booking that next trip.
If you’re in this group, you are definitely not alone. But before you book that cruise — or even re-book a cancelled trip — there are a number of important things you should know before you do.
No One Is Sure Yet When Cruises Will Return
Perhaps the most important thing to know is that at this point no one knows for certain when cruises will return. When cruises were originally suspended back in March 2020, the initial pause was for just 30 days. It’s now been close to a year.
The CDC has lifted the “No Sail Order” that was in place for months, replacing it with a framework to return to sailing. The framework lays out what cruise lines need to do to sail again, but offers no deadlines. Instead, cruises can return when they meet the steps laid out by the CDC and the agency is comfortable in allowing them to sail again.
With cases still at peaks, cruise lines have continued to push their return dates back. Now many lines have suspended through February, with some pushing the return date even later.
In other words, if you’re wanting to book one of the first cruises back, no one knows when that will actually be. It seems safe to assume cruises will return sometime in 2021, but it could be later than originally thought.
If Your Cruise Is Cancelled, Expect to Be Reimbursed
While the bad news is that more cruise cancellations are possible, the good news is that if you book a trip and it is later cancelled, there isn’t much risk of losing your money. Throughout this entire ordeal, cruise lines have made passengers whole when they’ve had to cancel trips.
While there have been some stories here and there about lengthy refund times, most people are refunded relatively painlessly. We’ve personally had several cruises cancelled and have had no issues receiving credit and our money back.
There is no reason to think that anything will be different in the months ahead if more cruises have to be cancelled. That means you can book without much worry that you’ll lose your money.
In fact, if you choose to get a refund in the form of cruise credit, you could actually end up ahead of what you originally paid.
Expect the Cruise Experience to Be Very Different
Of course, everyone knows that COVID has turned the world upside down. Things as simple as going to the grocery store or going out to eat are now very different than they used to be. Taking a cruise? It’s going to be vastly different until the pandemic is wiped out.
In fact, it’s hard to think of any aspect of sailing that won’t be changed based on the new guidelines.
To start, cruise lines have said there will be fewer passengers, at least when starting out. Social distancing measures will be in place. Restaurants on the ship will have to be reconfigured. Anything that puts passengers in close proximity to others will have to be reconsidered. As you can imagine, that’s going to drastically change the feel and atmosphere of the cruise.
Those late-night dance parties, the buzzing casino, busy restaurants, and packed poolsides — and lots of other things that we’ve all come to expect — are going to be changed for the time-being.
It’s a Good Idea to Wait to Book Other Arrangements
While booking your cruise is no doubt the biggest part of your vacation, there are also plenty of other arrangements to make before you sail. This includes things like flights to the port, or parking, shuttles, and hotel rooms for the night before.
If you book a cruise for the spring or summer, when things are still in limbo, it’s a smart idea to hold off on other arrangements.
Until cruises actually leave port with passengers again, there’s no telling exactly when they will return. And even if one ship or cruise line returns to sailing doesn’t mean that your specific ship will be back sailing just yet.
For that reason, instead of making all your arrangements, you can wait until closer to the sail date for more clarity. That way if the cruise is cancelled, you don’t have to worry about cancelling the other arrangements too.
Your Cruise Could End If COVID Is Found Onboard
Cruise lines are going to pull out all the stops to ensure that there are no virus cases among passengers on the ship. This includes universal testing of passengers and crew. But as we’ve already seen, with so many cases on land, there is a high likelihood that cases will find their way on the ship. That’s already been seen in Europe and elsewhere.
In the United States, the CDC has laid out that if there is a “threshold of cases” on the ship, then the remaining trip will be cancelled and return to port.
In other words, just because your cruise sets sail doesn’t mean this virus can’t still cause headaches or shorten your trip.
Vaccines Are Being Rumored, But Nothing Is Definite
Will you have to take a vaccine before you are allowed to sail? At this time there is no answer, but it has certainly been mentioned, as it has with all different types travel.
Requiring a vaccine would be the best way to ensure that cruises sail smoothly and safely whenever they do return. But there are also logistic and ethical questions to requiring it. For instance, what if a cruise sails before the vaccine is widely available? Or what if someone has a medical reason for not taking it? And what about kids who aren’t eligible for the shot?
Bottom line: If you are someone who for sure won’t get the shot, then it would be a smart idea to wait until there is more clarity before booking your cruise.
There Are New Rules About What Cruises Can Do
In addition to the framework that’s required to be met before a ship can return to sailing, there are also some other rules required by the CDC.
First, you’ll start to notice when booking that there are new disclosures. The CDC is requiring cruise lines to disclose the current travel advisory concerning cruise travel. Right now that advisory says the CDC recommends avoiding travel on cruise ships.
As well, the CDC has put in rules about what sort of cruises are available. Trips of more than seven days from U.S. ports are not allowed at this time. While most cruises were already under this threshold, it does have an impact on those who like to spend longer times at sea.
If You Want a More “Normal” Experience, Then Book as Far Out as Possible
With the hopeful return of sailing, there’s no doubt that many of us are eager to back to sea. But as mentioned repeatedly, cruising still has plenty of hurdles to overcome. It’s not just the experience on the ship, but the return schedule, and the new CDC rules surrounding sailing.
Unless vaccinations come quickly and completely wipe out the virus, it stands to reason that for the foreseeable future things are changing with cruising. But there is also hope that as time goes on, many things — including sailing — will start to look more normal.
That’s why if you’re craving the sort of cruising that we all know and love, it’s a good idea to look at booking farther out in the future. Trips this year will be different. It could be that into 2022, however, this entire crisis will largely be behind us and we can get back to the sort of vacation we all love. The later out you book, the more likelihood we’ll be in a better position around the world and in cruising.
Expect Limited Sailing Options at First
Cruise lines have made it clear they plan a staggered approach to return. Instead of sailing all their ships at once, a few will come back at a time, sailing a limited number of itineraries. What that means for those booking trips is that your options for 2021 are going to be fewer than you might be used to — especially if looking at trips in the spring and summer.
Looking into 2022 should give you more options from more ports and on more ships. But if you plan to sail on one of the first cruises back, then don’t be surprised that the trips you can pick from are relatively short and on only a few vessels.
It will take some time for the CDC and cruise lines to be comfortable in a return to sailing and being able to keep passengers healthy in the face of the pandemic.