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After all these stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, you’re itching to get out on the vast, open ocean. You’re ready to see multiple countries — but only want to unpack once. You’re yearning for the all-you-can-eat popcorn on the pool deck.
But you’re also skeptical of when you’ll actually be able to cruise. Given a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout, ongoing quarantine rule changes and increased COVID testing requirements, booking travel of any kind can be precarious right now.
The good news: Cancellation policies have improved. Many formerly strict airline and hotel cancellation policies have become quite consumer friendly. Hotels like Hilton and Hyatt both allow refunds for cancellations up to 24 hours before check-in at most hotels, while major airlines ditched change fees on most domestic flights.
And now for the bad news: While most cruise line cancellation policies have been improved, many still tend to be pretty rough — especially at a time when the odds that you’ll cancel are high.
NerdWallet scrutinized the terms and conditions of 12 of the biggest cruise companies, and we’ll be frank: We’re not particularly impressed with any cruise line’s cancellation policy.
Of the major cruise companies we analyzed, very few operators offer full cash refunds for trips with a reasonable cancellation window. And that’s only if the reason you cancel is directly COVID-related (e.g., testing positive) versus indirectly (e.g., a disinclination to travel because cases are spiking). Only a handful of cruise operators let you change your cruise within 30 days of departure without incurring a fee. Even fewer will let you cancel for a full cash refund.
For what it’s worth, even that is a drastic improvement.
“If there is one good thing to come out of this crisis, it is that cruise lines have made cancellations policies more friendly to passengers. In the past there were harsh penalties. For example, if you canceled within a month or two of the sailing, then the penalty was often 100% of the cruise fare,” says Tanner Callais, a cruise expert and founder of Cruzely.com. “At least for the time being, those days are gone.”
Cruise line cancellation policies that could work for you
Here are the cruise line cancellation policies we don’t hate. Keep in mind that terms and conditions may change, and even the advertised policies may apply only to certain circumstances (such as booking directly versus through an online travel agency).
Disney Cruise Line
In the cruise industry, Disney’s cancellation policy is a diamond in the rough. For bookings made by March 31, 2021, for trips before Aug. 31, 2021, you can change your sail date for any reason up to 15 days prior to embarkation (the new cruise must commence prior to May 31, 2022).
But there’s one big reason why Disney especially stands out: If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or are even exposed to someone who tested positive (even if you haven’t necessarily tested positive yourself), you can get a full refund without any additional Disney-imposed cancellation fees. That’s all of your money back to the original form of payment — not a future cruise credit, and not a refund minus deposit (both common policies among other operators).
While Disney gives you 15 days to change your trip for any reason, Royal Caribbean’s policy is even better. For bookings made by April 30, 2021, you can cancel up to 48 hours before your sail date and get a future cruise credit. Your rescheduled cruise must be booked by April 30, 2022, and must depart on or before Sept. 30, 2022.
Since cruises can be booked for later this year but none are currently departing, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean told NerdWallet that policies for North American cruises relating to COVID cancellations (including cancellations within 48 hours) would be announced closer to departure dates.
If you’re really in the market for adventure (and have a hefty vacation fund to pay for it), Quark Expeditions has an extremely generous policy.
Book by April 30, 2021, for travel through March 2022, and you can reschedule for any reason up to 30 days out, no questions asked. The rescheduled cruise must depart within three years of the original canceled voyage departure date.
If you test positive for COVID-19 within 29 days of your cruise (or fall under one of the company’s other, covered COVID-19 reasons), you can get a full refund. You do have to provide proof, such as a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis or an order from your government's track and trace team to self-isolate due to contact with someone who tested positive. Alas, there’s no national contact-tracing program in the U.S., so take that into consideration depending on where you’re coming from.
Bad cruise cancellation policies to watch out for
Bad cancellation policies are easy to come by in the cruise industry. Here are some red flags:
Cruises that require more than 30 days' notice to cancel or reschedule: In general, we dislike cruises that require more than 30 days' notice in order to get a refund or credit. Sudden travel bans and quarantine requirements have made travel unpredictable, and if such regulations compel you to cancel, 30 days is probably not enough time.
Separate cancellation policies for pre-booked incidentals: Pay attention to the terms for add-on costs like shore excursions, spa treatments and some meals, as they might be different than the rest of your cruise’s cancellation policy. The policy may not necessarily be worse, but they could be — and you don’t want to be caught off guard expecting a full refund, only to find out that you’ve lost the $200 you paid toward the massage you’ll no longer get.
Early booking promotions with unique cancellation terms: You might be getting a super slick deal by paying for your 2022 cruise in full right now, but take a second look at the terms. In many cases, there’s a cost to that discounted rate in the form of a separate (and worse) cancellation policy.
What if the cruise operator cancels, not me?
The above policies apply to situations where you choose to cancel your trip. However, many cruises have canceled their sailings either through their own volition or because of government-imposed restrictions. In those situations — which are surprisingly common — most cruise companies have separate cancellation policies.
There's a bright spot here: Pretty much every cancellation policy in the event the cruise operator cancels is actually quite good. In these instances, you can typically expect a full refund or a future cruise credit (which is often worth more than the initial price you paid for the cruise).
Ways to protect yourself (and your money) should you need to cancel
Purchase travel insurance
If you’re worried your cruise operator’s cancellation policy might be insufficient, consider purchasing travel insurance. Trip cancellation, interruption and delay protection can typically reimburse your nonrefundable reservations if you get sick and have to cancel or end a trip early.
The even more-extensive “cancel for any reason” coverage can reimburse nonrefundable reservations no matter why you cancel a trip, though this level of coverage is generally more expensive (as an add-on to a standard policy) and only refunds you 50-75% of your trip cost.
Travel insurance can also cover other potential non-coronavirus-related issues, including payment for lost, stolen or damaged baggage. Plus, travel insurance can be helpful in covering not just the canceled cruise, but also the canceled flight and hotel that are often part of your trip costs.
Many cruise companies offer travel insurance as an add-on option at booking, or you can purchase a separate policy through a dedicated travel insurance company like Allianz Global Assistance, Travel Guard by AIG or AAA.
Credit card travel insurance
You can certainly purchase travel insurance from a third-party provider or the cruise operator, but your credit card might also cover you at no additional cost, as long as you pay for the trip on that card.
Many cards offer trip cancellation and interruption coverage, which can help you out in situations such as needing to cancel because you tested positive for COVID-19. Keep in mind that credit cards with this benefit don’t typically allow you to cancel for just any reason, but sickness is typically a covered reason.
Work with a travel agent
It’s easy enough to book a cruise yourself online, but COVID-19 has given new life to what had been a dying industry: travel agents. Especially now, booking with a travel agent makes sense. They can steer you toward cruise operators that have more favorable cancellation policies. And if you end up scrambling to cancel last-minute, a travel agent can jump in and make arrangements.
What’s more, since many travel agents earn money through commissions, they often don’t cost you any additional fees.
The bottom line
Cruise line cancellation policies have historically been rough sailing. Luckily, the tides have turned and a few cruise companies have bucked the trend of bad cancellation policies.
When you pay for your cruise upfront, you’re typically paying for the entertainment, the food and the activities upfront, too. That’s a lot of money at stake.
But if you’re willing to put up with the risk of canceling, booking now can be an excellent way to save money and lock in a future trip that has a more flexible cancellation policy.
“I don't expect these friendly policies to last forever,” Callais says. “Once it's clear that cruising has returned and won't be paused further, then I expect the policies to revert back to what they've been in the past.”
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card