Before the crisis, cruising was in a boom. The number of passengers and ships grew steadily as passengers were drawn in by the appeal of a great value on a vacation, combined with exotic locales and ships that are more and more like theme parks.
For all the appeal of cruising, however, there have always been concerns among some surrounding health and wellness. With thousands of passengers in a relatively small area — similar to a densely packed city or an airplane — there is the chance for illness to spread.
While the number of passengers falling ill is small relative to the number of passengers who have no problem, it does happen.
Of course with the health crisis that’s rocked the world, cruising has also been hard hit. While the number of cases tied to cruise lines is low compared to the headlines received, there were cases on ships, just as there were cases around the entire world.
As cruises look to return to sailing, many wonder if it is safe to book… and to actually sail on a ship. While health is rightly on many people’s minds, there are actually several different aspects of your cruise that you should consider when booking.
Below we cover the safety of cruising in three important areas: health risks, financial risks, and interruption risks. This should give you a better idea about if booking and sailing is right for you right now.
Health Risks of Sailing
First things first, you should know there is no set answer regarding your health when it comes to cruising. As we’ve seen with this crisis, what feels safe to one person is not the same for another. Some feel secure only with strict social distancing and mask wearing. Other people believe that the pandemic is overblown.
That makes it difficult to say with certainty what is “safe.” After all, what one person might consider safe isn’t the same for everyone.
Instead, we think that is appropriate to provide some context regarding cases, along with some insight from professionals.
Virus Cases on Cruise Ships
First, while cruise ships received more than their share of headlines regarding cases, the number of cases linked to ships was surprisingly low.
According to our analysis, as of a few weeks ago cruises were linked to only about 2,800 cases worldwide, compared to nearly 4 million cases elsewhere around the globe. About half of those cases on ships came from just two vessels.
Now, that’s not to say that COVID-19 wasn’t an issue. It certainly was. About 22% of cruise ships had cases linked to them. The suspension of cruising no doubt helped to stem the tide of cases on ships.
Instead, if you got the impression that cruise ships were all completely filled with the virus, that simply wasn’t the case.
Travel Advisories/No Sail Order
In response to the outbreak, the U.S. Department of State issued a global Level 4 advisory for Americans. This says that citizens should avoid all international travel. That includes cruise ships.
In fact, the State Department issued a specific warning for cruises that is still in place as of the date of this article:
“U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship. CDC notes increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment.”
- U.S. Department of State
Along with this, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a “No Sail Order” for cruise ships.
“Because of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the high risk of COVID-19 spread on cruise ships, the US government issued a No Sail Order for cruise ships in waters subject to US jurisdiction and has advised US travelers to defer all cruise travel.”
- Centers for Disease Control
Currently that order will be lifted when one of the following happens:
- The Secretary of Health and Human Services declares that COVID-19 no longer constitutes a public health emergency
- The CDC Director rescinds or modifies the order based on specific public health or other considerations
- 100 days have passed from April 15, the date the extended order was published in the Federal Register went into effect. 100 days from April 15 is July 24.
Note: The “No Sail Order” can be extended if the government feels it is needed.
Bottom line: The current statements from government officials are that people should not travel by cruise at this time.
New Procedures from Cruise Lines
The United States government has put a hold on cruises returning until it feels that it is safe for passengers to sail again. Once cruises do return, it will be on the cruise lines to do their best to keep passengers healthy.
For that, there will be new procedures put in place by the cruise lines. While these haven’t been defined by all lines, there have been some policies announced. Not every cruise line will have the same procedures. But combined with what has been announced by lines and what’s been implemented by other leisure companies like Las Vegas casinos, you can get a good idea of what to expect:
- Medical grade air filtration on the ship
- Temperature screenings for all passengers and crew
- Ending self-service food stations (buffets)
- Increased sanitation of all areas of the ship
- Social distancing on the ship, including in places like the pool and casino
- Masks required of the crew while interacting with passengers
- Increased hand sanitation stations
- Fewer staterooms available for booking to decrease crowd sizes
Of course, it has yet to be seen exactly how these new protocols will be in practice. While the cruise line can do lots to improve the health of its passengers, it is still up to individuals to adhere to rules regarding social distancing and hand washing.
Final Thoughts on Keeping Healthy on a Cruise
It will be a powerful signal when the CDC lifts its “No Sail Order,” but to us, that’s no reason to simply go right back to normal.
For instance, wearing a mask while in crowds such as when boarding and debarking would be a smart idea, as would having your own bottle of hand sanitizer. If you have underlying health conditions, then it wouldn’t hurt to wait to sail.
Hopefully by the time that cruises resume the number of cases of COVID-19 will be dramatically lower. That, combined, with new screening and procedures could help keep cases to a minimum.
If you are conservative when it comes to staying safe, then you might want to wait until a few months after cruises return to see if the policies mean few or no cases. We think those who feel they are healthy should be comforted by the cruise line procedures and that ships will only sail with the CDC’s ok.
Financial Risk to Booking and Taking a Cruise
When we talk about the financial risk of booking a cruise, we’re not talking about accidentally spending too much on your vacation.
Instead, we are talking about the possibility that your trip could be cancelled and you could be out what you paid in cruise fare. Or even worse, what about the financial well-being of the cruise line. Will cruise lines go out of business?
The good news is that these risks seem relatively low right now.
No one wants to book a cruise, only to have it cancelled. But in the case of this crisis, many people are actually coming out ahead. That’s because many cruise lines have been generous with their compensation as they have had to cancel more trips.
