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No lines at the buffet, daily onboard testing: Here's what it's like to take a cruise right now

Confused about cruising? You're not alone.
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Cruise lines resuming service from ports in the U.S. and around the world are setting sail with a long list of health protocols in place to help keep passengers and crew members safe from the coronavirus.

Negative Covid tests or proof of vaccination for all passengers and crew members are the most common prerequisites operators have for boarding and moving about ships unmasked. Escalated protocols include the e-Mist electrostatic spraying system, which Uniworld River Cruises uses to disinfect its ships, and the labs that Viking Cruises built on its oceangoing ships (and onshore for river cruises) to facilitate processing the daily PCR tests all passengers are required to take.

With a surge in cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus, many cruise lines are tightening and adjusting their rules.

"Carnival Cruise Line and several other lines announced they would require all guests — vaccinated or unvaccinated — to wear masks in all public areas on their ships," said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

Carnival and several other lines now also require all passengers, including those who are vaccinated, to provide proof of a recent negative Covid test before boarding.

Viking Cruises built labs on board its oceangoing ships to facilitate processing the daily PCR tests all passengers are required to take.

"These new requirements are being implemented to protect our guests and crew while on board, and to continue to provide confidence to our homeports and destinations that we are doing our part to support their efforts to protect public health and safety," Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, said in a statement last week. She said she expects the added requirements to be temporary.

Disney Cruise Line began its phased-in resumption of sailings from Port Canaveral, Florida, on Monday. The company also released updated guidelines, saying it "strongly encourages" all guests to be vaccinated. Disney is also requiring proof of negative Covid testing for all guests several days before sailing and at the terminal before boarding. All guests ages 2 and up are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

Disney has also paused close-up interactions and photo opportunities with Disney characters, but it promises "plenty of opportunities to capture physically distanced photos" with characters.

Buffets, an iconic offering on many cruise ships, still exist. But most lines (except Carnival) have done away with the self-serve heap-your-plate option. Now, crew members stand by to place portions (still unlimited) on cruisers' plates.

When it comes to shore excursions, some lines require guests to stay in bubbles with other cruise passengers (no shopping, no mingling with locals) on itineraries led by cruise-approved operators. Even the muster (or safety) drill has changed. In the past, this mandatory start-of-the-cruise activity required all passengers to put on life jackets and gather in big groups at assigned emergency stations at the same time. Now, most cruise lines have replaced the group activity with instructions delivered via app or stateroom TV and individual or small-group check-ins at appointed muster stations.

A federal judge in Florida issued an order Sunday that allows Norwegian Cruise Line to require that all passengers prove they have been vaccinated, despite a state ban against the practice.

"The cruise lines seem to be trying to align their requirements as much as possible between the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and state laws," McDaniel said. "The situation remains very fluid. If you're booked on a cruise, we would recommend staying in close contact with your travel adviser and the cruise line to monitor the latest requirements."

The extra wrinkle in the U.S., McDaniel said, is that cruise lines are restricted by the CDC. In other countries, homeports must abide by different requirements. "So a Celebrity sailing from Florida might look very different than a Celebrity sailing from Athens," she said.

Rules, restrictions and protocols are very likely to change — and on short notice — for those planning cruises, said Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise & Travel of Chicago.

"If you're the type of person who needs to have everything nailed down far in advance and doesn't deal well with changes, then you may want to wait a bit longer before taking a cruise," Clabbers said.

"If you have the ability to get vaccinated, go ahead and do it," he said. "That can help you avoid some of the issues that might come up as cruise lines adjust their rules."