COVID-19 is, once again, a dominating topic of conversation as the country enters yet another surge in cases with the omicron variant expected to have massive spread in coming months. And at the same time as cases surge shoreside, the numbers of coronavirus cases reported on cruise ships are starting to stack up again.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working with global public health experts and industry partners to learn about omicron, spokesperson Dave Daigle told USA TODAY Thursday. “We are still learning how easily it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and how well available vaccines and medications work against it.”
While it is unclear whether the cruise industry could shut down again like it did in March 2020, it doesn’t seem likely.
So with the news of cruises experiencing more cases on board and ports of call taking their own precautions as we’ve seen happen on ships like Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Freedom and Royal Caribbean International’s Odyssey of the Seas, travelers may be weighing whether they want to proceed or postpone their cruise plans. Let’s walk through what you need to consider:
The choice to cancel, or not, can be personal
Cruzely.com founder Tanner Callais told USA TODAY he thinks the decision is personal and based on one’s “risk tolerance.”
“Assuming you are otherwise healthy, then you may think it is fine to sail,” he continued. “There are risks, but we’ve seen that there are risks in any group of people, be it in a restaurant, theme park, or stadium. If you plan to be in close interaction with others, then cruises have the strongest requirements of any group setting I can think of.”
But, he added, others may want to cancel if they have underlying conditions, are unvaccinated or are in contact with others who may be at risk.
“Personally, I’ve taken several cruises since they’ve returned, but I’m holding off on sailing for a month or two until things have calmed down,” Callais said. “With daily contact with a family member that has health issues, I think there’s no harm in putting off travel until cases fall.”
The CDC advises people who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to avoid cruise travel and advises travelers to get a booster shot if eligible, Daigle said.
Be prepared for a potentially different vacation if you keep your cruise
While the cruise industry hasn’t stopped operations and lines haven’t canceled cruises themselves, a cruise vacation may look different as coronavirus begins to spread more rapidly.
Cruise attorney Michael Winkleman told USA TODAY he doesn’t think cruisers necessarily should cancel but “they should expect the unexpected and be ready to deal with itinerary changes.”
Your itinerary could change – including port stops
Some itinerary changes have already occurred on sailings with coronavirus cases on board.
Holland America’s Koningsdam ship skipped a port call at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, spokesperson Erik Elvejord confirmed to USA TODAY Sunday.
The ship had “small number of fully-vaccinated crew on Koningsdam tested positive for COVID-19,” Holland America said, without specifying the number of crew who tested positive. No passengers tested positive.
And Carnival Freedom had to change its itinerary due to COVID-19, too. The ship has an undisclosed “small number” of coronavirus cases on board and is following protocols, spokesperson AnneMarie Mathews told USA TODAY Thursday.
Aruba and Bonaire did not permit Carnival Freedom to call at their ports.
When port visits are canceled, she said, the cruise line will try to find an alternative destination.
Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas has also had to make itinerary changes, including canceling port calls, due to at least 55 cases of coronavirus on board.
On Wednesday, Royal Caribbean announced that the cruise will not stop in Curacao or Aruba as planned.
“The decision was made together with the islands and out of an abundance of caution due to the current trend of cases in the destination communities and having COVID-19 positive cases on board … representing 1.1% of the onboard community,” according to a statement shared by Lyan Sierra-Caro, spokesperson for the cruise line.
The ship also returned briefly to port on Sunday to disembark a passenger with COVID-19.
When asked if cruisers can expect more itineraries to be altered, the CDC’s Daigle said the health agency “can’t predict the future of cruising or actions of port authorities.”
“We can tell you that CDC’s Temporary Extension & Modification of Framework for Conditional Sailing Order requires cruise ship operators to document the approval of U.S. port and local health authorities in developing medical care, housing, and port components of an agreement,” Daigle said Thursday.
Some lines are tightening onboard restrictions
Cruise lines including Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have already made moves to tighten onboard restrictions.
Carnival Cruise Line updated its mask policy last week for sailings through Jan. 31 as omicron continues to spread.
Norwegian, too, added mask requirements for indoor areas.
Last month, Norwegian also extended its vaccination requirement for 100% of passengers indefinitely.
Similarly, Royal Caribbean told passengers in a note last week that it would tighten mask restrictions through Jan. 5.
And Holland America said in a statement to USA TODAY Sunday that “current operating procedures require all team members and guests to wear a mask in all indoor areas of the ship and all areas are frequently disinfected.”
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Some cruise lines have flexible cancellation policies, others are adding
Options for canceling cruises vary by line. Canceling doesn’t always mean a full refund, it may mean a future cruise credit and some lines are stricter than others but some have more flexible options as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises
Royal Caribbean Group’s “Cruise with Confidence” program has been in place since March 2020 and applies to flagship line Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, Sierra-Caro told USA TODAY on Wednesday.
“It allows guests to cancel up to 48 hours before their departure – for any reason at all – and get 100% of the value back in a Future Cruise Credit that they can use towards any sailing,” Sierra-Caro said.
If a passenger or someone in their party tests positive for COVID-19 before the cruise is set to depart, they can also get a 100% fare refund.
Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival Cruise Line warned passengers scheduled to cruise through Jan. 14 in an email obtained by USA TODAY, that itinerary changes may happen as a result of omicron’s spread – and said no refunds would be issued for missed port stops beyond pre-purchased excursions.
“We recognize that given the circumstances, some of our guests may want to consider sailing at a different time,” the cruise line continued, noting that passengers should contact the company, their travel agent or planner to rebook or cancel for a full refund.
The line has had options in place for passengers impacted by COVID-19 who need to cancel.
Holland America Line
Holland America Line, a Carnival Corp. cruise line, has a “flexible” cancellation policy that is in place for cruises booked by Feb. 28 for ships departing through April 30.
“You can cancel for any reason up to 30 days before departure and automatically receive a Future Cruise Credit with our Flexible Cancellation,” the cruise line says on its website. “Additionally, you may cancel up to your sailing date if you test positive for COVID-19 and will also receive a Future Cruise Credit.”
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line has in place a “Peace of Mind” policy for pandemic bookings.
For cruises departing through March, passengers can cancel up to 61 days ahead of sailing for a full refund.
For bookings made through March 31, 2022, for cruises through March 31, 2023, passengers can change their cruise up to 48 hours ahead of departure.
“They can move their money to another cruise that sails on or before March 31, 2023 (any ship, any sail date without penalty),” Stephen Schuler, vice president of communications for MSC, told USA TODAY on Wednesday. “The only exception to this is guests booked on MSC World Cruise or World Cruise segments.”
If you’re nervous about getting on a ship and want to cancel or postpone your trip, check your cruise line’s website for cancellation policies, call customer service or your travel agent.