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The extreme measures cruise lines are taking as coronavirus concerns spread

March 13, 2020
12 min read
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest details of cruise line cancellations, boarding restrictions and cancellation policy changes. It originally published on March 4.

Perhaps no other segment of the travel industry has been hit as hard by the spread of the new coronavirus as cruising.

The much-publicized outbreak of the illness on a Princess Cruises vessel in Japan last month set off a wave of cancellations that hasn't really let up. At the same time, the pace of new bookings has plummeted, in part because the U.S. government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now is recommending Americans should not cruise until further notice. Cruise lines also are dealing with a growing number of ports that are skittish about welcoming cruise ships.

In response, cruise lines have been taking some extreme measures, including canceling large numbers of sailings, rerouting ships and adding unprecedented boarding restrictions. In recent days, some lines even have suspended operations.

The measures are designed both to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus on ships and to ease the worries of customers who are booked on the vessels.

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Nearly all lines also have waived cancellation penalties to allow passengers to postpone travel -- a rarity in the cruise world. In addition, some are adding incentives to passengers to get them to stick with their cruising plans. Here's everything you need to know about the latest cruise cancellations, policy changes and other developments.

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Suspending operations

More than half a dozen cruise lines have suspended operations worldwide since President Donald Trump announced new restrictions on travel between Europe and the U.S. on Wednesday.

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They include Princess Cruises, the world's fifth-largest cruise line, and family cruise leader Disney Cruise Line, as well as small-ship specialist Windstar Cruises and Europe-based Celeystal Cruises. River cruise giant Viking, which also operates ocean ships, also has suspended operations around the globe, as have river cruise operators Avalon Waterways and Gate 1 Travel.

Several river lines including Uniworld and AmaWaterways have suspended operations in Europe only for now.

In addition, start-up line Virgin Voyages has postponed its maiden voyage until August. The line's first ship, Scarlet Lady, had been scheduled to sail its first “sneak-a-peek” voyage with paying passengers out of Miami on March 26, less than two weeks from today.

For now, most of the biggest lines -- including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises -- continue to operate.

For the most part, the lines that are suspending operations have announced that the suspensions will last through the end of April. Disney's announced suspension is the shortest -- only through the end of March for now. Princess announced the longest suspension, through May 11.

Canceled sailings

The above suspensions of service have resulted in a wave of cancellations of March and April sailings around the globe. But even before the suspensions, many sailings were being canceled.

The outbreak has had a particularly big affect on cruises in Asia, where the virus that causes COVID-19 first emerged in December. All voyages out of China have been stopped, for now, and lines also have canceled most departures from other destinations around Asia through at least the late spring and even the summer.

Among the lines that have taken the most drastic action are Norwegian Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises. Norwegian has canceled nearly all its Asia sailing through the end of the year. Windstar has canceled every Asia sailing through the end of the year.

Lines that have canceled all or at least some Asia sailings between now and May include Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Crystal Cruises and Cunard Line. Oceania Cruises has canceled all Asia sailings through June.

Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas sailing into Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas sailing into Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

Perhaps hardest hit by the outbreak has been Princess Cruises. One of its Asia-based ships, Diamond Princess, was under quarantine in the harbor of Yokohama, Japan, for several weeks after passengers and crew on the vessel tested positive for COVID-19. Initially, just nine passengers and a single crew member were diagnosed with the illness. But the number of confirmed cases ultimately reached more than 700. At least six passengers have died.

In response to the quarantine, Princess has canceled or altered a large number of Asia sailings on four ships that sail in the region: Diamond Princess, Sapphire Princess, Majestic Princess and Sun Princess. Sapphire Princess, notably, is being repositioned to Australia for the remainder of the year.

More recently, Princess has been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak on another ship, the San Francisco-based Grand Princess. As of Thursday, the line and government officials still were in the process of disembarking passengers from the vessel and transferring them to military facilities around the U.S. for a 14-day quarantine. At least two passengers and 19 crew members have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Related: Will independent travel insurance cover coronavirus? Here’s what you should know

Cancellation penalty waivers

In an unusual development, nearly all cruise lines now are waiving penalties for customers who want to cancel or postpone trips.

Many major lines now will let you cancel a cruise with just a day or two of notice for a full refund in the form of a future cruise credit. That’s a huge change from normal policies. At many lines, you’ll normally lose at least part of your money if you cancel a cruise within 90 days of departure. Normally, if you cancel a cruise with a few weeks of a sailing, you’ll lose all of your money.

Related: A line-by-line guide to coronavirus-related cruise cancellation waivers

The new policies are temporary. At some lines, they only apply to sailings in the next few months. At others, the cut-off is far later. Oceania Cruises, for instance, is allowing passengers booked on any voyage departing before Sept. 30 to cancel up to 48 hours before departure without penalty. Those who cancel will receive a future cruise credit for the full amount they paid. The future cruise credit can be used on any sailing through Dec. 31, 2022.

