Wanted: Volunteers to take a cruise, eat, have a great time, enjoy the ship, and not pay a dime.
The catch? You have to be willing to test an entirely new cruise experience that hasn’t been proven.
Even so, the chance to sail aboard a ship before they return to sailing for the general public, and to enjoy taking a cruise for free is too good to pass up for many people. But not everyone will be eligible.
Path to Return: Simulated Voyages
With the end of the CDC’s “No Sail Order,” the agency isn’t just giving cruises the green light to get back to sailing. Instead, the order has been replaced with a “Framework for Conditional Sailing.”
This framework lays out criteria that cruise lines must follow if they want to get back to sailing with paying passengers. While there are a number of steps, one of these is that cruise lines must take part in “simulated voyages.”
These trips are exactly what they sound like — test cruises. With the new way of cruising, dozens of changes are taking place to the cruise experience. Everything from check-in to hanging out by the pool to having dinner in the buffet is changing.
With so many changes — and the potential risks if someone does get sick — the CDC wants cruise lines to practice what life will be like on the ship and even in the terminal. This gives everyone, including the authorities, cruise lines, and crew, a chance to get things right instead of using the first paying passengers as guinea pigs.
There is no word on how many test cruises a ship must make. The agency simply says they must make a “simulated voyage or series of simulated voyages demonstrating the cruise ship operator’s ability to mitigate the risks” of the illness.
In fact, the details surrounding many aspects of the trips are still undetermined. Even so, here’s what’s known so far.
Who Is Eligible to Volunteer
Of course, many people want to know if they can take one of these cruises as a volunteer. After all, even with the risks, cruise lines are implementing new procedures to lessen the chances of getting sick. And as we’ve seen everyone has different risk tolerances for the virus.
However, not everyone is eligible to be a volunteer. The CDC lays out their criteria within the framework:
Volunteers Must Be 18 Years Old or Older
If you want to be a volunteer cruise passenger, then you’ll need to be at least 18 years old, per CDC rules. So families with kids won’t be allowed to sail. There is no upper age limit set out, despite older people being more at risk of complications for the virus.
You Must Not Have Pre-Existing Conditions That Put You at Risk
As part of the criteria for being an eligible volunteer, you also must not have conditions that will put you at risk if you do get sick. The CDC asks for written certification from a “healthcare provider” that a volunteer has no pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk. So expect volunteers to be fit and healthy.
Employment or Compensation Isn’t Allowed
If you wanted to get paid for this sailing, don’t expect it. The government says that the volunteers must sail on a “consensual basis.” Volunteer passengers can’t be compensated or allowed to sail as a condition of employment. In other words, they are to be true volunteers, not people that are paid to be there.
What to Expect on These Volunteer Cruises
While the allure of getting to sail on a cruise as a volunteer is exciting, what are passengers actually getting into? Here are some ideas of what to expect based on the guidance from the CDC:
A Stern Warning Before Sailing
Before you even board, expect to be reminded that there is a risk of cruising during this crisis. In fact, the CDC points to a study that the reproduction rate onboard Diamond Princess (the ship that was held in Japan and had more than 700 passengers and crew test positive) of 14.8 before quarantine was enacted. That means for each infected person, it was spread to almost 15 others. This figure is about four times higher than what was seen in Wuhan, China at the start of the outbreak.
For that reason, the CDC requires cruise lines to notify passengers in writing that they are taking part in a simulation of “unproven and untested health and safety protocols” and that sailing during a pandemic is an “inherently risky activity.”
The Cruise Should Feature Activities Seen on a Normal Trip (And Some Not-So-Normal)
The entire point of the simulated voyage is to test the new procedures in a real-world environment. For that reason, the trip is required to have many of the same components seen on a normal cruise.
On the simulated voyage, cruise lines must test embarkation and debarkation procedures, including checking-in at the terminal. On the ship they need to test dining policies and entertainment venue protocols. This includes how to serve food safely and ensuring social distancing in places like theaters and casinos. The trip will also feature modified private island excursions.
In addition, the CDC says cruise lines need to test some things you hope to not see on a normal cruise, including evacuation procedures, isolating of infected passengers, and quarantining of other passengers and crew.
Testing At Embarkation and Debarkation
As part of the new framework, the government is requiring cruise lines to make testing a major part of the return to sailing. On a normal cruise, tests are to be conducted on passengers on embarkation day before they board the ship and on debarkation day before returning home. This will also be required on the volunteer cruises.
Facemasks, Handwashing, and Social Distancing
Many of the same policies that are in place on land are set to be on the simulated voyage with volunteers. The rules laid out by the CDC call for “hand hygiene, face coverings, and social distancing for passengers and crew.”
Many people have said they won’t cruise if facemasks are required as it lessens their enjoyment of a vacation. If you want to sail a volunteer cruise — or be a paying passenger when cruises do return — expect them to be a requirement.
When Will Simulated Voyages Start?
At this point, it’s still not clear when the simulated voyages will begin, but we do have some general ideas.
First, before a simulated cruise can begin the cruise line must meet requirements on crew safety, which includes weekly testing and having a “No Sail Order” response plan in place.
From there, cruise lines must also give the CDC at least 30 days advance notice of a simulated voyage.
There are no set dates for these voyages yet announced. Norwegian Cruise Lines suggested that some cruise lines could start them in December, but they were looking at early January as a possibility (although that was not certain).
“Don’t pin me down to an exact date, but I would tell you that there’s a chance that maybe some companies can start these trial cruises in December, ” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank del Rio said. “We don’t forecast that we will be wanting to do so until probably sometime in January.”
How to Become a Volunteer Cruise Passenger
So how do you get to be a volunteer on one of these cruises? That’s a question that’s still unanswered for some lines, but getting clearer. Remember, this framework to return sailing is unprecedented. The details of how it will work are still being considered.
We reached out to several different cruise lines, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Royal Caribbean told us recently they are still “processing the nuances” of the order. According to Cruise Industry News, Royal Caribbean will look for volunteers but hasn’t worked out the details of the process just yet.
Update: Royal Caribbean now has a form and Facebook page to submit your interest in being a volunteer cruise passenger. You can fill out the volunteer form here and find the “Volunteer of the Seas” Facebook page here.
Norwegian Cruise Lines hasn’t laid out criteria for volunteers, but as said above, mentioned they are looking at test cruises possibly beginning in January.
At this point it’s not even clear if there will be an open call for volunteers, if cruise lines will reach out to past guests, or some other method of deciding who will have the opportunity to sail.
However they are chosen, expect the number of spots to be limited and in-demand. Multiple companies have cited strong demand for cruises whenever they do return, and the chance to be a volunteer on one of the first trips back will be historic.
It seems likely that being flexible and living within driving distance of a port would be beneficial if there is a call for volunteers. The return process is fluid, and it’s not clear when or where these simulated voyages will take place.
We plan to continue updating as we hear more from lines about how volunteers will be chosen.