Welcome AboardMar 01, 2022 ● By Sydni Ellis
Wanderlust is stronger than ever this spring, especially among those who enjoy traveling aboard cruise ships.
In March 2020, the cruise industry was crippled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-sail order for cruise ships due to the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Planned departures were canceled and for more than a year, empty ships sat idle. Travelers had no choice but to postpone or cancel their vacation plans.
In October 2020, the CDC released its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for ships operating in U.S. waters. Additional updates to the order were made throughout 2021 and, last June, a Royal Caribbean ship departed from Port Everglades in Florida, becoming the first cruise ship carrying guests to sail from a U.S. port in more than 15 months.
Whether you’re a first-time cruiser or a bonafide expert, things have changed on the high seas in the wake of the pandemic. In addition to the requisite passports and tickets, most cruise lines also require travelers to present COVID vaccination records and a negative test result prior to departure. Meanwhile, masks may be required for passengers ages 2 and older while in indoor areas of the ships and at some ports of call. Some cruise lines have also implemented their own COVID protocols to help keep guests and crew members safe.
To help breakdown the new and updated requirements for cruising, Frisco STYLE consulted with industry experts to learn what would-be passengers should know as they plan and prepare for a return to the high seas this year.
On Dec. 30, 2021, the CDC issued a Level 4 Cruise Travel Health Notice recommending that everyone – vaccinated or not – avoid cruise travel if possible due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19. On Feb. 15 (the most recent information available prior to the publication of this issue), the CDC lowered its Cruise Ship Travel Health Notice from Level 4 to Level 3. It recommended that passengers be current on their COVID-19 vaccines prior to traveling and continued to advise those who are at an increased risk of developing severe illness from the virus to “avoid cruise ship travel even if you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.”
It also recommended that cruisers check their ship’s “color code and vaccination status” (available at
cdc.gov) prior to traveling. Passengers are also urged to “get a viral test as close to time of cruise departure as possible (no more than three days)” before traveling and “wear a well-fitting mask” that covers the nose and mouth while indoors or in crowded areas.
The CDC advises that travelers should get tested for COVID within 3-5 days following their cruise regardless of their vaccination status. Those who are not vaccinated are encouraged to self-quarantine for five full days post-cruise.
Of course, the agency advises that passengers who are sick prior to departure, have received a positive COVID test within the previous 10 days or who have had close contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus within the last five days should not travel.
The industry’s response
During and after the shutdown, those associated with the cruise industry learned a lot about how to keep passengers and crew members healthy and safe.
“Overall, I think the cruise industry has done a great job responding to the pandemic,” said Matthew Eichhorst, president of Expedia Cruises, which has an office in Frisco.
“At Expedia Group, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with our franchisees and cruise-line partners to restore confidence in travel by alleviating stress and reducing friction, providing real-time updates on itineraries and destinations, helping travelers make smart booking decisions by displaying health and safety measures and protecting their financial security through flexibility.”
Eichhorst says the travel industry “continues to experience signs of recovery” due to the readiness of people to travel again. “While we know there are still obstacles that we face as an industry, we also know that cruise travelers are anxious to get back out to sea and we are excited and ready to welcome them back.”
Research proves this as well: Expedia Group’s recent Traveler Value Index report indicated that 78 percent of respondents plan to travel in the next six months, Eichhorst said. “But the way people travel, and how they make decisions, has changed so we’re working diligently to make sure our cruise partners are prepared for this.”
Health and safety protocols
“The cruise industry has always led the way with stringent health and safety measures,” said Theresa Gruben of Gentle Breeze Travel Agency, an independent agent based in Frisco. “Their protocols with cleanliness are top notch.”
Gruben, who has been a passenger on nearly three dozen cruises throughout her life, calls them “the most sanitized trips you’ll go on.” Crew members “are constantly cleaning the ships and asking you to sanitize your hands,” she added. “They also have enhanced ventilation, screening and testing, mask wearing indoors and plenty of space to social distance due to lowered capacity.”
Letitia Johnson, regional marketing manager for Celebrity Cruises, said, “Cruising is still a great way to vacation. With Celebrity’s health and safety protocols, we are confident in providing you a safe and fun vacation. Where else can you go where every person who can be vaccinated is, and also tests two days prior to boarding?”
The entire Celebrity Cruises crew is vaccinated and tested weekly, and all passengers are required to be vaccinated and provide a negative COVID test. “We have great protocols onboard, like food being served to you instead of open buffets and plenty of room for social distancing,” Johnson added. “The crew members are required to wear masks and we are asking guests to wear masks when indoors at this time. We have always offered sanitation and (handwashing) stations and continue to keep these a priority.”
Many cruise lines have created their own comprehensive cleaning and disinfecting guidelines based on information from the World Health Organization and CDC, and do their best to stay up to speed with evolving industry protocols and regulations. “It’s no secret that communicating health and safety processes are critical to rebuilding traveler confidence in the wake of COVID-19,” Expedia Group’s Eichhorst said.
Every cruise line (and destination port) has its own recommendations for vaccinations, testing and masking, so passengers should double-check those guidelines before setting sail.
Popular travel destinations
If you are excited about booking a cruise, you aren’t alone. Gruben said, “There are a lot of cruisers that are very anxious and ready to get back out there. … Cruising has always been one of the biggest values. People like seeing different entertainment options, (having) on-board dining and adventurous ports. They’re ready to get back out there.”
Avid cruisers are not hesitating to book vacations for this spring and summer, Gruben said. However, it is recommended (and, in some cases, required) that they purchase travel insurance prior to departure.
Only one question remains: Where should you travel to this season?
“The Caribbean is always popular in the spring,” Celebrity Cruises’ Johnson said. Also, “We have so many great itineraries for summer such as Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe.”
As cruise travel to Europe and Alaska typically occurs in the spring and summer months, Gruben explained that those “are the most-requested destinations. We couldn’t travel there for most of 2020 and 2021. They are seasonal (destinations), only running May through September, so you should book quickly.”
Luckily, prices for cruise vacations may be in travelers’ favor right now. Johnson said spring is considered “wave season” when “some of the best deals of the year” can be had.
Sydni Ellis is a freelance writer who loves shopping, getting lost in a good thriller and taking way too many pictures of her two wild toddlers when she should be at her computer.