Updated: When Major Cruise Lines Plan to Resume Sailings

(Since first publishing this article, the CDC “No Sail Order” has expired and been replaced with a pathway to resume sailing. We’ve updated the information below to reflect the new dates.) 

On March 13, the entire cruise industry made history when it announced it would voluntarily suspend sailing in the United States for 30 days. To further ensure cruises were halted, there was also a “No Sail Order” put in place by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Of course, the original suspensions of only a month proved to be far too optimistic. Multiple extensions were announced, with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) now saying its members (covering nearly every line) will pause U.S. sailings through December 31.

Recently, however, that has been some good news for cruising. The CDC, which has multiple times extended a “No Sail Order,” allowed that order to expire at the end of October. Now, it has given cruise lines a “Framework for Conditional Sailing.” This order lays out a pathway for cruises to get back to sailing, but not without meeting stringent requirements.

As of now, major cruise lines don’t plan to return to sailing until at least January 2021, and perhaps later. As you’ll see below, we believe a January return appears ambitious given the new framework.

We’ve laid out all the dates that major cruise lines have cruises tentatively scheduled to return to sailing from the United States. However, it’s our belief cruise lines will need more time to meet the CDC requirements.

Note: Dates mentioned are scheduled return dates for cruises from the U.S. In some cases cruise lines might start sailing in other regions earlier than the dates listed below.

New  CDC Framework and Its Impact on a Return Date

With the new “Framework for Conditional Sailing,” cruise lines now have a much clearer path to getting back to sailing. The only issue is that there is no definitive date of when they will return.

While the framework lays out a path, there are no actual dates specified within the process. There are, however, lead times for certain steps that the CDC says cruise lines must follow. That gives us an idea of approximately when cruises could return.

The framework itself is a series of measures that cruise lines must take, falling into four categories:

  1. Testing and protection of crew onboard cruise ships in U.S. waters
  2. Simulated voyages with volunteer passengers to test new policies
  3. Certification process through the CDC to be fit for sailing
  4. Return of paid-passenger cruises in line with CDC protocols

Within each of these categories are multiple measures cruise lines must take in order to complete the framework. Once completed, then the cruise lines can then apply for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” to return to sailing.

For a full explanation of all the steps and their requirements, see our article here.

Long Lead Times Likely Mean Months Before Cruises Return

As mentioned, there is no set schedule for meeting any of the CDC requirements. Instead, it takes as long as the cruise line needs and for the CDC to be satisfied. What may happen quickly for one line could take longer for another.

That said, there are built-in lead times for many steps. We believe this points to cruises not returning until a few months into 2021 at the earliest.

Here are the steps, along with any definitive time delays that the CDC calls for:

Protection of Crew on Ships
For the first step, the CDC requires that cruise lines enact policies to protect crew members. Among other things, cruise lines must have a “No Sail Order” response plan on file, submit health documents regularly, and have weekly testing of the crew.

Many cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, MSC, Norwegian, and others) already have the response plan on file. Carnival, notably, does not as of early November. According to the CDC, the process of getting these plans in place took months of back and forth between the agency and cruise lines.

For ships that left U.S. waters (such as Carnival, Princess, and others), then the CDC requires health forms regarding illness onboard covering the 28 days prior to expected arrival.

Simulated Voyages
Cruise lines must conduct simulated voyages to test new protocols before they can apply for a certification to sail. Before they can have the simulated cruise, however, they must meet the conditions outlined above for protection of the crew.

In addition, the CDC requires that operators request approval before they take part in the simulated cruise. This must be submitted at least 30 calendar days before the cruise is set to take place.

In other words, even if a cruise line and crew were ready to conduct the simulated voyage tomorrow, it would take at least a month before it would be able to sail.

Certification to Return to Sailing
After taking the necessary steps for crew protection and having a successful simulated cruise, then a cruise line can apply for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” that allows it to once again sail with paying passengers.

The certification process consists of meeting all the CDC requirements, submitting an application, and then having the agency review the application.

