In March 2020, the entire cruise industry made history when it announced it would voluntarily suspend sailing in the United States for 30 days. To further ensure cruises were halted, there was also a “No Sail Order” put in place by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Of course, the original suspensions of only a month proved to be far too optimistic. Multiple extensions were announced, with most cruise lines now saying they will pause U.S. sailings through June or July 2021.
Recently, however, there has been some good news for the return of cruising. The CDC, which had extended a “No Sail Order” multiple times, allowed that order to expire at the end of October 2020. Now, it has given cruise lines a “Framework for Conditional Sailing.” This order lays out a pathway for cruises to get back to sailing, but not without meeting stringent requirements.
There is still no set date of return for most lines, even with the new CDC framework. As of now, most major cruise lines don’t plan to return to sailing until at least July 2021, and perhaps later.
We’ve laid out all the dates that major cruise lines have cruises tentatively scheduled to return to sailing from the United States. As you’ll see below, this summer looks promising for a return to cruising, although it’s not set in stone just yet.
Note: Dates mentioned are scheduled return dates for cruises from the U.S. In some cases cruise lines might start sailing in other regions earlier than the dates listed below.
CDC Framework and Its Impact on a Return Date
With the new "Framework for Conditional Sailing," cruise lines now have a much clearer path to getting back to sailing, though certainly not easy.
While the framework lays out a path, there are no actual dates specified within the process. There are, however, certain steps that the CDC says cruise lines must follow.
The framework itself is a series of measures that cruise lines must take, falling into four categories:
- Testing and protection of crew onboard cruise ships in U.S. waters
- Simulated voyages with volunteer passengers to test new policies
- Certification process through the CDC to be fit for sailing
- Return of paid-passenger cruises in line with CDC protocols
Within each of these categories are multiple measures cruise lines must take in order to complete the framework. Once completed, then the cruise lines can apply for a "Conditional Sailing Certificate" to return to sailing.
For a full explanation of all the steps and their requirements, see our article here.
Recently, the CDC eased some rules for cruise lines if they sail vaccinated trips where 98% of crew and 95% of passengers have the shot. For instance, if a cruise ship sails a fully vaccinated trip, they can skip the simulated voyages, drastically cutting down the time needed to meet the CDC requirements. That's promising for a return of sailing this summer.
In fact, Celebrity Cruises has the first cruise given the go-ahead by the CDC, setting sail on June 26. We expect more announcements from other lines soon.
Sooner Return for Vaccinated Sailings?
As mentioned, there is no set schedule for meeting any of the CDC requirements. Instead, it takes as long as the cruise line needs and for the agency to be satisfied. What may happen quickly for one line could take longer for another.
That said, the CDC has recently said that cruises could possibly return by mid-July, a date that some lines have said is realistic. However, it appears to meet that date ships will need to sail trips with only passengers that have received the vaccine.
For unvaccinated passengers the CDC requires each ship sail a simulated voyage to work out protocols and test everyone for the virus before boarding. In addition, mask and excursion rules during the cruise are stricter.
The process is simpler if sailing trips where everyone has the shot. Not only are masks not required, passengers can go ashore on their own, distancing isn't required, passengers don't have to be tested before boarding, and most importantly for a quick return, no test cruise is needed.
Cruise lines have mentioned the possibility of two pathways to return, where vaccinated cruises comes back sooner and regular voyages return later.
Our Estimate of a Return Date
The process of cruises returning is like nothing the industry has seen before. There is no precedent. We also don't know how long each step will take to complete.
The process has been slow so far with the CDC. But, cruise lines have sounded encouraged more recently, and we've now seen the first ship given the go-ahead by the CDC to return (Celebrity Edge on June 26), along with the first test cruise approved (June 20 aboard Freedom of the Seas).
Given all this, following comments from industry leaders and more relaxed rules from the CDC, our opinion is most major U.S. cruises return sometime in mid/late July with a handful of sailings and then ramp up as the year goes on. This assumes cases remain low and the vaccine continues to work against the virus.
