As cruise lines begin to set sail again this summer after a 15-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, would-be passengers will find a rapidly changing set of new travel policies and health protocols to navigate—including mandatory travel insurance requirements in some cases.

Key Takeaways

  • As they begin to sail again this summer, cruise lines are instituting new rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers.
  • Royal Caribbean and MSC are the first two cruise lines to announce travel insurance requirements, and Carnival Cruise Line joined them in recent days. Others are expected to follow soon.
  • Cruise lines continue to navigate between CDC regulations and Florida law in setting on-board protocols and in-port policies.
  • Rules are still evolving, so travel experts say keeping in touch with the cruise line and your travel advisor are essential.

Piloting COVID-19 Precautions

Many cruise lines are requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to board, but vaccine requirements can vary by cruise line, ship, and departure port/destination. And new health and safety practices—along with added insurance rules—distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated cruisers in many ways. They reflect current guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which require U.S-based ships to complete trial cruises to test health and safety protocols if the cruise line expects to return to sailing with less than 95% fully vaccinated guests or crew.

At the same time, cruise lines are attempting to adhere to Florida law, which currently prevents companies operating in the state from requiring proof of vaccination. Royal Caribbean International and MSC Cruises are the first two lines to outline insurance protocols for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated U.S. passengers, experts say, but others may soon follow suit.

Those protocols include:

  • Royal Caribbean International now requires unvaccinated guests over age 12 on cruises departing from Florida homeports to have special travel insurance that covers at least $25,000 per person for COVID-19-related medical expenses should they test positive on board and $50,000 per person for quarantine and medical evacuation. The mandatory insurance applies to cruises from Aug. 1 through Dec. 31, except bookings made between March 19 and June 28.
  • Carnival Cruise Lines is now requiring proof of at least a first vaccine dose 14 days or more before departure date or for unvaccinated passengers to carry at least $10,000 in medical expense and $30,000 in emergency medical evacuation insurance for any Florida-based cruises.
  • MSC Cruises also requires unvaccinated travelers (and those who don’t provide proof of vaccination) on U.S. cruises to buy the cruise line's Travel Insurance and Covid-19 Protection Services policy. Fully vaccinated passengers booked for sailings on or before Oct. 31 get MSC’s COVID-19 Reassurance protections at no charge.

"Right now, those are the only three cruise lines that have announced that policy," Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of the industry news and review site Cruise Critic, told Investopedia. "What the three have in common is that they are both family friendly, with a higher percentage of children who are unvaccinated because they are not eligible," she says, noting that family-focused Disney Cruise Line, however, has not yet released its onboard protocols. "Generally, the closer the lines get to their restart dates, that's when they release the protocols for each specific ship."

Cruise Critic maintains a list of health and safety requirements by cruise line that it updates as new announcements are made.

Complicating the situation for cruise lines sailing from Florida is an ongoing legal tangle between the state and the CDC. Last week, the agency appealed a federal judge's order in a lawsuit against it by the state that would, as of July 18, turn the CDC's "conditional sailing order" regulations into recommendations, similar to those in place for the airline, hotel, and entertainment industries, the Miami Herald reported. The order says CDC regulations were causing Florida to miss out on tax dollars generated by the cruise industry. Florida ports account for about 59% of all U.S. embarkations, according to the latest data from the Cruise Lines International Association.

Prioritizing Vaccine Status, Insurance Protections

Judging from more than 5,000 reader opinions gathered in a June survey by Cruise Critic, 89% of people say they’d feel safer taking a cruise with fellow vaccinated travelers and 80% would prefer to sail on a ship with a vaccine requirement.

A June 21 tally by travel insurance comparison site InsureMyTrip, meantime, shows the number of insurance policies sold for future cruises hit their highest level since February 2020—up 60% from four weeks ago.

"Overall, we've seen an increase in travelers researching travel insurance," says Suzanne Morrow, vice president of business development at InsureMyTrip. "And we anticipate more cruise lines will likely follow suit and begin requesting passengers have travel insurance."

Pandemic uncertainty has already led to a noticeable growth spurt in Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) insurance, which some travel insurance companies now offer as an optional upgrade across their entire range of policies.

Navigating Uncharted Territory

With increased vaccination rates and eased travel restrictions, 44% of new U.S. cruise bookings in this year’s first quarter were for 2021 departures, with 20% of them for summer dates, according to data released in June by Expedia Group. Expedia says those numbers indicate that travelers are ready to cruise again—despite having to maneuver through an evolving set of rules.

"It's important to remember that as much as we see policies vary and evolve on land, we can expect the same both for cruise ships as well as the destinations they visit," Cruise Critic’s Gray Faust says. "What might be policy one day could change the next." The best advice right now? Keep in close contact with the cruise line and your travel advisor.

"They’ll be able to help navigate the latest policies that will impact your specific sailing—whether it’s onboard rules, or in-port policies," she says.