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Booked on a cruise to Asia? Here's how the coronavirus outbreak might affect you

Feb. 04, 2020
10 min read
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Editor's Note

Late Tuesday, after this story initially published, Princess said 10 passengers on Diamond Princess had tested positive for coronavirus. The passengers will be taken ashore for treatment, while the remaining passengers and crew on the ship will be quarantined on board for at least 14 days).

Booked on a cruise to Asia in the coming months? We're guessing you're getting a little nervous.

With the spread of coronavirus in China showing no signs of slowing, and more cases popping up by the day in nearby Thailand, Singapore and Japan, you may be starting to think now isn't the best time for a cruise trip around the region.

Or maybe you're still hot on going, but you're worried your voyage is going to be hopelessly fouled up. After all, we've already seen some lines cancel or significantly alter upcoming sailings that had included stops in China. Airlines, too, have been altering flights to such cruise hubs in Asia as Tianjin (the port for Beijing), Shanghai and Hong Kong.

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One thing to keep in mind if you're particularly worried about coronavirus exposure is that, unlike land resorts, cruise ships can move. If your upcoming sailing is scheduled to go somewhere where coronavirus is a serious concern, your cruise line can (and almost certainly will) reroute your ship to a destination that's in a relatively coronavirus-free zone.

That said, all is not likely to be perfect with at least some upcoming Asia sailings. Among the issues that you need to consider as you get ready for your upcoming trip:

You could be denied boarding

If you've been to China lately, or you're planning a trip there soon, you could be denied boarding when it's time for your cruise to begin. Until further notice, most major cruise lines are denying boarding to anyone who has traveled through China in the 14 days leading up to their sail date (some lines have set the cut-off at 15 or even 30 days). This includes people who have only briefly traveled through the country on their way to other destinations.

Note that the boarding denials are happening on all ships across the globe, not just in Asia. If you traveled through Beijing, Shanghai or (at some lines) even semiautonomous Hong Kong last week, you will not be able to board a cruise ship this week in Europe or the Caribbean.

Many cruise lines also have added extra medical screening at boarding for passengers who've been in contact with people who traveled to China in recent days, as well as holders of Chinese and Hong Kong passports, regardless of when they were last in China. Anyone who reports feeling unwell or shows flu-like symptoms at check-in also is getting extra screening. Anyone who shows a fever or low blood oxygen levels during such screening is being denied boarding, too.

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

Your itinerary could change 

Cruise lines have scrambled in recent days to remove port calls in China from upcoming Asia sailings and replace them with alternative stops in nearby countries. In some cases, lines only have adjusted trips departing in the next few days or weeks. Others have altered voyages as far out as the end of March. Typical of the changes we're seeing:

  • Crystal Cruises has replaced calls at Hong Kong with stops at Keelung, Taiwan (the port for Taipei) on four upcoming Crystal Symphony sailings departing in February and March.
  • Cunard has canceled an overnight call in Hong Kong by its well-known flagship, Queen Mary 2, scheduled for Feb. 18 to 19. The ship instead will go to Singapore.
  • Seabourn Cruise Line rerouted its Seabourn Ovation over the weekend away from Xiamen, China. The vessel instead will stop in Sandakan, Malaysia, on Feb. 10. Ovation also had to skip a call at Da Nang, Vietnam, on Tuesday when local officials would not grant it clearance.

Cruise lines also have been rerouting ships scheduled to embark and disembark passengers in Chinese ports. The current sailing of Holland America's 1,404-passenger Westerdam, for instance, now will end on Feb. 15 in Yokohama, Japan (the port for Tokyo), instead of Shanghai. All subsequent sailings of the ship through March 28 now will begin and end in Yokohama instead of Shanghai or Hong Kong.

The Westerdam voyages had been scheduled to include calls at such Chinese ports as Qingdao and Tianjin but now will focus on Japan and South Korea.

Cruise lines that are changing embarkation and disembarkation ports for upcoming cruises typically are rebooking flights for passengers affected by the changes, if the passengers had arranged their air through the lines. Passengers who had arranged their own flights to meet the ships are being told to contact the airlines directly to change their routings. The lines have noted that most airlines have waived change fees for flights in and out of China.

Expect to see more such itinerary changes in the coming weeks. If you were dead set on seeing a particular port in China on an upcoming sailing, you may be disappointed. On the flipside, your Asia cruise may end up stopping somewhere else that could be just as interesting.

