With cruising resuming in many parts of the world, some aspects may still be a little different once onboard -- and ashore. For summer 2021, some -- not all --destinations are mandating that cruise passengers maintain their "bubble" even while on-shore, leading to the confusing situation where passengers are allowed to explore independently in some ports of call, but not others.
What might be surprising to cruisers is that some countries are forbidding passengers on ships with full vaccination mandates to go on shore on their own.
Iceland, for example, requires all cruise passengers -- even fully vaccinated ones -- to participate in only cruise ship-sponsored excursions. Independent exploration will not be an option.
While many initial restart voyages calling on Iceland are immersive, destination-specific sailings that don't visit other countries, the situation could get messy in the Caribbean. Different islands have different rules.
Celebrity Millennium, the first ship sailing in North America with all vaccinated adults, has two ports on its Southern Caribbean itinerary that allow people to get off on their own – and one that doesn't. In Curacao and Aruba, people can get off and do their own thing, but only ship sponsored excursions are allowed in Barbados.
Bermuda is another country reportedly requiring that passengers maintain their bubbles when disembarking for tours ashore. New 'Round UK' voyages aimed primarily at Brits operating this summer will also largely rely on shore excursion bubbles, as Cruise Critic's Adam Coulter learned while onboard MSC Virtuosa recently.
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What this means for cruisers, particularly on initial voyages setting sail this summer, is that some flexibility -- and a lot of research and triple-checking requirements -- will be necessary in order to make the most of your time ashore.
What Will a Bubble Requirement Mean, and How Will I Know What Is Required?
Essentially, any port of call that requires shipboard passengers to adhere to their bubble means that independent exploration is off the table. That means everything from getting off the ship and wandering around in port, or booking a tour through a local operator. Only shore excursions arranged by the cruise line and operated by vetted local operators will be permitted for passengers wishing to go ashore.
Unfortunately, cruise lines have been slow to communicate these requirements in some cases, even to booked guests. Passengers on the first cruises are often finding out as close as a week out, making it a scramble to find something to do.
Guests on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas learned a week before the line's first voyage out of Nassau that they could explore Cozumel and Grand Bahama Island on their own. Passengers booked aboard the inaugural sailing of Celebrity Apex in Greece report they can go ashore independently.
"I am happy that we can go ashore independent, as far as I know," writes Germancruiser. "As of today. Nobody knows what might change. Traveling these days seems to turn out in rather an adventure."
Others have discovered authorities will only allow cruise-sponsored excursions after being notified by local shore excursion operators.
"Glory Tours in Barbados emailed me back and says their government is only allowing cruise ship tours," writes foggyphils on a Roll Call for Celebrity Millennium's first Caribbean sailing on June 5. "I have no idea if that status might change by the time we board."
Whether independent exploration is allowed or not is relatively hidden from those looking to make a booking on these new, last-minute cruises: a simple search of several new itineraries on various cruise lines by Cruise Critic failed to mention or denote which ports of call will require ship-sponsored shore excursions, and which will allow for independent exploration.
For those who absolutely must explore independently, doing some research prior to booking is a good idea. Remaining flexible will be key on these first voyages, particularly on itineraries that visit multiple countries.
Still, for many cruisers, independent exploration ashore in towns and local communities is a large draw.
"One of the reasons we like Alaska is that excursions aren't necessary," writes patty1955 on a Roll Call for Celebrity Summit's July 23 voyage to Alaska. "There might not be plane rides and dog sled camps but there's still a lot to see in town."
Participating in Cruise Critic's own Roll Calls for your sailing can also be a way to touch base with other passengers and keep abreast of any changes or requirements that cruise lines and ports may have in the days leading up to departure.
Be Prepared to Adhere to Local Regulations
Cruisers setting sail on these initial voyages -- even on fully vaccinated ships -- should be prepared to adhere to local regulations and health and safety measures. Even if you're vaccinated, you should bring a mask, as some countries, such as The Bahamas, impose steep fines for people without.
Cruisers should also be aware that these rules and regulations can change at any time. A country that allows independent exploration one day may, at its discretion, require the cruise line to maintain that bubble while ashore, necessitating the purchase of ship-sponsored shore tours.
Things Will Likely Improve Over Time
The good news: things will likely improve and even out over time as the summer cruise season progresses and both lines and ports of call become more comfortable and familiar with operations once again.
Information for future sailings will likely be communicated from ports to cruise lines to passengers in a timelier manner. Much of the confusion and uncertainty surrounding rules for these initial summer sailings should evaporate after a few weeks of successful cruise operations.
Until then, cruisers should book expecting to have a high degree of flexibility in their plans to go ashore.
For those who want to be on the safe side, pre-arranging ship-sponsored excursions in every port of call might be a good way to safeguard against any last-minute changes in policy.