Wanted: Volunteers to take a cruise, eat, have a great time, enjoy the ship, and not pay a dime.
The catch? You have to be willing to test an entirely new cruise experience. Cruise lines will need to sail simulated “test” cruises for new protocols before they return, as part of the framework put in place by the CDC.
For many, the chance to sail aboard a ship before they return to sailing for the general public — and to enjoy taking a cruise for free — is too good to pass up. But not everyone will be eligible, and the experience will be different than you might be used to.
One thing to note: Since this article was first published in November 2020, the CDC has announced new rules that allow cruise lines to skip volunteer cruises if passengers/crew are fully vaccinated. In addition, they’ve shared exhaustive “technical instructions” that detail everything cruise lines must do for these sailings.
Given that it will be much simpler (and faster) for cruise lines to simply require vaccinations, some lines have said they won’t sail these test cruises. Others plan to go ahead with the trips.
Here’s a good idea of what to expect and what’s required.
Path to Return: Simulated Voyages
With the end of the CDC’s “No Sail Order,” the agency isn’t just giving cruises the green light to get back to sailing. Instead, the order has been replaced with a “Framework for Conditional Sailing.”
This framework lays out criteria that cruise lines must follow if they want to get back to sailing with paying passengers. While there are a number of steps, one of them is that cruise lines must take part in “simulated voyages.”
These trips are exactly what they sound like — test cruises. With the new way of cruising, dozens of changes are taking place to the cruise experience. Everything from check-in to hanging out by the pool to having dinner in the buffet is changing.
With so many changes — and the potential risks if someone does get sick — the CDC wants cruise lines to practice what life will be like on the ship and even in the terminal. This gives everyone, including the authorities, cruise lines, and crew, a chance to get things right instead of using the first paying passengers as guinea pigs.
According to the CDC instructions, “at least one simulation must be conducted for each ship” that a cruise line wants to sail. In other words, there is the potential for dozens of these cruises in the months ahead.
The rules surrounding the trips are complex. Technical instructions released by the CDC come in at more than 5,600 words, covering everything from which ships can sail one of these trips to who can sail on the cruise, and even genetic sequencing of positive cases.
There is an easier path for cruise lines, however. New rules allow cruise lines to skip the simulated voyages if 98% of crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.
Some lines — like Royal Caribbean — have mentioned two pathways to return. One group of ships that sails cruises with vaccinated passengers (and potentially returns faster) and another that sails with anyone and has to follow the simulated voyage path to return.
Who Is Eligible to Volunteer
Of course, many people want to know if they can take one of these cruises as a volunteer. After all, even with the risks, cruise lines are implementing new procedures to lessen the chances of getting sick. According to the industry, 400,000-plus passengers have sailed since cruising resumed in some parts of the world, with only about 50 cases found.
However, not everyone is eligible to be a volunteer. The CDC lays out their criteria within the framework:
Volunteers Must Be 18 Years Old or Older
If you want to be a volunteer cruise passenger, then you’ll need to be at least 18 years old, per CDC rules. So families with kids won’t be allowed to sail. There is no upper age limit set out, despite older people being more at risk of complications from the virus.
You Must Not Have Pre-Existing Conditions That Put You at Risk
As part of the criteria for being an eligible volunteer, you also must not have conditions that will put you at risk if you do get sick. The CDC asks for either proof of being fully vaccinated, or if not vaccinated, “written documentation from a healthcare provider or self-certified statement” that a volunteer has no pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk. So expect volunteers to be fit and healthy.
Employment or Compensation Isn’t Allowed
If you wanted to get paid for this sailing, don’t expect it. The government says that the volunteers must sail on a “consensual basis.” Volunteer passengers can’t be compensated (outside of the free cruise) or allowed to sail as a condition of employment. In other words, they are to be true volunteers, not people that are paid to be there.
In addition, all passengers must be willing to adhere to the CDC rules for the trip. This includes being checked for COVID before embarking and disembarking, notifying staff if symptoms develop, and being tested 3-5 days after the cruise.
What to Expect on These Volunteer Cruises
While the allure of getting to sail on a cruise as a volunteer is exciting, what are passengers actually getting into? Here are some ideas of what to expect based on the instructions and guidance from the CDC:
A Trip Lasting 2-7 Days
The new technical instructions released by the CDC call for simulated voyages that last between 2-7 days, with at least one overnight stay. But the CDC recommends a minimum voyage of at least three days and two nights. Given the cost and time it takes to sail one of these cruises, we’re seeing that shorter trips are more common.
Far Fewer People on the Ship
Of course, you’d expect that the first ships back sail with limited capacity. The cruise lines themselves have said as much. But the CDC requires only 10% of the maximum number of passengers permitted onboard per the agreements in place with ports.
