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Masks, Testing, Buffets, and More - The Skinny on Cruise COVID Restrictions

With COVID rules constantly changing for cruise lines, it can be hard to know what restrictions apply to your next voyage.  When or if testing is required, whether you'll need to wear a mask on the ship, and how you can go ashore in ports of call can vary based on several factors - one of the largest being vaccines.  We're tracking some key factors and rules to gibe you an idea of what to expect.  Many things outlined below are informed by the CDC's Conditional Sailing Order, however cruise line policies and health agencies in other countries may cause restrictions to be more conservative.  Except where specifically noted, the rules mentioned here are for sailings leaving from the US.

Before going further, let's define a couple of terms:

Fully-Vaccinated Person (Guest or Crew): Someone who has received the final COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before embarkation and is able and willing to provide proof of said vaccination to the cruise line.

Unvaccinated Guest: A guest who either has not received their final COVID-19 vaccine 14+ days prior to embarkation, or a guest who is unwilling or unable to provide proof of their vaccination status.

Vaccinated Sailing: A cruise where at least 98% of crew and 95% of guests have been Fully-Vaccinated.

Fully-Vaccinated Sailing: A cruise where 100% of persons onboard, regardless of age, are Fully-Vaccinated.

Unvaccinated Sailing: A cruise where at fewer than 95% of guests are Fully-Vaccinated.

COVID-19 Vaccine: Any COVID vaccine approved for use in the US, Canada, or EU.

While we’ll make an effort to keep this up to date, please remember to check with your travel agent, cruise line, or other tour operator to ensure you’re prepared for the latest requirements.  A good travel agent can make this and many other parts of your travel much easier: Should I use a travel agent or book directly with a cruise line?

Are Masks Required on my Cruise?

December 2021 Update: Due to a recent uptick in omicron variant infections, NCL, Celebrity, and Virgin Voyages, who didn't previously require masks, now require them.  Additionally, many lines have tightened enforcement, and some casinos no longer allow smoking.  These changes are noted as temporary, but of course the situation continues to evolve.

On almost all lines, all unvaccinated guests two and older must wear a mask when indoors unless actively eating or drinking.  Also on these lines, all guests, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks in certain designated areas, such as elevators, as designated by signage. 

Fully-Vaccinated guests, on Celebrity Cruises' fully vaccinated sailings may not be required to wear masks while on the ship.  Unvaccinated guests on vaccinated sailings, especially those eligible for vaccination, based on age, may be required to wear masks while indoors or unable to maintain social distancing.  On unvaccinated sailings, all guests may be required to wear masks while indoors, except while actively eating or drinking.  On these sailings, masks may also be required when outdoors and unable to maintain social distancing.

Fully vaccinated guests on Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruises, and MSC Cruises are required to wear masks while indoors unless in an area designated as not requiring masking (which include many lounges, bars, specialty restaurants, etc).

On all sailings, masks are not required when in one's own stateroom.  The CDC also advises travelers should not wear a mask during activities that could get the mask wet.  

Non-US Sailings of Note

  • All guests on round-trip sailings from Greece are required to wear masks while indoors, except while eating or drinking.

NCL Officer Wearing Mask

Can We Get Off the Ship on Our Own While in Port?

In most cases, Fully-Vaccinated guests are able to disembark and tour on their own.  Some destinations, may require that guests disembark only with ship sponsored excursions, regardless of vaccination status.  In many ports, including St Maarten, unvaccinated guests may be required to disembark only with ship-sponsored shore excursions that have been vetted for following specific health and safety measures.  Note that individual ports of call may have their own restrictions for cruise ship guests, which, in addition to restricting disembarkation, require mask wearing, etc.  Before the ship's arrival at each port, the cruise line will make you aware of local regulations that must be followed.

Is a COVID Test Required Before or After My Cruise?