Keep in mind that this situation is truly unprecedented. There is simply no way to know exactly when cruises return until the ship leaves the dock with passengers.
Below are the latest return dates for U.S. sailings, based on currently scheduled cruises.
Carnival Cruise Lines: Resume Sailing July 3
Carnival -- arguably the world's most famous cruise line -- won't return to sailing from the United States until July at the earliest. Carnival has also said they plan a phased-in approach to return to sailing.
Like others, the cruise line has extended is suspension multiple times. Its first cruise from the U.S. is now tentatively scheduled for July 3, 2021. The cruise line has said it will sail just a handful of ships from Miami and Galveston at first, adding on more ships later on. It recently cancelled all other cruises through July.
Previously, passengers who had cruises cancelled during the suspension received their money back in the form of either cruise credit for a future trip or a full refund. Those selecting a cruise credit also got either $600 or $300 per cabin in onboard credit for their re-booked cruise, depending on the length of the original sailing.
Royal Caribbean: Resume Sailing July 2
Royal Caribbean made its original pause announcements in two different segments. First, the company announced it suspended U.S. sailings starting March 14. Then, starting on March 15, Royal Caribbean suspended its cruises around the world.
Originally the company planned to return to operations in mid-April 2020. After multiple extensions, the first U.S. sailing shown is now July 2, 2021.
The first cruises we found from the United States depart from Miami, Port Canaveral, and Cape Liberty on July 2, giving multiple options if you want to be among the first to sail from the United States.
That said, Royal Caribbean will be a line with some practice in this new way of sailing as they are returning to other parts of the world before the United States. This includes "fully vaccinated" cruises from Nassau and Bermuda starting in June.
Celebrity Cruises: Resume Sailing June 26
Royal Caribbean Group is the parent company of Celebrity. It shouldn't be surprising that the cruise line is following a similar path to its sister line.
As of now the cruise line has suspended cruises around the world through May and most of June 2021, but it the first cruise line approved to sail by the CDC.
It is slated to return to sailing from the United States on June 26, with a 7-night sailing aboard the Celebrity Edge from Fort Lauderdale.
Earlier cruises from European and Caribbean ports are available starting in June.
Norwegian Cruise Line: Resume Sailing August 7
As of March 2020, Norwegian made the call to suspend voyages across their fleet worldwide. The plan was for the ships to resume sailing in April 2020, but the suspension was lengthened multiple times. It's now been extended through July 2021 for the U.S., with cruises returning in August. The cruise line will first sail from Greece starting in late July.
According to the NCL website, the first cruise scheduled from the United States is a trip from Seattle aboard Norwegian Bliss that begins on August 7. This cruise comes on the heels of recently passed legislation that temporarily opens up Alaskan cruises from the United States, without a stop in Canada.
Norwegian has also announced it plans to return in a gradual phase-in approach, similar to Carnival.
Disney Cruise Line: Resume Sailing August 2
Disney suspended sailing along with the other major cruise lines. Originally it said that the suspension would last through the end of March 2020. Then it extended that date for all four of its ships to April 12, with trips resuming on April 13, 2020.
Now, according to a notice on its website Disney has extended the cancellation for all departures through at least July 2021, with the exception of some U.K. cruises for Disney Magic.
The first Disney cruise ship scheduled to return from the U.S. is the Dream on August 2, 2021, from Port Canaveral. Disney Fantasy is scheduled for August 7.
MSC Cruises: Resume Sailing July 2
MSC is a global cruise line and has ships sailing worldwide, but it is making inroads into the United States with some of its newest and largest vessels.
In the United States, trips are scheduled to begin again July 2, 2021 according to website listings. At that time MSC Armonia is set to depart Miami on a seven-night cruise to the Bahamas. MSC Meraviglia is set to begin sailing from Miami the next day, with MSC Divina sailing from Port Canaveral on July 4.
