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A few small lines still want to bring back U.S. cruises this summer. It's looking iffy.

July 10, 2020
8 min read
American Song
A few small lines still want to bring back U.S. cruises this summer. It's looking iffy.
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Just a few weeks ago, it seemed almost for sure that a few small cruise ships in North America would resume sailing this summer. With lockdown measures in the U.S. easing and Americans beginning to emerge from their homes, several small-ship cruise operators that specialize in sailings on U.S. rivers and coastal routes were just days away from restarting trips.

But then coronavirus case counts started surging around the country, and state and local officials started getting nervous. The cruising comeback was pushed back -- first by a week, then two and now ... let's just say it's in flux.

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Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines, which initially had planned to restart operations on June 20, is still eyeing a relatively quick comeback. The small-ship specialist has a New England sailing out of Boston scheduled to depart on July 22 -- just 12 days from now. But whether it departs as scheduled is, at this point, something perhaps best left as an open question.

The first post-lockdown cruise that American Cruise Lines hoped to operate on June 20 -- a seven-night river trip in the Pacific Northwest -- had to be canceled with just two days' notice after Oregon tightened its reopening policy.

The next cruises that American Cruise Lines hoped to run, on the Mississippi River, were canceled in early July as case counts in states that straddle the river surged. Late Wednesday, the line also canceled a series of Alaska trips it had hoped to operate starting July 23 through the end of August.

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American Cruise Lines hopes to resume sailings in New England on June 22 with the 175-passenger American Constitution. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

The Alaska trip cancellations mean the line won't be operating there at all this year.

"American has made the difficult decision to suspend the remainder of the 2020 season in Alaska," American Cruise Lines said Thursday in a statement. "The recent spike in COVID cases around the country has renewed concerns and poses potential complications, as guests both travel to and return home from Alaska."

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Another small-ship line in a similar boat is Indiana-based American Queen Steamboat Company. Initially, the river cruise specialist had hoped to restart operations on the Mississippi River on June 29. But that start date also got pushed back on relatively short notice, first to July and then -- as of a few days ago -- early August.

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American Queen Steamboat Company also still has river trips in the Pacific Northwest on the schedule starting Aug. 2.

Alaska cruise specialist UnCruise Adventures also has been pushing back its restart date in recent weeks. It's now planning to resume operations in Alaska in August with a seven-night trip out of Juneau that includes a stop in Glacier Bay National Park.

Another small-ship cruise operator in Alaska, Alaskan Dream Cruises, is likewise now aiming for an August restart.

The delays at the lines come even as some small-ship cruise operators in Europe -- mostly river lines -- already have restarted sailings with trips open to Europeans only. Europe has been able to control the coronavirus outbreak much more effectively than the U.S., allowing for some cruising to resume. On Wednesday, Germany recorded fewer than 400 new cases of coronavirus. The United States, by contrast, recorded more than 60,000.

All of the lines hoping to restart U.S. cruises this summer operate small vessels that aren’t covered under the current “no-sail order" for cruise ships issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That order is scheduled to expire on July 24 but could be extended.

The no-sail order only applies to cruise vessels that carry more than 250 passengers and crew.

American Cruise Lines has a fleet of 12 vessels that carry between 100 and 190 passengers. They operate more than 35 itineraries along U.S. rivers and coastlines from New England to Alaska, including on the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, along the Southeast coast to Florida, on the Mississippi River complex and in the Pacific Northwest.

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American Queen Steamboat Company has three paddle wheelers on the Mississippi River complex and one riverboat in the Pacific Northwest. All but one carry fewer than 200 passengers.

UnCruise Adventures has eight small vessels that carry just 22 to 86 passengers.

UnCruise Adventures operates adventure-focused trips in Alaska on small vessels such as the Wilderness Adventurer. It carries kayaks and Zodiac boats for exploring. (Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

There is growing consensus in the cruise world that river ships and small vessels that sail coastal routings will be able to resume semiregular operations earlier than bigger ships that offer long-distance ocean trips.

In part, this is because small vessels offer a sort of small-group travel that’s easier to manage in an era of social distancing than the mass tourism of big ships. The typical river ship, for instance, has fewer than 100 cabins. It essentially operates as a small boutique hotel — albeit one that happens to move from town to town. Touring always is in small groups or on an individual basis. Onboard spaces rarely are crowded.

River cruise ships and small coastal vessels also often sail within the borders of a single country. That’s less complex from a logistical point of view than operating the sort of multi-country itineraries typical of big-ship lines. Small ships operating single country itineraries don’t have to worry about another country turning them away at a whim.

Related: One line's comeback plan includes sailings with no ports of call

Also, in the U.S. at least, many small-ship lines cater to a domestic audience that can reach their vessels easily -- an important factor now as travel restrictions hamper long-distance travel.

"Our cruises are close to home and always in sight of land, and many guests can drive straight to our ships," notes American Cruises Lines spokesperson Alexa Paolella. "Our small ships and our curated cruise style offer inherent advantages that are always wonderful, but particularly meaningful right now."

All of the small-ship lines hoping to restart U.S. cruising have announced extensive new health and safety standards to help ensure nobody becomes sick during voyages and passengers don't spread illness to people on land.

In addition, UnCruise Adventures has decided to forego stops at towns where passengers could interact with locals. Instead, the line -- already known for a focus on outdoorsy adventure in remote parts of Southeast Alaska -- will stick to ship-based activities such as whale watching, kayaking, landings for hiking and glacier viewing.

Related: What it's like in Alaska this year with few tourists coming

In keeping with new Alaska state rules, UnCruise Adventures passengers also will be required to take a COVID-19 test and show a negative result before boarding.

"We have done a lot of groundwork to keep our crew and guests safe and support them through each step of the testing process to arrive in Juneau smoothly," UnCruise Adventures CEO Dan Blanchard told TPG.

Blanchard added that the outdoorsy areas of Alaska that UnCruise Adventures vessels visit are perfect for those who want to travel in a socially distant way.

"There's no place less crowded than the natural wilderness of Southeast Alaska, and a connection to that is in our DNA," he said, adding that the state this summer will be unusually empty. "This is an opportunity to see Alaska in a way we may not see again in our lifetime."

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

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