Jason Keeley, for FedCruise.com

The Covid-19 pandemic shutdown a cruise industry that had been running at full steam, but after a year at port it has been preparing to safely return to the high seas.

Federal employees and retirees as a group have shown a strong interest in cruise vacations, and can often take advantage of government and military discounts. By understanding the new requirements and regulations, Feds can ensure they’re prepared to take a cruise vacation after months that many of us spent cooped up.

Although cruise ships spent most of the past year sitting idle, the industry is poised to make a come back in 2021. Major cruise ships have been busy making necessary changes to meet the challenges presented by the Covid pandemic.

According to a Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) report, 2 out of 3 cruisers are willing to set sail again in 2021. Royal Caribbean was recently inundated with responses for a simulation sail to help prepare for the 2021 season. They were seeking 20,000 volunteers to be passengers to test new protocols but received close to 150,000 interested people.

With the industry reportedly spending $24 billion in new ships (according to the CLIA report), they are ready to meet the demand. Although interest in returning to the seas is high, the industry is being careful to move slowly to meet the new safety requirements to keep passengers safe and healthy.

Changes on Cruise Ships

Among some of the larger changes being made, are those that come as a result of the Cruise Passenger Protection Act that Congress recently passed. The new government regulations require all cruise ships to have a trained physician onboard, in addition to video cameras in all public places.

All ships will also have to have a “Covid-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate” per CDC rules. This certificate will be given after ships complete simulated “test” voyages and have established written agreements with ports allowing for help with housing or hospitalization if there is a Covid outbreak onboard.

Feds can also expect to see enhanced medical centers on many of the major cruise liners. Ships want to be sure to be prepared should a health crisis occur, and these larger, better equipped medical centers will help assure the public they are adequately prepared to deal with health emergencies.

Cruise ships are also following suit of airlines by installing new air filtration systems. Norwegian and Royal Caribbean have already begun testing new air purification systems while MSC is moving ahead with “Safe Air” —a system that uses UV-C technology.

Cruise ship employees will also be adding more frequent cleanings and more social distancing measures – including reduced numbers of passengers, removing tables and chairs and restricting areas of gathering. In some cases, plexiglass dividers may be installed as necessary.

Although ships hope to keep much of the same entertainment in place, they may have to require booking ahead of time, reduced numbers of patrons and a reduced number of options to allow for more time to clean and sanitize high traffic areas.

But let’s be honest, cruises are all about the food. Feds have come to love and expect elaborate and never-ending buffets. Cruise liners still plan to have buffets though the options might be slightly less elaborate. More staff will likely be serving food, instead of having guests hover over food to serve themselves. Ships are also going to have more pre-packaged, grab-and-go sealed food options.

Changes for Passengers

It’s not just the cruise liners themselves making changes, passengers will also be expected to make some changes before boarding and during their cruises as well. Passengers (and crew) will all be required to wear face masks and maintain social distancing. While the ships will do their best to prevent social distancing, passengers will also need to adhere to a six-foot distance whenever possible.

There will also be health screenings before boarding and disembarking to help keep the spread of viruses to a minimum. Most cruise liners will also institute on board health screenings at various points while out at sea. However, these screening and health questionnaires will vary by region, destinations and sea routes. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian recently announced that vaccinations will be required for guests and crew members. Crystal Cruises said it would require guests to receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before a cruise. The cruise line is also requiring a negative coronavirus test result from travelers and crew members.

Another change that Feds can benefit from is more lenient cancellation policies. The travel industry has taken quite a hit in the past year, still they understand the uncertainty and unprecedented nature of this pandemic and continue to offer very lenient cancellation policies. These vary by company so be sure to check the specifics before you book.

Changes to Routes and Destinations

The cruise industry is also adapting to new CDC guidelines regarding where and for how long ships can be out to sea. Cruises will be limited to no longer than 7 days – at least to start – in order to see how new health and safety protocols are working.

Also, because the severity of Covid outbreaks, and the responses to those outbreaks, varies by region and country, it will be difficult for cruise ships to manage several different ports. Therefore, many ships will likely opt to go to their own private islands.

Companies like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Disney have long utilized their own private islands in order to offer a more secluded and exclusive experience to cruisers. The added benefit now is that private islands will make it easier for cruise lines to maintain strict safety guidelines and adhere to the latest health protocols.

When Will Cruising Resume?

Cruises continue to be among the most preferred vacation types for Federal employees. Among those Feds planning a cruise, 55% plan to take a Caribbean cruise while 21% plan to cruise in Europe and 14% in Alaska.

Most major cruise liners have cancelled plans to set sail in the early spring including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival and Princess, among others. Although this was disappointing for cruisers anxious to get back onboard, industry leaders are still optimistic that summer cruises will be a possibility.

Because of the nature of cruising – with more confined spaces and the isolation of being out at sea – it is especially important that ships don’t rush the process of returning to normal operations. The CDC has been clear that individuals on cruise ships are at an elevated risk of contracting Covid. With a deliberate phased approach to reopening, cruise liners are optimistic that sailing will resume by late 2021.

Feds should take note that even in “normal” years, summer is the high season for travel. In 2021, the demand will likely be even higher. It will be more important than ever to keep up to date on changing requirements and restrictions.

When searching for a cruise, always ask whether there are military, senior (for people 55+) or resident discounts (for residents of certain states). Many of them work with both current and retired federal workers and you can usually get the best price and extras from them.

Be Patient

While there is certainly enough demand for cruising to resume, it is important to proceed with caution. Like all industries, governments and schools, the CLIA is taking a phased and deliberate approach to reopening ships to passengers. The industry is also acutely aware of the fluidity of the Covid pandemic and ultimately just wants to be prepared to keep passengers safe and healthy so they can have more fun. By making many of the changes detailed above and holding passengers accountable for adhering to those changes, cruise liners hope that they will have a smooth and seamless return to the high seas in 2021.

It’s only a matter of time until cruise lines begin sailing again and big deals are sure to follow. After past crises that have caused a severe travel downturn, cruise lines have turned to big discounts to get people back to booking.

FedCruise is a travel agency dedicated to serving federal government employees and retirees. Thanks to our great relationship with major cruise lines, we have helped thousands of federal employees find amazing cruise deals. ​Visit FedCruise.com and join a good cruise deal newsletter and watch your inbox!