In North America, the cruise industry has been treading water since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a No Sail Order March 2020. Although ships have already started sailing in Europe and Asia, the ocean-faring vessels on this side of the Atlantic and Pacific are still waiting to cast off their lines. Until recently, only ships with fewer than 200 passengers and crew members were allowed to sail, which limited the seafaring options to river and coastal voyages. But a spate of new developments could help launch if not a thousand ships then at least a few dozen this summer.

“For people who love cruising, this is going to be very joyous,” said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic. The return to cruising is not obstacle-free — see Florida’s ban on vaccine passports. Travelers should stay flexible as itineraries, departure dates and safety protocols take shape.

Here is an overview of the current state of cruising and what you need to know before booking a cruise and busting out your bathing suit, passport and vax card.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are cruise ships sailing yet?
  • Which cruise ships require vaccinations for passengers?
  • What is the difference between Caribbean ports and U.S. ports?
  • What requirements must the ships fulfill before they are allowed to depart from U.S. ports?
  • Has the CDC approved any fully vaccinated ships to depart from a U.S. port?
  • Florida’s governor signed a law that prohibits businesses from requiring customers to be vaccinated, starting on July 1. How will this law affect cruise ships based in Florida?

Are cruise ships sailing yet?

This summer, the first ships to sail around the Caribbean will depart from the Caribbean. A few months ago, several cruise lines decided to relocate their home ports from the United States to the islands. Celebrity Millennium kicked off the season with its June 5 departure from St. Maarten, one of nearly a dozen seven-night sailings available through August. Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas will set sail from Nassau in the Bahamas between June 12 and Sept. 11. Other cruise lines newly based in the Caribbean region include Seabourn (Barbados) and Crystal (Nassau and Bimini in the Bahamas, and Antigua). Royal Caribbean had planned to sail from Bermuda, and Norwegian Cruise Line had its eye on Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Both companies nixed those plans, however.

Which cruise ships require vaccinations for passengers?

At least for the short term, Crystal, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, Azamara, Princess, Holland America, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar are welcoming only passengers who have been fully vaccinated at least two weeks before departure. On voyages before Aug. 1, Celebrity will accept unvaccinated cruisers younger than age 16 as long as they submit a negative coronavirus test before embarkation. The cruise line will lower the vaccination age to 12 after that date. Royal Caribbean is following the same rule for its Alaska cruises and is “strongly” recommending vaccines for passengers sailing from Florida or Texas.

What is the difference between Caribbean ports and U.S. ports?

Airfare to the islands will probably be higher and, depending on flight times, you might need to overnight at a hotel. (Celebrity Millennium and Adventure of the Seas added wiggle room into their schedules by departing at 10 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively; sailing time is typically late afternoon.) You will also need to follow the host country’s entry rules. For example, travelers must apply for a $40 Bahamas Travel Health Visa and upload proof of vaccination or, if they are unvaccinated, a negative PCR test result taken no more than five days before arriving. Vaccinated cruisers sailing round trip from a U.S. port are excused from testing; unvaccinated travelers are not. Travelers, including vaccinated ones, must present a negative test result to reenter the United States. The law applies to foreign air travel, not sea transport.

What requirements must the ships fulfill before they are allowed to depart from U.S. ports?

The cruise lines can choose one of two options: Their ships can carry at least 95 percent of vaccinated passengers and crew members or they can conduct a simulated cruise and practice the CDC safety measures with a group of volunteer cruisers. The cruise lines popular with families, such as Disney, will probably pick the second plan.

Has the CDC approved any fully vaccinated ships to depart from a U.S. port?

The agency has cleared two Celebrity ships, both of which will be based in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. Celebrity Edge will start sailing on June 26, the first big vessel to depart from the United States since the pandemic. It will offer Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries. Celebrity has not announced Equinox’s departure date, but its website shows sailings starting on July 4.

Florida’s governor signed a law that prohibits businesses from requiring customers to be vaccinated, starting on July 1. How will this law affect cruise ships based in Florida?

The ban could prevent the ships from sailing and force the cruise lines to pull their vessels from Florida. (Norwegian Cruise Line has already threatened to do so.) After mediation efforts failed, three South Florida mayors reached out to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), asking him to exempt the cruise line industry. “We are extremely concerned that unless a resolution can be reached,” they wrote in a letter, “this impasse over the rules will result in the loss of the cruise industry in Broward County and Florida overall.” (In April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) passed an executive law banning vaccine passports, but it applies only to state agencies and organizations that receive public funding.)

