Here’s what health and travel experts say you need to know about your COVID-19 risk on cruise ships before you make any plans to set sail.

Share on Pinterest
The rise of the Omicron variant has generated new concerns about safety aboard cruise ships during the pandemic. Giacomo Augugliaro/Getty Images

The widespread availability of vaccines and boosters for U.S. travelers has generated a lot of renewed excitement around cruise travel of late.

“Cruisers are passionate, and the pandemic presented a very long pause in that kind of travel. So, people who truly love cruising are ready to sail and have been for months,” Laura Motta, senior director of content at Lonely Planet, told Healthline.

However, the rise of the Omicron variant has taken the wind off the sails for many potential passengers, who have renewed concerns about their COVID-19 risks and the general safety of booking a cruise at this time.

If taking a cruise is in your upcoming travel plans, evaluating your current COVID-19 risk while onboard may bring perspective and help you decide whether to consider postponing your trip.

On December 30, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for cruise ship travelers, stating that “the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose.”

Before the rise of the Omicron variant, Dr. Mark Fierstein, internal medicine specialist at NYU Langone Ambulatory Care Lake Success, said the risk of severe illness in vaccinated people on cruise ships appeared to be low.

However, with the rise of Omicron, the risk level has increased.

The CDC states that all people, regardless of vaccination status, should avoid cruise travel at this time, especially those with higher chances of developing severe illness from COVID-19.

“This could include people on cancer chemotherapy and also people on various immunosuppressive medications for other reasons. Also, if you have serious medical conditions, particularly cardiac or pulmonary disease, there might be safer vacation alternatives for you,” said Fierstein.

Additionally, the CDC recommends that anyone who goes on a cruise gets tested 1 to 3 days before their trip and 3 to 5 days after their trip, regardless of vaccination status.

This is because on a cruise, typically everyone is vaccinated including crew members, except for some children. In most cases, everyone is tested within 1 to 3 days of embarkation, Fierstein said.

A CDC report examined actual risk on cruises in more depth between June 26, 2021 and October 21, 2021. They found that during this period there were more than 1,359 COVID-19 cases, 49 hospitalizations, 38 medical evacuations, and 1 death.

“Since virtually all of these cases were breakthrough cases, very few actually resulted in serious illness,” said Fierstein, which highlights how effective the vaccines were at reducing the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 at that time.

Nevertheless, the rise of the Omicron variant has increased the risk for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Motta recommends postponing cruise travel until the current risk of COVID-19 has subsided.

However, if you still plan on taking a cruise, she suggests researching the safety protocols of different cruise lines before booking a trip, as each differs, including mask and vaccine requirements for all passengers.

This can help you make an informed evaluation about your risk and how to best protect yourself and others while onboard.

Fierstein recommends looking into whether a cruise line caters to families with young children — who would be less likely to be vaccinated — if traveling with those who have not been vaccinated is a concern for you.

He also suggests holding off on booking cruise travel at this time and considering booking any future trips during less crowded times to further reduce your risk.

“Obviously, a cruise between Christmas and New Year’s or during President’s Week would be more likely to be operating at capacity limits and with more potentially unvaccinated children,” he said.

While on a cruise, the CDC recommends you wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth when in shared spaces.

Although some cruise lines may require passengers and crew to wear masks while aboard, the CDC is not requiring that people wear a mask under certain circumstances onboard foreign-flagged cruise ships subject to the Temporary Extension & Modification of the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), including cruise ships choosing to follow the requirements of the CSO on a voluntary basis.

Fierstein also recommends the following:

  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after any contact with potentially contaminated surfaces.
  • Choose restaurants where there’s physical distancing or that offer outdoor dining.
  • Dine inside during less popular hours.
  • Consider room service on ships that offer it.

Additionally, research how different ports of call and excursions will be handled in order to best assess your risk.

“For example, if you were spending time in a port, keep your mask on in any shops and, perhaps, eat only in outdoor venues, regardless of local regulations. Also, try to emphasize outdoor activities over indoor activities. Above all, avoid crowds of people whose vaccination status is not known,” said Fierstein.

After the cruise, the CDC also recommends that along with testing, if you’re not fully vaccinated, you should self-quarantine for 5 days, even if you test negative.

If you do not get tested, self-quarantine for 10 days after cruise travel.

Additionally, if you’re flying to get to your cruise port, as of December 6, 2021, the CDC requires that all air passengers, regardless of vaccination status, show a negative COVID-19 test that was taken no more than 1 day before traveling to the United States.

We understand that you’re worried about your health and safety away from home and the safety of the communities you’re visiting worldwide. As regulations and requirements for travel shift, we’re here to help you navigate this complex and often confusing landscape. Whether you’re driving to a natural wonder in your state or flying around the globe, we can help you protect yourself and others.

Check back often to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones on your next journey.