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Are Cruises Safe? How COVID-19 Is Changing Cruise Travel In 2021

By Kit KieferJuly 23, 2019

Photo by Sơn Bờm from Pexels

Cruise safety is a big deal – not just for the hundreds of thousands of prospective cruisers who wonder whether cruises are safe, but for the entire cruise industry.

Nothing has brought this into focus quite like the pandemic. The virus made vacationers skeptical about cruising, and its effects continue to be felt, as the cruise industry plans to resume sailings.

Fortunately, things seem to be picking up slowly for the cruise industry. Sailings are resuming slowly, mostly in areas of Asia, Oceania, the Spanish coast, and the Mediterranean that were spared the virus’s worst impact.

Let’s take a look at some changes being made to cruise ships as a result of COVID-19, and then we’ll circle back to why cruises are safe overall. 

How The Pandemic Has Changed Cruise Travel

While the pandemic has had quite a chilling short-term impact on cruises, it’s unclear what the long-term ramifications will be, according to Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, the world’s largest consumer cruise website.

“While it’s safe to say there will be a number of changes implemented once we see a significant return to cruising,” she says, “it’s still unknown what industry-wide protocols will be enforced.” 

 In the meantime, it’s helpful to look at how COVID-19 has changed cruising.

The pandemic has changed cruise travel in the following fundamental ways:

  • Hygiene protocols
  • Service and access modifications
  • Itinerary changes
  • Passenger limits

Let’s look at these individually.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Hygiene protocols 

Protocols fall into four categories:

  • Cleaning
  • Testing
  • Distancing
  • Monitoring

Cleaning

Expect all cruise-ship surfaces to be cleaned and sanitized at least daily. High-traffic areas will be cleaned even more frequently.

Cruise lines will be taking their cues from casinos, hotels and other land-based environments where large populations are eating, drinking, talking, singing, and interacting.

Cruise ships have always been aggressive about cleaning high-traffic areas. For the foreseeable future, expect them to be even more publicly aggressive.

Testing

You will probably have to have a recent negative COVID test before you’ll be allowed to board a cruise ship. Rapid testing at the dock is a possibility.

Testing requirements may also have a vaccination component. While there has been pushback from some tourist agencies on a vaccination requirement (the head of the World Travel and Tourism Council recently called it “discrimination”), some cruise lines may go ahead with a vaccination requirement anyway.

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Distancing

As McDaniel notes, “A return to cruising will focus heavily on protocols aimed at encouraging and supporting onboard social distancing and other best practices we see on land.“

In other words, expect the same sorts of safety requirements on board that you would find in any other large gatherings. That means:

  • A mask mandate
  • Social distancing requirements
  • Hand-cleaning requirements
  • Strict isolation of people who appear sick

Passengers and staff will have to follow these rules.   

Monitoring

You know those wristbands many cruise lines use to track passengers and load perks like meals and drinks? Expect them to be used for health monitoring and contact tracing as well.

“Lines have invested heavily in technological advancements in recent years,” McDaniel says, “and many of those advancements will help to ensure policies and protocols are more seamlessly enforceable. 

“In addition to helping to lessen crowds and remove touchpoints, many lines have discussed using their technology to also support contact tracing, if necessary.”

For better or worse, a cruise ship is a closed environment. That makes it easier for disease to spread, but it also makes it easier to trace the source of the outbreak.

Photo by Adam Gonzales on Unsplash

Service and access modifications

“Another focus we can expect with certainty is a renewed focus on making the cruise experience one that removes unneeded touchpoints,” McDaniel says.

In practical terms, “We’ve seen the removal of the self-serve buffet, introduction of QR codes for accessing restaurant menus and leveraging face recognition technology at embarkation.”

Pool parties and crowded dance floors are likely on hold for a while as well, as some ships are limiting the number of people who can be in public spaces to allow for social distancing. 

For high-demand amenities and recreation spaces, this may mean a more theme-park-like approach to access, with ticketing and strict adherence to time slots. 

Cruise lines are still working out their processes; a little patience will be necessary before they get it right.

Passenger limits

In order to hit social-distancing requirements the few ships that have sailed have had strict passenger limits.

