Cruise lines started the 2023 wave season early by dropping almost all of their COVID vaccination requirements. Bookings have reportedly surged this week, and if you’ve ever considered a cruise, maybe you’re thinking of one right now.
I am. I’m writing this on the observation deck of the MS Polarlys, the legendary Hurtigruten ship that runs from Bergen, Norway, to Kirkenes, north of the Arctic Circle.
The pandemic is a distant memory out here in the cold waters of the Norwegian Sea. There are no masking requirements, no vaccination requirements, and no testing requirements on board. It’s as if COVID never happened.
But so much has changed during the pandemic. Passengers are returning to a radically different cruise industry. Cruise lines have overhauled their health and safety protocols. There are new laws that protect cruise passengers. There are new travel insurance options. The rest of the travel industry has changed, too — particularly airlines. And that has the potential to affect your next cruise.
Wave season is the time of year when people book their cruises. It typically begins in October and November. But by quietly loosening their vaccination requirements, the cruise industry kicked off wave season a little early for 2023. So what do you need to know before you book a cruise next year?
Book your 2023 cruise soon
Susan Stafford says this is an ideal time to book a cruise. She’s tracked the ebb and flow of consumer sentiment in the last two years. It’s gone from cautious social distancing and rigorous testing at the beginning of the year to wide open today.
“If we have learned anything from the past two years, it’s that we can’t predict the future,” says Stafford, a cruise expert and professional planner.
But one thing is predictable: the trajectory of cruise fares.
“Should the current trends continue,” she adds, “cruise prices will rise.”
If you buy a ticket now, and the price of your cruise drops before your departure date, many cruise lines will adjust your price before you make your final payment. So experts say you should not pay for the entire cruise now.
Mind your connections for your 2023 cruise
Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists, says one of the biggest concerns for cruise passengers in 2023 is air connections. This summer has shown travelers how unreliable air travel can be, with a record number of flight delays (24 percent of all flights) and cancellations (3.2 percent of all flights). She advises anyone planning a cruise to keep that in mind.
“Arrive in your departure port city at least one day before embarkation,” she says. “Depending on where you are flying to and from, it might be prudent to add another day or two onto that and spend some time exploring that port city.”
That’s new advice. The conventional wisdom used to be one extra day on both ends — a safety cushion just in case there’s a delay on either end. But after this summer, travel pros are advising cruise passengers to make it 48 hours — just in case.
Another way around the problem: Try driving to your port. “This helps to avoid any airline-related hassles and also helps to save on the increasing cost of airfare,” says Aaron Saunders, a senior editor at Cruise Critic.
Get the right travel insurance for your cruise
You’ll probably need travel insurance for your 2023 cruise, according to virtually all of the experts. More passengers are going all-in with a pricey “cancel for any reason” policy. It allows them to cancel their cruise for any reason — another outbreak, bad weather, not feeling well — and get anywhere between 50 percent and 75 percent of their nonrefundable prepaid expenses back.
“This can be especially attractive to travelers concerned about changing COVID requirements for cruises and those who might be worried about infection rates for COVID and other illnesses at international ports of call,” says Angela Borden, a product marketing strategist with Seven Corners.
One must-have coverage is for a missed cruise connection, notes Borden.
It covers expenses such as meals, lodging, and local transportation as well as the additional transportation cost to catch up to your departed cruise, she says. Missed cruise connection typically covers any delay, cancellation or mechanical breakdown.
Know what happens if you get infected
Tracy Schatz, owner of Elite Travel Journeys, says passengers have changed since the pandemic. “They’re more aware of how viruses spread and want to make sure that the cruise lines are doing things to mitigate the spread of viruses,” she says.
That was one of the significant changes I noticed on my Norwegian cruise this week. At meal times, everyone used hand sanitizer. And if you forgot, a crewmember asked you nicely to disinfect your hands.
Every cruise line has an established protocol for handling an infection. Some will confine you to your quarters. Others have a special section for COVID-positive passengers. Smaller ships may send you to a medical facility in the next port of call. Special insurance policies such as COVAC Global cover infectious diseases like COVID and will ensure you get all the way home, rather than just to the nearest medical facility.
Beth Bodensteiner, the chief commercial officer for Holland America Line, told me that during the pandemic pause, the cruise line overhauled all of its procedures. That included thorough sanitization, better air filtration and adding 24/7 medical care to its onboard medical centers. Still, a lot can change between now and 2023. “Keep up to date on the latest health protocols,” she advises.
New laws may protect you if your cruise line cancels in 2023
Your rights at sea are governed by maritime law, or the law of the sea. Earlier this year, the Federal Maritime Commission created a new regulation that required cruise lines to provide refunds for canceled or delayed voyages. Previously, cruise lines could keep your money indefinitely and force you to take a replacement cruise, even if they canceled.
Under the new rules, if a cruise line delays your cruise by more than three calendar days, it counts as a cancellation, and you get a full refund. Passengers also get any fees refunded, such as shore excursions or port fees. The new regulation also lets travelers file a claim against the cruise line’s bondholders when there’s a bankruptcy. Note that these rules only apply to cruises leaving from a U.S. port.
Still, the consumer protections for cruise passengers are severely lacking, as I explain in my ultimate guide to taking a cruise. Your rights are governed by your cruise line ticket contract, a lopsided contract that favors the cruise line, as well as maritime law, which almost always favors the cruise line. Bottom line: If you want the same rights as you have on land, don’t book a cruise.
Don’t wait too long to book your 2023 cruise
You know how this summer, hotels were full and flights were expensive? That’s going to happen next year for the cruise industry, say insiders.
“Don’t think you’re going to be able to book a trip at the last minute and save,” warns Fernando Diaz, marketing director of Quasar Expeditions, which offers cruises in Patagonia and the Galapagos islands. “This is not only because of the high prices of flights booked at the last minute, but also because some low season dates of the past are almost full for 2023 due to the increase in demand.”
Choose your next cruise carefully
If there’s one takeaway from cruising on a small ship north of the Arctic Circle, it’s that now more than ever, you need to choose a cruise that will meet your needs. My fellow passengers are energized by the fjords and love the adventure of being on a supply vessel that reaches some of the most remote parts of Norway. They had a knowledgeable travel advisor who knew what they wanted. Others have spent much of the journey staring at the ocean and playing video games. I wonder who advised them to take this cruise.
So, amid all the changes, one thing is still the same. Talk to an expert or do a lot of research before you book a cruise. Because the only thing worse than booking the right cruise at the wrong price is booking the wrong cruise at the right price.