Why You Likely Won’t Get to Sail on a Volunteer Test Cruise

Since simulated voyages — also known as test cruises — were first laid out by the CDC as a condition for cruising to return, there has been big interest in these trips.

Pool deck on MSC Divina

How will they work? When will they sail? And most importantly: How do I get a spot on one of the volunteer trips?

After all, after more than a year of being stuck at home, people are ready to get back to normal. And what better way than to get back to cruising than taking a trip and not having to pay a dime?

At Cruzely, we’ve laid out everything you need to know about these volunteer cruises here (including how to sign up for one). But before you get too excited, you should know that it appears your chances of actually getting one of these coveted volunteer spots appears slim. Here’s why…

Explained: What Is a Volunteer Test Cruise

Volunteer test cruises are exactly what the name implies. As part of the return process, the CDC is making cruise lines conduct what’s officially called a “simulated voyage.” These trips give the cruise lines and the CDC a chance to implement new procedures designed to keep passengers healthy during the sailing.

Instead of trying out these new protocols on a real cruise with paying passengers, the CDC requires cruise lines to do the sailings with volunteer passengers first.

In other words, these volunteers act as the first “testers” of how cruise lines will operate once they return. Volunteers get a free cruise while cruise lines and health officials can work out any kinks in their plan to sail.

One thing to keep in mind is that many cruise lines — such as Royal Caribbean — have already returned to sailing in other parts of the world to seemingly great success. For instance, at last count Royal Caribbean had sailed with roughly 100,000 passengers and had only about 10 cases reported.

Even so, the CDC requires (most) lines to operate these trips, along with strict rules about what cruise lines are required to do on the test cruises, as well as who is eligible to be a volunteer passenger. You can read about eligibility here.

Just know that it appears your likelihood of being selected is relatively small.

Why a Volunteer Test Spot Will Be Tough to Get

At this point, it’s not entirely clear how cruise passengers will be selected for the volunteer role. One thing we do know is that demand looks very high for the coveted spots and supply looks low.

Not All Lines Have to Sail Test Cruises
First, some cruise ships simply don’t have to sail the simulated voyages. As part of its adjusted rules, the CDC says that if a ship plans to sail with 95% of passengers vaccinated, then it can skip the test cruises altogether. In fact, Norwegian Cruise Line has said that it plans to sail only vaccinated trips and isn’t even looking at test cruises.

Some lines are exploring a potential hybrid approach whereby some ships sail with both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, thereby requiring a test cruise. Other ships may sail fully vaccinated and can skip the tests.

Without every ship having to sail a simulated voyage, the number of spots will be smaller than if everyone had to sail a test.

Only a Single Cruise in Some Cases?
Second, it could be that despite all the talk of test cruises, ships may only have to sail a single simulated voyage. The CDC simply says that “at least one simulation must be conducted” for each ship that plans to sail. It could be that a cruise ship sails the trip, does everything it needs to satisfy health officials, and is then given the green light to get back to sailing normally. Or it could be that multiple test cruises are required.

Given the cost of sailing without paying passengers and the desire to get back to cruising, however, we’d expect cruise lines to do everything in their power to keep the number of test attempts low. They will want to get it right the first time, reducing the number of potential opportunities for passengers to sail.

Significantly Lower Capacity on Test Cruises
As well, the capacity on these trips is likely to be very low. According to the CDC, the number of passengers on a test cruise only has to be 10% of the planned capacity of the first two cruises when the ship returns. If that doesn’t sound like many people, it’s because it is not.

Say a ship normally sails with 4,000 passengers. That means only 400 passengers are required. If the cruise line plans to offer limited capacity at first, then the first cruises could sail, say, 60% full or about 2,400 people. In that case, the CDC would require the test cruise to have only 240 passengers.

Ships can sail with more, but it seems that would make little sense. After all, more people would mean more logistical issues during the cruise, not to mention the costs associated with giving a free sailing to more people than necessary. 

Enormous Demand to Volunteer
Finally, while we’ve discussed a lot about the limited supply, don’t forget about the demand side of the equation.

Royal Caribbean has said that over 250,000 people — enough to fill about 40 of the cruise line’s Oasis-class ships — have volunteered for its trips:

RCL Volunteer count
Royal Caribbean says more than a quarter-million people have expressed interest in volunteering.

There’s no word just yet how the cruise line plans to select passengers, but with that many people vying for spots, they should have no problems finding willing participants.

More Updates to Come

Between limited capacity for spots, combined with enormous interest from potential volunteers, it’s a safe bet that getting on one of the upcoming test cruises is going to be a challenge for most people.

So if you’re wanting to get back on the water soon, then the safer bet is to simply buy a ticket on one of the first cruises back.

As we hear more about the selection process and future test sailings, we’ll continue to share the latest updates with readers. In the meantime, interested passengers can read our complete guide on volunteer cruises here to learn more about who is eligible, what to expect, and how to sign up.

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