Cruise Lines Start Dropping Vaccine Requirements

It’s hard to keep track as regulations continue to change and evolve. This is the latest for those heading out to sea soon or considering it.

Are COVID Vaccinations and Testing Still Required for Cruises?

Lindblad Expeditions is among the shrinking number of cruise lines that continue to require vaccination and testing.

Courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions

As of this month, the majority of cruise passengers are required to be both fully vaccinated and tested for COVID-19 before getting on a ship; some exceptions to the vaccination rules applied only for kids under age 12 and a very small number of adults seeking exemptions.

That won’t be the case come September.

More than 14 months after cruising restarted following a long pandemic pause, and with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) having last month ended the intense monitoring of the cruise industry that began in March 2020, major cruise lines are dropping both vaccine requirements and precruise testing of vaccinated passengers.

Starting in September, a larger number of unvaccinated travelers will be allowed onboard cruise ships both big and small on select routes but will be required to be tested for COVID first.

The reasons for the changes are clear: 1) the CDC is no longer requiring specific COVID protocols for cruising; 2) cruise lines want more business.

Carnival Cruise Line was very upfront about its motivations in announcing its decision to let anyone, vaccinated or not, to come onboard most of its sailings.

“Our ships have been sailing very full all summer, but there is still room for more of our loyal guests and these guidelines will make it a simpler process and make cruising accessible to those who were not able to meet the protocols we were required to follow for much of the past 14 months,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival.

Other cruise lines are singing the same tune.

“Our guests have been excited to return to cruising, and these changes will make it easier for more guests to explore the world in a safe and enjoyable environment,” said Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line, in announcing that the cruise line would be dropping its vaccine requirements as of September 6, 2022. “The new, simplified protocols recognize the evolving nature of COVID-19 while still ensuring we protect the health of our guests, team members and the communities we visit.”

There are still some cruise lines that have not yet indicated they will relax their COVID protocols, though their numbers are dwindling. And as in the noncruise world, the changes in regulations are happening quickly and travelers will need to stay updated on the latest.

If you have a cruise booked, you should keep checking the cruise line’s website or contact the line for the latest rules. The reality is even if you booked a cruise with the assumption you were going to be on a ship where everyone is vaccinated and tested, that may no longer be the case.

How cruise lines’ COVID vaccination and testing rules have changed

When cruise lines restarted operations in summer 2021, after being banned by the CDC from operating for 15 months due to COVID-19-related safety concerns, it was with strict CDC-imposed regulations. They included vaccination requirements for anyone age 12 and up (some companies such as Disney Cruise Line later went with a 5 and up requirement as vaccinations became available for younger children), precruise testing requirements, mandatory masking in public areas, social distancing, and other measures the CDC said would help contain the spread of COVID-19 on cruise ships.

After two years of first banning and then advising against cruising due to pandemic-related health and safety risks, in late March 2022, the CDC dropped its warning to travelers about the health risks of cruising during the COVID pandemic.

In May, the CDC scaled back slightly on its tough restrictions for cruise lines by allowing ships to declare themselves as “highly vaccinated” if 90 percent of passengers and at least 95 percent of crew were vaccinated. Previously, the number was 95 percent for passengers. The change allowed more unvaccinated children who didn’t yet qualify for a vaccine (currently those under the age of five) or had not obtained a vaccine to come onboard during the summer.

The agency provided the cruise lines with greater leeway to set and monitor their own policies. Consequently, most cruise lines opted to make masks optional. But the CDC still maintained a close watch, publishing a color-coded chart of ship outbreaks that it updated regularly.

Most cruise lines kept requirements for vaccinations and precruise testing in place, but that changed in late July, after the CDC backed off even further from its monitoring of the cruise industry. The agency said that after working closely with the cruise industry for two years, it believed cruise lines had access to the “necessary tools” to “prevent and mitigate COVID-19 onboard.”

While cruising “poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission,” consumers can make their own decisions as they would in any other setting, the agency said in a statement. “CDC continues to recommend that cruise travelers remain up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines and get tested for COVID-19 before and after they travel, and after any known exposure to a person with COVID-19. CDC also continues to recommend mask wearing in indoor travel settings.”

Since late July, cruise lines have been further relaxing rules. First Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and MSC Cruises all announced they would eliminate precruise testing requirements for vaccinated guests on cruises of six nights or less, while hinting that there would be additional loosening of requirements once they got the necessary approvals from the governments of countries the ships visit.

On August 8, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, announced it was also loosening vaccine requirements. A tidal wave has followed, with other cruise lines announcing similar changes.

What to know before you cruise

Vaccine and pretrip testing requirements can be confusing, especially if you are cruising internationally. Cruise lines have their own rules; countries have their own rules. And the rules are constantly changing.

Before your trip, you will need to review your cruise line’s health and safety protocols. You may be required to arrive at your ship with a negative COVID-19 test result in hand or not. (If testing is required it can typically be either a PCR test or tele-health-monitored antigen test, paid for by the passenger. The cruise line may also require a test at the pier, paid for by the cruise line.) And you may have to be vaccinated or not. Depending on the cruise line, fully vaccinated can mean having received the original series at least 14 days prior to your cruise, or the original series plus a booster shot.

In you are an unvaccinated adult, some cruise lines will now let you sail, others will not. If you are allowed onboard, you will need to be tested precruise, which is required for unvaccinated children as well.

