So, you’d like to become a volunteer cruise ‘guinea pig’ and try out one of the “simulated voyages” that the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has mandated before the industry can start up again in a COVID-safe manner?
Well, there are definitely going to be opportunities with the major lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival, but it’s going to be an almost literal lottery in the next few months as the cruise companies scramble to deal with both the CDC’s edict and the complicated logistics of resuming voyages.
Cruising was one of the most badly affected parts of the pandemic-hit travel world when it was forced into an extended hiatus back in March, and no cruises from American ports on ships carrying more than 250 passengers have been allowed ever since.
In recent weeks, the industry had been heavily lobbying Congress for ways to resume voyaging, and, on Oct. 30, the CDC lifted the “No sail” order on all ships – but with a 40-page “framework for conditional sailing” outlining a series of stipulations that every cruise line needed to follow before paying guests would be allowed back on board.
Among the long list of health and safety requirements the cruise lines would need to implement, including pre-cruise COVID-19 testing, strict quarantine and isolation protocols, and extensive social distancing, the CDC also dictated ships would need to undertake “simulated voyages” to ensure all the new measures worked to their satisfaction.
In the wake of the announcement, more details have emerged on how these mock cruises would work and when they might start. In some cases, it seems they will initially take place only with cruise line employees and their families, and they will not include any port calls, except for visits to private island destinations that can be closely monitored.
But there are also now strong indications that the big companies will recruit “volunteers” from the general public in order to properly test all the CDC’s many conditions for a safe resumption.
And, according to the rules and regulations, these cruises will essentially be free, as they will require all passengers to undergo various tests and procedures that conform to the “framework for conditional sailing,” which could include COVID-19 testing and quarantine lockdown tests.
So, while it may not be a typical voyage under normal conditions, and will only be open to adults with no pre-existing health issues, this unique volunteer cruise opportunity will still offer a representative taste of vacationing with each of the cruise lines in question.
There are no reports of any dates or ships that will be used for these volunteer cruise voyages as of yet, but it seems likely, with all major cruise lines canceling trips through the end of the year, they may start in December or January, and on a 3- or 4-day basis.
If that piques your nautical curiosity—or if you are a regular cruise-goer desperate to get back to the sea again—here are the latest opportunities to get in line for a “simulated” volunteer cruise:
Basically the first major company to outline a real promise of volunteer cruising, Royal Caribbean has set up a special online form to recruit interested potential passengers and a public group Facebook page to provide a few more details. As of noon ET on Thursday, Nov. 12, the Facebook page had already signed up almost 10,000 members within hours of going online.
Senior vice president of sales, Vicki Freed, explained: “We are going to be doing a series of sailings using our employees and other volunteers to test out the protocols and make modifications. It is going to require a lot of work to restart operations and [it] is complicated to go through this entire CDC recommendation, but we are going to do it.”
The world’s biggest cruise line has yet to announce any kind of mock voyages, but it’s unlikely they will allow big rival Royal Caribbean to get a leg up on them, so monitor their social media closely, especially on Facebook.
Norwegian Cruise Line
The U.S.’s other member of the “Big Three” cruise lines has already been part of a special Healthy Sail Panel that issued its own 75-page report on creating a safe return to operations. CEO Frank Del Rio also insisted earlier this week in an earnings conference call that the company plans “trial sailings” with the CDC in January. “The excitement level hasn’t been this high in a long, long time,” he added. Be sure to monitor their Facebook page for further news.
Disney Cruise Line
With just four ships to navigate the “framework for conditional sailing,” Disney already has an advantage having successfully re-opened its Florida theme parks in July. It had previously reached a COVID-19 testing agreement with other major lines in September, and hopes to re-launch at 70% capacity in the spring. That means the necessary test cruises will need to take place in January and February, probably starting with the Disney Wonder from Port Canaveral to Disney’s private island of Castaway Cay, but there is no news as of yet (we will have full details here at Attractions Magazine in due course).
Part of the giant Carnival Corporation, Princess is another line closely monitoring the CDC document for ways to resume cruising, especially as it typically operates many voyages of 8 days or more, which the guidelines have expressly forbidden for the time being. Their latest word came on their Facebook page on Nov. 3.
This high-class subsidiary of Royal Caribbean is expected to follow its primary company’s example of volunteer cruises in December or January. Again, check their social media—especially the Facebook page—for more news this month.
Holland America Line
Like Princess, Holland America is a more upscale Carnival brand, and typically features sailings of longer than 7 days. That means it will take longer for HAL to feature volunteer cruises as they re-focus their itineraries while also working to implement the CDC guidelines. We don’t expect to see any “simulated” voyages before mid-January at the earliest.
In short, these are still early days for the unique circumstances surrounding a return to cruising. Most lines had already been preparing for new health and safety measures when the CDC finally published its framework for a conditional resumption, and they will be quick to react once they have absorbed the many small details of the guidelines. Long-time cruise executive Bruce Nierenberg expects most companies to complete all the necessary trials by the end of January, with regular paying cruises resuming in February.
Knowing how dedicated most cruisers are, there will be a LOT of interest in any kind of volunteer cruise – so, like with the theme parks, expect long lines to take part!