October 29, 2020

Cruise Vacations: To Sail or Not to Sail?

Cruise ships were home to some of the earliest severe outbreaks of COVID-19 (C19) this year before shutting down in March.

In September, Carnival said it would sell 18 ships and halt trips until spring 2021, while Norwegian just announced it would halt activity until at least Nov. 30. However, with stay-at-home orders largely lifted in most regions, the Trump administration blocking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation to keep cruise ships docked until February 2021, and setting the no-sail ban expiration to Oct. 31, cruises have reentered the pool of options for consumers weighing vacations amidst the pandemic.

With travel guidelines changing by the day, we recently conducted a survey of U.S. consumers to gauge their level of interest in taking a cruise vacation in the coming months, 2021 and 2022. Below are the key insights from the survey:

“I want to feel normal and travel again.”

Most vacationers are eager to get traveling again. Over half (52%) of respondents who have a history of international vacation traveling would consider booking a cruise, international trip or an all-inclusive vacation as early as Q4 2020, if they came across the right opportunity or offer. That said, only 15% would consider a cruise during this time, while a quarter (27%) of respondents would consider a cruise in Q1 2021. Fifty-three percent are open to cruising some time in 2021.

People are craving normalcy. Of the things that motivated past travelers to consider these kinds of travel in 2021, the top responses are: “I want to feel normal and travel again” (46%) and “I just love getting away” (40%). In fact, when asked how far in advance they would book a vacation in 2021, over half of respondents are likely to have booked already, or are in the process: 26% indicated they would book 4-5 months before the trip, with 30% who said they would book 1-3 months prior. Seventy-two percent of respondents would book a vacation for 7 days or more in 2021.

For most travelers, COVID-19 isn’t getting in the way.

Generally, the coronavirus is less of a concern factor for respondents, with 30% (less than 1 in 3) saying risk of C19 infection on the cruise itself significantly impacts their interest in taking a cruise next year. This factor completely eliminates interest in a cruise for over a quarter of respondents (27%).

However, the risk that other people infected on the ship will cause travelers to be stuck at sea is a top concern, with over half (57%) saying this either significantly impacts or completely eliminates their interest in taking a cruise in 2021.

If a C19 vaccine becomes available, sentiment is fairly split — with about a third saying it would not change their likelihood to book, a third slightly more likely to book, and a third who are much more likely to book a cruise in 2021. Only 5% of respondents say having mandatory C19 screenings and protocols in place for passengers make them slightly less or much less likely to book a cruise.

The findings indicate that by and large, most prospective cruisers are feeling cautious but open to traveling with the right protocols in place. Only 12.5% of participants say that having to wear a mask, socially distance or take other precautions will make the experience less enjoyable and thus eliminates their interest in taking a cruise, while for a third of past travelers (34%), having to wear a mask and socially distance would only slightly deter them from embarking on a cruise experience in 2021. Another 20% are on the fence, saying such precautions would be a moderate deterrent, but they’d still consider cruising.

Money talks: consumers want to be entertained with offers and are more likely to book if deals are available for cruises or experiences they otherwise couldn’t afford. 

Of the things respondents find most appealing about the idea of going on a cruise in 2021, over a third (35%) said they’re expecting great deals to be available on exciting cruise experiences. Thirty-six percent — likely to be “regulars” — “have always enjoyed cruising.”

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents would be slightly more likely or much more likely to book a cruise if deals became available that would allow access to a higher-end experience they couldn’t afford otherwise.

As with the travel industry at large, refund policies are of significant importance to travelers. Of those open to cruising as soon as Q1 2020, 86% say they’d be much more likely to book if cruise lines commit to full refund policies if infection rates stay high or go up.

The top 5 most important considerations, were travelers to book a cruise in 2021:

1) COVID-19 precautions in place (66%)

2) Cruise ship cleanliness/cleaning protocols (60%)

3) Flexibility of cancellation policies (57%)

4) Affordability/payment options (41%)

5) Great value for experiences and amenities offered (34%)

Digital presence remains an important resource for travelers, with cruise line websites the top destination (78%) respondents would visit to gain information on booking a cruise in 2021 — it is even more important for those open to cruising in Q1 2021 (82%).

Though the cruise industry will take some time to recover, people are still very interested in setting sail with these precautions and considerations in mind.


GALE conducted a study to understand U.S. consumer attitudes toward taking a cruise, all-inclusive or international vacation in Q4 2020, 2021 and 2022. The survey collected responses from 1,200 Americans aged 25+. Participants had to have completed a cruise, all-inclusive vacation or international trip in the last three years in order to participate in the survey, which was completed on Sept. 19 and 21, 2020.

Robyn Cauchy

Director, CX Strategy & Insights