What to know before you book your vacation on the high seas.

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A cruise can be a fun way to visit certain areas of the world at a slower pace. Amazing buffets, cool amenities, and plenty of travel—what's not to love? But in the era of COVID, it's understandable to have some questions about going on a cruise if you're not vaccinated.

Let's just get this out there upfront: The answer is a little complicated, and it largely depends on the cruise line you're interested in. Here's what you need to know about going on a cruise if you're not vaccinated.

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Credit: Getty Images

What the CDC says about going on a cruise right now

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 avoid going on any type of cruise.

Per the CDC, those who plan to cruise should do the following:

  • Get tested for COVID-19 one to three days before your trip and three to five days after your trip, regardless of your vaccination status.
  • Self-quarantine for seven days after your cruise if you're unvaccinated, even if you test negative for the virus. If you do not get tested, you should quarantine for 10 days.
  • Wear a mask while in shared spaces of the cruise ship.

Do you need to be vaccinated to go on a cruise?

A lot of it really depends on the policy of the cruise line and the port of departure. Here's a quick breakdown of vaccination policies at several major cruise lines:

  • Carnival Cruise Line: Guests must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, although the company allows a "very small number" of exemptions for children under 12 and teens and adults who can provide proof of medical exemptions.
  • Celebrity Cruises: Guests ages 12 and up must be fully vaccinated at least two weeks before the ship sails.
  • Disney Cruises: Guests 12 and older need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line: All guests and crew members must be 100% vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • Princess Cruises: All guests must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • Royal Caribbean: Guests ages 12 and up must present proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Overall, you need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to go on a cruise right now if you're eligible to be vaccinated.

Why do cruise ships have such a bad rap for illnesses?

Early in the pandemic, cruise ships experienced major outbreaks of the virus as it spread across the globe. But even before COVID arrived, cruise ships didn't have the best reputation for being disease-free. Reports of outbreaks of norovirus, a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, were not uncommon.

There are a few reasons why viruses and diseases can spread quickly on cruise ships, Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health. "Cruise ships have close quarters and crowding," he says. "It's hard to social distance." And when people are close together, it's easier for viruses to spread among them, he says.

With cruise ships that allow for some unvaccinated guests, "the reality is that someone on the boat is likely to be infected with COVID-19, either because they were unvaccinated or are asyptomatic with a breakthrough infection," Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Health.

Cruise ships often have indoor dining and entertainment, which are areas that are ripe for viruses to spread, Dr. Russo points out. In the case of illnesses like norovirus, "someone could contaminate the food buffet and it can spread rapidly," Dr. Russo says, adding, "it's all because of people staying and moving around in close quarters."

Why should people get vaccinated before going on a cruise?

Not only will being fully vaccinated help protect you from getting seriously ill with COVID-19, it can help protect those around you, Dr. Russo says.

There's also this to consider: Many cruise lines test guests before they get on the boat and before they disembark. "If you or a member of your party tests positive, you won't be able to get on the boat at the last minute," Dr. Russo points out. "You may also have to quarantine if you get infected on the boat and, if you're outside the country, you'll need to have a negative COVID test to get back in. If you get infected, you'll have to hang out in a hotel somewhere for 10 days or so."

Overall, Dr. Russo says, it's just better to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before going on a cruise. "You really should get vaccinated," he says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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