Expect a price jump, and new COVID-19 rules, when booking your next cruise

Cruise ship Carnival Imagination on the open sea.
Carnival Imagination, which sailed to Mexico from Long Beach for the last six years, is being mothballed.
(Orlando Sentinal)

More bad news for cruise fans: You’ll likely pay more for the next voyage you book and sail on — whenever that might be. Prices are going up, industry experts say, another unfortunate by-product of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to worrying about whether your trip will be canceled — and if you’ll get sick with the coronavirus on board — you’ll also have to dig deeper into your pocket to pay for the trip.

The discussion was part of a “Future of Cruise Travel” seminar last week during the annual Society of American Travel Writers convention, which was held virtually this year.

Speakers included Arnold Donald, president and chief executive officer of Carnival Corp., the world’s largest travel company. Also on the panel was Adam Goldstein, global chair of Cruise Lines International Assn., an industry trade group, and Rob Voss, chief operating officer of Scenic Group, which offers cruises and land tours.

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Cruise ships currently aren’t operating in the United States because of a “no sail” order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When they do return to sea, there “will be more demand than availability,” said Donald, whose nine brands include Carnival, Holland America, Princess and Cunard. “There will be plenty of room to move prices up, not down.”

But, he added, cruising “is the greatest vacation value there is. People will pay because it’s a great value.”

Few industries have been hit harder by the pandemic than the cruise industry, which was in the midst of decade-long record growth when the bottom dropped out in March. Because of high-profile coronavirus outbreaks on a large number of vessels, the industry was negatively associated with the pandemic from the start. The CDC levied the no-sail order for U.S. waters in March and has extended it twice, currently through Oct. 31.

Carnival’s response to the eight-month shutdown? “We’re getting rid of ships,” Donald said.

The corporation has downsized its fleet, selling or scrapping 18 older, less efficient ships to cut costs and reorganize. For the last six months, “there’s been no revenue, just a drain on finances,” he said.

Among the ships that have been scrapped are Carnival Inspiration, which had sailed out of Long Beach since 2011, and its sister ship, Carnival Imagination, a regular at the Port of Long Beach since 2014. Both were a quarter of a century old.


Fewer ships on the sea mean fewer cruises, panelists said. And that raises demand.

In addition, availability will be limited because some destinations will be slow to allow ships to enter their ports, further restricting the itineraries available. It all leads up to “pent-up-demand,” according to panelists.

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“People want to explore,” said Voss of Scenic Group. “It’s in our genes. Everyone will adjust. When we all started wearing masks six months ago, people hated it. Now we’re all used to it.”

Another plus Donald is relying on: “Regular cruisers usually sail every other year. We’ll be in good shape for a long time.” Added Voss: “We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We just don’t know how long the tunnel is.”

What will change when cruise ships get the OK to sail again in the U.S.?

A few ships are currently sailing in Europe, indicating what things will look like here, said Donald. He admitted some differences may be hard to swallow at first. “But the essence of cruising will remain,” he said. “It will help build lifelong memories. People are going to have a great time. And eventually, things will be back to normal.”

Among potential on-board changes that cruise passengers can expect to see:

  • Crew and passengers will wear masks, and testing will take place before boarding.
  • Traditional buffets will disappear. Food will be served to passengers instead of serve-yourself options.
  • The first few rows at entertainment venues will be left empty to further separate passengers from performers.
  • Shows may be held three times nightly, instead of twice, allowing smaller, socially distanced audiences.
  • Casinos will operate, with social distancing. Players will be required to wear masks.

Regardless of the restrictions, however, no one can guarantee disease-free ships. “We will always be in compliance,” Donald said, “but no matter how much testing we do, as long as it’s in the population, it’s going to end up on a ship.”