What it's like to cruise with fewer COVID rules: 'Was it worth the risk? I don't think so'

  • Many major cruise lines have eased their COVID-19 rules, including dropping vaccine requirements.
  • Some passengers have felt nervous on board at times, while others felt largely safe.
  • Travelers can take steps to protect themselves and others while onboard.

Bianca Young's cruise was a first in more ways than one. The 48-year-old's first cruise was aboard one of Royal Caribbean International's first sailings after the line dropped its COVID-19 vaccine requirement and further eased pre-cruise testing rules.

Young and her husband had mixed feelings about the changes, which happened just before their Sept. 10 cruise from Miami. The couple did not have to take a coronavirus test since they are fully vaccinated and boosted.

"Part of us was like, 'Oh well, that's great because it's a little bit more convenient,' but then another part of me was like, 'I wonder what that's going to mean (if other people) are sick?'" she told USA TODAY.

The Frisco, Texas, resident said she felt crowded on the seven-night Caribbean voyage, and she also felt uneasy at times, such as when exiting the theater, but had a "great time" overall.

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Then, the day after she got home, she tested positive for COVID, which had not contracted since the pandemic began.

"So it's one of those things where, was it worth the risk?" said Young. "I don't know, I don't think so."

Young is among the first travelers to take a cruise after many major lines dropped vaccination requirements and rolled back testing rules, with some finding themselves uneasy during parts of their sailings while others have felt safe.

"Our guests are happy to be cruising again, and the easing of protocols globally has been well received," a Royal Caribbean spokesperson told USA TODAY in an emailed statement. "We continue to normalize along with all other forms of travel and hospitality and will maintain additional layers of protection that far exceed any other vacation experience."

The spokesperson added that the line's "health and safety measures include the routine monitoring and vaccination of all crew members and keeping them up to date with boosters, enhanced testing and treatment capabilities in our onboard medical facilities, and more."

'Gambling with your health'

Trevor Welch found himself similarly nervous after embarking on a five-night Bahamas cruise with Carnival Cruise Line on Sept. 12.

Welch, who is vaccinated and boosted, found that "probably one in 10 people were coughing, so it was a little nerve-wracking to say the least," he said, and was surprised to see that, for the most part, only crew members were wearing masks.

"I thought more people would wear one, just because of how tight quarters the ship is," the 28-year-old web developer, who wore his mask as much as possible on the cruise, said.

Carnival recommends guests wear masks "while indoors, except when eating or drinking or in their own staterooms, and when in large congregate events outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained," according to its website. They may also be required inside on sailings 16 nights or longer, with some exceptions.

The line also eliminated a vaccine exemption requirement for those who are unvaccinated on many sailings and further eased testing rules for vaccinated travelers on Sept. 6, requiring them before embarkation only on voyages 16 nights or longer or when mandated by a destination. Many other lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, and Holland America Line have made similar changes.

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While Welch enjoyed the cruise, Welch found that few passengers followed such recommendations.

"If you were on the ship, you were gambling with your health a little," he said. "That's what it felt like."

"Our dedication to the health and safety of our guests, crew, and the communities we visit is reflected in our protocols and procedures, which were developed in consultation with our medical experts and have proven very effective and adaptable to the evolving public health situation," Carnival told USA TODAY in an emailed statement.

The line added that it encourages guests to be up to date on their vaccinations and take a COVID test within three days of their sailing.

'I did feel safe'

For other passengers, the remaining COVID protocols were reassuring. William Prather took a 10-night European cruise from Amsterdam on Norwegian's new Prima ship on Sept. 3, the date the line began welcoming unvaccinated passengers and eased testing rules for unvaccinated guests on many sailings.

The line notified the 53-year-old, who is vaccinated and boosted, of the changes ahead of time, and they did not give him pause.

William Prather and his wife, Maureen Green, took a trip with on Norwegian Prima in early September.

On board, the theater producer said, the restrooms were contactless with automated features, public spaces – including the casino – had hand sanitizer readily available, and he noticed staff cleaning more than on previous cruises. Many other lines have implemented similar measures.

"There were a couple times, I'll be honest with you, where I was in a couple crowded bars late at night, and I'm like, 'This is just a COVID factory,' " Prather, who is from Fort Myers, Florida, said, but those were isolated.

A friend who joined him on the cruise tested positive for COVID afterward, he said, but Prather and his wife did not, and he plans to take another sailing on the Prima with his parents in the spring.

"I did feel safe, and the sanitation measures that have been put in place have become kind of standard operating procedures," he said. "You utilize them, and you just make your own individual choices."

How safe is it to take a cruise now?

Dr. Lorena Garcia, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, said travelers should first make a "personal risk assessment" when considering cruise travel, given that it can vary depending on a passenger's age, medical conditions, and other factors.

"That person, if they're traveling by themselves or in a group, should have that conversation with their health care provider," she said.

Travelers may want to consider their cruise line's protocols and the length of their sailing. On a cruise, Garcia said, passengers are beholden to policies set by the cruise line for long periods of time. Passengers may get off the ship for a few hours at a given port, but "they're coming back to that set of rules, or laxity of rules," she said.

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She added that the longer the sailing, the higher the risk of contracting COVID.

On July 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, and cruise lines that had opted into the program are no longer beholden to its guidance.

Still, travelers can take steps to protect themselves and others on board, such as by making sure their vaccinations are up to date, monitoring for symptoms and wearing masks. She recommended high-risk travelers, like those who are immunocompromised,  wear masks anytime they are outside their cabin.

While Young feels certain she contracted COVID on the cruise, she does not know whether the COVID restrictions ending played a role. Still, she says she would have felt a bit safer with stricter requirements in place.

"I think it would've helped and I think it would've probably helped people to be a little bit more mindful, just knowing that the restrictions were in order," she said.

What has been your experience cruising after the drop in COVID-related requirements?