Cruises Are Back: Here’s What You Need to Know About Safety Before You Climb Aboard

After almost 18 dormant months in the age of Covid 19, cruise lines are increasingly beginning to sail again. American Cruise Lines launched from Florida in March. Crystal Cruises resumed operations, with two vessels sailing in the Bahamas, in July. The Norwegian Jade is cruising the Greek Isles, with many Americans on board. At the end of August, Oceania Cruises’ Marina set sail from Copenhagen, and its sister ship, the Riviera, is scheduled to travel from Istanbul to Trieste in October. The 2022 itineraries on Viking Ocean Cruises are almost fully booked. Clearly there is demand, and passengers are willing to climb aboard. The question is: Is it safe to cruise now?

Are Cruise Ships Safe?

Public perception that the answer is yes significantly increased in recent months according to a July survey by the travel marketing firm MMGY Global. And grim images of giant virus-riddled boats marooned off shore had been fading—at least until August when coronavirus infections were identified aboard the Carnival Vista cruise ship sailing out of Galveston, Texas. (A 77-year-old passenger, treated onboard and then evacuated to an Oklahoma hospital, later died. The ship was able to prevent further spread of the virus.)

“The cruise model does give you a chance to control the environment more than other sectors of hospitality,” said Rubén Rodríguez, president of MSC Cruises USA, who notes the low incidence of Covid since sailings resumed. According to Bermello Ajamil & Partners, an architecture firm with a maritime focus, only 27 positive Covid-19 cases have been identified among the estimated 1.6 million passengers who have sailed in 2021. (The firm compiles its data from cruise line press releases and industry news outlets, among other sources.) Covid-19 cases among crew members are harder to track, but Mark Ittel, senior vice president of ports and maritime at Bermello Ajamil & Partners, said that the cruise lines’ new safety protocols appear to be working.

After Covid outbreaks were reported on dozens of cruise ships in February 2020 and March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a “no-sail” order, banning most passenger vessels from sailing in U.S. waters. The order was lifted in October, replaced with a set of rules that ships had to comply with before they were allowed to resume their voyages. Even with these precautions in place, CDC officials say cruising is not a zero-risk activity and that non-vaccinated people should avoid all cruises, including river cruises, world-wide. The CDC also recommends that vaccinated people should get tested before boarding and that anyone with a serious illness or an increased risk of serious illness should not cruise at all. The agency has also established a color-coding system that tracks ships sailing in U.S. waters, operating under health and safety protocols that align with the agency’s standards.

“There are clear risks involved in cruising,” said Dr. Lucy E. Wilson, senior adviser to the University for Public Health and Pandemic Response at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “The risk is stratified by vaccinated people versus unvaccinated people. The unvaccinated are clearly at higher risk of contracting and then spreading the virus. That’s true in general and it’s true on a cruise ship.” Dr. Wilson—who noted that what we know today can change tomorrow—also pointed out that with the Delta variant being the predominant strain circulating in the U.S., even vaccinated people remain at risk for contracting and spreading the virus, though they’re generally less likely to become seriously ill.

“It’s risk-benefit tolerance,” said Kelly Gebo, MD MPH and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “For some people, going to the gym is important for their mental health. So they are willing to take the risk.” Consider your own circumstances (age, general health, doctor’s advice, vaccination status, etc.) and weigh those against what you’ll gain from, say, four days and five nights of floating around turquoise waters.

Even in the before times, cruise ships were subject to biannual CDC inspections. Now, under strict pandemic scrutiny from the CDC, the industry is even more highly regulated—from below-deck waste management systems to guest-facing food service protocols—and required to make regular health and safety reports. It’s had time to identify vulnerabilities, overhaul internal weaknesses, retrain staff, arm itself against new eventualities and form advisory boards (such as Healthy Sail Panel, a group organized by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings that includes a former Secretary of Health and Human Services and a former commissioner of the FDA). Some cruise lines undertook all-volunteer test cruises to put all the upgrades and protocols through their paces.

“Since this very difficult time, we’ve had an opportunity to demonstrate that ships are extremely safe,” said Roberto Martinoli, president and chief executive officer of Silversea Cruises. “We have hospitals on board, very well trained personnel, and we need to produce reports of anything that happens on board [which] helps to make it efficient. The virus exists. We cannot deny it. Because of the nature of the virus, it might happen that someone [infected] might arrive at the ship. But it will not get out of control. We can stop it at the beginning.”

For those ready to book a stateroom, here are some of the changes to cruise life and the health-and-safety measures to expect, from gangway to shining sea.

