Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
In February 2020, the world watched with trepidation as a virus we knew so little about spread throughout a Japanese Diamond Princess cruise ship. Just weeks later, an outbreak hit the Grand Princess off the San Francisco coast and passengers were held on board as they were tested for the still-mysterious coronavirus. By the middle of March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implemented a No-sail Order, forcing the entire cruise industry to come to an abrupt halt. It was clear that cruise ships were an early breeding ground for the spread of the disease.
Now, with the distribution of vaccines and American COVID-19 numbers being reined in, cruise companies are moving ahead with plans for summer sailings from the U.S., while still awaiting the CDC's approval. After all, the government agency's current advisory for all cruise travel is still at a Level 4 "Very High Level of COVID-19."
Elsewhere around the world, cruising restarted last year. But recently, two passengers on the MSC Seaside - which requires a series of tests, as well as masks and social distancing on board - tested positive and were removed from the ship in Italy, according to CNN. While the news made headlines, Dr. Robert L. Quigley, who is the global medical director of International SOS, tells Travel + Leisure, "It's important to note that this cruise line has been operating since last August and this is the first documented incident... [And] the vaccination status of the two passengers is unknown."
On June 15, Royal Caribbean postponed its scheduled summer sailings after eight crew members tested positive during routine testing ahead of the public boarding for the Odyssey of the Seas, USA Today reported. Though the crew had all been vaccinated, they hadn't yet hit the two-week mark after the shot.
Incidents like these serve as a sign that we're still in the middle of a pandemic. "We will continue to see cases of COVID-19 in travel-related industries until more people are vaccinated," Jan Louise Jones of the University of New Haven's Hospitality and Tourism Management department tells T+L. "What's important is that our industries put as many precautions in place as possible to ensure the safety of both travelers and workers. Even those vaccinated can get COVID-19, but what's important is how those cases are handled and the likelihood that the severity of those cases is much lower."
The prompt handling of the cases on board the MSC Seaside and Royal Caribbean Odyssey of the Seas shows that the protocols are working to mitigate an outbreak. But it can still be difficult to decipher the realities. So, we talked to experts for their advice on what to know before boarding a cruise in the age of COVID-19.
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Both medical experts and travel advisors share one singular piece of advice before boarding a cruise ship. "First and foremost, get vaccinated well in advance of your departure date," T+L A-List travel advisor Mary Ann Ramsey of Betty Maclean Travel tells T+L, with Quigley adding that it's "the best way to protect yourself and those you're traveling with."
In some cases, vaccinations may be required. "Right now, the CDC requires all cruises leaving from American ports to meet a 95% vaccination threshold for both passengers and crew, but rules on vaccination and testing differ among individual companies and countries," Quigley says. "For example, one cruise line may require all passengers to be fully vaccinated, meaning younger children who are ineligible for the vaccine are not permitted. Others may only require vaccination for children 16 and up and proof of a negative COVID-19 test for younger children."
Understand the safety protocols.
Significant measures have been put into place to ensure travelers' safety - and it's important to understand what they are since cruising may not look exactly like it did before the pandemic. That includes both protocols on the ship and in any ports of call. "Travelers should do their research before any type of travel right now," Jones says, adding that it's important to know what resources are on board. "For example, what are the new procedures in place to handle any type of health-related issue? Are there doctors on board, and do they have procedures in place to handle potential cases? And who is responsible for potential health-related costs? Learn what facilities are on board or on shore before traveling. It's also important to know what indoor ventilation updates were made to the ship."
Planning for the worst is simply a precaution, but essential to managing expectations. Quigley adds, "Consideration must be given to your comfort level when picking which cruise line is right for you."
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Opt for a smaller ship.
One way to limit risk is by minimizing the number of people you'll be in contact with. "I would strongly suggest that people choose a smaller luxury ship such as Seabourn, Regent, or Silversea," Ramsey says. "That means less people and more square footage per person, and more dining options, including in-suite dining."
T+L A-List Advisor Mary Curry of Adventure Life adds that less capacity also means better control: "Having a small ship (under 200 passengers in most areas) also allows them to manage pandemic-related challenges a bit easier. Though there are never guarantees, seeking out a small ship that requires other travelers to be vaccinated will increase travelers' odds of a worry-free vacation."
Go for destinations with natural social distancing.