Here, the CDC says that the application should be submitted 60 calendar days before the planned date of return.

Our Estimate of a Return Date

The process to returning to cruises is like nothing the industry has seen before. There is no precedent. We also don’t know how long each step will take to complete.

What we do know, however, is that the CDC has built-in lead times. With at least 30 days notice required before sailing a simulated voyage, and 60 days between applying for a certification and the anticipated sail date with paying passengers, it looks like you can expect at least 90 days before cruises return at a bare minimum.

Given that the order was released October 30, that seems to put a return date at least of January 28 — not accounting for time needed to actually complete the framework.

For that reason, we’d estimate that cruises might not return until possibly March 2021, and maybe later.

Keep in mind that this situation is truly unprecedented. There is simply no way to know exactly when cruises return until the ship leaves the dock with passengers.

Below are the latest return dates for U.S. sailings, based on currently scheduled cruises.

Carnival Cruise Lines: Resume Sailing January 2

Carnival ship whale tail

Carnival — arguably the world’s most famous cruise line — won’t return to sailing from the United States until January at the earliest. Carnival has said they plan a phased-in approach to return to sailing as they learn how to return safely.

While cruises were scheduled to begin from Miami and Port Canaveral in late 2020, the cruise line has extended is suspension through the end of the year. Its first cruises are now tentatively scheduled for January 2 based on a check of the Carnival website. However, it’s possible that date could be pushed back given the rules of the CDC framework.

Cruises listed on Carnival’s website cover a number of ports and ships. Given past comments from the company and past scheduling, it’s likely the cruise line will return with cruises on a handful of ships departing from only select ports in the beginning.

Passengers who had cruises cancelled during the suspension will receive their money back in the form of either cruise credit for a future trip or a full refund. Those selecting a cruise credit will also get either $600 or $300 per cabin in onboard credit for their re-booked cruise, depending on the length of the original sailing.

Royal Caribbean: Resume Sailing January 1

Royal Caribbean made its original announcements in two different segments. First, the company announced it suspended U.S. sailings starting March 14. Then, starting on March 15, Royal Caribbean suspended its cruises around the world.

Originally the company planned to return to operations in mid-April. After multiple extensions, that date is now January 1 for cruises from the U.S. While the cruise line’s website currently shows dozens of sailings aboard many ships, expect short cruises (3-5 days) with a handful of ships operating whenever they do resume.

Cancelled trips are automatically eligible for a 125% cruise credit. So if the cruise fare paid was $1,200, then guests receive $1,500. Passengers also have the option of a full cash refund.

Celebrity Cruises: Resume Sailing January 2

Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. is the parent company of Celebrity. It shouldn’t be surprising that the cruise line is following a similar path to its sister line.

“As we work with the CDC and others toward this shared goal, Celebrity Cruises will be extending the suspension of sailings to include those departing on or before December 31, 2020,” the cruise line said.

Looking at departures on its website, Celebrity’s first sailings are scheduled for January 2, with multiple trips, including cruises to Mexico and the southern Caribbean.

Passengers who had their trip cancelled will receive either a full refund or a 125% credit for a future cruise.

Norwegian Cruise Line: Resume Sailing January 1

Sign of Norwegian cruise ship

As of March 13, Norwegian made the call to suspend voyages across their fleet worldwide. The plan was for the ships to resume sailing on April 12, 2020, but the suspension was lengthened multiple times. It’s now been extended through December 2020, with cruises returning in January. Trips on Norwegian Star, Spirit, and Dawn are cancelled through March 2021.

For most cancelled trips during this time frame, Norwegian passengers have the option of either a 125% fare credit or a full refund, however, others a few trips eligible for different amounts.

Norwegian has also announced it plans to return in a gradual phase-in approach, similar to Carnival. Currently the website shows sailings listed as of January 1.

Disney Cruise Line: Resume Sailing January 2

Disney suspended sailing along with the other major cruise lines. Originally it said that the suspension would last through the end of March. Then it extended that date for all four of its ships to April 12, with trips resuming on April 13.

