Do I need a COVID-19 test for my cruise? Your pre- and post-cruise testing questions answered

Dec 7, 2021

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The road to the cruise industry’s restart has been a long one with lots of twists and turns. The latest obstacle, the COVID-19 omicron variant, has sparked changes in travel protocols throughout the world, including the ones for entry into the United States.

But, as my colleague Gene Sloan wrote about last week, the testing requirements for entry don’t affect cruisers who are arriving in the U.S. by ship.

So, with all of the changes and exceptions to the rules, TPG is here to answer some of your most pressing questions about COVID-19 testing for cruises.

Editor’s note: This article is intended to highlight general rules for most cruise lines. Testing requirements can vary by cruise line and embarkation port; check with your line for the most current information relevant to your itinerary.

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In This Post

Pre-cruise COVID-19 testing

Taking a pre-cruise antigen test (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Do I need to take a COVID-19 test before my cruise?

Yes. All cruise lines are currently requiring passengers, regardless of vaccination status, to take a COVID-19 test prior to embarkation day and show a negative result before being allowed to board.

When sailing with most lines, vaccinated passengers are allowed to present negative results from antigen tests, which often take less time and are less expensive to process than PCR tests. PCR results are also accepted for inoculated cruisers. However, PCR test results are the only ones accepted for cruisers who have not received their shots.

Additional pier-side testing might be required for unvaccinated cruisers on embarkation day.

Keep in mind that, if you’re flying to another country to board your cruise, that country could have its own set of testing rules, separate from those of the cruise line. Be sure to check the government website for your country of embarkation to make sure you’re in compliance.

How close to my cruise do I need to be tested?

In order to board their ships, travelers who are fully vaccinated must provide negative antigen or PCR test results that are no more than 48 hours old on embarkation day, and those who are unvaccinated must provide negative PCR test results no more than 72 hours old.

It’s helpful to know that cruise lines don’t necessarily count down to the exact hour of testing. Rather, they go by day. In other words, if you test early in the morning but don’t plan to board until the afternoon two days later, your results will be a little more than 48 hours old. As long as you’re still within the same day during which the 48th hour falls, you’ll almost certainly be permitted to board.

Where can I find an approved test that will give me my results in time?

Pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS offer drive-thru antigen and PCR testing by appointment. However, with the tight window in which the results are needed, there’s no guarantee you’ll have them in time to cruise, particularly because the demand for testing is so high right now.

Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test ordered online (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The best option for vaccinated passengers is to order at-home antigen testing kits that offer telehealth access. Some cruise lines sell them, but you can also find them through Optum or eMed websites. Only professionally proctored at-home tests are accepted by the cruise lines, so if you’re ordering one of Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests, make sure it’s the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test. (Other versions of the test do not include proctoring and won’t be valid for boarding your vessel.)

The safest bet for unvaccinated passengers flying to their embarkation ports is to make an appointment for a rapid PCR test at the airport — either the one from which they’re departing or the one at which they’re arriving. (For travelers who are not flying, some airports will still take appointments even if you don’t have a flight booked.) Results are returned in anywhere from one to 24 hours, depending on the type of test chosen, so be sure to plan accordingly.

Will my cruise line provide testing at the embarkation port?

This area at PortMiami is for unvaccinated cruise passengers awaiting their pre-boarding test results. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Although most cruise lines have committed to sailing with nearly all passengers and crew fully vaccinated, they do make allowances for young children and people who are unable to receive the vaccine. In addition to showing a negative test result from a test taken prior to embarkation, anyone who is not immunized could be required to take a second test at the port on the day of the sailing. Most of the major cruise lines currently require this.

Some lines, such as Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, provide complimentary testing for all passengers at the pier. Other lines might also provide testing as a backup for passengers who were unable to obtain test results prior to embarkation day, but you should absolutely not count on that.

How much does a COVID-19 test cost?

COVID-19 test costs depend largely on the type of test, how and where you have the test done, and whether or not you’re specifically asked if the test is for travel purposes. Prices vary from free to several hundred dollars.

At a big-box drive-thru pharmacy, there’s a good chance your test will be covered by your health insurance, but it depends on whether or not the reason for the test is indicated when you make your appointment. For example, CVS asks if you need the test to meet travel requirements. In that case, insurance is unlikely to pick up the tab. Walgreens doesn’t ask if the test is for travel purposes. Instead, it asks if you live in an area of high spread (which, unfortunately, most of us do).

If you’re opting instead to order a test online, you’re looking at about $50 for a single test or as much as $150 for a pack of six. If you have a flexible spending account or a health savings account, the IRS says at-home tests are considered eligible expenses. The White House has also indicated that people with private health insurance could be reimbursed for the cost of these at-home tests next year, according to CNBC.

If you’re someone who requires a PCR test, the downside to testing at the airport is that it’s pricey, with some U.S.-based services costing $200 or more.

I’ve also heard horror stories of this type of testing overseas running into the $400 range, and it’s generally not covered by insurance. Ultimately, what you’ll pay depends on the airport location, the type of test you choose (antigen tests are also available if you’re vaccinated and find yourself in a pinch) and how quickly you need results. In general, antigen tests are cheaper, while PCRs are more expensive, especially if you need the results in just a few hours.

If you’re unvaccinated, all testing required by the cruise lines — which could include pre-cruise, during-cruise and post-cruise testing — is provided by the cruise lines, but the cost will be passed along to you. If you’re cruising with Carnival, Holland America or Princess, you’ll be billed $150, which includes all the tests you’ll need. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity will charge you $136. Disney’s tests are free for all passengers, regardless of vaccination status, and Norwegian’s are also free, but 100% of its passengers are required to be vaccinated in order to sail.

COVID-19 tests during a cruise

Passengers’ antigen test swabs await processing. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Will I be required to test during my cruise?

If you are unvaccinated, some cruise lines could require you to test periodically throughout your voyage. The longer the sailing, the more likely it is that you’ll need to test while you’re on board. Most lines will charge you for the cost of administering and processing these tests.

Additionally, if a passenger feels ill and subsequently tests positive for COVID-19 on your cruise, you could be required to take a test if the vessel’s contact tracing program determines you were in close contact with the ill passenger. Testing under these circumstances is covered by the line.

In most cases, any post-cruise testing required for passengers to return home is conducted on board the ship on one of the last days of the sailing at the expense of the cruise line. We’ll get into that more in the section below.

Post-cruise testing

Coronavirus test
(Photo by Paul Biris/Getty Images)

Do I need to take a COVID-19 test after my cruise?

That depends on where your cruise ends. If you’re arriving back to the U.S. directly via your ship, then no, you will not need a post-cruise test.

However, if your voyage ends in a country outside of the U.S. and you’re flying back, you will need to show proof of a negative test result that’s no more than 24 hours old, regardless of your vaccination status. Either type of test (antigen or PCR) will satisfy the requirement.

Prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 omicron variant, anyone flying back to the U.S. had a three-day window for their entry test. The time frame has changed, effective Dec. 6, 2021.

Additionally, some countries do require cruise passengers to test before they disembark, so if your sailing concludes in a nation outside the U.S., you might have to test before leaving the vessel. Check the government website for your country of debarkation for specifics.

Do cruise lines provide tests for passengers who need them to disembark or to return to the U.S., and is there a cost?

If you’re flying to the U.S. from an international location after your voyage or disembarking in a country that requires cruisers to be tested, your cruise line will likely cover the cost of testing and processing. However, some charge a nominal fee. Check with your cruise line for details.

Featured photo by Ergin Yalcin/Getty Images.

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