And that’s not all we may see along those lines. As McDaniel notes, “Beyond capacity limits, we’re seeing lines implement processes like staggered embarkation, e-muster drills and limited shore excursion offerings.”

It’s probably not feasible for a cruise ship to take an NFL approach and limit the number of people who can sail to 1/10th or 1/20th of capacity. But expect ships to sail at less than 100% capacity for a while – at least until they can figure out the logistics of feeding and entertaining people in a socially distanced environment.

Photo by Sheila Jellison on Unsplash

Itinerary changes

In order to get some ships sailing somewhere, a few lines ran "cruises to nowhere" where people were required to stay on ships, even if they stopped at a port.

The cruises were popular, proving that cruisers will be cruisers. But it seems unlikely that the entire industry will be able to survive on “cruises to nowhere” alone.

Stops at ports are going to return, sooner rather than later. However, there may be fewer port stops, and more restrictions on what cruisers can do in port. They may have to travel as a group, for instance.

In addition, itineraries will likely change post-pandemic. They will have to be even more flexible to bypass a port-of-call that has an outbreak, and some ports (like Venice) have enjoyed life without cruise ships to such an extent that they may not welcome them back in the same numbers as before.  

Long story short: Don’t expect a cruise that says it’s stopping at x, y, and z to actually stop there. Choose your cruise based on the ship, not the destinations.

Why Are Cruises Safe?

While a lot may have changed with cruises, it needs to be said that pandemics notwithstanding, cruise ships are an extremely safe way to travel.

As Sarah Kennedy, former public relations director at Cruise Lines International Association, notes, “Even with an increase in cruise capacity, cruise lines have maintained an exceptional safety record – making cruising one of the safest ways to travel.”

It’s really a combination of ship design, crew training, and a commitment to safety on the part of the major cruise lines.  

“First of all, people should really keep in mind that safety is the top priority for every cruise line,” McDaniel says. “They wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t.”

In addition, as Kennedy notes, “Cruise ships are among the most scrutinized vessels at sea.” 

This scrutiny starts with ship design and testing. It’s further reinforced by global safety regulations that outline emergency procedures and protocols, and ongoing inspections to make sure procedures are being followed. 

Cruise lines translate those regulations into policies, so if your ship has an issue in the Caribbean, the crew knows almost immediately what port they need to head towards.

There are also systems on board to detect potential safety issues almost before they start. Systems can even detect when a passenger or crew member falls overboard.

In addition, according to Kennedy, “CLIA and its cruise-line members are constantly working to improve safety by reviewing operational procedures with top maritime and transportation experts.” 

The result of technology and a continuous dedication to safety means that when cruising is compared against other transportation means, cruising is much safer. 

“Given the number of cruise ships that are at sea all the time, and the number of cruisers who are traveling every year, the incidence of events affecting guest safety are incredibly rare,” says McDaniel.

Photo by Max Brinton on Unsplash

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How Safe Are Cruises – By The Numbers

In 2017, the last time comparisons were undertaken, the U.S. cruise industry had a 0.02 passenger fatality rate per billion passenger miles traveled. That compares to:

  • 0.73 for domestic commercial airlines
  • 7.4 for domestic passenger cars
  • 8.8 for domestic rail passenger travel

And this has taken place while the cruise industry has been experiencing unprecedented growth. 

According to research firm G.P. Wild, worldwide cruise-ship capacity grew 55% from 2009 to 2018, while incidents with passengers on board decreased 15%.

Compared to 2009, the number of "significant" fires dropped from four to two, and the number of "significant" strandings and groundings went from five to one. 

(G.P. Wild defines a significant incident as one in which the ship is delayed more than 24 hours, or passengers or crew have fatalities or serious injuries.)

“It’s not sexy news when a cruise goes off and everybody has a great time and enjoys time with their family and great entertainment and amazing food,” McDaniel says. “But that’s what happens the vast majority of the time.”

