(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 April 2021, and perhaps later. As you’ll see below, it’s now our belief that cruises won’t sail from the United States again until a vaccine is widely available.
We’ve laid out all the dates that major cruise lines have cruises tentatively scheduled to return to sailing from the United States.
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:
- Testing and protection of crew onboard cruise ships in U.S. waters
- Simulated voyages with volunteer passengers to test new policies
- Certification process through the CDC to be fit for sailing
- 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.
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.
As we update this article in mid-January, no major cruise lines that we know of have scheduled — much less sailed — simulated voyages.
Combine that with the rollout of a vaccine, which is still in its initial stages. Given that the rollout is slated to take several months at least, and cruises are also suspended for months, we envision cruise lines — whether on their own, or under pressure from the CDC — to only sail again once the vaccine is widely available. That would help ensure that cruises are as safe as they can be given the circumstances.
At this time, that seems to point toward a cruise return sometime in spring or early summer.
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 April 1
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.
Like others, the cruise line has extended is suspension multiple times. Its first cruises are now tentatively scheduled for April 1 based on a check of the Carnival website. However, it’s possible that date could be pushed back.
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 May 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 May 1 for cruises from the U.S. That said, Royal Caribbean will be a line with some practice in this new way of sailing as they are returning to sailing in other parts of the world before the United States.
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 May 9
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 of now the cruise line has suspended cruises around the world through April. It is slated to return to sailing from the United States on May 9, with a 7-night sailing aboard the Celebrity Equinox from Fort Lauderdale.
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 May 1
As of March 13, 2020, Norwegian made the call to suspend voyages across their fleet worldwide. The plan was for the ships to resume sailing in April 2020, but the suspension was lengthened multiple times. It’s now been extended through April 2021, with cruises returning in May.
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. The first cruise listed as returning from the United States is a week-long journey aboard Pride of America, sailing Hawaii. Other ships show as sailing starting May 2.
Disney Cruise Line: Resume Sailing April 2
Disney suspended sailing along with the other major cruise lines. Originally it said that the suspension would last through the end of March 2020. Then it extended that date for all four of its ships to April 12, with trips resuming on April 13, 2020.
Now, according to a notice on its website, Disney has extended the cancellation for all departures through at least March 2021. Due to the scheduling of their ships, the first Disney cruise ships scheduled to return are the Dream and the Wonder on April 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.
MSC Cruises: Resume Sailing April 1
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 April 1. At that time MSC Divina is set to depart Port Canaveral on a three-night cruise. MSC Seaside and Armonia are set to begin sailing from Miami in the days after.
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 May 15
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, 2020.
That’s now been extended multiple times. As with other lines, Princess has paused operations until at least the middle of May. The first cruise shown available from Princess on their website is a trip from Fort Lauderdale on May 15, 2021 to the Western Caribbean.
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 May 23
Holland America has suspended departures around the world through April 2021, after pausing back in March 2020.
However, the scheduling shown on its website is somewhat confusing. Holland America’s first available cruises from the United States departs Fairbanks, Alaska on May 16, 2021. This trip is a 14-day journey that’s both overland and via cruise ship. At this time, however, the CDC has restrictions on cruises of longer than seven days.
The first U.S. cruise that seems to meet the CDC rules departs Whittier, Alaska on May 23, 2021 on a seven-day trip to Vancouver.
According to our calculations, if that cruise sails, it will mark about 435 days — or more than fourteen months — that the line suspended trips in the United States.
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.
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).
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.
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.