Belinda Shawn*, a 41-year-old mom in Florida, has a family cruise booked with Royal Caribbean next year: It departs in late May 2021 out of Barcelona with stops in Italy and France. With the cruise industry on pause due to the coronavirus, and a resulting change in cancellation and rebooking policies, Shawn and her family could easily postpone to the following year or get a refund. But they’re sticking to their plans. “We feel pretty confident about cruising by next spring,” she says. “I know [Royal Caribbean] takes the health of its customers and employees seriously. Given that it’s 12 months away, we do not feel the need to make any adjustments to our planned trip.”
She’s not alone. Across the industry, cruise lines from large to small, ocean-going to river-cruising, are seeing strong demand for next year—and bookings for 2021 cruises are going fast. “We are booking everything from river cruises to expedition cruising—even our world cruise business is back, completely full,” says Condé Nast Traveler travel specialist Mary Jean Tully of Tully Luxury Travel, adding that interest is from new business as well as clients who postponed trips this year.
The cruise industry may be on hold now, but there are several factors behind the strong bookings for next year. According to a recent “State of the Travel and Leisure Industries” webinar by Goldman Sachs, there was bound to be a large number of travelers who simply opted to bump their trip to next year after this year’s cancellations. Cruise lines also relaxed their cancellation and rebooking policies across the board as the pandemic continued. As a result, consumers are a lot more comfortable making reservations knowing they can reschedule or cancel without fear of penalties.
And as the industry works to get back up and running, there are deals to be had. Pricing is aggressive with lower deposit fees—attractive for a wave of travelers eager to get back on the road but also cognizant of the impending recession. “The best strategy in my opinion is to go ahead and book for 2021 and beyond, as long as you book only refundable fares and plan on purchasing air through the cruise line,” says Linda Allen-Speer of Cruises by Linda, who is also a Traveler specialist. “I think that those who forge ahead now will get some enviable deals.”
While Tully says she’s seen her cruise business bookings strong in all markets, Speer says the strongest market for her bookings in 2021 have been in Europe. AmaWaterways, a boutique river cruise line, reports that bookings for 2021 are so strong—both new and rebooked sailings—that it is going to open up 2022 dates six months earlier than planned to help with the demand. Trips in France, especially along the Rhone River, are emerging as the hottest for the cruise line. River cruise ships tend to be smaller, carrying fewer passengers, which could be part of the appeal. And summer trips to Europe never seem to lose their luster.
“Two weeks ago, I would have said that everyone was sticking close to home, but no. Nobody’s booking close in [this year] because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Tully says. “But for next year? They’re booking everything, as if it’s any normal year.”
While cruise line executives openly admit they’ll have some challenges winning over new guests, it’s not new territory for the industry. “No doubt there are people who were considering a cruise that are having second doubts now. But that’s always been the case—and a thing we’ve overcome,” said Roger Frizzell, chief communication officer for Carnival Corp., on a press call in April. The CDC, in its extension of the no-sail advisory, noted that the cruise industry will need to “develop a comprehensive, detailed operational plan” that addresses the coronavirus via medical screenings for passengers and crew, training crew on COVID-10 prevention, and managing and responding to an outbreak on board.
Cruisers are one of the most loyal segments of the travel industry. There’s a reason that cruising is known for repeat guests who sail with certain lines for decades. “[My clients] aren’t worried about cruise ships, because they can spread out; they’re more worried about being on a plane, sitting shoulder to shoulder,” Tully says. “A lot of people think cruises are so confined, but it depends on the cruise, what area you’re going to, and how confined you want to be.”
Shawn—who has been on six sailings with Royal Caribbean—says her first cruise came after a norovirus outbreak on Explorer of the Seas in January 2014. “People thought we were nuts for boarding the ship then,” she says. “But the staff did such an amazing and thorough job of screening people for symptoms prior to boarding, and maintaining sanitary conditions throughout the trip.”
Seeing that response first-hand only put her at ease in terms of cruising next year. “Having gone through a post-virus outbreak cruise, I have a ton of confidence that preparations are being made to provide the lowest risk possible cruises in a post-COVID-19 world,” she says.
*Name has been changed