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

Cruise Ships Take Safety Seriously

One of the reasons why cruises are so safe is the amount of safety gear aboard. An average cruise ship with 2,700 passengers and 800 crew carries:

  • Five firefighting teams
  • 4,000 smoke detectors
  • 500 fire extinguishers
  • 16 miles of sprinkler piping
  • 5,000 sprinkler heads and 6 miles of fire hose
  • Enough survival craft, including lifeboats and life rafts, to accommodate at least 125% of the number of persons on board

In addition, according to Kennedy, “Cruise crews complete rigorous training in every aspect of passenger safety, including securing heavy objects onboard, life jacket and lifeboat storage, bridge procedures and access, CPR, and more.”

“The crews are able to jump in and react because it’s almost muscle memory for them,” McDaniel says. “They’ve been trained and retrained, so when an emergency happens, they are very prepared.”

Even in severe circumstances, such as those surrounding the Viking Sky when it encountered unexpectedly heavy seas off the Norwegian coast in March 2019, the crew came in for praise.

“We had our Cruise Critic members on board for that sailing, and they were very highly complimentary of the crew,” McDaniel says.

What About Weather?

Cruise lines and cruise ships continually monitor the weather using multiple sources, so they can quickly alter a ship’s itinerary if they have to.

According to Kennedy, every ship has a contracted weather service provider delivering 24/7 updates. In addition, many ships have direct access to on-call meteorologists.

In the case of impending severe weather, a cruise line’s onshore weather team can alter a ship’s route based on its itinerary and the ship’s maneuvering characteristics.

“Cruise lines seek to avoid bad weather when possible for the comfort of all onboard,” Kennedy says. “The expertise of our mariners is reflected in how they operate ships throughout the range of conditions experienced at sea.”

Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash

3 Essential Tips For Cruise-Ship Safety

When it comes to specifics for ensuring your safety on a cruise, McDaniel has three tips:

1. Take the muster drill seriously

Safety drills familiarize passengers with locations of safety installations, actions to take in an emergency and use of life jackets.

The muster drill – where the crew demonstrates safety procedures, talks about what happens in case of an emergency at sea, and outlines protocols – is a particularly important drill that takes place at the beginning of every cruise.

“No matter how many times you’ve been on a cruise you’re going to have to participate in a muster drill,” McDaniel says. “Veteran cruisers especially say, ‘Ugh! I’ve been through this tons of times!’ but take it seriously. Pay attention. Know what your emergency escape routes are.”

As McDaniel points out, you need to know what’s expected of passengers in case of an emergency, because you want to have that information at your fingertips in case something does happen.

2. Take the same safety precautions you’d take with any other form of travel

When you fly, do you throw your carry-on any old place? Do you not know where the doors are on a train or the exits are at a hotel?

Just because you’re on a cruise, that’s no reason to throw caution to the wind.

“It’s easy to become more relaxed when you’re on vacation, but it’s really not a time to let your guard down,” McDaniel says. “Be aware of your surroundings and follow the safety protocols recommended by the cruise line.”

3. Buy travel insurance

“At Cruise Critic we always encourage people to buy travel insurance. It gives you extra peace of mind, and it’s well worth the price.”

As McDaniel notes, travel insurance can come in handy in many ways, whether you have to cancel or interrupt your cruise, have a medical emergency on board, or get ill in port.

“It’s that extra blanket of protection,” she says, “and it’s really worth that extra cost.”

A cruise is already one of the safest trips you can take. And with the combination of new, high-tech ships and travel insurance, it can be one of the most carefree trips as well.

The bottom line on cruising post-pandemic

As the CDC takes steps to lift its ban on cruises and the industry gets ready to accommodate all that pent-up demand, technology is shaping up as the saving grace that will preserve the cruising experience.

As McDaniel says, “You can bet that regardless of the changes we ultimately see implemented, cruise lines will continue to strive to balance safety and fun.”


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Kit Kiefer
Kit Kiefer

Kit Kiefer is a former travel writer for The New York Times and has more than 30 years of freelance experience writing about domestic and international travel. He blogs and produces content for Winbound, a content marketing firm.

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Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection (BHTP) is a registered trademark and a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company (BHSI), a leader in specialized casualty and liability insurance.  The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable.  BHTP disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information.  The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

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