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10 Things You Won’t Be Able to Do on Cruises Anymore

The world has changed, and cruising looks a little different now. Here's what you should know before booking your next trip.

cruise ship in the oceanHandout/Getty Images

Get on board with these cruising changes

It seems like just yesterday that the cruise industry was shut down completely. Now, every cruise line has a full fleet of ships on the water, and they’re dropping COVID restrictions and testing requirements. In July, the CDC also stopped tracking COVID cases on ships. As a result, the demand for cruises has soared, with eager travelers booking their favorite cruises—from couples cruises and singles cruises to family-friendly options. If you’re one of those travelers, you should be aware of a few cruising changes before you set sail.

While the changes directly related to the pandemic tend to get all the attention, they’re not the only ones you need to know about. Others may seem subtle in comparison, but they’re actually incredibly significant for passengers, as well as for the health of the planet. Here’s what you can expect, from what kind of cruise you can book to what you’ll be drinking once you’re on board. When you’re up to speed, this info on cruise ship code words, hidden cruise ship features and the things polite people never do on cruises will also come in handy.

Hawaii mai tai drinks on waikiki beach bar travel vacation in Honolulu, Hawaii. Famous hawaiian drink cocktails with view of ocean and diamond head mountain, Hawaii tourist attractionMaridav/Getty Images

Use a plastic straw

The Muster Station, a popular website for cruise tips, has calculated that the average cruiser uses five straws per day. With around 420,000 people cruising at any given time, that means more than 2 million straws are used on cruise ships every day—which works out to 750 million every year! Now, most of the straws you’ll see on cruises won’t be plastic. In 2018, the Norwegian coastal cruise line Hurtigruten announced its plan to become the world’s first plastic-free cruise company. Since then Royal Caribbean has also eliminated plastic straws, as have Carnival and Disney.

While straws may seem like a small step, they’re an important one. Around 27 million tons of plastic goes to landfills every year, while more than 11 million tons ends up in the ocean, with as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws polluting the world’s beaches. You may also want to invest in your own reusable straws and add them to your cruise packing list.

Close up of woman's hands flipping through papers on a tableTara Moore/Getty Images

Consult a paper daily planner

One of the tiny joys of cruising is returning to your cabin after dinner and a show to find a towel animal and tomorrow’s schedule of events printed and placed on the edge of your bed. This is what cruising on Carnival was like for decades, but last summer, their ships stopped distributing the Fun Times program, pushing guests toward its HUB app to access show times, events and daily schedules. While the paper version is no longer placed in rooms each night, you can get a pared-down version from Guest Services. Other ships on the best cruise lines are following suit, and while it’s an environmentally sound decision, some cruisers miss referring to a tangible schedule to plan their days.

Blue open sea. Environment,travel and nature concept.TeamDAF/Getty Images

Cruise to nowhere

Once upon a time, you could board a cruise ship and drift off to international waters for a few days without a destination on the itinerary or a port of call to be called upon. It was called a cruise to nowhere, and it was quite popular for a short, inexpensive and thoroughly relaxing getaway. This is something you will not be able to experience again on a cruise, unless the ship has an all-American crew, which isn’t the case on big lines like Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.

The reasoning is complicated, but it has to do with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security attempting to better enforce immigration laws and working visas often held by cruise ship members. As a result, foreign-flagged ships (those registered in the Bahamas, for example) can no longer sail without stopping at a foreign port at some point on their itinerary. Instead of a cruise to nowhere, you can take short vacations at sea that make just one port stop, including some of these all-inclusive cruises.

Flying drone with cameraWestend61/Getty Images

Take pictures with a drone

While the photo opportunities on cruises are delicious, drones are now off-limits on most cruise ships for the safety of the captain, the ship itself, the crew and other passengers. In fact, Carnival just jumped on the anti-drone bandwagon in May 2022. “There have been some instances where these drones have caused problems,” Carnival brand ambassador John Heald explained on Facebook. “We also had one recently where a drone pilot crashed very close to the ship in a port.”

