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Royal Caribbean Extends Covid-Era Refund Offer as CDC Guidelines Expire

The CDC will not extend its Conditional Sailing Order, allowing cruise lines to set their own Covid mitigation rules.
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Royal Caribbean (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report extended protections for cruisegoers as the cruise line looks to entice fans to book vacations in an uncertain environment due to ever-changing Covid protocols.

Called, "Cruise with Confidence," Royal Caribbean's trip insurance program allows customers to get their money back in the form of future cruise credit if they choose to cancel for any reason. That's an important program as it encourages people to book cruises knowing that they can cancel them if Covid (or anything) else forces them to cancel.

In the past -- before the pandemic -- customers could not cancel their cruise after the final payment due date had passed. If they wanted that flexibility, they had to buy insurance either from the cruise line or from a private company, and those policies generally only allowed for refunds under certain qualifying situations like illness or weather issues. 

Under Cruise with Confidence qualified reservations confirmed on or before March 21, 2022 and sailing through September 30, 2022 can cancel their trip within up to 48 hours from departure and be eligible for a 100% refund credit.

The offer, which the company announced to travel advisers in an email, essentially takes the risk out of booking a cruise. If the company has to cancel your cruise, which has happened occasionally since Royal Caribbean returned to operations in July, it offers customers a refund or credit (and, in some cases, 125% future cruise credit).

In late October, the CDC extended the order to Saturday and earlier this week said that it would let it expire once the current deadline passes. The guidelines will be optional starting Saturday. 

Royal  Caribbean Has Taken a Lot of Safety Measures

The cruise lines were shut down by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) under what was first called the "no-sail order." That later turned into the "conditional sale order" (CSO) which set the conditions Royal Caribbean, Carnival (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) - Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report, and the rest of the industry operated under when they restarted operations from U.S. ports this past summer. 

The CSO expires in Jan. 15 and it won't be renewed. Instead, the cruise lines will be operating under their own guidelines, although, not much, if anything, is expected to change.

Under the CSO, the CDC has required all crewmembers and age-eligible passengers be vaccinated in order to sail. Royal Caribbean (and the rest of the industry) has spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading air filtration onboard and creating protocols that adapt as demands change.

Royal Caribbean, for example. tightened its mask rules in December when omicron led to a rise in Covid cases across the world. Under the previous rules, vaccinated passengers in areas set aside for only vaccinated guests (basically the casino, many bars, and some restaurants) did not have to wear masks). Now, under the tighter rules, masks are required indoors except when stationary and actively eating or drinking.

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The cruise line also eliminated smoking in its casinos. Masks are not required when outside or on Royal Caribbean's Coco Cay private island unless guests are in large groups. Mask rules in ports are set by the country each cruise ship visits.

The CDC's director even praised the cruise industry when she appeared before Congress on Jan, 12.   

When the CDC told Congress earlier this week that it was allowing the CSO to expire, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R- Alaska) said she'd "like some assurance from you that (the companies) can count on," the changes the industry made to mitigate the chances of an outbreak. 

"I think the Conditional Sailing Order and the fact that the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding, as you know, the compliance with the sail order without the order even necessarily needing to be in place, as is a real testimony to how well that has worked and how we've worked collaboratively with the industry," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told Congress.

Cruise Lines Get Special Attention

Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian have offices in the U.S, but flag their ships in other countries to avoid American labor laws. That designation gave the CDC more authority to stop cruise lines from operating while concerts, sports, theme parks were allowed to continue.

Now, the agency has softened its stance despite the easily transmissible omicron variant. That's because the CDC has seen how the cruise lines have used clear protocols when infecitons pop up on ships,

Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas, for example, had a Dec. 11 sailing where -- as is the case on all ships -- all passengers ages 12 and older were vaccinated have a small outbreak onboard. The cruise ship returned to port in Miami after seven days at sea with 48 guests and crew testing positive for Covid. 

"The guests were quarantined on board and assisted upon the ship’s arrival on Dec. 18," the company said.

The ship made stops in St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and at the company's private island before returning to Miami Saturday, seven days after setting sail.

Royal Caribbean has also stopped selling new cabins on select upcoming sailings to limit passengers onboard, It has also delayed the return to operation of Serenade of the Seas so it can use the ship to isolate infected crew showing minor, or no, symptoms.