How Crowded Are the Ships? 

As they gradually resume sailing, most cruises are operating at reduced capacity to give people more room in common spaces like bars and theaters on board and to work within local guidelines in port. For now, MSC Cruises has capped ships pursuing European itineraries at 70% capacity and those sailing the Americas at 50%, which means a maximum of 2,250 passengers aboard MSC Meraviglia, the 4,500-passenger vessel that started sailing from Miami last month. And Metropolitan Touring, which operates small expedition journeys in the Galápagos Islands sold through luxury companies like Tauck and Abercrombie & Kent, reduced capacity on its ships by 25% to allow dining room distancing and to better manage guest-to-guide ratio.

Taking into account vaccination rates among passengers and mask-wearing protocols, density matters more than the size of the boat, according to Dr. Gebo of Johns Hopkins University. And consider the nature of activities. “Outside is generally fine,” she said. But you’re facing higher risks in a gym with lots of people. And “a three-day party at sea with gambling, dancing and drinking is different than going whale-watching.”

Do I Need to Be Vaccinated? 

Some cruise lines—including Silversea and Viking, which is operating its full fleet of six ocean ships and 45 of its 78 river boats—require all passengers to be fully vaccinated, as do some countries, such as the Bahamas. “We made the decision early on,” said Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen. “I don’t want to make it a political issue,” he added, saying the issue is “the safety of our staff and passengers.”

Others suggest full vaccination and put restrictions on unvaccinated passengers. MSC, for example, has vaccinated-only pools, and Atlas Ocean Voyages, a new deluxe adult-only line, warns that, depending on the regulations of the countries visited, unvaccinated guests may be subject to additional testing and restricted from independent shoreside activities.

Most companies have implemented a battery of safeguards (and so much print and digital paperwork that it can be worth engaging a travel adviser to help): pre-screening; PCR testing before, during and after the cruise (some boats now have their own labs onboard); face masks during embarkation and disembarkation and when indoors (except in your cabin, or seated in a bar or restaurant); and tracking and tracing measures just in case.

How Well Ventilated are the Ships? 

An open bar, state-of-the-art water toys, and a Fancy Chef Steakhouse are all well and good. But now onboard amenities also include hospital-grade disinfectants, new fresh-air ventilation systems and robots that clean at night using UV light. Norwegian, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Princess and Virgin Voyages are using AtmosAir’s bipolar ionization technology for their HVAC systems, which, according to the manufacturer, generates positively and negatively charged ions to reduce contaminants and pollutants in the air. A video on the AtmosAir website claims that the system “restores inside air to what you find on a mountain top.”

Silversea has installed medical grade air filters (MERV 13 or HPA) to supply fresh air to all areas every hour. Across the cruise lines, sales of interior cabins are down, and some lines, such as MSC, use them as isolation rooms, if needed; Viking has none, and all its ocean ship staterooms have a balcony.

What Other Onboard Changes Should I Expect? 

Recent cruisers recommend packing your patience along with your sunscreen. “I felt better and safer on board than at the airport, on the airplane or in the hotel,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, chief content officer at Cruise Media, a publishing and consulting company, who sailed with Viking and with Silversea this past summer. “There is more space, more al fresco dining, new protocols like spit tests [a Covid-19 saliva test] and I had no concern about ventilation. But you have to be flexible.”

Some things, like getting aboard, might take a little longer. You may not be able to enter the dining room without washing your hands. Food service generally no longer features passed hors d’oeuvres or self-serve buffets, and you’ll see Plexi-glass popping up here and there. You might have to reserve spa or gym time in advance. And when it comes to the pool, expect crowd control.

What About Shore Excursions?  

Cruise lines can exert a high degree of control aboard ship, but passengers face a lot of variables in port and on land. Ecuador, for example, requires masks to be worn at all times while visiting the blue-footed boobies on their uninhabited rocks in the Pacific. MSC Cruises sells what the company calls “Social Bubble Shore Excursions” to isolate its passengers and protect local environments. (On MSC’s first Covid-era cruise in August 2020, a family left the group in Capri and were not allowed back onboard. Other guests cheered.)

Before the pandemic, several companies including Disney, MSC and Holland America began buying up private islands in the Caribbean to use for their exclusive shore excursions, which in the Covid age let the lines extend the bubble they can create on board. Otherwise, it’s important to know where you’re going. “When going from a largely vaccinated vessel to a general public area,” said Dr. Wilson, “there are widely variant virus levels and controls. You’re getting off, the crew is getting off, exposure is elevated. Covid-19 has showed us it is a moving target.”