Almost every country in Europe (Spain, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Luxembourg are the exceptions), and dozens beyond, have scrapped every last Covid restriction. Therefore, it can be easy to forget that one type of holiday is still subject to some of the strictest rules in the world: cruises.
The vast majority of cruise lines still ban passengers who haven’t had two (or, more likely, three) Covid jabs. Even then, expensive testing often represents another obstacle. Some mask rules also remain. And if you catch the bug on board, you’ll spend the rest of your holiday staring out of your cabin’s porthole – insulation requirements are also strict.
However, things are slowly changing. This week, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) and its sister companies Regent Seven Seas and Oceania became the first major operators to announce that unvaccinated people of all ages – starting September 3 – will be welcome on all sailings. However, they will (unless under 12) need to present proof of a recent (taken within the last 72 hours) negative test, which is not required of vaccinated guests. “Our long-awaited revisions to our testing and vaccination requirements bring us closer in line with the rest of society, which has learned to adapt and live with Covid-19,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of NCL Holdings Ltd.
That NCL ends the ban on unvaccinated passengers is apt. After all, Norway was the first country in Europe to scrap all the Covid travel restrictions, way back in February.
A gradual end to test rules
Several other operators have begun rolling back red tape, encouraged by last month’s decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to end its strict guidance for the US cruise industry. But progress is slow.
Virgin Voyages has gone the longest. Both European sailings (since 24 July) and American departures (since 27 July) are now completely test-free. It also allows a limited number of unvaccinated passengers on board. They must not represent more than 10 percent of all passengers on a sailing, and must also bring a negative test result taken within the last 24 hours, or take one at the terminal for a $30 fee. Viking has also scrapped testing, unless specifically required by a port of call (unvaccinated travelers also remain barred).
P&O Cruises has also relaxed the test rules. Passengers aged five and over will no longer need to show a certificate confirming a recent negative test, but “they will be asked to confirm that the test has been taken, with a negative result, as part of the pre-boarding health declaration”. Unvaccinated passengers over the age of 11 are still banned.
Others loosen the rules, but with some caveats. Both Royal Caribbean and sister line Celebrity Cruises, for example, scrapped testing for fully vaccinated passengers on Aug. 8 — but not if the voyage lasts more than five days, and not if it visits Bermuda or Canada. They also allow a limited number of passengers – but only if they are aged 5-11 – to sail without being vaccinated (as long as they provide proof of a negative test taken no more than three days before departure). Anyone over 11 must still be jabbed.
These changes apply to voyages from US ports; Curiously, despite the UK scrapping all Covid rules many months ago, Royal Caribbean sailings from Southampton are stuck with far stricter rules (with a negative test still required for all guests, taken within the two days before the journey).
“While we continue to prioritize the health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit, we are pleased to begin transitioning to a point more in line with other travel and hospitality sectors,” Royal Caribbean said in a statement , which suggests. a further relaxation of the rules is on the horizon.
Carnival Cruise Line and sister company Princess Cruises accept, as with Virgin Voyages, a very limited number of unvaccinated passengers over the age of 11, who must apply in advance for an exemption, but only on certain sailings. “Requests are not guaranteed and will be processed after the booking is paid in full, in order of sailing date, and once we have finalized the estimated number of vaccinated guests,” Carnival explains. Like Virgin, it does not want more than 10 percent of passengers to be unvaccinated because that is the somewhat arbitrary threshold at which the CDC classifies a cruise ship as “highly vaccinated.”
However, most other lines are still very cautious. Cunard still requires all passengers over the age of four to be vaccinated and take a test (although unvaccinated 5-11 year olds can board if they take two tests). The same applies (but without the test option for uneven 5-11 year olds) for Disney Cruise Line.
Both Costa Cruises and MSC require all passengers aged two and over to take a test, while everyone aged 12 and over must be vaccinated. Fred Olsen requires that over 11 years are vaccinated and that all passengers take a side current test at home within 24 hours of departure. Saga Cruises requires all guests to be vaccinated and take a side current test in port before boarding.
When it comes to masks, most lines still recommend their use in certain situations, but hard and fast rules have been discarded — with a few notable (and rather confusing) exceptions. Holland America only requires indoor face coverings on Alaska cruises sailing between Whittier to Vancouver. Disney only requires that they be worn by unvaccinated guests under the age of five in youth activity rooms and in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
The Florida Anomaly
A rather bizarre situation exists on trips with Florida-only itineraries. As outlined above, unvaccinated over the age of 11 are banned from most lines, with very limited exceptions. However, Florida state law does not allow companies to require proof of vaccination. Passengers can voluntarily provide proof when they board, of course, and if they do, they get a wristband and can continue their cruise as normal.
If they don’t, the cruise line will let them board but assume they’re unvaccinated—and impose all sorts of restrictions, effectively making them second-class citizens. Celebrity Cruises, for example, will require them to wear a mask, submit to expensive tests and deny them access to certain public areas. There is an inappropriate situation that has been reported before but is still in place.
Despite such irregularities, and the pervasive atmosphere of caution, the overall picture is one of easing of restrictions. The speed may be glacial, but the direction of travel is unmistakable. Cruise is finally catching up with the rest of the world.