Return of Cruises: 9 BIG Things to Know

After months of uncertainty, the cruise industry looks to be returning to the United States (it’s still not definite until the first ship actually leaves the port).

Since March 2020 the cruise industry has been dead in the water. Originally stopped with a voluntary pause scheduled for a month — and then backed up with a CDC “No Sail Order” — that proved far too optimistic. The CDC order alone was extended three separate times, while cruise lines have also pushed their dates of return.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the public still has a strong appetite to cruise and cruise lines have pulled out all the stops to return to sailing safely. The industry as a whole is instituting plans that will transform cruising — and cruise ships — to be potentially safer and healthier than ever before.

In effect, while the danger of illness is still there, cruising could come out of the crisis better prepared for a return than any other form of travel.

With that said, there’s no doubt things will be very different whenever you do get on your next cruise. Here’s what you should know and expect about the return of cruising.

When Will Cruises Sail Again?

View from ship at sea

The big question for everyone is when will cruises start sailing from the United States again? They’ve already begun back in Europe in limited capacity, starting in August. Even there, trips are not completely back to normal levels.

In the United States, there’s no definitive date set just yet. That said, it looks like the return could be in December.

In it’s latest extension at the end of September, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) pushed their “No Sail Order” out just a month until October 31. Previous extensions had been much longer. At the same time, the cruise industry as a whole suspended cruises through October 31.

With European cruises beginning back safely, and both suspensions set to end in a few weeks, it looks promising that cruises will return in some capacity, likely starting in December. In fact, when recently asked, Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald said “Yes, we will be sailing sometime this year.”

Even so, there is no guarantee when that will happen until ships actually leave the dock with passengers onboard.

At this point, all the major cruise lines, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian are scheduled to return to sailing in December 2020.

What Are Cruise Lines Doing to Keep Passengers Healthy?

Passengers in Port of Miami

Outside of medical-related fields, we can’t think of any other industry that’s taking the steps that cruise lines have taken to keep their passengers healthy. That’s especially the case when compared to the rest of the travel industry.

First, the biggest step that the industry took was to stop sailing when the pandemic took hold and very little was known about it. In total, about 3,000 total cases are tied cruising compared to more than 36 million worldwide. There’s little doubt that if you’re not careful, cases can spread on a ship. That’s why while stopping cruises was a dramatic move, it was the right one.

Since then, cruise lines have researched best practices to come up with plans for returning to sailing. The most notable was the “Healthy Sail Panel” that was formed by Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean.

This panel of health experts — headed by Dr. Scott Gottlieb — the former head of the FDA and Mike Leavitt, a former governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services — came up with 74 individual recommendations for cruises to return safely.

While cruises have yet to sail, this study — and what has already been announced by many lines — will be a guiding force in changes made to keep passengers healthy.

Among the recommendations that you’ll see on your next cruise:

COVID Testing Before Boarding
If you want to take a cruise, you’ll need to be tested beforehand. The industry has announced 100% testing for passengers and crew before they are allowed on the ship. What’s not clear just yet is what kind of test and how close to the sail date you’ll need to have a result before your cruise. This could cause some issues as there have been delays in test results in the past. Obviously guests or crew with positive tests won’t be allowed to board.

Temperature Checks
Passengers and crew should also be ready for regular temperature checks. Of course this will happen when boarding, but the recommendations go further than that. Temperature checks of everyone on board at least once a day — and sometimes more — is possible, if not likely.

Limited Capacity on the Ship
With a fully loaded cruise ship, there is plenty of room for everyone. That said, there’s no arguing that many places can get busy. The pool deck on a sunny afternoon comes to mind, as well as crowded casinos and theaters in the evening.

To give everyone more space, expect limited capacity for the time-being until COVID is brought under control on land. There’s no definitive percentage capacity, but cruise lines seem to be focused on 50-60% of normal passenger capacity to start back sailing.

Social Distancing
Social distancing is now the standard at many spots that have re-opened. Bars, casinos, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and more have opened back up, but not without plans in place to keep people more spaced apart.

Cruise ships will be the same. Expect six-feet apart to be the rule in casinos, theaters, and restaurants. On the pool deck, expect fewer loungers. And even the muster drill is being redone so that dozens of passengers don’t have to cram together at once.