A quick cruise line guide to COVID requirements

Here’s a rundown of the basic rules for some leading cruise lines. Note: There may be additional requirements if you are traveling internationally, and the rules can change—sometimes overnight. Be sure to review the latest requirements prior to boarding.

American Queen Voyages
On this line’s river, ocean, Great Lakes and expedition ships, all passengers are required to be vaccinated. A precruise test is no longer required on the river ships. On ocean, lakes, and expedition ships that visit Canada, there is a free COVID-19 test (antigen) at the precruise hotel check-in on the day prior to embarkation until further notice. Guests may also provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test by an accredited third-party with results from within two days of embarkation, if they choose.

Precruise testing is no longer required for vaccinated guests, except in ports where testing is required. All passengers must be vaccinated. Those eligible for boosters are also required to have received them.

Celebrity Cruises
Beginning September 5, all passengers regardless of vaccination status can cruise from the U.K., Europe, and Los Angeles. Otherwise, vaccines are required for passengers age 12 and up. No precruise testing is required for vaccinated guests on sailings of five nights or less. Testing is required on sailings of six nights or more. Unvaccinated guests are required to be tested.

All guests age 16 and up must be vaccinated, including with booster shots. Children age 12 to 15 must have received two initial doses of the vaccination. All passengers age 4 and up must take a prearrival test and show a negative result to board.

Disney Cruise Line
Beginning September 2, for sailings departing U.S. and Canadian ports, guests ages 12 and older are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at the time of sailing. Disney also highly recommends vaccines for younger kids. Precruise testing is required for all guests.

Holland America Line
As of September 6, on most voyages of 15 nights or less, vaccinated guests age 5 and up do not need to be tested prior to cruising. Unvaccinated guests are welcome with a medically supervised or self-test within three days of sailing. The new protocols do not apply to itineraries for countries where local regulations may vary, such as Canada, Australia, and Greece. For cruises longer than 15 nights, a medically supervised COVID-19 test is required for all guests, and most passengers are required to be vaccinated.

Lindblad Expeditions
All passengers age 5 and older must be vaccinated. All passengers age 12 and up, who completed their primary vaccine series more than five months ago, are required to be boosted. Passengers age 4 and under do not require a vaccination. Guests will no longer need to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result prior to departing home. All guests will continue to receive a COVID-19 test just prior to embarkation, arranged by Lindblad, and all guests must test negative to board. Masks are no longer required.

Oceania Cruises
Vaccinated guests age 12 are not required to procure a precruise COVID-19 test, and unvaccinated guests may embark with a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours prior to departure, subject to local regulations, beginning on September 3, 2022. Requirements may differ for guests traveling on voyages departing from or visiting destinations with specific local regulations, such as Canada, Greece, and Bermuda. The cruise line continues to strongly recommend all guests be up to date on vaccination protocols and test at their convenience prior to travel.

Paul Gauguin Cruises
Vaccinations are required for all passengers over age 5. Boosters are required for those age 18 and up who completed tests more than nine months prior to the cruise. All passengers must also present a negative PCR test result at the pier. Temperature checks occur daily.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises
As with sister lines Norwegian and Oceania, vaccinated guests age 12 are not required to have any precruise COVID-19 testing or other protocols. Unvaccinated guests are welcome but required to have a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours prior to departure, subject to local regulations. Specific destinations still require testing such as Canada, Greece, and Bermuda.

Royal Caribbean
All passengers are welcome regardless of vaccine status as of September 5, on select routes such as cruises from Los Angeles, Galveston (though those age 12 and up need to be vaccinated to go ashore in Grand Cayman), and New Orleans (same rule with Grand Cayman), and in most destinations in Europe. (Unvaccinated guests will have to undergo special testing onboard to visit Spain or Greece.) Vaccines are still required for cruises in the Bahamas and Caribbean; precruise testing is not required for vaccinated guests on cruises of less than six nights. Precruise testing is required for unvaccinated passengers.

As of September 6, fully vaccinated passengers will no longer be required to submit a precruise COVID-19 test. Unvaccinated guests will only need to submit a self-administered test taken within three days of sailing. The protocols do not apply to itineraries for countries where local regulations may vary, including Canada, Australia, and Greece. These rules apply to cruises of under 16 nights. For full Panama Canal transits, trans-ocean, and select remote voyages, testing and vaccines are still required.

Viking Cruises
All passengers and crew are required to be vaccinated on Viking’s river and ocean ships—without exception. Viking strongly recommends passengers receive a booster dose before departing. As of June 10, “Viking highly recommends, but no longer requires, a pre-departure COVID-19 test—unless one is required by the destination,” Viking said in an updated statement about health and safety protocols. Viking will continue to do onboard testings for any passengers who report symptoms.

Windstar Cruises
All passengers must be fully vaccinated. For Europe and Tahiti, your last COVID-19 shot is now required within the last 270 days. Otherwise, you will need a booster. Windstar will also administer for each passenger a complimentary COVID-19 test prior to sailing.

International travel requirements and restrictions continue to evolve. Check the U.S. State Department’s detailed COVID-19 travel information and country-specific advisories, which are updated regularly.

The CDC also has detailed recommendations for travel during the pandemic, both for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers as well as for cruise travel.

This article was originally published in May 2022; it was most recently updated on August 17, 2022, with current information.

Fran Golden covers cruises for AFAR.
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