What is the future of cruising post-Covid? We've asked the industry's top cruise experts

08 Dec 2020

Updated 17 May: The UK government has launched a page covering domestic cruising for UK passengers. This new information currently states that domestic cruises will be commencing 17 May, with a capacity limit of 1000 guests until 21 June. CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) has also launched a page highlighting key information from the cruise industry. Information below is based on our information at the time of publish. Some cruise lines' policies may differ and/or change. Be sure to check with your specific cruise line before booking and sailing.

Last 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. If your sea legs are ready, here are some deals for UK cruises this summer. To see all of our cheap cruise deals, click here.

Vaccines aren't always required, but testing will be

Many cruise lines have mentioned they will only accept vaccinated guests, but not all. Fred. Olsen Cruise Line's Geoff Ridgeon says, "[the vaccine] needs to run alongside other measures, such as testing and social distancing, which is why we aren't making vaccines mandatory at this time". But the cruise line will require pre-cruise lateral flow tests, as well as one immediately prior to boarding. 

Riviera cruise will require all passengers to be vaccinated. They will also cover the cost of any required testing.

Princess Cruises is running UK cruises this summer and these are open only to UK residents who are vaccinated (at least seven days since second dose). Any required testing will be included in the cruise fare.

Masks aweigh?

Whether and where masks will be required isn't set in stone, but you'll definitely need to be ready to don one at certain times. Geoff Ridgeon of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines sums it up: "We expect masks will need to be worn in areas of the ships where social distancing is not possible, such as in lifts and corridors. We will of course provide guests with more details of this ahead of their cruise".

Similarly, Princess Cruises has confirmed masks will be needed on board, but only in certain areas. This will be clarified and confirmed to guests prior to their departures.

How will dining and excursions be altered?

This will differ between cruise lines and possibly even different ships, but the overall view is: a little bit, but not too much.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will seat you in a group of up to six for your evening meal. You'll then be able to visit and use facilities of the ship with the same group of people, who will be, essentially, your cruise bubble. Also on Fred. Olsen, buffet restaurants will be open, but food will be staff-, instead of self-, service.

Riviera cruise will have waiter service at all meals. Excursions are included on most itineraries, but passengers will also be allowed to venture out in ports on their own (based on local restrictions).

On Princess Cruises ships, all dining venues will be open, but timing and size of groups will be optimised to allow for easy distancing. Room service is also available, and guests can use OceanMedallion technology to order food to be delivered anywhere they are aboard the ship.

Those who want to go ashore with Princess Cruises will need to be part of an organised excursion (for the time being)

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. It runs 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 [in 2020], 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, 2020. 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. Even if you change for other reasons, you can still change your deposit to a different cruise as long as you haven't paid the final balance. This is valid for cruises until 2023.
  • 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
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