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Why don't they just turn off all the empty cruise ships?

Carnival ships at sea

With nearly all the cruise ships in the world sitting idle while the cruise industry remains shutdown, why don't the cruise lines shut down cruise ships and park them somewhere?

This idea makes a lot of sense when you think about how much money cruise ships cost to keep them running, even with a skeleton crew.

Most cruise lines have their ships floating off the coast of various ports around the world, but they are all operational and ready to restart cruises if given the chance.

Carnival ship bow

Wouldn't it make more sense to shut these ships down and not pay crew to babysit these ships, while also saving on fuel costs, docking fees, supplies and more?

When a cruise ship is operational with minimal crew members onboard, it is known as being in a state of "warm lay-up".

This means the cruise ships are ready to return to service very quickly, as all their services and equipment onboard is ready to use and updated.

Princess cruise ship dusk

The advantage of keeping cruise ships in warm lay-up is there little extra work to do to be ready to resume sailings.  Regardless of if the sailings are revenue sailings or test sailings, a ship in warm lay-up can hit the open waters again relatively quickly without much ramp up.

However, this comes at a cost because the ship is being staffed and consuming fuel and supplies.  All of this has a daily cost to it.

In order to turn off a cruise ship, it would have to go into a state of "cold lay-up."

Ships at sea dusk

Cold lay-up means a cruise ship turns off most of its mechanical systems and leaves the absolute barebones on to preserve a ship.

Unlike parking a car in your garage for months at a time, cruise ships cannot be simply turned off and left alone.  They are designed to be fully operational all the time, unlike your car which is designed to be in the off position.

Without their systems online, ships would start to breakdown quickly from the effects of the sea water and environment around them.  Moreover, their mechanical systems would degrade and turning it all back on would require extensive maintenance.

Mardi Gras construction

Instead, a cruise ship can be put into cold lay-up.  Depending on how long a cruise line plans to shut down the ship, they can take different steps to preserving the systems and interiors of the ship.

Putting a ship in cold lay-up saves money upfront, but when it is time to to turn it back on again, the process will cost much more in time and money.

Ships leaving cold lay-up have to be re-certified by maritime authorities and depending on how long the vessel has been down for, that can be lengthy.

Just how long would it take to get a ship back from cold lay-up? If a ship is shutdown for a few months, getting it back to sea might take a few weeks. But if the ship remains out of service for six months or more, then it could take a month or more to get a ship back out of cold lay-up.

On top of that, if all of a sudden all the cruise lines want to get their ships out of cold lay-up because they receive permission to sail again, there are a limited amount of inspectors to conduct the necessary assessment and that could slow things down more.

Why are most ships still running?

Liberty of the Seas at sea

If you look at almost any cruise ship's fleet, their ships are operating in warm lay-up somewhere around the world, with their engines running and crew onboard keeping the ship ready.

Looking at marine tracking websites, you will find large swaths of ships in the Philippines, Barbados, Bahamas, Southampton and more.

First, before you can shutdown a cruise ship, it needs to go somewhere and that means berthing space somewhere.  In a world where pretty much all the ships are shutdown, finding a place to dock them in the long term is limited.

Second, no one really knows how long the cruise industry will remain shutdown. Going back to 2020, no one would have believed cruise ships would still be out of service for this long, and no one has any better idea when this all might end. 

Since cruise lines have gone this long with ships in warm lay-up, going into cold lay-up now doesn't make a lot of sense given all the work required up front to prepare it for shutdown and the work later to get it back in service.

If they could back in time a year ago, the decision might have been totally different.  But for now, cruise lines will keep the ships in warm lay-up.