(Since first publishing this article, the CDC “No Sail Order” has expired and been replaced with a pathway to resume sailing. As well, virus cases have fallen and vaccines have rolled out. We’ve updated the information below to reflect the new information.)
On March 13, 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 May 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, even with the new CDC framework. As of now, major cruise lines don’t plan to return to sailing until at least June 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, it’s now our belief that cruises won’t sail from the United States again until a vaccine is widely available to everyone that wants one.
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.
New 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. The only issue is that there is no definitive date of when they will return.
While the framework lays out a path, there are no actual dates specified within the process. There are, however, lead times for certain steps that the CDC says cruise lines must follow. That gives us an idea of approximately when cruises could return.
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 then 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.
Long Lead Times Likely Mean Months Before Cruises Return
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 CDC to be satisfied. What may happen quickly for one line could take longer for another.
That said, there are built-in lead times for many steps. We believe this points to cruises not returning until summer 2021 at the earliest.
Here are the steps, along with any definitive lead times that the CDC calls for:
Protection of Crew on Ships
For the first step, the CDC requires that cruise lines enact policies to protect crew members. Among other things, cruise lines must have a “No Sail Order” response plan on file, submit health documents regularly, and have weekly testing of the crew.
The major cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian now have the response plan on file, and most ships are listed as “Green” status on the CDC website. This means the ships haven’t had any COVID illnesses in the past 28 days onboard, along with other requirements.
Cruise lines must conduct simulated voyages to test new protocols before they can apply for a certification to sail. Before they can have the simulated cruise, however, they must meet the conditions outlined above for protection of the crew.
In addition, the CDC requires that operators request approval before they take part in the simulated cruise. This must be submitted at least 30 calendar days before the cruise is set to take place.
Certification to Return to Sailing
After taking the necessary steps for crew protection and having a successful simulated cruise, then a cruise line can apply for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” that allows it to once again sail with paying passengers.
The certification process consists of meeting all the CDC requirements, submitting an application, and then having the agency review the application.
Here, the CDC says that the application should be submitted 60 calendar days before the planned date of return.
Our Estimate of a Return Date
The process to returning to cruises 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.
What we do know, however, is that the CDC has built-in lead times. With at least 30 days notice required before sailing a simulated voyage, and 60 days between applying for a certification and the anticipated sail date with paying passengers, it looks like you can expect at least 90 days before cruises return at a bare minimum.
As we update this article in mid-March, no major cruise lines that we know of have scheduled — much less sailed — simulated voyages. It’s not yet known when they might sail.
Combine that with the rollout of a vaccine, which is gathering steam. Given that the rollout is ramping up, and cruises are also paused for months, we envision cruise lines gettign the “green light” to sail again only once the vaccine is widely available. That would help ensure cruises are as safe as they can be given the circumstances.
Given all this, at this time we believe that cruises could return sometime in the summer. 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 June 1
Carnival — arguably the world’s most famous cruise line — won’t return to sailing from the United States until June 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 cruises are now tentatively scheduled for June 1, based on a check of the Carnival website.
Cruises for June listed on Carnival’s website cover a number of ports and ships. Given past comments from the company, we think it’s possible the cruise line will return with trips on only a handful of ships departing from only select ports in the beginning.
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 June 2
Royal Caribbean made its original 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 June 2, 2021.
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 the first “fully vaccinated” cruise from a major line, which will sail from Israel.
The first cruise we found from the United States departs from Galveston on June 2, aboard the Explorer of the Seas. It’s a five-night cruise headed to Costa Maya and Cozumel.
Celebrity Cruises: Resume Sailing June 6
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 2021. It is slated to return to sailing from the United States on June 6, with a 7-night sailing aboard the Celebrity Equinox from Fort Lauderdale. Earlier cruises from European ports are available starting June 1 on its website.
Norwegian Cruise Line: Resume Sailing June 2
As of March 13, 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 May 2021, with cruises returning in June.
Its first cruise scheduled from the United States, according to the website, is a trip from Hawaii aboard Pride of America that begins on June 2. There is also a 7-day cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem from Boston and a 3-day cruise aboard Norwegian Sky from Miami, both slated to depart on June 4.
Norwegian has also announced it plans to return in a gradual phase-in approach, similar to Carnival.
Disney Cruise Line: Resume Sailing June 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 May 2021, with Disney Magic sailings through August 10.
The first Disney cruise ship scheduled to return is the Fantasy on June 2, 2021 from Port Canaveral. Disney Dream is scheduled for June 4.
MSC Cruises: Resume Sailing June 4
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 begin again June 4, 2021. At that time MSC Armonia is set to depart Miami on a three-night cruise. MSC Meraviglia is set to begin sailing from Miami the next day.
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 1
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.
That’s now been extended multiple times. Princess has paused operations through at least June — a month later than most lines. The first cruise shown available from Princess on their website is a trip from Los Angeles on July 1, 2021, headed to Mexico.
Holland America: Resume Sailing October 23
Holland America has suspended departures around the world through June 2021, after pausing back in March 2020.
The cruise line aims to get back to sailing globally starting in July, 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.
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 requirement 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.
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).
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. Another test is required by the CDC for passengers at debarkation.
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. You’re more likely to see options for shorter sailings that stop in a single country or the cruise line’s private island. 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.
Shorter trips will also be in order as the CDC’s framework says cruises longer than 7 days from the United States are not allowed at this time.
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.