When considering the cruise destinations, it's a good idea to check on infection rates in the area, but it may also help to think of places with less people. T+L A-List Advisor Ashton Palmer of Expedition Trips suggests Alaska, Antarctica, or the Galapagos.
Curry has had a successful track record of sending travelers to the Galapagos since last fall. "I have yet to hear a positive COVID test report, despite multiple ships offering weekly departures," she says, noting there may have been one, but it's uncommon. "Ecuador has been very cautious about the pandemic ever since they were hit hard in the very beginning." She explains that they have mandatory and double testing, as well as strict procedures in place - plus most of the ships have 40 passengers or less. "They've also tended to evolve with the scientific progress being made," she says. "Vaccines are now allowed in lieu of testing and the entire adult population of Galapagos, including guides, were offered vaccinations as soon as they were available, with a goal of 100% vaccinated by this month."
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Limit time in indoor and crowded areas.
Like on land, indoor and crowded spaces still pose the highest risks, so it's best to cut down on those areas. Cruisers can start by opting for a balcony or window cabin to ensure personal space with fresh airflow, Palmer says.
Also keep ventilation and space in mind when in public areas. "Try to limit time spent in dining rooms and event spaces," Quigley says. "Although it's safer to engage in activities outdoors, there is still a level of risk, especially when engaging in hot tub and pool activities near others. Be sure to wipe down any surfaces both indoors and outdoors with disinfecting wipes, including chairs and tables, and do not share any personal items, like goggles and towels."
Choose alternatives for group excursions.
When looking for excursions at ports of call, planning ahead is key now more than ever. "The excursions that will be most enjoyable will be outdoors or in locations that are operating at a reduced capacity with time slots," Palmer says. "I recommend touring with smaller groups and considering walking or hiking tours, or boat rides."
For added safety, Ramsey recommends avoiding group excursions and talking to your travel advisor about private shore excursions. "It is far safer, more interesting, and tailored to individual interests and tastes," she says. "More expensive, but in my experience, well worth every penny."
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Consider an itinerary with less stops.
While the length of the cruise likely doesn't have much of an effect on risks, the number of stops might because of varying boarding requirements in different places, Quigley notes. "If you are on a cruise with multiple stops, and there is disembarkation by the passengers, each stop increases the risk of infection on the vessel," he says.
Stick to pandemic habits.
As of now, CDC guidelines require masks at port and when boarding, but each cruise line will have different protocols on board. "As a general rule, it's always safest to wear a mask when you are unable to properly socially distance yourself from those who are not in your immediate party," Quigley says. "When engaging in activities with other passengers, be sure to also wear a mask, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash your hands immediately after touching any surface." He also suggests bringing masks you can wash and dry in the cabin sinks, or stocking up on disposable face coverings.
Cabins undergo strict cleaning measures before allowing passengers to board, but caution can still be key. "While the risk of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces is low, it's always a good practice to sanitize high-touch surfaces and regularly wash your hands," he says, also recommending wiping down door handles and countertops.
Another simple tip to avoid areas with stagnant air: "Take the stairs versus the elevators," Palmer says.
Pack enough for a possible quarantine.
While the hope is not to have to deal with the virus spread, it's a good idea to be prepared. "Cruise passengers should pack enough essential items for two weeks in the event they need to quarantine on the cruise or in another location," Quigley says. "These items should include - but not be limited to - masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and prescription medication."
Know what your travel insurance covers.
Of course, no one wants to think ahead to the worst case situation, but Jones says, "If just one person has COVID-19, it poses a risk."
As a preemptive measure, note how you'll be protected financially if something does occur. "It's important to know exactly what your travel insurance will cover, and the procedures in place for a potential outbreak, including on board services and additional costs. Call ahead to fully understand any new space restrictions while on board," she says.
Overall, all the experts say to keep your plans and expectations nimble. "In planning the cruise, don't fixate on the protocols, testing, and what is open or not - it is all changing daily," Ramsey says. "What you may be concerned about today, may not even be a factor in a week, a month, or next year. Don't overplan or worry about the details so much. Allow for some spontaneous adventures and discovery."
That might just open up a more fulfilling journey. "Pack your patience and willingness to be flexible. Protocols are evolving as more information becomes available, so stay informed and understand that companies and their staff are doing their very best to provide a safe and enjoyable experience," Palmer says. "The world is learning how to travel after the pandemic, so having grace, patience, and kindness will ensure travelers maximize their experience and also engender an even higher level of customer service."