How Cruising Without the Shot Will Be Completely Different (At Least Right Now)

If you want to sail, then your experience on the ship could be much different than you might realize, depending on whether or not you’ve been vaccinated.

Like it or not — and whether it is even fair — cruising has been tied in many people’s minds with the pandemic. Those early days, when ships were quarantined and passengers and crew onboard came down with cases, ingrained a lasting image for many.

It also led to cruise ships being one of the last things to return as vaccines rolled out and cases plummeted. Specifically, the CDC put “No Sail Orders” in place, along with a tough framework to return.

Known as the Conditional Sail Order, this framework provides the rules and regulations that cruise lines must follow in order to sail again. And while it was first published in October 2020 — before the shot was widely available — the rules put in place have evolved greatly with the distribution of vaccines.

Two Options to Sail Again

At this point, cruise lines have two options to return. They can either sail fully-vaccinated cruises where 95% of passengers are inoculated (along with fewer onboard restrictions) or they can sail with a mix of passengers and sail volunteer test cruises first.

Both paths are in play, but many lines are opting to sail fully-vaccinated trips at first or from some ports — including Carnival. That’s because in addition to a faster return, the vaccinated experience is much more “normal” compared to sailing before the pandemic.

“We appreciate the progress and support for our U.S. restart from the CDC and other key federal agencies; however, the current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very difficult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.” 

Having looked at the rules, the simple truth is that the restrictions put in place by the CDC and cruise lines make sailing unvaccinated sound like a much worse experience than if you have the shot.

Not everyone is eligible for the vaccine, but if you are, then it’s a good idea to take it before you cruise. Here’s what you can expect on the ship…

Facemasks Required


Want to ditch the facemask while you cruise? Then get vaccinated. The CDC’s framework lays out rules for mask usage on the ship, and they are more lenient for those with the shot.

For cruises with 95%+ vaccination rates, cruise lines are allowed to let passengers not wear masks around the ship. So whether you are in the casino, the theater, or hanging out by the pool, you don’t have to mask up.

If sailing on a cruise with a mix of passengers, but you are vaccinated, then masks aren’t required for extended meals or hanging out at the bar. Cruise lines can also designate areas of the ship for only vaccinated passengers where masks aren’t required.

If you don’t have the shot, it’s different. You don’t have to wear one outdoors, but inside the ship anywhere other than your cabin, then it’s mask on. Eating or drinking? You can’t remove the mask for “extended meal service or beverage consumption,” according to the CDC.

Social Distancing

Similar to the mask requirements, the CDC orders for distancing are much better if you are sailing after being vaccinated.

If the entire ship has the shot, then current rules say that distancing isn’t required but only recommended. With no masks and no distancing, it’s similar to sailing before the health crisis. That’s certainly not the case for unvaccinated passengers.

In that case, distancing rules are in place around the ship. Restaurants, casinos, gyms, pools and more must have plenty of space for all passengers to be able to spread out. Conga lines? That’s a no-go.

If you are inoculated on a mixed cruise, then the ship can designate areas where vaccinated passengers can visit where distancing isn’t required.

Testing (With Possible Fees)

One of bedrocks of the plan to return to sailing before vaccines were introduced was universal testing of all passengers. The CDC required testing before embarkation and before leaving the ship at the end of the cruise. With no vaccines, this was the most important way of keeping the virus off the ship. However, testing isn’t fun for anyone and can be unpleasant depending on the method.

With vaccines now widely available, the health agency has changed rules. Now if you are vaccinated, testing isn’t required before boarding or at the end of the cruise unless the cruise line decides to keep the rule in place.

Don’t have the shot? Then the CDC require tests before boarding, at the end of cruises that are more than four nights, and between back-to-back sailings.

CDC cruise testing requirements

Some cruise lines are warning that people eligible for the vaccine who don’t get it (or refuse to show proof) will have to pay for these tests. In other words, you’ll get hit in the wallet in addition to multiple tests.

Shore Excursions

One of the big changes announced to help keep passengers healthy was the introduction of so-called “bubbles” for shore excursions. Under this guidance, cruise passengers could only leave the ship on certain excursions that would adhere to health protocols.

Those suggestions have eased somewhat. Now the CDC requires passengers that don’t have the shot to only be allowed on excursions where distancing is in place and masks are worn. It is not required that ships keep unvaccinated passengers from heading off into port on their own, but it is recommended.

Vaccinated passengers don’t have either of these things to worry about. According to the CDC, “Cruise ship operators, at their discretion, may advise passengers and crew that—if they are fully vaccinated—they may engage in self-guided or independent exploration during port stops.”

Contact Tracing/Isolation

If masks, distancing, and testing aren’t enough to show how much different life on a cruise ship will be for unvaccinated passengers, consider what happens if someone comes down with a case of COVID.

Say you are sailing on a cruise and someone returns a positive test. In that case, the cruise line will start looking into close contacts of that person (those within six feet of a person for 15 minutes).

Vaccinated? The CDC says you only have to take a test if you are symptomatic (the cruise line may ask you to test anyway). However, you don’t have to quarantine if you aren’t feeling symptoms.

If you are unvaccinated, then it’s a completely different situation. In that case, the CDC says that you need to be tested if you are a close contact whether you show symptoms or not (unless you have documentation that you’ve gotten over the virus in the past 90 days). In addition, the CDC says a passenger needs to quarantine for 14 days.

Take a look:

CDC rules for testing close contacts on a cruise

Rules Will Likely Change As Time Goes On

If there is one thing that’s sure, it’s that as time goes on these rules will change and evolve. We’ve already seen this happen considerably since the first rules were announced by the CDC months ago compared to today.

It could be that as time goes on, assuming virus cases fall and cruise lines can sail safely, the sea of difference between rules for unvaccinated and vaccinated passengers narrows.

For now at least, there is a world of difference between sailing with the shot and sailing without.

In fact, the cruise lines even admit it. As mentioned earlier, when Carnival decided to start back with vaccinated sailings, they sent a letter to passengers saying that “the current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very difficult to deliver the experience our guests expect.”

In other words, sailing unvaccinated right now meant a vacation that just wasn’t the same.

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