- The Delta variant has people reconsidering how — and if — they should travel.
- Health experts say individuals should weigh the risks against how they value the experience.
- For me, cruising is fun but not my ideal way to travel, so I’ve decided it’s not worth the risk.
As a fully vaccinated 25-year-old, I boarded the Carnival Vista on July 3 with a sense of confidence.
At the time, it felt like a window of hope had opened. With more Americans getting vaccinated, some were leaving masks at home, summer flings were in full swing, and people were booking the vacations they’d spent a year-and-a-half dreaming about.
I had few qualms joining hundreds of vaccinated passengers on the ship — Carnival’s first to leave the US since the pandemic began — to cover the return of cruises. As the ship sailed from Galveston, Texas, to Belize, Honduras, and Mexico, I happily spent eight days eating at the buffet, doing yoga, and sightseeing.
But, since getting back on land, with the Delta variant surging in the US, I wouldn’t board a cruise today with the same confidence I had two months ago.
In August, The Washington Post reported that the same ship I went on had 27 breakthrough cases of fully vaccinated people getting COVID-19. While most had mild or no symptoms, one passenger later died, The New York Times reported.
As more breakthrough cases happen onboard the massive vessels, travelers — like me — are reconsidering the appeal of what felt like, for a short window of time, a carefree vacation.
Health experts told Insider it’s up to individuals to weigh the risks of cruising right now against how much they value the experience, while others who spoke to CNBC have urged travelers to avoid cruises and warned that they can be “a recipe for transmission.”
Cruises may be tightening COVID protocols, but they’re still risky
On the Carnival Vista, I saw few signs of the pandemic. At the time of my trip, Carnival required 95% of passengers to be fully vaccinated, the majority of people were maskless, crowds of sweaty people danced together every night, and people eagerly lined up at the self-serve buffet.
But today, that feeling of normalcy has vanished.
As the highly infectious Delta variant spreads, Carnival and other cruise companies have tightened COVID protocols. All passengers on the same ship now wear masks indoors and get tested regardless of their vaccination status. When I boarded, Carnival required only unvaccinated passengers to wear masks — though I couldn’t tell if this was enforced — and show a negative COVID test result on boarding.
As of August 30, 35 ships that are currently operating or will be operating in the US have suspected or confirmed positive COVID cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health experts say cases are to be expected.
“If you’re on a major cruise ship with thousands of people, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a case,” Amesh Adalja, a pandemic preparedness expert at Johns Hopkins University, told Insider. “Especially if there are any unvaccinated individuals on board.”
Deciding if cruising is a smart choice falls on each individual traveler and their risk assessment, Adalja said.
For Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, the decision of whether or not a vaccinated traveler should cruise comes down to personal medical circumstances and how much you value the experience.
“The Delta variant does change the risk calculus, but that’s not saying that people shouldn’t do the things that they enjoy,” Wen told Insider.
Wen says it’s important to remember that no activity — whether it’s going on a Target run or embarking on an eight-day Caribbean cruise — is risk-free.
In an ideal world, Wen said a safer cruise would have a 100% vaccinated population and require prior testing.
Speaking to CNBC, Luis Ostrosky, division chief for infectious diseases at UT Health, part of the University of Texas, Houston, suggested tighter restrictions.
Noting that any sort of travel, including cruising, is highly risky, Ostrosky said a safe cruise would require two-week quarantines and negative COVID tests 24 to 48 hours prior to boarding, and negative tests after stepping onto the ship.
I won’t be cruising anytime soon
Despite being vaccinated, I fear spreading the virus and don’t want the hassle of quarantining after a potential positive test.
Cruises also aren’t my ideal way to travel. The Carnival Vista dropped me off at three destinations I’d never visited, but I’m not sure I can check Belize, Honduras, or Cozumel off my bucket list after spending just a few hours at each port.
Still, thousands of cruise fans value the experience and plan to sail this year.
Chris Gray Faust, the managing editor of the review site Cruise Critic, told Insider she’s heard from readers who say they’ve had positive experiences.
“The cruisers who are traveling right now are very excited to be back on board,” Gray Faust said. “They have accepted the different safety requirements and protocols put out by the cruise lines and are enjoying the experience.”
For others, like Linda and Gene Andrus, cruising isn’t worth the risk.
The Texas-based couple said they had a Carnival cruise planned for October 16, but as the date approached Linda told Insider she and Gene decided to reschedule it for 2022. They said they considered their age (both are in their 70s), the vaccination rates on ships, and the protocols put in place by Carnival and decided to give the cruise — which would have been Linda’s 12th and Gene’s 11th — a miss.
The Andruses aren’t alone. According to surveys from Cruise Critic, a third of people want to wait to see what happens with the Delta variant before boarding a ship, and 31% of 2,965 readers said they would prefer to wait until cases are lower in the US.
For me, the risks outweigh the benefits
Cruising has always been risky. The CDC says cruises are “often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases.”
The design of cruises — from buffets to singles mixers to tight, enclosed casinos — is conducive to viruses spreading, which makes them a riskier form of travel compared to train, plane, or cars, Adalja and Wen said. But both added that it seems like cruise lines have demonstrated an ability to control outbreaks.
“As long as cruise ships are not contributing to superspreader events that are leading to huge spikes in COVID cases, then it should be an individual choice on whether that risk is worth it to them,” Wen said.
For me, the buffets and cruise karaoke sessions just don’t make the cut.