What the CDC Says About Your Cruise Plans

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As cruise ships began to depart this summer after a long span of No Sail and Conditional Sailing orders from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cruise industry and many U.S. travelers were cautiously optimistic about a rebound for post-pandemic cruise ship travel.


With a phased return, vaccination and testing requirements as well as new protocols put in place by the CDC, passengers hoped that cruise ship COVID-19 outbreaks were behind them in the new year. But the latest outbreaks of the pandemic, spurred first by delta and now by the omicron variant, have COVID-19 cases rising to record levels. And the CDC has something new to say about your cruise plans.


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The Latest CDC Guidance on Cruise Travel

As the world faces another pandemic surge, the U.S. reports the highest levels of new cases of any other country. The increased rate of cases among the fully vaccinated caused by COVID-19 variants is of particular concern.


As a result, in late October 2021, the CDC renewed the Conditional Sailing Order for cruise ships, previously due to expire on November 1. Then, on December 30, the CDC issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for cruise ship travel.

This latest CDC travel advisory states very plainly that due to an increase in cases on board cruise ships, cruise travel should be avoided – regardless of a traveler's vaccination status.


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The CDC's Conditional Sailing Order (CSO)

The updated, 54-page Temporary Extension & Modification of the Conditional Sailing Order is available on the CDC website. It details the framework and history of the original order, the reasoning for the extension and modifications.


The short story of the matter is this: traveling in close quarters on a cruise ship, even with 95 percent or more of the onboard population vaccinated, isn't deemed safe with the current outbreaks caused by COVID-19 variants, in particular the seemingly vaccine-resistant omicron variant.


Currently, out of the 109 cruise ships monitored by color status on their website, the CDC lists 91 at "yellow" or under investigation for being at the threshold for reported COVID-19 cases.

Mitigating the spread, avoiding cruise ship COVID-19 outbreaks, preserving human life and reserving healthcare resources are at the heart of the CDC guidance.


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What the Cruise Industry Says

In a news release following the latest travel advisory, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world's largest association for the cruise industry, called the CDC's advisory disappointing and "perplexing," citing the total number of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships as a "very slim minority of the total population" of passengers onboard.


In addition, the trade group pointed to rigorously enforced protocols, strict testing rules and a small number of unvaccinated people aboard cruise lines.

CLIA's disappointment stems from the hit the cruise industry has taken since the pandemic began. Together, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Disney reported nearly ​$30 billion​ in losses in 2020. The industry longed for a comeback in the last half of 2021.


If the current CDC order proceeds as planned, on January 15, it will transition to a voluntary program, allowing cruises to resume with the CDC's assistance in detecting, mitigating and controlling COVID-19 cases.

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What If You've Booked a Cruise?

If you have a cruise planned in 2022, check the cruise line's website to find out if your voyage has been canceled or postponed. Royal Caribbean has suspended cruise travel on several ships out of "an abundance of caution," and Carnival Cruise Lines has paused all operations from U.S. ports through the end of February.

If, with the identification of the omicron variant and the surge in COVID-19 cases, you aren't comfortable keeping your upcoming reservation, check the cruise line's cancellation policy. All cruise lines have expanded the flexibility of their cancellation policies to one degree or another. For instance, Disney has a Temporary Flexible Refund Policy for pandemic-related cancellations, and Norwegian Cruise Line has specific refund policies in place for COVID-19.

On the other hand, if you are ready to hit the high seas as soon as you can, stay tuned to the cruise line's latest health and safety guidelines. Check the CDC guidelines for cruise ship travel as well as the U.S. Department of State's travel advisories regularly.

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