Nearly every country in Europe (Spain, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Luxembourg are the exceptions), and dozens more beyond, have scrapped every last Covid restriction. Therefore it can be easy to forget that one type of holiday remains governed by some of the strictest rules in the world: cruises.
The vast majority of cruise lines are still banning passengers who haven’t had two (or, more likely, three) Covid jabs. Even then, costly testing often represents another hurdle. Some mask rules also remain. And if you catch the bug on board, you’ll be spending the rest of your holiday staring out of your cabin’s porthole – isolation requirements, too, are severe.
Things are slowly changing, however. 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 any age – as of September 3 – will be welcome on all sailings. They will, however (unless under the age of 12), need to present evidence of a recent (taken in the previous 72 hours) negative test, something 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 is ending its ban on unvaccinated passengers is apt. After all, Norway was the first country in Europe to scrap all Covid travel restrictions, way back in February.
A gradual end to testing rules
Several other operators have begun rolling back the red tape, emboldened 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 and there are some head-scratching caveats.
Royal Caribbean and its sister line Celebrity Cruises are also dropping their vaccine requirements – but only on some voyages. From September 5, proof of vaccination will no longer be required on Royal Caribbean departures from Europe, as well as California, Louisiana and Texas, but they’ll still be required elsewhere, including from Florida, where many of its cruises begin. Celebrity sailings from Europe, with the exception of Iceland, and Los Angeles will not require proof of vaccination, but those from Florida and several other places will.
With Virgin Voyages, both European sailings (since July 24) and US departures (since July 27) are now completely test-free. It is also permitting a limited number of unvaccinated passengers on board. They must represent no more than 10 per cent of all passengers on any sailing, and must also bring a negative test result taken within the previous 24 hours, or take one at the terminal for a fee of $30. Viking has also scrapped testing, unless one is specifically required by a port of call (unvaccinated travellers also remain barred).
P&O Cruises has also eased its testing rules. Passengers aged five years and over no longer need to show a certificate confirming a recent negative test, but “they will be asked to confirm 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.
Carnival Cruise Line and its sister company Princess Cruises, as with Virgin Voyages, accept 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 sailing date order, and once we have finalised the estimated vaccinated guest count,” explains Carnival. Like Virgin, it doesn’t want more than 10 per cent of its passengers to be unvaccinated because that’s the somewhat arbitrary threshold at which the CDC classifies a cruise ship as “highly vaccinated”.
Most other lines are remaining very cautious, however. Cunard still requires all passengers over the age of four to be vaccinated and take a test (though unvaccinated 5-11-year-olds may board if they take two tests). The same applies (but without the testing option for unjabbed 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 all those aged 12 and up must be vaccinated. Fred Olsen requires over-11s to be vaccinated and all passengers to take a lateral flow test at home within 24 hours of departure. Saga Cruises requires all guests to be vaccinated and take a lateral flow test at the port, before embarking.
As for masks, most lines still recommend their use in certain situations, but hard-and-fast rules have been discarded – with a few notable (and fairly baffling) exceptions. Holland America only requires face coverings indoors on Alaska cruises that sail between Whittier to Vancouver. Disney only requires them to be worn by unvaccinated guests under five years of age in Youth Activity spaces and in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
The Florida anomaly
A rather bizarre situation exists on voyages with Florida-only itineraries. As outlined above, unvaccinated over-11s are banned by most lines, with very limited exceptions. However, Florida state law does not permit companies to demand proof of vaccination. Passengers can voluntarily provide proof when they board, of course, and if they do, they are provided with a wristband and can continue their cruise as normal.
If they do not, the cruise line will let them board but assume they are unvaccinated – and impose all manner of restrictions, effectively rendering them second-class citizens. Celebrity Cruises, for example, will require them to wear a mask, to submit to expensive testing, and deny them access to certain public areas. It’s an unseemly situation that’s been reported on before, but remains doggedly in place.
Despite such anomalies, and the pervading air of cautiousness, the overall picture is one of easing restrictions. The speed might be glacial, but the direction of travel is unmistakable. Cruises are finally catching up with the rest of the world.