Of course, you can expect more sanitation processes on board. Some lines, like Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines said they will disinfect high-touch areas like handrails every two hours. Expect public areas to be disinfected multiple times throughout the day no matter which line you sail, and rooms to be sanitized between cruises.

As well, you will see more hand sanitizer stations and hand-washing stations around the entire ship, as well as reminders to clean your hands regularly.

One thing passengers might not notice is the improvement to the air filtration on the ship. Several cruise lines have announced an upgrade to the ventilation for the air you breathe indoors. For some, this means taking in only fresh outside air instead of recirculating. For others, they may recirculate air, but all lines are likely to upgrade to high-grade filters that will help to remove possible virus particles before they can spread throughout the ship.

Medical/Treatment Plans
Cruise CEOs have flatly said that given how widespread COVID has become, someone will eventually have a case on a cruise ship. That’s why the recommendations to be put in place include upgraded medical facilities and plans for containing any outbreak — including quarantining infected passengers.

There will be onboard tests available if needed, and even designated cabins for isolating passengers. As well, the cruise lines will have plans for disembarking when cases are found onboard so that the quarantining of entire ships seen early in the pandemic hopefully don’t happen again.

What Will the Onboard Experience Be Like?

Cruise ship deck during summer cruise

Expect some noticeable differences compared to cruises before the pandemic.

For one, the atmosphere may be more subdued compared to the energy seen on normal cruises, simply because there are fewer people. A “sailaway” party on the top deck may not feel quite the same with half as many people on the ship.

Other spots are likely to feel different as well. For example, casinos will have distancing measures in place, similar to Las Vegas. That means smaller crowds and less of a buzzing energy that’s common when gambling.

Pool decks are set to have fewer loungers. Expect crowds to be spread more around the entire lido deck instead of just clumped together near the pool. That’s actually a good thing for those that enjoy smaller crowds.

Restaurants should have more limited capacity and expect tables to be spread out around the room. Buffets will go from self-serve to having food brought to your table or served by the staff.

In short, just like we’ve seen on land, things are going to be a bit different.

That said, it’s still a cruise. Expect the energy to be upbeat with both crew and passengers happy to get back to some semblance of normal. Folks should generally be in a good mood. After all, it beats being isolated back at home. Furthermore, many things that endear us all to cruises — good food, sunshine, and drinks — aren’t going anywhere.

What About Wearing Masks?


Yes, you should expect masks on the cruise when they return. While no one wants to take a vacation with a mask on, they are likely to be required. Among the recommendations of the Healthy Sail Panel was that masks be a part of cruising, at least for the time being.

Crew members that have contact with passengers on a regular basis will be wearing masks. Passengers will also surely be asked to wear masks indoors when they aren’t able to distance themselves from others.

So for example, if you are sunbathing by the pool, then you probably won’t be expected to wear a facemask (the tan lines would look pretty silly, anyway). But if you are in the ship’s theater or casino or an elevator, then masks should be the order of the day. It’s not yet clear how masks will work in restaurants and bar areas, but expect the rules to be similar to what you see on land.

Of course in your cabin or your balcony, you won’t be expected to wear a mask.

What Will it Be Like in Port?

Two ships docked in Cozumel

It’s not just things on the ship that will change. After all, it makes little sense for cruise lines to be as careful as possible on board if it means that a passenger can simply go ashore and flaunt all the safety measures put in place.

For that reason, expect ports to change as well.

First and foremost, the free movement that passengers enjoyed in ports of call is likely gone until the virus is more under control. Instead, in places like Europe, cruises are offering excursions that have been approved and practice health and safety protocols. At least when cruises first start back, it’s being suggested that passengers not be allowed to simply head into port on their own.

What’s also likely is that ports of call have their own screening procedures in place to put passengers at ease, but also protect their own population. While each port will have their own rules and procedures in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see temperature checks when debarking or requirements that all people in a port area where a facemask.

What Happens to Passengers If Someone Gets Sick on the Cruise?

View of ships departing Nassau

We all saw the pictures of cruise ships quarantined at the start of the pandemic. Frankly, so early in the pandemic no one — cruise lines or local health authorities — seemed quite sure what to do. In the case of some ships, passengers were kept on board and the cases grew.

So what will happen now if someone comes down with a case of COVID on the ship?

