What is the future of cruising post-Covid? We've asked the industry's top cruise experts
This year, the entire cruise industry entered uncharted territory. News of a vaccine ahoy has led to a spike in new bookings for 2021, 2022, and even 2023 — but when can we return to the seas with confidence, and what will cruising actually look like once we're there?
We want to connect you with the very best advice in the industry, so we've asked major cruise lines for their visions of the new normal. We've got expert insight into the itineraries that are selling right now, plus exclusive insider tips on what to book and when.
Controversial opinion, but now might be the time to book that trip of a lifetime
We've spoken to representatives from lots of different cruise lines, and it looks like there are two very different trends on the rise among cruisers: some want to dip their toes in with no-fly and short-haul itineraries that carry minimum risk, while others are jumping in at the deep end, booking once-in-a-lifetime trips as their return to the world of travel. A bucket-list mentality is developing post-Covid, as cruisers are re-evaluating their priorities in lockdown and longing to make some new memories.
Peter Shanks, Managing Director of Silversea, says: "my top tip would be to secure that trip of a lifetime for 2022 now, and then be ready to take your summer, 2021, cruise closer to home when the time is right. Even in these circumstances, waiting to book late won’t secure the right suite on the right ship to the right destination."
"This is a perfect opportunity for expedition cruising to come to the forefront", adds Craig Upshall, Director of Sales at Aurora Expeditions. The company specialises in travel to remote and less populous areas of the world on smaller ships. They run expedition voyages to some of the world's wildest and most undisturbed destinations, including Antarctica, the Arctic and Alaska.
"I think people have really felt that they have missed out this year, and have had time to stop and reflect on what they really want to get out of their next holiday", says Geoff Ridgeon, Head of Sales at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. Baltic, Norway, and Iceland cruises are proving particularly popular, as they combine hassle-free no-fly itineraries with once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are much easier from a ship than on land (think sailing Scandinavia in search of the Northern Lights, or getting the best mountain views in the Norwegian fjords).
Pioneering health and safety protocols mean cruise ship travel is as safe as a trip to the high street
MSC was the first cruise line to resume operations after coronavirus, back in August. Antonio Paradiso, Managing Director of MSC Cruises UK & Ireland, says that "many of our guests [who] have sailed so far have said that they feel safer onboard than ashore", due to the huge amounts of time and money the cruise industry has spent on developing world-class safety measures.
The big news is that the cruise industry will enforce mandatory testing prior to boarding until further notice. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced that there will be a 100% passenger and crew testing policy for any ship carrying over 250 passengers. Andy Harmer, UK & Ireland Director of CLIA, calls this a "travel industry first" — he says that "measures are wide-ranging, with a holistic approach to COVID-19 safety that entails a door-to-door strategy, beginning at the time of booking through to the passengers’ return home".
Proposed safety regulations include regular touch-free temperature checks, scrupulous behind-the-scenes sanitisation, mandatory table service, and super high-tech air filtration systems that circulate fresh air rather than recycling it between cabins. Tony Roberts, Vice President of Princess Cruises, tells us that its Medallion-class cruise ships have cabins that open automatically as you approach, and contactless payment that lets you order anything to any part of the ship. You'll probably still have to wear a mask in some situations, but let's look on the bright side — reduced occupancy means fewer crowds in shared spaces, and no self-serve buffet restaurant means personal waiter service.
You'll still be able to explore offshore, but most operators have introduced temporary cruise bubbles, meaning you must tour as part of a group. Cruise lines are keen to lift restrictions as soon as the time is right. Lynn Narraway, UK & Ireland Managing Director of Holland America Line and Seabourn, says: "We know the port experience for our guests includes self-discovery: a coffee at a local café, a stroll through a historic district, a beer in the bar down the street, and more. We want to find solutions that will permit these kinds of activities without compromising our ability to sail".
There's a lot of interest in smaller ships and luxury river cruising, even from regular ocean cruisers
Small ships are having a moment. David Winterton, Director of Global Brand and Marketing at Emerald Cruises, says many cruisers are "looking to down-size to smaller capacity ships such as river cruising and coastal yachting. This is likely due to less crowds on board, and the chance to discover destinations in more depth with exclusive excursions. Our brand-new 100-guest super yacht, Emerald Azzurra, is even being booked by traditional ocean cruisers, as they look for new experiences on a smaller ship".
The FCO has also given Brits the green light to go river cruising. Ships are much smaller, with an average of 150 passengers, meaning they're able to get off the beaten track and call at smaller ports. You also have the peace of mind of always being close to the shore. Stuart Milan, Channel Director of Riviera Travel, says demand has been so strong that they've already launched itineraries into 2022: popular cruises include classic routes like the Blue Danube and the Rhine Christmas markets, as well as more niche itineraries like the Douro River in Portugal.
Every cruise line we've spoken to has a peace of mind programme, meaning there's no chance you'll lose your money
Every cruise line featured in this article has some sort of flexible booking policy, allowing guests to change or even cancel their voyage for free if there are government restrictions in place. Here's a summary — restrictions apply, so check the links for full details.
- Aurora Expeditions has a Book with Confidence programme that allows you to change or cancel your trip if restrictions are introduced by the government
- Emerald Cruises has a Cruise with Confidence programme that lets you transfer to an alternative cruise up to 60 days prior to departure with no fees. If you move your cruise from 2020 to 2021, you'll get additional credit and a "same price, next year" guarantee
- Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has a Plain Sailing Guarantee that lets you move your deposit to any other cruise, free of charge, before you pay the final balance. If you can't travel due to Covid you can change without fees right up to the day of departure
- Holland America Line has a Book with Confidence Guarantee that allows you to cancel for any reason up to 30 days in advance, and receive a Future Cruise Credit for any amount of money that you've already paid
- MSC Cruises has a Stress Free Booking policy that allows you to reschedule fly/cruise packages for free up to 21 days before departure. If you are unable to sail due to Covid, you can rebook cruise only packages up to 48 hours before departure and up to 96 hours on a Fly Cruise product
- Princess Cruises has a Cruise with Confidence policy that lets you amend your booking up to 30 days before departure, and get any cancellation fees back as Future Cruise Credit
- Riviera Travel includes Covid Cancellation Protection, so you can change new bookings for free up to 45 days before departure, and if you aren't happy by day two of the cruise, Rivera Travel will get you home and offer a refund
- Seabourn has a Book with Confidence policy that allows passengers to cancel 2021 cruises up to 30 days before departure and receive a 100% Future Cruise Credit
- Silversea offers a Cruise with Confidence programme that allows guests to cancel their 2021 cruise up to 30 days before departure and receive a 100% Future Cruise Credit