Guests on most major cruise lines are required to provide proof of a negative COVID test (Antigen, NAAT, or PCR) two days before embarkation regardless of vaccination status (note that some lines may still say three days prior to embarkation, but this is in the process of changing).  Disney Cruise Line will be offering testing at the embarkation port.  Unvaccinated guests may also require PCR test results, but in addition, will be required be tested on embarkation day, and up to 24 hours before disembarkation day.  Consecutive/back-to-back cruisers will be required to be tested up to 24 hours before turnaround day (the day between the consecutive cruises), regardless of vaccination status.   Additional testing may be required by the cruise line.

Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line test all guests, independent of vaccination status and other results, at the cruise terminal prior to embarkation - though Disney requires additional pre-cruise testing for unvaccinated guests.

COVID testing on Celebrity Edge cruise ship

Non-US Sailings of Note

  • Greece requires either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test taken up to 72 hours before arrival.

Can I Take a Back-to-Back Cruise?

“Back-to-back” or “consecutive” cruises are when you book two cruises on the same ship, where the second departs the same day that the first ended.  These are indeed permitted, but additional COVID testing may be required toward the end of the first segment of the cruise.

Celebrity Cruises' Guidelines for Non-US Summer 2021 Sailings
Celebrity Cruises' Guidelines for Non-US Summer 2021 Sailings

Will the Buffets be Open?  How Will Dining be Different?

Cruise ship buffets have long been popular, and they won’t be going anywhere, though they may work a bit differently. 

On most cruise lines, buffets are no longer self-service.  Crew members serve and plate food for guests.  This has been common practice on some lines for years, and has proven to work smoothly on initial sailings.  Carnival Cruise Line has said they will continue to offer self-service buffets on vaccinated sailings and in areas only accessible to vaccinated guests on unvaccinated sailings.

Some lines are using technology and new procedures to allow for dining in more places - something we've already seen Princess Cruises announce.

What the CDC Says

  • Cruise lines must eliminate self-service food and drink options, such as self-service buffets, salad bars, and beverage stations, but may allow self-service food and beverage options on sailings where 95% of guests are vaccinated and in areas of ships on other sailings only permitted to be accessed by fully-vaccinated guests.

  • Cruise lines must install physical barriers (eg) sneeze guards and partitions in areas where it is difficult for individuals to maintain proper physical distance of at least 6 feet (2 meters), such as serving stations and food pick up areas.  They must also restrict capacity of venues to allow for at least 6 feet distance between persons in different traveling parties.  These physical distancing requirements are not required for sailings where 95% of guests are vaccinated and in areas of ships on other sailings only permitted to be accessed by fully-vaccinated guests.

Effortless Dining on Princess

Do I Need to be Vaccinated to Cruise?

In general, all guests 12 years of age or older are required to show proof of vaccination in order to cruise, with some requiring this of all guests five or older.  At the time of this update, a few lines still allow exceptions to vaccination rules, but all lines are actively changing their policies due to a recent change in requirements of the Government of The Bahamas, which is why you may find conflicting information.  Virgin Voyages, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises require all guests, regardless of age, and without exception, to be fully vaccinated in order to sail.

If an unvaccinated child, or unvaccinated adult guest (though these are exceedingly rare given new requirements) choose to cruise, it's important to note that in addition to being required to wear a mask unless eating or drinking, you'll be required to undergo more testing than fully-vaccinated guests, and some lines are charging guests for this testing.  Unvaccinated guests may also be limited to certain areas.  This could mean separate areas of dining venues or lounges, but could also be more much restrictive.  For example, Royal Caribbean International announced that on some sailings, unvaccinated guests would not be permitted entry into venues such as Izumi (sushi restaurant), Chef's Table, Viking Crown Lounge (lounge and nightclub), Schooner Bar, R Bar, pubs, Solarium (bar and pool), the casino, and the spa.

Vaccine Sign in Nassau

What the CDC Says

  • There is no vaccine requirement for guests.

  • Cruise lines seeking a Conditional Sailing Certificate (approval to sail as part of the Conditional Sailing Order) must seek approval for and successfully execute Simulated Voyages (test cruises) for each ship they want sailing.  Cruise ships sailing with at least 98% vaccinated crew members and at least 95% vaccinated guests may skip these Simulated Voyages.