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Shorter voyages, touring restrictions: Here's what cruising will be like when it returns

Dec. 16, 2020
9 min read
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We're finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to a cruising comeback in North America.

The increasingly likelihood that large numbers of Americans will be vaccinated for the new coronavirus in coming months, coupled with what is expected to be a resulting decline in case counts for the illness, is raising the odds that at least a few cruise ships could resume operations out of U.S. ports by the spring, with more restarting service in the summer and the fall.

Still, the cruises these ships operate could feel a little different than cruises in the past.

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Cruise lines already have mapped out a wide range of changes that they plan to make to itineraries, onboard policies and shore touring options when they restart operations.

The changes are designed to minimize the chance of a COVID outbreak at sea, and to help with the logistics of operating cruises at a time when some destinations will remain closed to visitors.

More changes could be coming. The cruise industry currently is in discussions with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on new guidelines for ship operations that could include additional requirements for lines and passengers.

So today, as we continue with Cruise Week as part of the 2020 TPG Awards, we're looking at how cruising in North America is likely to be different when it resumes.

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Shorter, closer-to-home voyages

You may have to wait a while before you can take a long cruise to a far-off destination. With coronavirus-related travel restrictions expected to stay in place in parts of the world for months to come, executives at many of the biggest cruise lines have said they initially will stick to short, uncomplicated itineraries from ports that are easy for their customers to reach.

"There'll be short cruises at first with limited destinations," is how Richard Fain, the chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, put it in late October on a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

During the same call, Royal Caribbean Group CFO Jason Liberty said the company's initial comeback would be "highly focused on ... sailings from key drive markets." In other words, they will be designed as close-to-home trips that don't require a flight to access.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas resumed short sailings out of Singapore in early December that only are open to local residents. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

Royal Caribbean Group is the parent company of Royal Caribbean, which just this month resumed limited sailings with a single ship in Asia. In keeping with what Fain and Liberty said in October, they are short voyages out of Singapore for local residents only that don't include a single port call.

While the line hasn't announced specific itineraries for its initial sailings in North America, Liberty in October noted the company would "make the most" of its private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay. The destination can be reached on a short sailing from such Florida ports as PortMiami and Port Canaveral.

In addition to Royal Caribbean, Royal Caribbean Group owns Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea — none of which have restarted operations.

new health screenings

The process of getting on a cruise ship in the coming year is likely to feel a little bit like going to a doctor's office — at least until coronavirus cases come way down. For starters, you can expect to be tested for COVID-19 as you arrive at a ship, and you'll also likely face other health screening measures at the pier such as a temperature check and a blood oximetry test.

You'll also likely undergo additional health screenings once on board a vessel, including regular temperature checks and, possibly, additional COVID-19 tests at regular intervals. One line, Viking, recently said it would test cruisers for COVID-19 on every single day of every cruise when it restarts operations -- at least initially.

Related: How to plan a cruise with points and miles

Several lines that already have restarted cruising in Europe and other places around the world already are doing much of the above in an effort to keep the new coronavirus off their ships.

Some of them already have been requiring multiple COVID-19 tests. Small-ship line SeaDream Yacht Club, for instance, implemented a system for new Caribbean cruises in November where every passenger was tested twice for COVID-19 before boarding its ship in the region and then a third time four days after boarding. SeaDream abandoned its attempt to restart cruising in the Caribbean after a single voyage after an outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which regulates cruising in U.S. waters, also is considering a requirement that passengers undergo a COVID test as they leave a cruise ship at the end of a voyage.

New onboard rules

If the idea of wearing a mask during a cruise is off-putting to you, you probably shouldn't book a voyage for the coming year. It's likely that some sort of mask-wearing requirement will be in place on cruise ships well into 2021.

So will new social distancing rules. New anti-COVID guidelines that major lines have been announcing in recent months including requirements for mask-wearing on ships in certain situations as well as social distancing. They also call for changes to capacity limits at onboard venues such a theaters and comedy clubs to allow for social distancing.

Already, lines that have resumed limited sailings in Europe and elsewhere have blocked off seating in some venues to keep passengers from sitting too close to each other. At some lines, venues where passengers come into close contact such as fitness areas now are open by appointment only. Some onboard venues may be closed entirely or repurposed.

No more self-serve dining

To some hardcore cruisers, just uttering these words could be considered blasphemy, but we have to say it: The days of the free-for-all, self-service cruise buffet may be over — at least for a while.

While cruise buffets won't disappear completely, lines will be increasing staffing in such venues so that it’s the crew — not passengers — serving food onto plates. The idea is to cut down on the transmission of illness that can happen when multiple people touch the same serving utensils.

This is not without precedence. Cruise ships often restrict passengers from serving themselves at buffet lines during onboard outbreaks of common illnesses such as norovirus. In such situations, they’ll also place crew at self-serve drink stations to hand out drinks, so passengers don’t touch the machines. They’ll remove highly-touched items such as salt and pepper shakers from tables.

Highly-controlled shore visits

Are you the kind of cruiser who loves roaming on your own during port calls? You may not like new shore-visit rules that are in the works at many cruise lines.

Health experts advising some of the world’s biggest cruise brands on how to restart cruising safely have called for significant restrictions on passenger movements during port stops.

The Healthy Sail Panel, which was created by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, for instance, suggested that passengers only be allowed off ships on supervised, cruise-line-sold shore tours.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises.

“During the initial return to sailing, cruise operators should only allow guests debarking from a ship at a destination port to participate in cruise line-sponsored or verified excursions as a way of limiting potential exposures in the destinations they visit,” the panel said in a 66-page report.

A similar rule already has been implemented by MSC Cruises, which resumed cruising in August in Europe, and the CDC is likely to make such a rule part of its guidelines for cruise ships that restart operations in U.S. waters.

More space on board

This is a change for the coming year that many cruisers will like: Ships will feel less crowded.

This is because cruise lines have been pledging to operate their vessels at a reduced capacity to allow for better social distancing — at least initially.

Many of the lines that already have restarted operations have been running their vessels at anywhere from 50% to 70% full. That's a significant drop from pre-COVID times, when most cruise ships operated with every cabin filled.

In some cases, regulatory agencies will require a lower occupancy on ships. The CDC, for instance, is likely to limit the number of passengers on ships when it sets rules for cruise ships restarting operations out of U.S. ports.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more