Explained: 10 New Health Protocols on Royal Caribbean Ships as Cruises Sail Again

With the health crisis ongoing and the recent pause in sailing, every cruise line has had to make big changes in how they operate in order to return safely.

That said, each line is seemingly doing things a little different. Some (such as Norwegian Cruise Line) are requiring everyone on the ship to be vaccinated. As a result, life on the ship can be very similar to before the pause.

Others, like Royal Caribbean, are taking a different approach. As a family-oriented cruise line, Royal Caribbean wants to let children not yet eligible for the vaccine sail. As a result, the cruise line has to do things differently. This includes performing test cruises to return and implementing a number of new protocols to keep passengers healthy.

We recently sailed one of these simulated test cruises, getting a first-hand look at the new changes that passengers can expect.

The good news is that many of the changes take only a little time to get accustomed to on the ship. The bad news is that your first couple of days of cruising can feel like the first day of school as you figure out the new procedures.

That why to help you acclimate more quickly and know exactly what to expect, we cover the new protocols Royal Caribbean cruises below. One thing to keep in mind is that as the health situation changes, so too will the health rules. For now, at least, here is what you can expect.

Vaccine Requirement

Of course, the biggest new rule in place surrounds vaccines. As of now, Royal Caribbean requires passengers 12 years and older to have the shot when sailing from the United States. Kids are still allowed to sail, however, if they are too young to be eligible for the vaccine. (They will have to go through testing before being allowed to board.)

You will also have to show proof of your vaccine to board. During our check-in for the simulated voyage, we had to show the card multiple times, including just to enter the terminal. So when you arrive at the port, be sure to have that card handy and don’t put it away until you are on your way to boarding the ship.

Negative Tests Before Cruising

Along with the vaccine requirement, Royal Caribbean is also requiring passengers aged two or older to have a negative COVID test within 72 hours of boarding. This applies to even those passengers that have the shot.

You are responsible for arranging this test and ensuring you have the result with you on boarding day. If you are traveling with a kid that is ineligible for the vaccine, they will also be required to have another test done at the terminal, at no charge.

Mask Wearing

Royal Caribbean facemask

Yes, at this time mask-wearing is required in many places around the ship, no matter your vaccination status. If you’re indoors, then the mask goes on. There are some exceptions, however.

First, if you are in your cabin, then no mask is required. If you are in a restaurant and eating or drinking, then no mask is needed either. As well, Royal Caribbean has designated certain areas for vaccinated passengers only (more on this in a moment). If you are in one of these spots, then you can go maskless.

As well, outdoor areas are mask-free. Hanging out by the pool? You don’t have to worry about getting funny looking tan lines.

Onboard Purchases (No More Handing Over a Card)

It used to be that your room keycard was used as a credit card. If you wanted to buy a drink, you’d hand your card to the bartender, who would then swipe it at the register and hand it back. Now, Royal Caribbean has eliminated this touchpoint.

If you want to buy a drink or check out a towel by the pool, then you simply tap your card on a card reader instead of passing it back and forth. For places without the card reader, such as restaurants, you give your room number and your name. The staff then looks your account up on the computer, confirms that the picture on your account matches the person making the charge, and then approves the transaction.

It’s a small change, but it does reduce the number of touchpoints between people on the ship.

Hand Washing & Sanitization

Handwashing sinks on a cruise ship

If you’re sailing on Royal Caribbean, then get ready to clean your hands. Throughout the ship are dozens — if not hundreds — of hand sanitizer dispensers. There are also hand washing stations in many spots.

Anyone who has cruised is familiar with being asked to clean your hands before eating, but it’s all been stepped up a notch. Now, any time you enter a new “area” within the ship, there is a crew member asking you to clean your hands.

Let’s say you are shopping around the ship and go in a store. You’ll be asked to use the hand sanitizer. Leave and go to another store right next door? You’ll again be asked to clean your hands.

