Cruising Has Returned, But Challenges Remain

·6 min read

As the cruise industry continues its comeback—Silversea christened its newest ship, Silver Moon, in Athens this week as Virgin Voyages launched the Scarlet Lady in the U.K. three days later—it's clear that cruisers are ready to get back onto ships and those ships are ready to welcome them. Guests also seem well-informed of new protocols and widespread vaccination mandates put in place to ensure safety for guests, crew, and port citizens alike. What is less known, however, are the ongoing challenges facing ships and crew after the sailings are underway. These can vary based on port or country, but they affect everything from itineraries to staffing, and in extreme cases, the entire trip.

These hurdles overwhelmingly descend from discrepancies between local and federal guidelines, and how they're enforced, by destination and port. Early in the restart, it was evident just how much such rules dictate where ships can go and when: In February, it looked like another Alaska cruise season was cancelled due to Canada's ongoing ban on cruise ships, but in May, President Biden passed legislation that allowed cruise ships to bypass a required stop in Canada, allowing cruise lines to head to Alaska before this year's season ends. Meanwhile in Florida, the state government is going up against the federal government to challenge conflicting mandates between the CDC and state law that affect how cruises can sail from ports like Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Whether domestically or internationally, the conflicting guidance from authorities is causing continued disruption that cruises are trying to navigate. Here, a summary of what's happening and how they're impacting cruises right now.

Itinerary changes

Now that ships have passed the largest roadblock—resuming service—they’re still subject to last-minute changes should a heightened level of precaution be implemented in a port of call. This includes spontaneous itinerary adjustments, as well as cutting a cruise short, as recently happened on a Viking sailing in Iceland.

“Border closures can be swift, going into effect within 48 hours or less,” says Amanda Hand of G1G Travel Insurance. “Travelers should remain flexible and know that adjustments to their sailing itinerary may pop up.” This means guests might dock at a port not originally listed on the itinerary, or even spend a day meant for a stop sailing at sea instead.

Cruises certainly aren't new to this—they have to make adjustments due to inclement weather regularly, after all—but during COVID-era travel, it's not as easy to change course, given new bureaucratic hurdles. Expect delays when adjustments are made, whether idling in port waiting to find out if you can disembark or not, as well as possible cancellations of shore excursions that may have seemed a go mere hours before.

While certainly frustrating, it’s crucial to remember that there are hundreds of crew members working hard behind the scenes and scrambling to adjust to the changes, and ensure your trip continues as close to plan as possible. Whether it's calling up more staff to run extra sessions in the kids' club to filling out the day's programming with new activities or shows being scheduled on the fly, workers make alterations as needed in order to keep guests happy while sorting confusing logistics that most cruisers never see or hear about.

Shore leave

Whether or not passengers can go ashore is also dependent on local authorities. In Singapore, for example, cruising was allowed to restart at the end of 2020, much earlier than other places; but while ships could sail, they weren't allowed to stop in any ports. Trips like this, which just remain at sea and don't make stops, are known as “cruises to nowhere,” and you'll want to do your due diligence on such trips before you book.

It’s also worth noting that while many ports in different countries are opening up for guests, many crew members are currently unable to go ashore due to local ordinances. Crew contracts last anywhere from four to nine months, so shore leave restrictions like this significantly impact the mental health of crew members—not to mention, can contribute to staffing shortages. 

After the pandemic hit, restrictions from various federal governments, including the CDC banning the use of commercial flights to repatriate crew members, left many stranded for weeks and in some cases, months. Though the situation is gradually improving as more ships set sail, the pandemic demonstrated a different reality that crew members face compared with guests, leaving many people hesitant to return to work at sea.

Availability of trips

As cruise vacations come back, the CDC requires them to do so at reduced sailing capacity; that, coupled with the industry’s slow return to service, means that eager cruisers may need to be patient when it comes to booking their next vacation. Cruises are selling out quickly; a world cruise from Regent Seven Seas that doesn't sail until 2024 sold out in three hours in July. Travelers might not be able to book their first cruise of choice, or even second. Your best bet is to book as soon as you know your desired destination and window, and look for flexible rebooking and cancellation policies from the fine print in case things change further.

A lower sailing capacity doesn’t just apply to guests, by the way: it applies to the crew, too. Fewer workers onboard could result in smaller teams juggling more responsibilities below deck. There are thousands of eager crew members waiting at home to return to work, but filling assignments and restarting ships is a massive task that requires the coordination of many moving pieces. This ultimately results in longer wait times for ships to resume regular operations with passengers.

Typically, crew members know their next ship contract in the final days before leaving their last contract and departing for their six- to eight-week breaks (required in the industry), but crew that are being called back to service in 2021 might only have a few weeks’ notice. Not all crew are able to leave as soon as they have an offer—it often takes weeks, if not months, to have all of the necessary documents ready, such as visas and medical exams, both of which have become increasingly complicated after COVID-19 due to embassy closures, travel restrictions, and more stringent medical requirements.

The bottom line

Cruises are back, but with some caveats and ongoing changes. If you plan to book a cruise vacation, be prepared to leave your pre-2020 expectations at the gangway, and instead be ready to welcome the adjustments cruise lines and crew members have had to make in order to open the industry back again, and roll with the punches as they come.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler