Is It Time for Kids to Cruise Again?

As a growing number of younger children get vaccinated, cruise lines are starting to welcome families back onboard. Pediatric infectious disease experts offer their advice for families eyeing a vacation at sea.

Is It Time for Kids to Cruise Again?

Families with newly vaccinated kids are now weighing the risk-rewards of getting on a cruise ship.

Photo by Shutterstock

Prior to the pandemic, millions of children would sail on cruise ships during a typical year, and now cruise lines want these younger passengers back onboard. But nearly two years into the pandemic, ships’ rules and regulations, as well as concerns for parents, have changed.

As of January 13, 2021, Disney Cruise Line said it will require all passengers age 5 and up to be fully vaccinated on all four of its ships, with the rule in effect at least through March 2022. The move was an industry first and came on the heels of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcing in early November that it now recommends the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. (Kids ages 12 to 17 have been eligible for the Pfizer vaccine since May, and all adults age 18 and older have been eligible for the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines since early 2021.)

Currently, most cruise lines are requiring vaccines for anyone age 12 and older, with exceptions for a limited percentage of unvaccinated kids and adults—the number is mostly capped at 5 to 10 percent of passengers onboard, depending on the ship and cruise line. Everyone sailing from the U.S. is required to present a negative COVID-19 test (taken within two days of embarkation), with unvaccinated cruisers subject to more rigorous testing requirements. Most cruise lines at a minimum are requiring masks in crowded public areas indoors, such as in stairwells or when entering a dining room. In the case of Disney, face coverings are required for all guests age 2 and up indoors except when in their staterooms, actively eating, or taking a photo.

While Disney’s move was a landmark one, some other lines have effectively been doing the same thing. Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, has a 100 percent vaccination requirement for guests and crew, which applies to guests of any age. All fully vaccinated kids are welcome onboard, says spokesman Jose Cano.

Even as cruise lines start to welcome kids back onboard, some of the most popular kids-focused services, notably supervised kids’ clubs, may not be available as families get back out on the water. Norwegian’s Splash Academy (for kids ages 3 to 12) and Entourage teen programs remain closed for now, says Cano. He adds that the onboard teams are prepared with programming for the children and families who will be sailing in the upcoming months. Outdoor family friendly facilities such as waterslides, mini-golf, and the go-kart racetracks (on Norwegian Joy, Bliss, and Encore) are open. Disney’s Oceaneer Club and Disney’s Oceaneer Lab, for ages 3 to 12, are available on a limited, first-come basis, with reservations required, and you can only book one session per day, per child.

Despite some of the ongoing pandemic-related challenges, courting the family crowd to book cruises is definitely back on.

Holland America Line sweetened the pot with a sale offering free passage for up to two children sharing a room with two full-fare paying adults on select Caribbean and Mexico cruises this winter and Europe, New England/Canada, and Alaska cruises next summer. Book by December 9 and a family of four can cruise for less than $900, the line says.

“Now that kids ages 5 and older can receive the COVID-19 vaccine, getting out and seeing the world is on everyone’s mind,” Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line, said in a press release about the new deal. “A multigenerational cruise is the perfect way to return to travel, and we can’t wait to welcome our junior guests and feel the excitement as everyone is able to explore the world together again.”

Holland America Line is currently requiring that all passengers be fully vaccinated and tested and produce a negative COVID-19 test (PCR or antigen) result taken within two days of their embarkation, through February 2022.

The comeback push is not limited to big ships. A small-ship, soft adventure line, Lindblad Expeditions, reports bookings by families with vaccinated kids are up across its fleet, and not just in the popular family destinations of the Galápagos, Baja, Mexico, and Alaska, but also in places like Antarctica, Costa Rica, and Panama as well.

Is it safe to take your kids on a cruise vacation?

Cruise lines and many families may be ready for kids to sail again, but parents and caretakers considering a cruise vacation, even with fully vaccinated children, should exercise caution, says Dr. Frank Esper, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.

“We certainly have learned that this virus loves to spread in indoor enclosed spaces, and that is what a cruise ship is,” Dr. Esper says. “Cruise ships have made changes, have been working on their air filtration, for instance, but it is obviously a risk.

“When indoors on a cruise ship, you are exposing your kids to a crowd,” Dr. Esper adds. He suggests that if you do decide to cruise, pack a supply of masks for you and the kids to wear.

Families planning a winter cruise should get children jabbed as soon as possible, Dr. Esper suggests. “It takes five to six weeks for two-dose shots, and the time in-between, until they are fully vaccinated,” he says. “It’s not find a last-minute cruise deal and ship out.”

Consider delaying your cruise until after the winter

Parents have to realize that vaccines are not 100 percent effective in eliminating the risk of contracting COVID-19, says Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Efficiency is in the low 90s for children,” he explains.

As part of their vacation decision-making process, families should factor in the possibility of a family member contracting COVID-19 (including a mild or asymptomatic case) on the trip, and whether they are prepared to deal with quarantine and other restrictions that then might come into play, Dr. Russo adds.

The CDC reported there were 1,359 confirmed COVID cases on cruise ships sailing between June 26 and October 21, 2021, most in asymptomatic vaccinated passengers. During that time, the cruise lines hosted some 600,000 passengers—so while the risk is low, it’s still there.

A best bet for families looking at a cruise vacation may be to look beyond the winter season. “There is a lot of infection right now,” Dr. Russo says. “Once you get to a lower rate it will be much safer.”

While waterslides, mini-golf, and other attractions are outdoors, families may also want to wait until they can once again drop the kids off at fully operational kids’ programs, he adds.

“The whole point of going on a cruise is the children have fun and the adults can have fun on their own,” Dr. Russo says. “These are things you also need to weigh when you make your decision.”

>> Next: Tips for Families Traveling After Kids Get the COVID Vaccine

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on some 170 ships to destinations around the world.
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