Now, according to a notice on its website, Disney has extended the cancellation for all departures through at least December 31. Due to the scheduling of their ships, the first Disney cruise ship scheduled to return is the Fantasy on January 2, 2021. Other ships will return to service in the days after.

The cruise line says that it will offer affected guests either a cruise credit or a full refund. As well, passengers who book by November 30, 2020 can change their sail date up to 15 days before departure on trips that sail through May 2021.

MSC Cruises: Resume Sailing January 2

MSC Seaside in port

MSC is a global cruise line and has ships sailing worldwide, but it cancelled all sailings from March 14 through August 15. The cruise line has now resumed sailings in the Mediterranean.

In the United States, trips are scheduled begin again January 2. At that time MSC Meraviglia is set to depart Miami. MSC Seaside is set to begin sailing from Port Canaveral on January 3, with short cruises to the Bahamas.

Guests with cancelled sailings will receive a 125% cruise credit to sail on another cruise. Or if they prefer, they can also get a 100% refund of what they paid for the trip.

Princess Cruises: Resume Sailing January 2

Princess has been the cruise line perhaps most impacted by the crisis. At least two of its ships had virus outbreaks on board, leading to headlines around the world.

It also made the news by being the first major cruise line to announce a voluntary suspension of cruising, which was quickly followed by other lines. Princess originally announced it would stop all cruises from March 12 through May 10.

That’s now been extended multiple times. As with other lines, Princess cruises has paused operations until at least the end of December.

The first cruise shown available from Princess on their website is a trip from Fort Lauderdale on January 2.

Guests impacted will receive all their money back as a 125% cruise credit or there is also an option to receive a full refund.

Holland America: Resume Sailing January 2

Like Princess, Holland America has suspended departures through the December after pausing back in March.

Holland America’s first available cruises depart January 2, 2021, with multiple ships leaving from ports including San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, and Sydney. However, as mentioned, it’s possible that return date will be pushed back.

According to our calculations, if those cruises sail, it will mark about 295 days — or more than nine months — that the line suspended trips.

Guests who had their trips cancelled can opt to receive a refund of what they paid, or a 125% cruise credit will be applied automatically.

What Will Cruising Look Like When It Does Resume?

It’s clear that when cruises do come back, it’s going to look very different than it did going into the crisis.

Onboard
Of course, just like venues on land, there will be new procedures in place on the ship. This will run the gamut from more frequent sanitation to reducing touch points on ships.

Don’t be surprised when are fewer deck chairs by the pool and they are spaced farther apart. Expect that food on buffets will no longer be self-serve. And crew members will wear masks while on duty. Also expect cruise lines to ask passengers to wear masks when distancing isn’t an option (such as elevators).

Check-In
At check-in, it’s likely that the procedures put in place during the outbreak will stick around for months or years to come.

That means you can expect things like temperature checks before boarding. As well, there will be health questionnaires with a heavy emphasis on symptoms of COVID-19.

Check-in is going to move more online to reduce the interaction and crowds in the terminal. Also, expect staggered boarding to spread out the number of passengers entering the terminal at any one time.

One other item that’s going to be in place is mandatory COVID tests for all passengers and crew before they board. Another test is required by the CDC for passengers at debarkation.

Sailings
When cruises do resume, it’s unlikely that one day there will be no cruises and the next day you’ll see a full schedule of sailings.

“I think initially we will come out operating smaller than we did than before we went into this,” said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald. “That’s because there won’t be some light switch. Every destination won’t open simultaneously.”

In fact, multiple cruise lines have talked about extended “lay ups” for some of their ships during the crisis.

What will happen is that as cruises resume, they do so slowly. You’re more likely to see options for shorter sailings that stop in a single country or the cruise line’s private island. Only some ships will resume service while others are held ready until there is more demand and cruise lines show that they can handle sailing in the new COVID-19 world.

Shorter trips will be in order as the CDC’s framework says cruises longer than 7 days are not allowed at this time.

No matter when the cruise lines resume sailing, or the changes made, it’s clear that getting back to normal is going to take some time.

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