Volunteering For Test Cruises: 8 Need-to-Knows & Watch-Outs

You’re about to discover why volunteering for one of the free test cruises the lines have to run in the United States may not be as good a deal as it sounds.

I explore 8 things you need to know about the test cruises that all cruise lines are required to run in the United States before they can return to running regular cruises with paying passengers.

PLUS some big watch-outs to help you decide if you should volunteer.

You can watch My Test Cruises video on my YouTube Channel

Role of Test Cruises

First off, what exactly are these test cruises, and why do lines have to run them?

Test cruises are the second-stage of a four-stage process the US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) requires cruise lines  to go through to get approval to resume cruising in and out of US ports.

The first covers crew safety, building laboratory Covid-19 testing capability, and putting in place other physical changes onto ships, like ventilation, medical centre upgrades and isolation cabins.

Once that is done and signed off by the CDC, the cruise lines have to run test cruises to show that they are able to (as the CDC puts it) “mitigate the risks of Covid-19 onboard its cruise ships”. If they pass they can apply to resume cruising. So, these are really important.

All of the lines have to run these, so for example, Carnival Corporation will be running them for all their lines planning to operate out of US ports such as Carnival, Princess, Holland America ,and then even for lines like Cunard that call into US ports, as the CDC includes any cruise ship carrying over 250 people entering US waters and ports in scope.

You May Not Go To Sea

Although most people have assumed these will be cruises, they may in fact not be!

The CDC does not require ships to set sail and go out to sea, though the lines may decide some will.

The CDC calls for and requires only what they call “simulated voyages”.

In their Framework for Conditional Sailing which lays out the rules they say (and I quote) “Simulated voyage means a mock voyage or series of mock voyages designed and implemented in so far as possible to replicate real world onboard conditions of cruising with measures in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19”. Note the repeated use of the description “mock voyages”

So if you decide to volunteer for one of these, which some lines are allowing people to do already, you should not assume you are signing up for an actual cruise and my watch-out is check and understand what is being proposed line by line.

For example, Royal Caribbean on their Facebook page, calling for people to express interest in taking part in one of these,  call them (and again I quote)  “simulated trial sailings” and not cruises. Most of the over 40,000 people already in that group clearly are thinking these will be actual cruises based on the discussions.

These “simulated trial sailings” may not leave the port, and the ship could remain at the dock while the lines simulate and run through procedures required.

However, some will set sail for sure. In the CDC document they have an option for cruise lines to test out excursion protocols, using their private island shore excursions. So, it seems likely that at least a some, if not all, ships will set sail for the likes of Half Moon Cay, Great Stirrup Cay, or Perfect Day at CocoCay.

Some, however, could remain docked alongside for several days – something  you may want to keep in the back of your mind.

Only Certain People Qualify

There are restrictions on who will be allowed to take part. Here’s what criteria you need to fulfil to be able to volunteer for one of these tests.

Firstly, the CDC requires all volunteer passengers to be at least 18 years old. So no kids and family groups. They did not specify an upper age limit – as of yet.

Secondly, they require all volunteers to have (and I quote) “a written certification from a healthcare provider that the volunteer passenger has no pre-existing medical conditions that would place that individual at high risk for COVID-19 as determined through CDC guidance”.

It is worthwhile noting that the CDC lists a lot of conditions as risk in their guidance to date including being overweight and Obesity, Cancer, diabetes, COPD, Pregnancy, weakened immune system, asthma and even high blood pressure. They also repeatedly, across their guidance, have age as higher risk, so we may see age limits become part of the final advice.

Thirdly, the volunteers must not be offered participation in return for employment or, what they call, “future reward”. So don’t expect added future perks and discounts if you volunteer and take part.

Personally, I also predict that volunteers close to the ports running the tests, like Miami, Port Canaveral and Port Everglades, are going to be those selected for simplicity and ease. Almost certainly, with the current travel restrictions and state of the virus, these will be for USA residents only.

