Is It Safe to Book and Take a Cruise?

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.

Bridge of a cruise ship

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. The number of cases tied to cruise lines is low compared to the headlines received, but 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 safety on 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

Cruise ship deck during summer cruise

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 (Before New Protocols)
First, while cruise ships received more than their share of headlines regarding cases, the number of cases linked to ships was surprisingly low given the coverage.

According to the Miami Herald, there were about 3,900 cases tied to cruise ships around the world

Now, that’s not to say that COVID-19 wasn’t an issue. It certainly was. About 34% of cruise ships had at least some cases linked to them according to the Herald. The suspension of cruising no doubt helped to stem the tide of cases on ships.

But if you got the impression that every cruise ship was completely filled with the virus, that simply wasn’t the case.

And as you’ll see below, the number of cases on cruises that have returned seems to be astonishingly low, helped by new safety protocols put in place for sailings.

Travel Advisories/No Sail Order
In response to the outbreak, the U.S. Department of State issued a global Level 4 advisory for Americans. That advisory said that citizens should avoid all international travel.

While that order has since been eased, the State Department still advises against travel on 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

That order has since been lifted, replaced instead with a framework of steps to return to sailing, as of October 2020. That said, the CDC has been slow to provide further guidance on a return to sailing, effectively creating a second “No Sail Order” as cruises still aren’t allowed to depart from the United States. 

New Procedures from Cruise Lines (Before Vaccines)
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 the responsibility of the cruise lines to do their best to keep passengers healthy.

For that, there will be new procedures put in place. 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:

  • Testing before boarding the ship
  • 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 where distancing isn’t possible
  • Increased hand sanitation stations
  • Fewer staterooms available for booking to decrease crowd sizes

In places like Europe and Asia where cruises have resumed, these new protocols seem to be doing well. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says that about 400,000 passengers have sailed since some cruises returned in limited capacity and there have only been about 50 reported cases. That comes out to an infection rate of about 0.01%.

Of course, these rules speak nothing of what cruise executives have called a game-changer: vaccines. 

Vaccines and Their Impact on Healthy Sailing
Since vaccines have rolled out to large portions of the U.S. population, there have been calls from the cruise industry for the CDC to allow them to return to sailing starting in July due to the effectiveness of these doses.

In fact, some cruise lines have announced that all cruises or certain itineraries will require all adults to be vaccinated before they can sail — including both passengers and crew.

So far, a vaccination requirement is not in place for all cruises. 

It has yet to be seen exactly how cruises might look with these new protocols in place. Will some of the rules on the ship still be in place even if everyone is vaccinated? 

What should be sure is that vaccinated cruises will theoretically be among the safest to sail. While the shots don’t give 100% protection from the virus, they do greatly diminish the risk and reduce severity. Combined with new health protocols, cases should be few.

As well, places like sports stadiums, casinos, hotels and more don’t require vaccination to visit, making cruising look more safe in comparison.

Final Thoughts on Keeping Healthy on a Cruise
It will be a powerful signal when the CDC allows cruises to sail again, 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 well as being vaccinated, even if it’s not required. 

So far cruises that have returned have had limited cases with the new protocols in place. Hopefully by the time that cruises resume in the United States, vaccines will be widely and easily available. Being vaccinated combined with the new procedures such as testing should make cruising as safe — if not safer — than being in a crowd at a sporting event or concert.

As well, we think those who are cautious should be comforted when ships sail with the CDC’s ok. The agency has been particularly tough on the industry and won’t take it lightly to allow them to return to sailing.

Financial Risk to Booking and Taking a Cruise

Deck chairs sitting empty on a cruise ship

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.

Cruise Cancellations
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 your money back, or 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, 2020. The taxes and port fees were supposed to take 30 days to be refunded, but ended up not being returned until May 20, 2020.

In other words, you should get your money back if the cruise line cancels, but it might take some time. (Note: Our experience was at the beginning of the crisis. It may be different now.)

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 over a year without significant 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 seem to be on stable footing. 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

Cruise ship off the coast

Before cruise lines suspended sailings back in March 2020, 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 February 2022. Even if cruises sail in the United States before then, they won’t be able to make stops in Canada unless something changes.

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. 

At this point, many foreign ports in the Caribbean and elsewhere do seem ok with cruises returning. For instance, Royal Caribbean is sailing trips that are homeported in Bermuda and Nassau. Trips from Nassau also include stops in Mexico. Norwegian Cruise Line plans to sail from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Also, cruise line private islands could play a big role in many itineraries as cruises return. This was 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.”

-Travel Weekly

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. In fact, the trip will most likely end and return home, according to the CDC framework.

It’s our thought that passengers should be ready for any potential changes to the itinerary, and take it in stride.

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 the cruise suspension in March 2020, there were several cases of ships being held in port and passengers quarantined.

Will healthy passengers have to stay on board the ship?

One part of the CDC framework to return is that agreements with cruise lines, ports, and health authorities must be in place. As well, there must be housing agreements in place should people need to be debarked.

The cruise lines say that these rules in the framework are burdensome. They point to the fact that they have sailed with hundreds of thousand of passengers under new protocols, seen a small number of cases, and had limited interruption. 

According to Norwegian Cruise Line’s Sail Safe plan, they explain what should happen under the heading of “Debarkation Scenarios”:

We have developed a thorough mobilization and response plan focused on providing medical treatment, collaborating with local authorities and coordinating safe passage home for all guests and crew should the need arise. We have also established relationships with onshore medical institutions and enhanced our telemedicine consultation capabilities.

  • NCL.com/sail-safe

One major feature designed to limit the number of people impacted by any outbreak is contact tracing. Cruise lines are looking at new technologies (including contact tracing bracelets) and taking advantage of the video surveillance on the ship to identify people that are in contact with any positive cases.

As well, vaccines and testing before boarding should help to limit any initial cases.

In other words, large mass quarantines of healthy passengers like we saw at the start of the health crisis seem unlikely to us.

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, new protocols in place, and vaccines, it will hopefully be mitigated. Cruise lines have had promising results so far on limited cruises that have returned, and that was before vaccines were in wide use. Still, there’s always a chance of illness unless the virus is eradicated. 

Financial risk among the public cruise lines — regarding your ticket paid or 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 seems possible as the world has yet to see what cruises will be like when they return full scale. Ports could deny cruise ships from stopping at all (like Canada), or if there are suspected cases on board. Even so, large quarantines of healthy passengers when the ship returns home looks much less likely than at the start of the crisis.

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