Drones are also restricted in many ports, including Florida’s Port Canaveral and Port Miami. If you’re caught flying a drone in these areas, you could be slapped with a $5,000 fine and your drone could be destroyed by local authorities. You may still be able to fly your drone on smaller ships, including some of the most scenic America river cruises, but check with the cruise line first.

Summer Holiday Season Begins And Tourists Flock To The Beaches In SpainDavid Ramos/Getty Images

Contribute to overtourism

Overtourism is one of the silent problems of the travel industry. Back in 2018 at an industry conference, top executives at two of the biggest cruise lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, announced they were working with local communities to gain more insight into the impact of cruise tourism on their cities, town, infrastructure, people and nature environments. Because of this, cruise lines are now partnering with destinations to stagger the number of visitors.

This is smart business for the cruise industry too, as no passenger wants to step off a port into an unmanageable crowd. The goal of the cruise industry is to make destinations, especially those in the islands and shore excursions offered there, more sustainable. Royal Caribbean, in fact, employs only locals in their private Labadee Haiti port of call. It also provides space for Haitian craftspeople to sell their wares, boosting the local economy and providing well-paying, long-lasting employment for hundreds on the island. Here are more ways you can be a sustainable traveler.

close up of a man's hands holding a plastic water bottlefotostorm/Getty Images

Drink from a single-use plastic bottle

Norwegian has eliminated single-use plastic bottles, which once numbered more than 6 million per year across their ships. Instead, they now use JUST Water, which comes in fully recyclable paper cartons with a sugarcane-based plastic cap. The cruise line is also making an effort to stop using plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles. These moves are part of the company’s Sail & Sustain Environmental Program, which aims to minimize waste sent to landfills, reduce carbon emissions and invest in technologies to reduce its environmental footprint. Princess Cruises is also taking steps toward sustainability, eliminating plastic, Styrofoam, paper napkins and more from their ships and private resort destination, Princess Cays.

Luxury cruise ship roomRuben Earth/Getty Images

Leave your cabin lights on all day

Like most European hotels, many cruise ships now employ a key-card system to operate the lights and power outlets in their cabins. This environmental measure means that you will need to insert your room key when entering your cabin to be able to flip on the lights and charge your devices. When you leave and take your key out, the room goes dark and energy is conserved. You may want to bring along a portable charger to make sure your devices are fully powered up when you’re out and about.

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dosesMatt Hunt/Getty Images

Know that fellow passengers are vaccinated against COVID

Starting in September on select Royal Caribbean cruises, unvaccinated individuals will be permitted to cruise, though they may be required to take a test and receive a negative result before boarding. And Norwegian, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas will completely end vaccination requirements in September as well. Princess is also adjusting how it handles unvaccinated guests: “Unvaccinated travelers 5 years old and older on voyages less than 16 days will have to get a PCR test or perform a home rapid antigen test within three days of sailing and upload proof of that negative test before boarding.”

Rapid antigen test (lateral flow) for covid-19Kauka Jarvi/Getty Images

Assume that everyone has tested negative for COVID

Similarly, many lines are ending their previous pre-embarkation testing requirements. In July 2022, Virgin Voyages was the first to no longer require proof of a negative COVID test to board, and Norwegian and Royal Caribbean quickly followed. While cruise lines still encourage passengers to test if they feel sick, and not sail if positive, the requirement to show proof of a negative test is being eliminated en masse.

people on various floors of a cruise shipKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Cruise on a ship operating at half capacity

Vaccinated cruisers willing to wear a mask and be brave in the months after the cruising industry restarted in earnest in the summer of 2021 were treated to a rare experience: fully functioning ships with a full crew but a fraction of the passengers. This meant that travelers enjoyed wide, open promenades, no waits for restaurants, few lines at the buffet and easy access to theatrical shows, live music, art auctions and more. As the CDC eliminates its COVID-related cruising requirements, several companies—including Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Virgin Voyages—have dropped their pandemic-era capacity restrictions. That means those ships won’t set sail with half or fewer of the maximum passenger load, and you won’t have the ship practically all to yourself. Still, on the best adults-only cruises, family cruises and more, you truly won’t mind.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment, and more for Reader's Digest. Jeff has also written for Parents Magazine, Esquire, PBS, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. He is the proud dad of teen daughters. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.