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These 2 small cruise lines plan to restart operations in just a few weeks

May 26, 2020
7 min read
These 2 small cruise lines plan to restart operations in just a few weeks
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It looks like this won't be a summer entirely without cruising after all.

While many of the world's biggest cruise operators including Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises already have canceled large chunks of their summer schedules, two small lines that focus on trips in U.S. waters are eyeing a much earlier restart -- perhaps in just three or four weeks.

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With lockdown measures in the U.S. easing and Americans beginning to emerge from their homes, Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines is preparing for a limited resumption of sailings on U.S. waterways on June 20, just 25 days from now, the company's president and CEO, Charles Robertson, told TPG on Tuesday.

"We have a clear road map to operate in place," Robertson said in a one-on-one interview. "It'll be a slow rollout through August, when we'll have the whole fleet operating again."

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Also planning a June restart -- albeit at the very end of the month -- is Indiana-based American Queen Steamboat Company. The line is aiming to have a vessel in operation by June 29.

Both of the lines operate small riverboats on U.S. rivers that aren't covered under the 100-day "no-sail" order for cruise ships issued in April by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). American Cruise Lines also operates small cruise vessels designed to sail in coastal areas of New England, the Southeast, Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

The CDC's "no-sail" order only applies to cruise vessels that carry more than 250 passengers and crew. Some American Cruise Lines vessels carry as few as 100 passengers. American Queen Steamboat's smallest vessel carries 166 passengers.

American Cruise Lines hopes to have its 190-passenger American Harmony operating on the Mississippi River by June 28. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)
American Cruise Lines hopes to have its 190-passenger American Harmony operating on the Mississippi River by June 28. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

American Cruise Lines plans to restart operations on June 20 with just one of its 12 vessels, the 180-passenger American Song, Robertson told TPG. The ship is based in the Pacific Northwest, and its initial sailing will be a seven-night trip on the Columbia and Snake rivers from Portland, Oregon, to Clarkston, Washington.

A second American Cruise Lines vessel that operates on the Mississippi River, the 190-passenger American Harmony, is scheduled to start back up on June 28. Its initial sailing will be a seven-night trip between Memphis and New Orleans.

Related: The first-timer's guide to visiting New Orleans — and how to get there with points and miles

American Cruise Lines also is looking at a late June or July restart of Alaska cruises with its 175-passenger American Constellation.

The American Queen Steamboat Company plans to restart operations in the coming weeks with just one vessel, the 166-passenger, Mississippi River-based American Duchess. The line's three other vessels are designed to carry more than 250 passengers and crew, which means they fall under the CDC order forbidding cruise operations in U.S. waters until July 24.

The initial June 20 sailing that American Cruise Lines is planning in the Pacific Northwest still could be derailed if the phased reopening of Oregon doesn't progress as planned. While he sounded optimistic about the departure, "nobody can guarantee it," Robertson acknowledged when asked if he was sure the trip would run. "It really depends on how this phased reopening goes."

Assuming the June 20 resumption date holds, American Cruise Lines would become the first U.S.-based cruise company to restart operations -- a prospect that, perhaps, shouldn't come as a surprise.

Related: When will cruising resume? Here's our (new) best guess

With as few as 50 rooms each, and often tied up along the waterfront of a U.S. town or city, American Cruise Lines vessels are more akin to boutique hotels than traditional cruise ships. Many hotels in the country, of course, already are back open or in the process of reopening.

Some of the issues that bigger, ocean-going cruise ships have faced since the coronavirus outbreak began -- getting turned away from a destination, for instance -- are not a factor for domestic lines such as American Cruise Lines.

As Robertson noted, there's no international travel involved for Americans in taking an American Cruise Lines sailing, so there's no risk of getting turned away at a border or quarantined in a foreign country. If someone on board an American Cruise Lines vessel gets sick, an American medical facility is usually just minutes away.

Robertson said the company has been talking to the ports along its routes to make sure they're comfortable with the return of ship visitors.

"The ports have been very supportive," he said.

Many of the ports just want to be sure the line has a plan to keep passengers healthy and to take responsibility if a passenger becomes ill, he added. And they do. Robertson outlined a long list of measures the company is taking to ensure its passengers stay healthy. Among the biggest: Ships will operate at just 75% capacity to facilitate social distancing, and there'll also be increased time between cruises to allow for more thorough sanitation.

Related: 17 ports that might not welcome ships when cruising resumes

Other changes will include the closure of public bathrooms on ships, with passengers asked to only use bathrooms in their own cabins. Sanitation of all touchpoints including elevator buttons and doorknobs will be conducted hourly, and there will be new pre-cruise screening measures. Anyone showing signs of a flu-like illness will be denied boarding as will anyone who has traveled abroad in the 14 days before a sailing.

Robertson also said the line would add a nurse or an emergency medical technician to every ship, something that's unusual for vessels with fewer than 100 cabins. In addition, empty cabins will be set aside for isolating passengers who show signs of illness. Ships also will carry COVID-19 tests.

American Cruise Lines vessels, Robertson noted, are already unusually spacious, which will help with social distancing. The typical vessel has about 350 square feet of space per passenger at full capacity. With the new 75% limit to capacity, that amount will increase to around 450 square feet per passenger. The lower capacity will allow the line to take away some tables in the ship's main dining room to expand the space between diners.

These ships also have independent HVAC systems in every cabin and lounge, with no shared ducting between rooms — something that Robertson said was relatively unusual for a cruise vessel.

"This whole situation highlights our advantages," Robertson said.

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by The 180-passenger American Song. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

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