Notably, MSC has some practice in sailing in the new environment. They've had a number of sailings in Europe under new regulations and seem to be successful in keeping passengers healthy.
Princess Cruises: Resume Sailing July 25
Princess has been the cruise line perhaps most impacted by the crisis. At least two of its ships had virus outbreaks in the early days of the crisis, leading to headlines around the world.
It also made the news by being the first major cruise line to announce a voluntary suspension of cruising, which was quickly followed by other lines. Princess originally announced it would stop all cruises from March 12 through May 10, 2020. Of course, that's now been extended multiple times.
Princess has paused operations through most of July, with Regal Princess starting sailing in the U.K. at the end of that month.
The first cruise from the United States shown available on Princess' website is a trip from Los Angeles on August 28, 2021, headed to Mexico.
Update: Princess now plans to sail from Alaska, departing Seattle starting July 25. The cruise line will sail 7-day cruises aboard Majestic Princess.
Holland America: Resume Sailing July 24
Holland America has suspended departures around the world through July 2021, after pausing back in March 2020.
The cruise line aims to get back to sailing globally starting in August, starting with a number of European cruises.
Trips from the United States are currently slated to return much later. The first cruise from a U.S. port is shown as October 23, 2021 on the company's website, leaving from Fort Lauderdale.
Update: Holland America has changed plans and now will sail from Seattle to Alaska beginning on July 24 aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam.
What Will Cruising Look Like When It Does Resume?
It's clear that when cruises do come back, it's going to look very different than it did going into the crisis. While a number of requirements have been announced, it's unclear how long they will be in place. Like everything else during the crisis, expect the situation to be fluid as the world re-opens. It's also clear that sailings with fully vaccinated passengers will look different than non-vaccinated sailings, at least at first.
Of course, just like venues on land, there will be new procedures in place on the ship. This will run the gamut from more frequent sanitation to reducing touch points on ships.
Don't be surprised when are fewer deck chairs by the pool and they are spaced farther apart. Expect that food on buffets will no longer be self-serve. And crew members will wear masks while on duty. Also expect cruise lines to ask passengers to wear masks when distancing isn't an option (such as elevators).
Note that these rules are relaxed if 95% of passengers on the ship are vaccinated. In that case, masks and distancing are optional for the cruise lines.
At check-in, it's likely that the procedures put in place during the outbreak will stick around for months or years to come.
That means you can expect things like temperature checks before boarding. As well, there will be health questionnaires with a heavy emphasis on symptoms of COVID-19.
Check-in is going to move more online to reduce the interaction and crowds in the terminal. Also, expect staggered boarding to spread out the number of passengers entering the terminal at any one time.
One other item that's going to be in place according to the CDC framework is mandatory COVID tests for all passengers and crew before they board if unvaccinated (this doesn't apply to vaccinated cruise passengers). Another test is required by the CDC for passengers at debarkation on some cruises.
Will a shot be required to sail from the United States? That will be up to the specific cruise line. It does appear to be faster for cruising's return if everyone sails with the vaccine, but that could exclude a number of people -- especially children.
Some lines like Norwegian Cruise Line have already said they will require all passengers have the shot. Others are still ironing out the details. At this time it seems the best idea is to go ahead and get vaccinated so that if it is required, you'll be ready to sail. You can see each cruise line's current vaccine policy here.
When cruises do resume, it's unlikely that one day there will be no cruises and the next day you'll see a full schedule of sailings.
“I think initially we will come out operating smaller than we did than before we went into this," said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald. "That’s because there won’t be some light switch. Every destination won’t open simultaneously."
What will happen is that as cruises resume, they do so slowly. Only some ships will resume service while others are prepared for ready as cruise lines show that they can handle sailing in the new COVID-19 world.
No matter when the cruise lines resume sailing, or the changes made, it's clear that getting back to normal is going to take some time unless everyone has the shot.