Neil Russo, a longtime fan of cruising, boarded the 3,960-passenger Carnival Horizon in July and found, with relief and joy, the kind of cruise vacation he has come to love.
“Everything is open,” says Russo, 50, from Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania. “The same fun and excitement is there.”
Before boarding in Miami for a six-night sailing to the Bahamas and Dominican Republic, Russo, his wife, and their 16-year-old son were required to prove they had been fully vaccinated and to show the results of a negative PCR test. Onboard they encountered constant reminders about handwashing and social distancing, with signage on how to stay safe posted around the ship. But these pandemic measures were minor inconveniences, they say.
“The subtle changes are really not that noticeable,” Russo says. “You feel safe.”
That last sentence is key for travelers considering whether to head back to sea for their vacations.
Joaquin Bello, 78, from Miami, says tight health procedures were how he persuaded his wife of 50 years, Marilyn, 68, to cruise to Alaska on Norwegian Cruise Line’s 3,998-passenger Norwegian Encore in August. Norwegian is sailing with 100 percent vaccinated passengers and crew and with COVID-19 tests conducted for all guests before they board. “She was a little afraid at the beginning,” Bello says. “But when she knew about the precautions they were taking, she didn’t hesitate to tell me ‘yes, we can go.’ ”
Their experience included a boat tour to a small island where they feasted on fresh Alaska seafood. For safety’s sake, NCL took only 20 people on a boat that accommodates 40 or 50, and everyone wore masks. They dined outdoors.
Overall, he says, the cruise “surpassed our expectations.”
Cruising’s long pause
The cruise industry shut down in March 2020 as the world was waking up to the dangers of COVID-19, and with highly publicized outbreaks on cruise ships, such as the Diamond Princess sailing off the coast of Japan; eventually, some 690 positive cases were diagnosed among the 3,711 Princess passengers and crew.
What followed was a long pause — 15 months before North America sailings slowly began to resume in June — while the industry worked to mitigate the potential for future outbreaks.
Cruise companies brought in A-team advisers to create new health and safety protocols that cover, among other measures, vaccine requirements, COVID-19 testing procedures and installation of hospital-grade air filtration systems, as well as quarantine and evacuation plans for anyone who might fall ill.
The Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, working with experts who included Scott Gottlieb, M.D., former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, produced a 65-page plan with 74 safety points that became an industry standard. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its own set of rules and suggestions as part of a conditional sailing order, which includes a rule that crews must be vaccinated.
Policies vary by cruise line but vaccine requirements are at the core of protocols. Most ships operate with at least 95 percent onboard vaccinated; exceptions are made for a small number of children under age 12 and a smaller number of unvaccinated adults who have had COVID-19 or have underlying medical conditions. Many cruise lines require masks in crowded indoor areas on their ships. With the spread of the delta variant, most also added a pre-cruise COVID-19 test (either PCR or antigen, performed under the watchful eye of a health professional), required whether or not you are vaccinated.
Some cruise lines have gone further: Viking’s ocean and river ships are open only to people who are fully vaccinated, and they must submit to nasal-swab COVID-19 testing before boarding and to daily testing onboard. (Guests spit into vials each morning; the samples are processed in full-service labs on the ocean ships, in labs onshore for the river ships.) The tests have detected a few cases. A circumnavigation of Iceland, round-trip from Reykjavik on the 930-passenger Viking Sky in July got halfway around the island when one positive case was found; small towns got squeamish about welcoming cruisers, resulting in three port calls being missed, replaced by time at sea. Viking quarantined the guest and companion in a cabin the line had specifically set aside for this purpose until the ship returned to Reykjavik, where they were transferred onshore for additional quarantine.
Cruise lines are working hard to avoid making those kinds of headlines. Bill Smith, 77, from Buffalo, New York, set sail from Bayonne, New Jersey, to the Bahamas in August on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, one of the world’s largest ships, which can carry 6,771 passengers at full occupancy. Smith, who was joined by his adult niece, says he found a safety-first atmosphere, which he expected: The crew wore masks, and guests were urged to do the same. To get onboard, he and his niece had to show their vaccination cards and the results of a COVID-19 test taken two days before the sailing. Their paperwork was carefully scrutinized, with staffers checking and double-checking vaccination dates and their COVID test results. “I think I did that four times before I got onboard,” he says. “I never felt more comfortable in my life.” For their startups this summer, most cruise lines sailed at reduced capacity — 40 to 70 percent occupancy — to allow for social distancing and to test the waters before eventually making a full-blown splash back into business (it’s not clear when many will go back to full capacity).
When it comes to dining, you can expect crew members to be dishing up your choices in buffet restaurants (no self-service). On some ships, to reduce germ spread you are encouraged to scan QR codes with your smartphone to see restaurant menus, though you may still request a paper menu as an alternative. In other areas of the ship, you may find fitness centers and saunas and other spa facilities open as usual, or not — if the latter, you’ll be required to sign up for a specific time of use. If you’re an unvaccinated adult, you’ll find a host of restrictions that may include no access to some areas of a ship, such as the casino, spa and sushi restaurant. If you’re traveling with unvaccinated children on Royal Caribbean, you’re assigned to a specific area of a dining room and the back rows of the theater.
Passengers returning to sea have learned to be flexible. Rules change frequently both shipboard and in ports, where you may be able to explore on your own or may find you are only allowed on shore with fellow passengers on ship-sponsored excursions, as was the case this summer in Antigua and Barbados. Cruisers are finding themselves constantly checking cruise line websites — and with their traveler advisers — to keep up with the latest.
Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency in Chicago, has sailed with Celebrity Cruises, Viking Ocean and Windstar since July. His message to clients: Be prepared to go with the flow. “We’ve all been flexible over the past year and a half and had to adjust to changing circumstances, and that is the same if you go and travel now,” Clabbers says.
For instance, for his Windstar cruise aboard the 312-passenger Star Breeze in July, Clabbers learned only days before the Caribbean sailing that the ship would not be visiting the British Virgin Islands and St. Barts as planned due to travel restrictions on those islands, and instead had been rerouted to Barbados, St. Lucia and Antigua. For his Bermuda cruise on Viking, he and his fellow passengers flying to the island had to apply in advance for a COVID-19-related Bermuda travel authorization ($75) one to three days before arriving on the island.
“If you are a person who wants everything to be exactly the way it was three years ago or you don’t do well with uncertainty, and it stresses you out, then maybe you should stay home right now,” Clabbers says.
You may also need to navigate complicated country-to-country protocols when traveling overseas, but cruise lines can help you do so. Judie Parr, from Malibu, California, who sailed solo on the Rhine River in August on AmaWaterways’ new 156-passenger AmaSiena, says that shortly before her trip, Germany added a required location form for visitors. “I was really nervous about being on the trip and changes coming and having to cope with those,” she says. Parr learned she needn’t have worried. “AmaWaterways was fabulous in taking care of it and printing it out for you so that you’ve got it and didn’t just have to do it on your phone,” she says.
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Bottom line? Most passengers have found that all the pandemic protocols are minor inconveniences at worst, and many add that the safety measures make them feel more secure about sailing during the pandemic.
Longtime Royal Caribbean fan Smith certainly has no regrets about his Bahamas journey in August. When he boarded his ship, he says, he walked through an arch of yellow and blue balloons, and “the staff were clapping and dancing and I started clapping and dancing.” Asked what advice he has for someone contemplating a cruise vacation in the coming months, he exclaims, “Do it!”
Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on more than 150 cruises. She writes regularly for Bloomberg and for Afar and Travel + Leisure magazines.