Not every line is the same, but many have offered back either a 100% refund of what you paid, or the option of a 125% cruise credit. So if you paid $2,000 for your cruise, you can receive a $2,500 credit for a future trip. Carnival has offered a 100% refund or a 100% credit for a future cruise, plus hundreds in onboard credit for that trip.
Either way, you should be compensated accordingly.
There have been some complaints on social media about these refunds taking some time. We actually have firsthand experience with a booked cruise that was cancelled on March 24. The taxes and port fees were supposed to take 30 days to be refunded, but ended up not being returned until May 20.
In other words, you should get your money back if the cruise line cancels, but in this environment you can expect it to take some time. With smaller cruise lines there could be more risk as they are less likely to be as well-capitalized as publicly traded cruise companies.
Cruise Line Bankruptcy
Is there a risk that you will book a cruise and the cruise line will go bankrupt? After all, the pandemic has hit the cruise companies extremely hard, and they’ve gone months without revenue.
For smaller, private cruise lines, there is no real way to know if this might happen. Since they are not public companies, there isn’t a way to get a look at how their business is holding up or what their balance sheets look like. We aren’t saying bankruptcy could or could not happen. We simply don’t know.
However, most of the largest cruise lines you sail are part of the three publicly traded companies: Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.
Under these companies are not only the namesake cruise lines, but also larger lines like Princess and Celebrity. (You can see a list of which cruise lines are owned by which company here.)
These public companies have had a rough go of it during this crisis, but now seem to be on stable footing for the time being. They have all raised billions of capital to see them through the foreseeable future. In fact, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. recently said they have enough capital to get through the next 18 months.
In other words, we see the risk of bankruptcy for the public cruise companies as low at this point, even if more cruises have to be cancelled.
Interruption Risk for Booking and Sailing on a Cruise
Before cruise lines suspended sailings back in March, there were a number of instances where cruise ships were denied entry at a port due to fear of COVID-19 symptoms from passengers or crew on the ship.
When cruise lines get back to sailing, could that happen again? Could you book a cruise to one destination and end up going to completely different ports?
Being Denied Ports of Call
Already, there are some ports that are closed to visitors and plan to be for an extended period. Canada has announced it is closed to cruise ships until at least October 31. Even if cruises sail in the United States before then, they won’t be able to make stops in Canada.
As you can imagine, it’s a complex situation to ensure that health protocols on a cruise ship are in line with several different countries that a ship might visit. As well, those ports of call must have protocols in place that the cruise lines are comfortable with for the safety of their passengers.
For example, Mexico — home to popular ports like Cozumel and Costa Maya — has seen cases surge in recent weeks.
That’s why cruise line private islands could play a big role in many itineraries as cruises return. This was recently mentioned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. CEO Richard Fain:
“In the U.S. market, Fain said the first cruises are likely to be shorter sailings from drive markets. For RCCL, its private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay, will be a prominent destination, given the company’s ability to “control everything” there.
“Everybody that works on that island works for us,” Fain said. “We can establish screening protocols, we can establish hygiene protocols. We can set standards that you can’t necessarily set in other destinations. From a starting point of view, it is nirvana.”
Even so, we don’t know for sure exactly how the situation will play out if there is a suspected case of the virus on the ship. It seems logical that if a ship does in fact have suspected cases on board, there is a chance it will be denied entry into a port of call.
It’s our thought that passengers should be ready for any potential changes to the itinerary, as it seems possible.
Being Denied Port at Home
For some people, the risk they worry about may not be getting sick, but being stranded on the ship because there is a case on board. During the run-up to when cruises were suspended, there were several cases of ships being held up in port and/or all passengers were held in quarantine.
This still seems to be a concern and an ongoing question about what exactly will happen should a case be found or suspected on a cruise. Will healthy passengers have to stay on board the ship?
The latest information from the CDC was published in February — well before cruises were suspended and before the virus made the impact it has today:
Managing passengers or crew upon disembarkation
Before arriving at a US port, vessel medical staff and telemedicine providers or a cruise line representative must discuss the disembarkation of patients suspected of having COVID-19 with the CDC Quarantine Station having jurisdiction for the port and with the state and local health departments. CDC quarantine officials can help communicate with state and local health departments and will work with the ship’s company, port partners, and health departments to ensure safe disembarkation and medical transportation of the patient upon arrival.
As you can see, there was no specific mention of healthy passengers. We reached out to the CDC asking what would happen to healthy passengers if there were cases on a ship and will update when we hear back.
Cruzely also contacted Norwegian Cruise Line, which recently announced a full range of protocols they have put in place for when they begin cruising again. We asked specifically what would happen to healthy passengers if someone fell ill.
“The safety and security of our guests and crew are at all times our first priority. The latest information regarding our enhanced health and safety measures can be found at www.ncl.com/PeaceOfMind. Additional details will be made available, as we finalize our plans and resume operations. We look forward to returning to service and welcoming our guests aboard in the near future.”
At this time, it’s simply unclear what will happen in this situation. However, it’s something we expect some more clarification on closer to when cruises start sailing again.
So Is It Safe to Cruise?
Is it safe to cruise? We see it as impacting three big areas: health risk, financial risk, and interruption risk.
Health risk will continue to be an issue as long as the pandemic is ongoing. With the CDC’s guidance and new protocols in place, it will hopefully be mitigated. Still, there’s always a chance of illness unless the virus is eradicated.
Financial risk among the public cruise lines — regarding your ticket paid and the cruise lines going bankrupt — seems minimal at this point. For smaller, independent lines, it’s difficult to know as their financials aren’t public.
Interruption risk is possible as the world has yet to see what cruises will be like when they return. It seems possible that ports could deny cruise ships from stopping at all (like Canada), or if there are suspected cases on board.