Cruises could start sailing from U.S. ports this summer, according to a letter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the cruise industry that USA TODAY obtained late Wednesday.
While the letter somewhat clarified the murky time frame for cruises to resume stateside – potentially by mid-July, pending cruise lines, ships and ports meeting certain requirements – it leaves plenty of questions for cruisers who may be considering booking.
And while the CDC outlined a potential restart date, that doesn’t mean that the restrictions on cruises are lifted. The CDC offered clarifications to its guidance and still expects cruise lines to meet its requirements before sailing can resume.
USA TODAY sought out expert insights on what it all means for those looking to book or take a cruise.
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Are cruise ships safe?
Before sailing, ships have to meet the CDC’s COVID health and safety requirements, but that doesn’t mean boarding a cruise ship is without risk.
“Cruising during a global pandemic is difficult,” Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, told USA TODAY.
“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC is committed to ensuring that cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers and port personnel, particularly with emerging COVID-19 variants of concern,” Shockey said.
Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications for Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s leading trade organization, said that cruising is now a safer option thanwhen cruise ships saw COVID outbreaks and lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The beginning of the pandemic was a unique and difficult time for everybody, but we have learned so much since that time — and those lessons have been applied to almost every facet of cruise operations today,” Golin-Blaugrund told USA TODAY Thursday.
Almost 400,000 passengers have sailed on CLIA ocean-going ships in Europe, the South Pacific and parts of Asia since last summer, Golin-Blaugrund said. Of those 400,000, fewer than 70 cases of COVID-19 have emerged. Many of those passengers sailed on cruises before vaccines were introduced or made widely available.
Will I be required to have a COVID vaccine before boarding a cruise ship?
Depending on the cruise ship, you may need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
According to the CDC’s letter, if cruise lines want their ships to resume sailing sooner, they need 95% of passengers and 98% of crew on board to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
That said, the health agency won’t require that vaccination rate to sail, but cruise lines that don’t meet it won’t be able to sail as soon as others as they’ll need to conduct test sailings before resuming cruises with paying passengers and implement additional COVID protocols.
“It is up to the cruise ship operators whether they will require COVID-19 vaccination to board a cruise ship,” Shockey said.
CLIA does not require its member lines to implement a vaccine rule, though it does “encourage vaccination.”
Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., told USA TODAY Thursday that the vaccination requirement for his company’s 28-ship fleet, is key to protecting its passengers from contracting COVID-19.
What other COVID protocols will be implemented on cruise ships?
In accordance with CDC guidance, other safety measures, including COVID testing, mask use and social distancing will remain important on ships, regardless of whether passengers are vaccinated, according to Shockey.
Those protocols were implemented by CLIA for its member lines in September and remain in effect, according to Golin-Blaugrund.
Should I book a cruise now?
Michelle Fee, CEO of travel agency Cruise Planners, told USA TODAY Thursday that “pent-up demand” for cruising will lead to higher bookings with the news of a potential mid-summer restart.
“Many more people (will be) ready and waiving their credit cards,” Fee said.
She added that there will likely be a rush to book – and not just for the first cruises sailing. There may be an even higher demand for fall or winter cruises, when sailing seems more certain with the timeline for resumption slowly becoming more clear.
“Consumers should be thinking ‘if I want to sail on a cruise ship in the next 18 months, I should get my deposit in right now,'” Fee said.
How soon can I book a cruise from a US port?
Many cruise lines have canceled sailings from U.S. ports through June but have kept July sailings an option. Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line, for example, are already offering cruises from U.S. ports such as Miami, starting in July.
Alaska cruises, however, are a different story. Canada has banned cruise ships from its waters until March 1, 2022. But Canada’s ban not only impacts ships in Canadian waters, it also puts a roadblock in the way of cruises in Alaska, New England, Washington state or the Great Lakes.
As a result, some cruise lines have canceled or stopped bookings on many of their cruises scheduled for the Alaska season. Norwegian’s website, for example, is not taking new bookings for Alaska cruises until 2022 apart from one cruise in October that is expected to travel to Russia and Japan with no stop listed in Canada. And Royal Caribbean International’s next opening online for an Alaska cruise is in April 2022.