Note that, in some cases, lines have changed their cancellation policies several times in recent days -- first, easing policies modestly and then later making more drastic changes. If you're booked on a cruise that you want to cancel or postpone, you should call your line directly (or your travel agent, if you booked through one) before canceling to discuss your options. And keep in mind that the situation continues to be fluid.

Related: How a global outbreak has left the travel industry reeling

Incentives to keep you cruising

Several of the world's biggest cruise lines have begun offering incentives to persuade passengers on soon-to-depart voyages to stick with their plans.

Cruise giant Carnival is offering anyone booked on a sailing departing between now and May 31 up to a $200 per cabin onboard credit if they don't cancel.

Under the terms of the Carnival offer, passengers on three- to four-night voyages will get a $100 per cabin credit. Those on five-night cruises will get a $150 per cabin credit. The full $200 credit will go to passengers on sailings of six nights or longer.

Carnival says it will automatically apply the credit to shipboard accounts. There's no need to call the line to get it added.

Two other lines implementing an almost identical policy in recent days are Princess and Holland America. Both are sister lines to Carnival.

Like Carnival, Princess is offering onboard credits of $100 per cabin for passengers on three- to four-night voyages. Those on five-night cruises will get a $150 per cabin credit. The full $200 credit will go to passengers on sailings of six nights or longer.

Now that Princess has canceled its March and April sailings, its incentive offer only applies to sailings in May that it has yet to cancel.

Holland America is offering an onboard credit of $200 per cabin ($100 for a solo traveler) for voyages lasting a week or more. The credit is $100 ($50 for a solo traveler) for shorter trips.

At both Princess and Holland America, the credit is available to anyone who has been booked on a sailing departing now through the end of May.

Boarding restrictions

If you’ve been to Italy, South Korea, China or Iran lately, you could be denied boarding when it’s time for your cruise to begin.

Until further notice, all major cruise lines are denying boarding to anyone who has traveled through any part of South Korea, China (including Hong Kong and Macau) or Iran in the 14 days leading up to their sail date. Some lines have set the cut-off date as far out as 30 days. This includes people who have only briefly transited through these nations on their way to other destinations.

Cruise lines also are denying boarding to passengers who have traveled recently through any area of Italy that is under a "lockdown order," which, as of this week, is the entire country.

Note that boarding denials are happening on all ships across the globe, not just those positioned in Asia and Europe. If you traveled through Hong Kong or Italy last week, you will not be able to board a cruise ship this week in the Caribbean.

Cruise lines also are denying boarding to anyone who recently has had contact with, or helped care for, anyone suspected of having or diagnosed as having COVID-19. Those who are currently subject to health monitoring for possible exposure to the illness also are being denied boarding.

In addition, all major cruise lines have added extra medical screening at boarding for passengers that includes temperature readings. Any individual with a temperature detected at or above 100.4 degrees will receive secondary screening and could be denied boarding.

As you might expect, cruise lines are giving full refunds to anyone denied boarding.

Related: Complete guide to traveling during the deadly coronavirus outbreak

Ports denying ship arrivals

In a development that has troubling implications for the cruise business in the coming weeks and months, a growing number of ports are turning away cruise ships.

Just this week, the port towns of Santa Barbara and Monterey, in California, became the first U.S. ports to announce they would stop cruise ship arrivals. They soon were followed by Baltimore and Astoria, Oregon. They join ports in Norway, Italy, Spain, Estonia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Taiwan in turning away vessels.

On Friday, Singapore, a major hub for Asia cruises, also said it would stop allowing cruise ship calls for now.

In addition, on Friday, Canada announced it would ban visits by cruise ships carrying more than 500 people through July 1. The development that has profound implications for the upcoming Alaska cruise season. Canadian ports on the West Coast play an integral part in Alaska cruises.

The lieutenant governor of Hawaii, Josh Green, and a Hawaii state representative, also are calling for a temporary halt to cruise ship arrivals in their state.

Related: The latest on ports that are turning away cruise ships

For now, most major cruise destinations in the Caribbean, the world's most popular place to cruise, remain open to cruise ships. On Thursday, Trinidad and Tobago became the first Caribbean destination to say it would block cruise ships for now.

Still, Caribbean ports have become increasingly skittish about the arrival of cruise vessels. They've begun turning them away on an ad-hoc basis at even the slightest hint of an illness onboard.

On Thursday, a Royal Caribbean vessel was blocked from calling at St. Thomas. On Monday, a Costa Cruises vessel was blocked from calling in Antigua.

Other Caribbean destinations that have turned away cruise ships in recent days include Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Planning a cruise for 2020? Find everything you need to know here:

Featured image by ROYAL CARIBBEAN