In this case, the CDC has asked the cruise lines to come up with plans to deal with outbreaks. The recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel call for plans in place for small, moderate, and large-scale “debarkation scenarios.”

The panel says cruise lines need to contract with third-parties — and not the government — to address any outbreak on the ship that overwhelms onboard facilities. It calls for advance arrangements to be made for sick passengers or crew to get them home or to medical treatment onshore. Commercial transportation shouldn’t be used and healthy and sick passengers should be kept separate.

If there is a small number of cases, it seems those passengers or crew are going to be isolated, and contact tracing performed. Larger outbreaks are likely to mean the remainder of the cruise cancelled and plans enacted to get everyone home outside of the normal channels.

How this actually all works out in practice is something that’s not concrete just yet. Even so, it’s likely the cruise lines will want to do anything they can to avoid having a situation where passengers are stuck in limbo waiting to get off the ship like we saw at the start of the pandemic.

How Long Are These Rules Going to Be Around?

No one knows for certain how long the new way of cruising will be in place. Just like on land, it depends entirely on the virus.

It seems clear that at this point COVID isn’t going anywhere on its own. There are still tens of thousands of daily new cases and nearly a thousand deaths, and that’s only in the United States. It speaks nothing of the ports of call that cruise lines visit.

Perhaps a vaccine will come quickly and knock down cases, in which case life — and cruising — can largely go back to normal.

Even so, some of the less intrusive changes will likely be around permanently. Things like better air filtration, increased sanitation, and available cabins to isolate passengers in case of any illness don’t have an impact on the enjoyability of the cruise and are good steps to keep people more healthy no matter the situation with the virus.

Are There Cheap Cruises Now?

Port view on cruise ships

The common thought would be that since cruises have had such a difficult 2020, there must be plenty of empty rooms available and lots of cheap trips to get people to sail again.

Truth is, at least at this point cruise prices haven’t been lower. Prices are holding strong according to the major cruise companies, with the potential to be even higher in the future.

How can that be? First, cruise lines say they are seeing lots of pent-up demand. This includes bookings being historically strong in the future when passengers believe the pandemic will have passed.

Cruise passengers are a loyal bunch. And while the headlines have been poor for cruises, truth is that their share of cases has been relatively small compared to the amount of negative press (about 3,000 cases compared to 36 million+ worldwide). Many people trust the cruise lines to do everything they can to keep passengers healthy.

As well, cruise lines are taking a staggered approach to returning. That means limited ships at first. For example, Carnival — one of the largest cruise lines in the world — is starting back with only a handful of ships.

Even then, cruise lines are also returning with limited capacity on the sailings they do start with. Carnival has mentioned roughly 50% capacity.

So large pent-up demand combined with drastically fewer cruises available mean cheap cruises just aren’t likely.

Is it Safe to Sail?

Wake from a cruise ship

The biggest question on everyone’s mind is “Is it safe to take a cruise?

If there’s one thing that’s become clear during this entire crisis, it’s that everyone’s perception of what’s safe is different. Some people only feel safe in isolation. Others have no problems carrying on with life like there is no virus.

No matter which side of the fence you fall, a couple of things are clear:

  • Cruise lines will have the most stringent safety protocols in the travel industry
  • Cruise ships are places where viruses can spread

Regarding the safety protocols, cruise ships have lots of control over the onboard environment. They can test, enforce distancing, sanitize, and more. As long as there are people, there’s always the chance for illness, but it’s hard to match the steps that cruises will use to sail.

Even so, there’s no doubt that ships put people in proximity to each other. And there’s no arguing that illness can spread on a ship given that proximity.

What we’ve seen, however, is that European cruises have started back successfully (so far), so it seems that the cruise line policies can work to limit cases. That said, cruise line executives have freely admitted that there will eventually be a case on a ship, given how widespread the virus is around the world.

So is it safe to sail? We aren’t doctors, but for people who are young and healthy — and can take basic steps to isolate even if they get sick upon returning home — the risks seem moderate. Cruise lines will do their best to keep passengers healthy, but if something does happen, younger and healthy people tend to have better outcomes.

If you or someone you associate with (like a family member) are more at risk, then it seems smarter to hold off on cruising until a vaccine is available to reduce the chances even more.

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