Here’s how to plan your 2023 cruise

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Cruise lines have started the 2023 wave season early by dropping almost all of their COVID vaccination requirements. Bookings are said to have increased this week, and if you’ve ever considered a cruise, you might be thinking about one right now.

I am. I write this on the observation deck of the MS Polarlysthe legendary Hurtigruten ship that goes from Bergen, Norway, to Kirkenes, north of the Arctic Circle.

The pandemic is a distant memory here in the cold waters of the Norwegian Sea. There are no masking requirements, no vaccination requirements and no onboard testing requirements. It’s like COVID never happened.

But so much has changed during the pandemic. Passengers are returning to a radically different cruise industry. Cruise lines have revised their health and safety protocols. New laws protect cruise passengers. There are new travel insurance options. The rest of the travel industry has also changed, especially the airlines. And it has the potential to affect your next cruise.

Wave season is the time of year when people book their cruises. It usually starts in October and November. But by quietly easing their vaccination requirements, the cruise industry has kicked off the wave season a little earlier for 2023. So what do you need to know before booking a cruise next year?

Book your 2023 cruise now

Susan Stafford says now is the perfect time to book a cruise. She has tracked the ebb and flow of consumer sentiment over the past two years. It has gone from cautious social distancing and rigorous testing at the start of the year to a grand opening today.

“If we’ve learned anything from the past two years, it’s that we can’t predict the future,” says Stafford, cruise expert and professional planner.

But one thing is predictable: the trajectory of cruise fares.

“If current trends continue,” she adds, “cruise prices will go up.”

If you buy a ticket now and your cruise price drops before your departure date, many cruise lines will adjust your price before you make your final payment. So experts say you shouldn’t pay for the whole cruise now.

Pay attention to your connections for your 2023 cruise

Annie Scrivanich, Senior Vice President of Cruise specialists, says one of the biggest concerns for cruise passengers in 2023 is air connections. This summer has shown travelers just how unreliable air travel can be, with record numbers of flight delays (24% of all flights) and cancellations (3.2% of all flights). She advises anyone planning a cruise to keep this in mind.

“Arrive in your departure port city at least a day before embarkation,” she says. “Depending on where you are traveling, it may be prudent to add an extra day or two and spend some time exploring this port city.”

This is new advice. Conventional wisdom used to be an extra day at both ends – a safety cushion in case there was a delay at either end. But after this summer, travel professionals are advising cruise passengers to make it 48 hours, just in case.

Another way around the problem: try driving to your port. “It takes the hassle out of airlines and also saves on the rising cost of airfare,” says Aaron Saunders, editor at Cruise Critic.

Get the right travel insurance for your cruise

You’ll probably need travel insurance for your 2023 cruise, according to virtually every expert. More and more passengers are going all in with an expensive “cancel for any reason” policy. This allows them to cancel their cruise for any reason – another epidemic, bad weather, discomfort – and get between 50% and 75% of their non-refundable prepaid expenses back.

“This may be particularly appealing to travelers concerned about evolving COVID requirements for cruises and those who might be worried about infection rates for COVID and other illnesses at international ports of call,” Angela says. Borden, product marketing strategist at seven corners.

A must-have cover is for a missed cruise connection, Borden notes.

It covers expenses such as meals, accommodation and local transportation as well as additional transportation costs to catch up on your cruise departure, she says. Missed cruise connection generally covers any delay, cancellation or mechanical breakdown.

Know what happens if you are infected

Tracy Schatz, owner of Elite Travel, says passengers have changed since the pandemic. “They are more aware of how viruses spread and want to make sure cruise lines are doing things to mitigate the spread of viruses,” she says.

This is one of the big changes I noticed on my Norwegian cruise this week. At mealtimes, everybody hand sanitizer used. And if you forgot, a team member kindly asked you to disinfect your hands.

Each cruise line has an established protocol for handling an infection. Some will confine you to your quarters. Others have a special section for COVID-positive passengers. Small ships may send you to a medical facility at the next port of call. Special insurances such as Global COVAC will cover infectious diseases like COVID and ensure you get home, rather than just going to the nearest medical facility.

Beth Bodensteiner, Commercial Director of Holland America Line, told me that during the pandemic break, the cruise line has revised all of its procedures. This included thorough disinfection, better air filtration and the addition of 24/7 medical care to its onboard medical centers. Still, a lot can change between now and 2023. “Keep up to date with the latest health protocols,” she advises.

New laws can protect you if your cruise line cancels in 2023

Your rights at sea are governed by maritime law, or the law of the sea. Earlier this year, the Federal Maritime Commission created a new regulation which required cruise lines to reimburse canceled or delayed trips. It used to be that cruise lines could hold your money indefinitely and force you to take a replacement cruise, even if they canceled.

Under the new rules, if a cruise line delays your cruise by more than three calendar days, it counts as a cancellation and you get a full refund. Passengers also get reimbursement for all costs, such as shore excursions or port fees. The new regulations also allow travelers to file a claim against the cruise line’s bondholders in the event of bankruptcy. Note that these rules only apply to cruises departing from a US port.

Yet consumer protections for cruise lines are sorely lacking, as I explain in my ultimate guide to cruising. Your rights are governed by your cruise line ticket contract, an unbalanced contract that favors the cruise line, as well as maritime law, which almost always favors the cruise line. Conclusion: if you want the same rights as on land, do not book a cruise.

Don’t wait too long to book your 2023 cruise

You know how this summer the hotels were full and the flights expensive? It’s going to happen next year for the cruise industry, insiders say.

“Don’t think you’re going to be able to book a trip at the last minute and save money,” warns Fernando Diaz, marketing director of Quasar Expeditions, which offers cruises in Patagonia and the Galápagos Islands. “It’s not just because of the high prices of flights booked at the last minute, but also because some low season dates from the past are almost sold out for 2023 due to increased demand.”

Choose your next cruise wisely

If there’s one takeaway from a small ship cruise north of the Arctic Circle, it’s that now more than ever, you need to choose a cruise that will meet your needs. My fellow travelers are energized by the fjords and love the adventure of being on a supply ship that reaches some of the most remote parts of Norway. They had a knowledgeable travel consultant who knew what they wanted. Others spent much of the trip staring at the ocean and playing video games. I wonder who advised them to take this cruise.

So, among all the changes, one thing is always the same. Speak to an expert or do plenty of research before booking a cruise. Because the only thing worse than booking the right cruise at the wrong price is booking the wrong cruise at the right price.

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