Planning for a cruise during the COVID-19 era brings up a lot of questions. And cruisers are turning to their travel advisors for answers.
Not all the questions have easy, straightforward answers, however.
"My response to most questions is that my crystal ball broke March 13, 2020, and has yet to be repaired," said Susan Walsh, executive vice president of Keene Travel, a Signature member agency.
But travel advisors should answer as honestly as they can, with the most up-to-date information they have, said Susan Pretkus-Combs, owner of a Dream Vacations franchise in Trabuco Canyon, California.
"I also caution them [clients] that due to the fluid situation we're in, rules, regulations and policies are changing constantly, so what's required today may no longer be required tomorrow."
Travel Market Report spoke to several cruise sellers, as well as sources at cruise lines to find which questions are the most common when it comes to COVID-19 and cruising, along with some thoughts on how to answer them.
Here are the most common questions cruise sellers are getting.
Do I need to be vaccinated? | Can I cruise if I'm not vaccinated?
The number one question travel advisors are getting is about cruising and vaccinations.
In most cases, it's a simple answer. The vast majority of cruise lines require vaccinations for either all cruisers or all cruisers over the age of 12. (Exceptions include Royal Caribbean cruises in Florida, and cruises with lines like MSC Cruises and American Cruise Lines, which don't require vaccinations.)
The requirement is welcome by most clients, but not all.
"Clients ask about whether they need to be vaccinated, and it's become an issue for those who won't, or cannot due to medical reasons," said Pretkus-Combs.
David Pachtman, owner of Pachtman Travel Services, a TRAVELSAVERS member agency, tells his unvaccinated clients that they're making cruising more expensive for themselves.
"I explain, in my opinion, they are making it more costly with mandatory insurance and more restrictions. Example, Royal Caribbean [if you're] not vaccinated you cannot go in the casino or chose My Time Dining, among other fees for testing."
Some lines, like Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean, might make exceptions for cruisers with valid medical or religious reasons for not being vaccinated.
"The CDC guidelines for operating a fully vaccinated cruise allow a very small number of guests to have an exception based on medical or religious reasons. We ask that any guest with such circumstances contact us and we will direct them to our Customer Relations Department for review," said John Chernesky, senior vice president of North American sales and trade marketing for Princess Cruises.
(For Royal Caribbean, travel advisors should contact email@example.com on behalf of their clients.)
Do I need to wear a mask? | How will the onboard experience be different?
Almost as common as questions about vaccinations are questions about the onboard experience. Mask wearing and social distancing, in particular, are on people's minds.
On cruises on which vaccines are required for all passengers, mask-wearing and social distancing are not an issue. For instance, Princess' Alaska cruises do not require masks to be worn onboard, Chernesky said.
On cruises with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, mask-wearing and social distancing are required in most indoor locations.
Additionally, cruisers should be prepared to wear masks at cruise terminals and in some ports.
"My reply… Guests on many lines must wear the mask at embark and debark, and when departing the ship in ports where social distancing is not really possible," said Becky Smith, owner of Becky's Travel Biz, Inc., a TRAVELSAVERS member agency.
Is this cruise actually going to happen? | Are cruise lines still canceling sailings?
For the thousands of cruisers who have had sailings canceled over the past year and more, there's still trepidation over whether their cruise will actually happen.
For some travel advisors, like Adam Martindale, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise in San Diego, the easiest way to answer this question has been to stop booking cruises unless the ship is already sailing.
"I had a group booked on her [Scarlet Lady] inaugural sailing but the group has been canceled now three times… My clients (and myself) will not book now until the ship is actually sailing from Miami."
Not as much of an issue for cruise ships that are already sailing, some unexpected cancellations are still happening. American Cruise Lines cut short a sailing and canceled the next one on American Constellation after two passengers and a crewmember tested positive.
Eric Goldring, owner of Goldring Travel, an Ensemble-member agency, told Travel Market Report he tells his clients they need to be optimistic and flexible. "In this COVID-19 world, cautious optimism and flexibility are required. There are going to be bumps in the road, but with every step forward we get closer to normalcy and greater certainty."
What are the chances I'll need to quarantine/be quarantined?
With stories of travelers being forced to quarantine overseas still fresh in their minds, some clients are worried about testing positive while on a cruise.
"There is still a fear instilled in people that they will have to quarantine on the ship if COVID breaks out," said Angela Hughes, owner of Trips & Ships Luxury Travel.
It's a fear Dream Vacations franchise owner Paula Kaisner hears from her clients, as well. "Several are also concerned about testing positive (even if vaccinated) and having to quarantine overseas."
Smith emphasizes the cruise lines' plans for such situations. "The cruise line will put the individual(s) in quarantine and contract trace for others who may have been in contact with them. Vacant cabins are available on the ship for guests to be put into quarantine."
This is exactly what happened when Celebrity Cruises had two passengers test positive on its first cruise sailing since the pandemic began.
A long quarantine may not even be required. Travel advisors can point clients to the story of a family onboard Adventure of the Seas this month who had to end their cruise early and fly home when two children, younger than 16, tested positive for COVID-19. They were flown home on a private flight arranged by the cruise line.