Azamara Club Cruises Pursuit cruise ship

Masks Will Be Required

I want to specifically call out that volunteers will have to wear masks on these tests, as I know this is a major issue for many cruisers. This will put some of you off volunteering.

Both the cruise line developed protocols, and the CDC document, have masks and face coverings required for embarking and disembarking, inside the ship at all times, other than when seated dining or drinking and when not possible to have the 6-foot physical distancing on deck.

Lines will be enforcing this for sure on these tests, as it is a hot topic for the CDC.

There will be a raft of other protocols that I have covered in other videos that you will need to follow, as these are key to the test on what works and how.

Won’t Be All Fun!

These are tests and not designed to be a vacation. These test voyages are exactly that: an opportunity for the lines and CDC to assess new health and safety protocols under a variety of operational situations.

So don’t expect a cruise where you’re able to go off and do your own thing all the time. You will be required to take part in various activities and drills.

And, as you will see that will include a period of being quarantined in your cabin!

According to the CDC, these “simulated voyages” will have to include test runs for at least six different things, which everyone will need to take part in

  1. Embarkation and disembarkation procedures, including terminal check-in and screening. This will include testing before boarding pier side and another before being able to disembark at the end. Both will take much longer than pre-pandemic. In Europe where cruises where these new protocols have been running, check in has been taking between one and a half and three hours.
  2. On board activities, including using dining and entertainment venues with new physical and social distancing measures. This will include things like venues having limits on capacity and possibly booking to attend, served buffet dining and so on.
  3. Evacuation procedures. This will involve things like testing the new eMuster drill which uses in-room video and use of the cruise line App and then, of course, a drill simulating having to evacuate in an emergency.
  4. A drill covering the transfer of supposed symptomatic passengers and crew from cabins to isolation rooms
  5. Quarantine of all remaining passengers and non-essential crew to their cabins. They do not yet say for how long.
  6. Then for those ships that are sailing, testing out running private island shore excursions.

Subject to testing and screening – up to 5 times….

There will be a number of Covid-19 tests and screenings, especially as the CDC wants a lot of data to inform their decision on if all these new protocols are working.

These will include, based on the CDC Framework, a minimum of two tests.

One before boarding the ship on the pier and again before being allowed to disembark the ship. You may also have to do one as part of a screening before leaving home to join the test cruise.

Importantly, these tests will be laboratory-based PCR swab tests and not the rapid tests. The reason being that the lab tests has fewer scope for false negatives and positives, and are more able to pick up asymptomatic cases. Something important that was highlighted by the SeaDream outbreak in November who were using just the Abbot fast tests.

Could be cut short

Of course, one additional thing to consider is that the CDC say they will require the cruise ship operator to immediately end the simulated voyage if COVID-19 is detected during the simulation. Much as we saw happen with the outbreak in SeaDream in the Caribbean in November.


Despite a lot being known about these tests, there are three key unknowns that will evolve over the coming weeks

Firstly, exactly when they will take place by each line.

Based on the steps the lines have to take, these voyages will almost certainly only take place in early 2021, though some lines may be able to get some in right before end of the year.  This is why we have seen lines like Carnival cancel all scheduled cruises to end of January already.

Secondly, how long the tests will be. At this stage, despite repeated enquiries,  the CDC has not publically said how long they will need to be,

Thirdly, what the final numbers, who and how volunteers will be chosen and what costs they will have to incur to get to and join the ships. At the moment, lines are starting to let people sign up to show interest. The Royal Caribbean site has had over 100,000 people sign up so far.

This is what you need to know and some key watch-outs that I hope help you decide if you should volunteer for these required test cruises as the opportunity arises. I hope it helped clarify things.

Gary Bembridge’s Tips For Travellers aims to help you make more of your precious travel time and money on land and when cruising the oceans or rivers of the world. To help you, in every video I draw on my first-hand tips and advice from travelling every month for over 20 years and average of 10 cruises a year.

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Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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