Cunard, Norwegian and more drop pre-cruise testing after CDC ended its COVID-19 program

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships last month, cruise lines have announced changes to their health and safety protocols.

The CDC issued new COVID-19 guidance for cruise ships on July 20, with updated health and safety recommendations. The agency said cruise lines should consider mandating viral tests for travelers close to departure, "highly" recommending testing within one day of embarkation.

However, some lines have dropped those and other rules. Here's what passengers can expect.

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How are the rules for travelers changing on cruise ships?

► Carnival Cruise Line will only require pre-cruise testing for vaccinated passengers on trips 16 nights or more, or where local rules mandate it, starting Sept. 6, according to a press release.

Unvaccinated guests will no longer need to apply for an exemption to sail either, except on trips in Australia or those that are 16 nights or longer.

Those who are unvaccinated or do not show proof of vaccination still have to "present the results of a negative PCR or antigen test taken within three days of embarkation." In the U.S., kids younger than 5 are exempt from testing and vaccination requirements.

► Royal Caribbean will require vaccinated guests 5 and older to take a pre-cruise test on sailings from the U.S. that are 10 nights or longer starting Sept. 5, according to its website. They must test within three days of boarding. Unvaccinated guests 5 and older have to take a test within three days of their trip, no matter the sailing's length. The changes are subject to local rules.

Royal Caribbean Group President and CEO Jason Liberty told USA TODAY in a July interview that the company would monitor the situation and "modify protocols as needed."

"We're highly focused on making sure that our guests and our crew are safe and healthy at all times," he said.

►Celebrity Cruises will require vaccinated passengers to test only on voyages that are 10 nights or more within three days of their trip beginning Sept. 5, where local regulations allow, according to its website. Unvaccinated guests age 5 and up need to test within three days before boarding for U.S. voyages.

► Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. will drop all pre-cruise requirements for vaccinated passengers age 12 and older beginning Sept. 3. Travelers in the same age group who are unvaccinated or who do not provide proof of vaccination will still need to take a "medically administered PCR or Antigen COVID-19 test" within 72 hours before boarding, according to a news release.

There will be no testing or vaccination requirements for guests age 11 and younger. The changes are subject to local rules at various destinations, and the cruise-line operator "continues to strongly recommend all guests be up to date on vaccination protocols and test at their convenience prior to travel," per the release.

► MSC Cruises no longer requires pre-embarkation testing for vaccinated passengers on sailings five nights or fewer from U.S. ports, the cruise line said. But MSC still recommends testing within three days of embarkation.

Vaccinated guests cruising six or more nights "must show proof of a lab-administered negative COVID-19 viral test (NAAT or antigen) taken within 3 days of embarkation," the cruise line said in a news release. MSC also recommends testing within one day of the trip.

Unvaccinated passengers 2 years and up must test within three days of embarkation for all sailings from U.S. ports.

"MSC Cruises will continue to monitor pandemic conditions and port requirements outside of the U.S., with a goal to relax testing and vaccination protocols to open cruising to all guests, while prioritizing the health and safety of its guests, crew and destinations," MSC said in the release.

► Virgin Voyages said it would drop its pre-embarkation testing rule.

"Virgin Voyages has responded immediately to the CDC’s decision to discontinue their voluntary COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships and will mirror the rest of the travel industry in removing pre-embarkation testing for sailings from July 24 on EU sailings, and from July 27 on U.S. sailings," the cruise line said in a news release.

Vaccine requirements will remain in place, but the cruise line said it "is currently evaluating this policy and will announce further updates in the near future." Virgin will also allow 10% of passengers to be unvaccinated on U.S. sailings, and travelers can contact Sailor Services about booking.

► Cunard Line said in a news release that self-testing before sailing will be "highly recommended," rather than required, for vaccinated passengers on most trips beginning Sept. 6.

"Only guests sailing on longer, more complex itineraries will be required to have an observed or in-person antigen or PCR test with a fit to travel certificate prior to departure," the cruise line said.

Those will include some sailings 16 nights or longer and "other specific voyages." The changes are also subject to local regulations.

► Azamara dropped its COVID-19 embarkation testing rule, "excluding ports where it is still required in accordance with country regulations," the company said in a news release. The line will still require proof of vaccination.

► Margaritaville at Sea also scrapped its pre-embarkation testing requirement for vaccinated passengers, according to a press release. The cruise line recommends those guests still test prior to departure.

What happened to the CDC's COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships?

The CDC announced that the program ended July 18 on its website, saying in a Frequently Asked Questions section that vessels "have access to guidance and tools to manage their own COVID-19 mitigation programs."

The agency added that though "cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward."

Ships will still report cases to the CDC, the agency said.

Earlier this year, the CDC moved to a voluntary COVID-19 program for cruise ships. Those that participated agreed to follow the agency's recommendations on health and safety protocols such as testing and vaccination.

The change comes as cruise travel is returning to normal more than two years after the pandemic brought the industry to a halt.

How can passengers learn about outbreaks on cruise ships?

The CDC has discontinued the cruise ship color status page on its website, but the agency said in the Frequently Asked Questions section that customers can reach out to cruise lines about outbreaks on their ship.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Norwegian, Cunard and more end pre-cruise COVID testing