Head to the casino? Clean your hands. Solarium? Clean your hands. Get used to it.

New Muster Drill

The muster drill used to be a headache for cruise passengers. First, everything on the ship would shut down as the drill started, interrupting the excitement of the first day of the cruise. Then, passengers would all congregate side-by-side at the muster station to watch the safety briefing. Obviously that’s not a great idea during these times.

Royal Caribbean has now adjusted the drill, and it’s much more convenient. You watch a couple of instructional videos on either your phone (via the Royal Caribbean app) or your stateroom TV. Then you head down to your assigned muster station before the ship leaves. Nothing shuts down around the ship, and the entire process is much quicker as you’re not waiting idly on everyone to make their way to the muster station like before the pandemic.

Distancing Around the Ship (Especially Dining Venues)

Unavailable table due to social distancing

Given that not everyone on the ship will be vaccinated, Royal Caribbean is instituting distancing guidelines.

Where you’ll see this most visible is in restaurants that are open to everyone on the ship. In places like the Windjammer buffet, you’ll see that a number of tables have signs on them to show they are unavailable due to social distancing. So if you have a table you want over by the window, it may not be available, even if there is no one else around.

You’ll also see lots of floor mats for lines around the ship to ensure that people are standing the proper distance apart. Even standing in line for the Flowrider, we saw passengers being asked to space farther apart.

Now, this isn’t the case in the “vaccinated-only” venues around the ship. So if you are in the casino, for example, spacing isn’t required between players at a blackjack table.

Vaccinated Bracelets and Vaccinated-Only Areas

Sign for vaccinated guests on a cruise

Whenever you arrive at the terminal, as mentioned you will show your vaccine card. Then, you are given a rubber wristband that shows your status. On the ship, vaccinated passengers have access to all areas of the ship. Those without the shot, however, do not.

Some areas like the casino, spa, some bars, and some restaurants are off limits. Given that the cruise line currently requires all passengers 12 and older on most cruises to be vaccinated, this isn’t a huge deal in reality. After all, 12-year-olds aren’t going to be playing in the casino or hanging out in the bar. For those visiting the vaccinated-only spots, the rules surrounding distancing and masking are relaxed.

Still, you’ll need to wear the wristband the entire cruise as crew is posted outside the vaccinated-only areas. Most times you won’t notice they are checking for the band, but if you have it covered up, you may be asked to show the bracelet before entering.

Maximum Capacity Limits on Elevators

Anyone who has been on a cruise knows that the elevators can get busy. With so many decks and so many people, the wait for a ride can be long, and the elevators can be packed with people.

Now the cruise line is asking that the number of people in each car be six or fewer, unless everyone is in the same group. There is no enforcement in place, so it’s not as if a staff member is going to deny you getting on an elevator. Still, the cruise line is encouraging fewer people to take the ride and use stairs instead to keep everyone from being in such close proximity in an enclosed area.

New Debarkation Procedures

Before the pause in sailing, getting off the ship meant being out of your cabin early and waiting in a public area until your turn to get off the ship. Of course, with the pandemic, having large groups of people congregating together isn’t ideal.

The new protocols turn the situation around. Now you are asked to go get breakfast if you want, but then return to your cabin to wait. There, the TV will show who is currently eligible to debark. When your group is called, you then head to the ship’s exit. Frankly, it’s a more comfortable way to wait to get off the ship versus having to find a spot to hang out with all your luggage.

Final Thoughts on the New Royal Caribbean Protocols

One thing to keep in mind is that as we’ve seen during this entire ordeal, things can change quickly. While we expect many of these changes to stay around for good (e.g. the redesigned muster drill), others are likely to be eased if there is an improvement in conditions. For now at least, there are a number of new protocols that Royal Caribbean passengers are going to see.

The good news? In our experience, the new policies can take some getting used to at first, but within a day or two on the ship you quickly get the hang of it and don’t even really notice.

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