Your cruise ship could get quarantined

Worry about the spread of coronavirus already has prompted several ports to block the arrival of cruise passengers, at least temporarily. More than 5,000 passengers on a Costa Cruises vessel docking in Civitavecchia, Italy, last week weren't allowed to disembark the ship for several hours after a single passenger showed signs of illness. Testing revealed the illness wasn't coronavirus, and the passengers eventually were let off.

And as of publishing, passengers on a Princess Cruises ship that pulled into Yokohama on Monday have been held on the vessel for more than 24 hours while local authorities conduct health checks on all 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew. The checks were ordered after a resident of Hong Kong who was on a previous sailing of the ship -- the Diamond Princess -- tested positive for coronavirus. The resident of Hong Kong who tested positive didn't report symptoms of an illness while on the vessel, which he left on Jan. 25. He visited a hospital in Hong Kong six days later with symptoms of the illness.

(Editor's note: Late Tuesday, after this story initially published, Princess said 10 passengers on Diamond Princess had tested positive for coronavirus. The passengers will be taken ashore for treatment, while the remaining passengers and crew on the ship will be quarantined on board for at least 14 days).

With tensions high, expect more such cases in the coming days.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

Your cruise could be canceled

With the Diamond Princess in temporary quarantine in Yokohama harbor, Princess today canceled the next sailing of the vessel -- an eight-night voyage around Japan and Taiwan. And it's not the only soon-to-depart Asia cruise that's been canceled in recent days.

Cruise giant Royal Caribbean has canceled every sailing of its massive, Shanghai-based Spectrum of the Seas through March 4 — eight voyages in all. That's a big deal, as Spectrum of the Seas is one of the world’s 10 biggest cruise vessels. It can hold up to 4,905 people, which means the cancellations could be affecting as many as 39,240 vacationers.

Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas, shown here in Hong Kong, currently sails to Japan out Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas, shown here in Hong Kong, currently sails to Japan out Shanghai. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

While Spectrum of the Seas primarily caters to the Chinese market, North Americans can book its voyages on the line's U.S. website. It's the only Royal Caribbean vessel currently based in China.

Other lines canceling soon-to-depart China sailings in recent days include MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises. The canceled MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises sailings were specifically aimed at Chinese travelers and not bookable on the lines' U.S. websites.

The big question now is whether the cancellations will spread beyond March. Already, Princess has canceled two sailings in June that had been scheduled to begin and end in Shanghai. The line also has altered several sailings that include China stops scheduled for May and June. So far, other lines haven't followed in making changes that far out.

What options do you have? 

For travelers who already have paid thousands of dollars for a cruise that includes a China stop in the coming months, the coronavirus outbreak is, no doubt, worrying. But before you panic too much, know this: If the virus still is raging in the country at the time of your departure, your line will not take you there. Cruise lines are notoriously cautious in situations such as this. As long as the U.S. government is warning Americans not to travel to China, cruise lines will reroute ships to other ports in the region.

If that doesn't make you feel better -- maybe the idea of going to different ports is a deal-breaker for you -- you could cancel the voyage. But if the departure is in the next few months, you can't count on getting your money back. For now, cruise lines aren't offering refunds to passengers who want to cancel cruises due to coronavirus fears.

Be warned, too, that most travel insurance policies won't reimburse you for canceling a trip due to an illness outbreak at a destination. That said, most policies — including those provided by a premium credit card — do cover trip cancellation or interruption if you're quarantined by a physician. And, some policies offer cancellation or interruption protection if your destination is under a mandatory evacuation. You also should be able to get at least a partial refund for a canceled trip if you purchased cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance. Be sure to talk it over with your insurance company before you pull the trigger on canceling.

How to find out if your cruise is affected 

Cruise lines are contacting customers on sailings that are being canceled or rerouted due to the outbreak. If you've booked through a travel agent, your line also will be contacting your travel agent, who in turn should reach out to you. If you think you're on a sailing that already has been affected, and you haven't heard from anyone, there's no harm in contacting either your line (by phone, email, tweet or online chat) or your agent, should you have one.

Many lines have also placed information on boarding restrictions and other coronavirus-related information at dedicated pages on their websites.

Looking for more on cruising? Our cruise planning guide starts here:

Featured image by Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.