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What to know about cruise travel while omicron spreads

Boosters are not widely required, but prepare to take a coronavirus test before you board

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

It’s not the most carefree time to go on a cruise.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned all travelers, even those who are vaccinated, to avoid cruise ships. Infections are soaring during the omicron surge, with ships reporting 14,803 coronavirus cases onboard between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12. That number was below 200 in early December. Passengers and crew have told horror stories about being stuck in isolation for days, with only lukewarm room service and in-room TV to pass the time.

There is a fresh level of uncertainty to sailing now: Several cruise lines have canceled trips in the near future and longer term, and ports have been turning ships away.

Despite the CDC’s advice, travelers will still book cruises as long as they’re allowed. Here are answers to 10 common questions they may be asking at this stage of the omicron wave.

Will my cruise be canceled?

Not necessarily. Cruise lines have canceled voyages on more than 25 ships in the past several weeks. Some were scheduled to depart right away, and others were set to leave months in the future. But many, many other ships have continued to sail as planned.

Cruise lines are canceling after covid outbreaks on board

Will my cruise stop at ports on the original itinerary?

No guarantees! Cruise ships have been turned away from destinations including Bonaire, Aruba, Curaçao, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Cartagena, Colombia, in recent weeks because of outbreaks. It’s hard to predict when a voyage might be disrupted.

Do I need to be vaccinated?

With very few exceptions, yes. Some cruise lines such as Norwegian and Viking, won’t let anyone on board who isn’t vaccinated. Others such as Royal Caribbean mandate vaccination for everyone 12 and older. Carnival Cruise Line offers vaccine exemptions to a “very small number” of kids under 12 and passengers who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. And still others, including Disney Cruise Line, require vaccination for everyone who is eligible, meaning anyone 5 and older.

Are boosters required?

It depends on the cruise line, but the vast majority of passengers do not need to have a booster. Some small operators, including Azamara, UnCruise Adventures and Grand Circle Cruise Line, have said they will require boosters in the coming weeks or months. Many larger cruise companies, including Carnival, Princess, Oceania and Royal Caribbean, say they strongly recommend additional shots for those eligible, but they do not require them.

CDC will let cruise rules expire as omicron surges on ships

Do I need a test to get on a ship?

Yes. Cruise lines are requiring vaccinated passengers to test negative within the two days before boarding their ship. Some cruise companies allow self-tests that are observed via video, while others are administering their own tests. Basic home tests without supervision are not permitted. Unvaccinated passengers 2 and older have more stringent testing requirements.

Will I need to wear a mask?

Under most circumstances, yes. Passengers don’t need to mask up in their own staterooms or while eating and drinking. Face coverings are only required outdoors if physical distancing from other people is not possible.

How do I know if my cruise line is following CDC guidance?

Now that the CDC rules have expired and become recommendations, cruise lines can opt into a voluntary program. If they do, they will agree to keep adhering to all of the guidelines and reporting case information the same way. Ships that participate will continue to appear on the CDC website that tracks coronavirus on ships and will be color-coded based on whether cases have been reported; those that don’t participate will be designated as gray.

Originally, operators had until Friday to inform the agency if they would follow the guidelines. But that deadline has been extended because the voluntary program guidance wasn’t ready, CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey said Friday. At that time, the new date had not yet been announced.

So far, the lines that are part of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — have opted in.

For now, Shockey said, all ships are still reporting cases under the previous method and will continue to be assigned a color status unless they choose to stop participating.

Bare rooms, rotten fruit and boredom: Quarantine life on infected cruises

How can I tell if there have been coronavirus cases on my ship?

The CDC’s “cruise ship color status” indicates if ships have reported cases in the past seven days.

Green means there are no reported cases, while orange means the number is below the threshold for investigation by the CDC. The yellow status means the ship has met the requirements for an investigation — which can mean one or more cases reported in crew, or cases reported in 0.1 percent or more of passengers — and red means the ship is at or above the threshold and may need to take additional public health precautions.

Some caveats: If a cruise line decides not to participate in the CDC’s voluntary program, it will be listed as gray and will not include the same level of information. And even when they do participate, the information is minimal: The CDC does not include the number of cases on a ship, and cruise lines only occasionally release those numbers publicly.

What happens if I test positive on board?

In most cases, passengers who test positive during a cruise will be moved to new quarters closer to the medical center to isolate. Some cruise lines move passengers to land-based facilities to isolate. On board, passengers should expect to order room service for their meals. Some have reported long waits to place orders and receive their food.

You asked: I got covid on vacation. Where should I report my case?

What if I want to cancel my cruise?

Cancellation policies vary with each cruise line, though passengers who can’t sail because of a positive coronavirus test have widespread flexibility. It is best to carefully examine your cruise line’s policy and any dates that apply.

For sailings booked by March 31, for example, sister lines Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises allow passengers to cancel up to 48 hours before their sail date and get a credit for a future cruise.

Norwegian Cruise Line has more conditions. The operator says anyone booked by Jan. 31 on trips scheduled through March 31 can cancel up to 24 hours in advance (for future cruise credit) under a few scenarios: if the passenger’s local government restricts nonessential travel abroad, if rules change in destinations to require quarantine upon arrival, or if the country where a cruise starts or ends closes to visitors from the passenger’s country.