Which ships have received the CDC’s blessing for a simulated cruise?

So far, the CDC has approved eight ships from the major cruise lines, including two Carnival ships departing from Miami (Carnival Horizon) and Galveston, Tex. (Carnival Vista) and five Royal Caribbean ships (Allure of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, Independence of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas) spread across three Florida ports (Miami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral). Freedom of the Seas, which will depart Miami on June 20, was the first ship approved for a test sailing. On June 29, Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream will sail from Port Canaveral. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which offers short cruises between Palm Beach, Fla., and Grand Bahama Island, will send its Grand Classica ship on a test run on June 25. Per CDC rules, each ship must carry at least 10 percent of its maximum capacity. In November, more than 250,000 volunteers applied for a spot on the 4,553-passenger Freedom of the Seas.

Are Alaska cruises running?

Last month, the government passed the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, which temporarily repealed the Passenger Vessel Services Act, thereby allowing the cruise lines to resume Alaska cruises. The 19th-century maritime law required foreign-flagged or -owned ships traveling round trip from U.S. ports to stop in a foreign destination during the journey. For Alaska cruises, the nearest country is Canada, which extended its ban on cruise ships through next February. Once the ships receive CDC approval, they could start sailing as soon as July, about halfway through the four-month season.

Note: The resolution only applies to cruises in Washington state and Alaska; it does not address New England and Canada cruises. Princess recently announced that it has canceled the remainder of its 2021 itineraries in this region.

Has the booking and preboarding process changed?

Booking is the same — choose your date and cabin and pay — but expect a few new procedures. For example, the reservations agent will probably ask you whether you have been vaccinated, and at some point during check-in, you will need to produce your vaccine card and answer some health-related questions. A few weeks before his June 19 cruise, Doug Parker, the founder and host of Cruise Radio and Cruise Radio Podcast, checked in for his Adventure of the Seas voyage from Nassau. He had to sign an online form acknowledging the health risk of cruising and agree to uphold the safety protocols. If he failed to comply, the ship could terminate his trip. He also selected a time for his wellness check on the day of departure, a new step in the arrival process. (Parker will document his onboard experience with daily audio briefs and videos.)

On vaccinated cruises, is testing required? What about masks and social distancing?

The CDC waived the testing requirement for vaccinated passengers. In addition, cruisers do not need face coverings in outdoor and indoor venues including casinos, bars, spas, theaters and dining establishments. Guests can even scope out the buffet barefaced. (Yes, you read that last one correctly.) The CDC recommends but does not require social distancing in certain settings, such as gangways, elevators and pools. “CDC guidance for cruise ships has caught up with CDC guidelines for vaccinated people on land,” Gray Faust said. Ultimately, the decision lies with the cruise line. (For the lengthy list of rules for non-vax ships, check out the CDC’s Operations Manual for Simulated and Restricted Voyages under the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.)

Can passengers go ashore independently or do they need to sign up for a ship excursion?

The CDC said cruisers can explore ports on their own or with an independent tour operator or guide. However, passengers must know the country’s rules before disembarking. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, the ship will inform passengers of the destination’s testing requirements and other protocols in advance.

Are the cruise lines introducing any new technology that will reduce physical contact?

Cruise lines are encouraging passengers to download their free apps, which will help minimize in-person assistance and reduce touch points. For instance, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity’s app allows passengers to create digital boarding passes, which will expedite the embarkation process; book dinner reservations and shore excursions; “attend” the safety drill (called Muster 2.0); check their account; unlock their stateroom; and adjust the lights, temperature and TV in their cabin. Carnival has a similar tech tool. Passengers do not need to purchase the ship’s WiFi to access the app.

What’s happening with cruising in other countries?

Many cruise lines with itineraries in Europe and England are allowing only residents or E.U. citizens to sail aboard their ships. A few exceptions: Greece, Iceland, Cyprus and Croatia, which started accepting vaccinated travelers this spring. Spain, a major cruising destination — remember the images of an overstuffed Barcelona? — lifted its ban on cruise ships on the same day it opened its borders to vaccinated foreigners. River cruise companies, such as Viking, Avalon Waterways and Uniworld, are booking trips for July on waterways in Portugal, Germany, France and Austria, among other countries. Elsewhere in the world, Galapagos and Panama Canal cruises are back. No word yet on Antarctica, but there’s time. “We still have six months,” Gray Faust said.