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Cruise lines continue to make changes due to COVID-19

The refund posture was messy at the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s now flexible and customer-centric

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The scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep the travel industry -- in particular, cruise lines -- on a rollercoaster ride. 

Just last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted its “no sail” order,” but when Royal Caribbean set out on a test cruise in hopes of proving all was safe, it found itself headed back to port when a passenger tested positive for coronavirus aboard its Quantum of the Seas ship.

Is cruising safe again?

In all candor, the CDC’s risk assessment for cruise travel is “very high” at the moment. Typical cruises are comprised of more people from different countries in a setting that’s more densely populated than cities and most normal living situations. Add to that the fact that the average age of people who take cruises tends to be higher than other travel modes, and older adults are at a higher risk for severe illness with COVID-19.

When hit with the question of whether decreasing the number of passengers would help, the CDC said that “drastically decreasing population onboard without additional mitigation measures does not end transmission.” The agency warns that any cruise -- whether staying domestic to the U.S. or going abroad -- is very risky right now.

Nonetheless, cruise line companies aren’t sitting around and waiting for the coronavirus to go away. Their itineraries and policies change often to try to stay one step ahead of the pandemic. ConsumerAffairs did some homework on the situation, and here’s where things stand as of December 14.

When will cruising restart?

Silversea Cruises: Suspended through April 1, 2021, except for the February 6, 2021 sailing of Silver Origin.

Azamara: Suspended sailings through March 20, 2021.

Carnival: All cruises are paused through the end of February, 2021.

Celebrity Cruises: All global sailings suspended through February 28, 2021; South America sailings suspended through April 7, 2021.

Norwegian: The company has paused all voyages through February 28, 2021 on its own namesake line and through March 31 on its company-owned Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Princess: The company is pausing all cruises through March 31, 2021, and all cruises longer than seven days sailing in and out of United States ports will be postponed through November 1, 2021.

Royal Caribbean International: Most global sailings are suspended through February 28, 2021; Australia sailings are suspended through April 30, 2021; and Spectrum of the Seas China sailings are suspended through January 20, 2021.

Seabourn: To meet new CDC requirements, the line has changed its deployment to rotating seven-day north and southbound itineraries that include U.S. port calls. To make that happen, departure dates for currently available cruises have been moved to late May through July.

The new face of cruising

When cruising gets going again, it is going to be vastly different than what it has been in the past, at least in the United States. New protocols issued by cruise line trade group The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the CDC, and the cruise lines themselves include the following: 

COVID-19 Testing: Passengers should expect that getting tested for the coronavirus will be mandatory. “Testing must be performed using tests that are approved, cleared, or authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as specified by CDC in technical instructions or orders,” the CDC said.

Face Coverings: If you’re not going to mask-up, then you won’t be going on a cruise anytime soon. CLIA says that mask-wearing is also a must.

Shorter Trips: The CDC’s new rule is that initial itineraries can’t be longer than seven days.

Reduced Capacity: Expect reduced capacity on all cruises. 

Social Distancing: Expect socially distanced seating everywhere, but particularly on pool decks and in restaurants.

Goodbye Buffets: The CDC’s mandate now requires ships to alter their meal service to maximize physical distancing. That probably means no buffets in dining rooms until things are 100 percent safe.

Limited Itineraries: One of the best parts of cruising to other parts of the world were the local itineraries that passengers could take when the ship dropped anchor in ports along the way. That aspect is in limbo because some ports won’t let passengers and crew disembark. The companies that are in luck are the ones who own their own private islands -- albeit in the Caribbean -- like the Disney-owned Castaway Cay in the Bahamas, and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, which is Holland America’s own private island.

An update on refunds

Refunds have proven to be a sticky wicket for hopeful cruise travelers. After cruise lines first shut down, months went by and frustrations mounted as customers tried to get a straight answer on refunds for cruises that had been cancelled. 

“We have been getting a stunning amount of complaints from readers about this,” Gene Sloan, senior cruise and travel reporter for The Points Guy, told the Sun Sentinel in August. “They come in over our tips line and directly to me by email. At least two of every three emails I get from readers these days are about missing refunds.”

Thankfully, the major cruise lines got the message and went to work on the frustration of their customers, and they seem to have gotten their act together regarding refunds. The most important change for consumers is that the cruise lines have made their cancellation policies more flexible, offering cash refunds or credits toward future trips. 

Some specific examples include:

Carnival Cruise Line: Carnival now offers travelers whose cruise has been canceled the chance to get a refund as 100 percent credit toward a future cruise, plus a voucher for onboard spending of up to $600 per stateroom (based on the length of the trip). The voucher can be used for the passenger’s next cruise booked by May 31, 2021 for trips departing at the latest by April 30, 2023.

Royal Caribbean (including Celebrity, Azamara, Silversea): All cruise lines owned by Royal Caribbean are extending the company’s “Cruise with Confidence” program. For all bookings created by January 31, 2021, guests have the flexibility to cancel their cruise up to 48 hours prior to sailing and receive a full credit of the cruise fare paid for a future cruise through April 2022 and May 4, 2022 for Celebrity Cruises. The cruise company will also continue to offer its “Best Price Guarantee” and “Lift and Shift.”

Norwegian Cruise Line: Guests who had an active reservation on any cruise suspended through March 2021 will “automatically receive a refund of their cruise fare in the original form of a payment for the amount paid by January 7, 2021,” the company said

Additionally, it’s tossing in a 10 percent off coupon that will be automatically added to the guest's account. That coupon is valid for one year from date of issuance and can be used for any Norwegian Cruise Line voyage embarking through 2022; it’s also combinable with any future cruise credit and all future promotions at the time of booking.

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