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COVID travel restrictions need no introduction. Since the pandemic first struck in early 2020, international travel has been severely restricted by global efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

At certain times and in certain places, that has meant no overseas travel being allowed at all. When it has been permitted, travellers have faced strict rules and regulations – providing a clean COVID test on arrival, mandatory quarantine, having the correct documentation that shows you’ve been fully vaccinated and more.

But as 2020 has progressed, those restrictions have slowly but surely melted away. The majority of countries have now scrapped all restrictions on travel, trusting in vaccination programmes to keep their populations safe. 

Crucially, this now includes allowing unvaccinated people to travel freely. Even countries like Spain, which for a long time had a strict policy of banning unvaccinated travellers outright, have now softened their stance. Unvaccinated holidaymakers can travel to Spain again as long as they test negative for COVID before they go.

But what about cruises? The cruise sector was arguably hit hardest of all by the pandemic. We all remember stories like the Diamond Princess cruise liner which was left stranded at sea with 3,600 passengers on board, a fifth of them infected with COVID and quarantined to their rooms. 

The close quarters on board cruise ships makes it incredibly easy for COVID to spread. As a result, the cruise sector all but shut down completely for over a year. It was only in the wake of vaccination programmes being rolled out around the world that cruise operators judged it safe to open for business again. Rules and regulations were tight, including a total ban on unvaccinated passengers.

Even then, major outbreaks have continued to plague cruise liners well into this year, making the sector reluctant to relax rules any further.

So if you haven’t had the COVID vaccine, perhaps for health reasons, should you kiss your dream of going on a cruise goodbye?

woman sitting on luggage
Photo by Anna Shvets on

Easing the rules

Cruises have remained the final bastion of the tightest COVID travel restrictions. But it seems now there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just as countries like Spain have now judged that the risks of allowing unvaccinated travellers who are potentially carrying the virus into the country are balanced out by the much larger numbers of citizens who are fully vaccinated, some cruise operators are starting to come to the same conclusions.

From early September, for example, one of Europe’s largest cruise groups – Norwegian Cruise Lines, which includes Regent Seven Seas and Oceania – will welcome unvaccinated passengers on all its ships. That will be subject to anyone who is unvaccinated testing negative for the virus within 72 hours of departure. Similarly, Royal Caribbean is relaxing its rules on vaccination status, but only on cruises departing from some destinations.

Virgin Voyages, meanwhile, has decided to adopt a quota system for unvaccinated passengers. It will allow up to 10% of guests on board any of its cruise ships to be unvaccinated. 

Take precautions

These are all positive steps. But the operators easing restrictions for unvaccinated travellers still represent only a small fraction of the cruise sector. And if you are unvaccinated, you will still face more hurdles going on a cruise compared to vaccinated passengers, including the requirement to take expensive PCR tests before you go.

You also have to take more precautions as an unvaccinated cruise passenger. As mentioned, COVID outbreaks are still pretty common on cruise liners. If you haven’t had a full course of vaccination shots and boosters, you are more vulnerable to the virus. Especially if you have medical reasons for not being vaccinated.

Falling ill on a cruise ship can be an expensive business. You need special holiday insurance to cover the costs of onboard medical care. If you fall seriously ill, there’s a chance you might have to be airlifted to hospital on land, or the ship might have to make an unscheduled stop in port. In either case, the terms of travel as a cruise passenger make you liable for the additional costs, which can be incredibly high.

Vaccinated or not, it simply isn’t worth the risk of falling ill on a cruise and being hit with these charges. Cruise insurance at least gives you the peace of mind that you will be covered financially.

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