So while a ship might hold 4,000 passengers, its port agreement might only allow it to sail at 60% capacity — 2,400 passengers. If that’s the case, then the simulated voyage needs a minimum of 240 passengers. If the agreement with the ports was for full capacity, it would need at least 400 passengers in this example.
A Stern Warning Before Sailing
Before you even board, expect to be reminded that there is a risk of cruising during this crisis. In fact, the CDC points to a study that the reproduction rate onboard Diamond Princess (the ship that was held in Japan and had more than 700 passengers and crew test positive) of 14.8 before quarantine was enacted. That means for each infected person, it was spread to almost 15 others. This figure is about four times higher than what was seen in Wuhan, China at the start of the outbreak.
For that reason, the CDC requires cruise lines to notify passengers in writing that they are taking part in a simulation of “unproven and untested” health and safety protocols in the United States and that sailing during a pandemic is an “inherently risky activity.”
The Cruise Should Feature Activities Seen on a Normal Trip (And Some Not-So-Normal)
The entire point of the simulated voyage is to test the new procedures in a real-world environment. For that reason, the trip is required to have many of the same components seen on a normal cruise.
On the simulated voyage, cruise lines must test embarkation and debarkation procedures, including checking-in at the terminal. On the ship they need to test dining policies and entertainment venue protocols. This includes how to serve food safely and ensuring social distancing in places like theaters and casinos. The trip will also feature modified private island excursions.
In addition, the CDC says cruise lines need to test some things you hope to not see on a normal cruise, including evacuation procedures, isolating of infected passengers, and quarantining of other passengers and crew.
Testing At Embarkation and Debarkation
As part of the new framework, the government is requiring cruise lines to make testing a major part of the return to sailing. On a normal cruise, tests are to be conducted on passengers on embarkation day before they board the ship and on debarkation day before returning home (if unvaccinated). This will also be required on the volunteer cruises.
Facemasks, Handwashing, and Social Distancing
Many of the same policies that are in place on land are set to be on the simulated voyage with volunteers. The rules laid out by the CDC call for meeting standards of “hand hygiene, use of face masks, and social distancing for passengers and crew.”
Many people have said they won’t cruise if facemasks are required as it lessens their enjoyment of a vacation. If you want to sail a volunteer cruise — or be a paying passenger when cruises do return — expect them to be a requirement around the ship.
When Will Simulated Voyages Start?
At this point, it’s still not clear when the simulated voyages will begin for all ships, but a number of volunteer cruises are now scheduled. The CDC has issued instructions that allow cruises to move forward, but the hurdles to complete the trip are still onerous.
Meanwhile, modifications of the rules allow lines to skip the test cruises altogether if 95% of passenger and 98% of crew are vaccinated. That would save cruise lines a considerable amount of time and some are opting for this path.
Royal Caribbean was the first to announce a test voyage, sailing June 20 aboard Freedom of the Seas. In addition, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, Disney, and other Royal Caribbean ships have all announced test cruises between late June and early August.
Here’s just a sample of what’s been announced:
- Freedom of the Seas: June 20
- Grand Classica: June 25
- Disney Dream: June 29
- Allure of the Seas: July 27
- Symphony of the Seas: August 1
In addition, more test cruises are reportedly approved, but dates haven’t been announced just yet. We expect more cruise lines to announce trips in the coming days and weeks.
One exception? Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. CEO Frank Del Rio said his company wasn’t looking at the new instructions because they plan to sail with everyone vaccinated.
How to Become a Volunteer Cruise Passenger
So how do you get to be a volunteer on one of these cruises? That’s a question that’s still being answered. Remember, this framework to return sailing is unprecedented. The details of how it will work are still being considered.
Royal Caribbean now has a form and Facebook page to submit your interest in being a volunteer cruise passenger. You can fill out the volunteer form here (just know that 250,000 people have already done so) and find the “Volunteer of the Seas” Facebook page here.
As mentioned, Norwegian Cruise Lines has said they don’t plan to sail test cruises since they will require the shot to board.
Carnival Cruise Line has not made mention that we’ve seen of when they will sail simulated voyages or how they will select passengers. However, we would expect more information in the coming days or weeks.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line has offered up the most details. The small line is “selecting a private, closed group of corporate employees along with a few other guests.”
At this point, so much is still up in the air. It’s not even clear if there will be an open call for volunteers like Royal Caribbean has done, if cruise lines will reach out to past guests, or some other method of deciding who will have the opportunity to sail.
However volunteers are chosen, expect the number of spots to be limited and in-demand. Multiple companies have cited strong demand for cruises whenever they do return, and the chance to be a volunteer on one of the first trips back will be historic.
It seems likely that being flexible and living within driving distance of a major port would be beneficial if there is a call for volunteers. They could sail on short notice.
We plan to continue updating as we hear more from lines about how volunteers will be chosen.