En español | Patty Monegan plans to spend seven days cruising the California coast in September, then another week plying the waters off the Mexican coast in November. Monegan, 59, and her husband, Philip Keeping, 62, will be on two Princess cruises sailing out of Los Angeles. The couple, from Temecula, California, have sailed with Princess more than 55 times since 1986, and they can’t wait to board its ships again — despite the pandemic and the bad press the company received last year. Who doesn’t remember those haunting televised images of thousands of passengers stuck aboard the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess when COVID-19 outbreaks hit both ships, resulting in 10 deaths?
“Because of what happened, they’re going to take every precaution they can,” says an undaunted Monegan. “Everybody is going to be on high alert, so cruising is probably going to be safer now than it has ever been.”
In fact, when eight fully vaccinated crew members recently tested positive for COVID-19 before the inaugural cruise of Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas, the line postponed its departure for nearly a month out of extreme caution — though six of the employees were asymptomatic and the other two had only mild symptoms. (The vaccines aren't 100 percent effective at preventing COVID-19, but if you do get it post-vaccination, experts say you're most likely to experience something like a mild cold.) And when two fully vaccinated, asymptomatic passengers on the Celebrity Millennium tested positive, they were isolated for medical monitoring.
Many cruise lines are requiring that all passengers and crew members be vaccinated.
Even if Monegan is proven wrong and the worst happens, she insists she will have no regrets — her passion for cruising runs that deep. “I’m a spiritual and religious woman who likes her glass of wine every day. And when your number’s up, your number’s up. And if I end up going on a cruise ship with a glass of wine in my hand, rest assured I died happy.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s concerns about cruising during the pandemic (see box below) hasn’t curbed some travelers’ enthusiasm for setting sail, especially not among the hard-core loyalists that were hooked on cruising pre-COVID. A recent survey by the University of Florida found that 30 percent of Americans would consider cruising next year. Among avid cruisers, 30 percent said they were ready to sail last April, and 46 percent said they would sail next year.
Robust cruise sales jibe with the survey, as illustrated by these sales stats from Cruise Planners, an American Express travel representative. From January through May 2021, the company's cruise sales for 2022 departures were up 60 percent from the same time period in 2019 for 2020 departures. And CEO Michelle Fee says the company posted a record year for cruise sales in 2019.
Attractive deals and relaxed cancellation policies are certainly playing a role in luring passengers as cruise lines finally start to ramp back up after the extended CDC ban. Still, many cruising fans would likely return regardless. Here's why.
It's been too long
Norma Starr and her husband, Mitchell Schneidkraut, both 72 and residents of Birmingham, Alabama, have taken about 30 cruises over the past 15 years. But they haven't sailed since August 2019 because of COVID-19. It's the first time they've gone more than a year without cruising.
"I want to get out on the open sea! Birmingham is nice, but I'm tired of looking at four walls,” Starr says. “I keep telling my husband that the first thing I'm going to do when I board a ship is kiss the ground. I won't because that would look really tacky, but I will just be so happy."
The couple are counting the days until January, when they’re booked on a 120-day world cruise with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, sailing out of San Francisco. Still, they’re so antsy to return to sea that they’ve booked a pair of cruises in the interim: a seven-day cruise in the Bahamas in July with Crystal Cruises and a 27-day Regent cruise in November from Greece to Miami.
"I'm fully vaccinated"
"I'm not apprehensive about our cruise at all,” says Nina Yablok, 73, of Nemo, Texas. “I'm vaccinated, and so will everyone else be on the ship. If I do get COVID, it won't be a bad case,” she says. “I choose not to let fear run my life."
Yablok and her husband, who have taken 17 cruises since 2005, will also be aboard a Crystal cruise in the Bahamas this summer, which she booked within minutes of it going on sale at midnight on March 16. Yablok wouldn’t normally be up at that late hour, but she is chomping at the bit to get back out on the ocean and couldn’t wait to secure a cabin. “I’m so ready for this!” she exclaims. “I’m really psyched to sail again.”
How psyched? She’s already started packing; she’s already craving her favorite Crystal dessert, a sweet soufflé called Salzburger nockerl; and she’s already planned the stop in Bimini, where she hopes a lot of people get off the ship. She’ll stay on board with her husband and park herself in a lounge chair on the Lido Deck. “I’ll flop down with my Kindle, which will be loaded with tons of mindless cozy mysteries, and then not a read a word. I’ll people-watch,” she says.
Ships’ safety protocols are reassuring
“All the cruise lines are taking every precaution and are doing their utmost to keep everyone safe,” says Craig Savela, an avid cruiser from San Antonio. He and his wife, Sheryl, both in their early 70s, have taken 45 cruises since 2010 and have several more booked, including a Rhine River cruise with AmaWaterways in August and a Mexico cruise out of Galveston, Texas, with Royal Caribbean International, in November. And they’re already booked on a Caribbean cruise for next spring, a transatlantic voyage to Spain, and a Greek Isles cruise that will then sail to Dubai and on to Cape Town, South Africa.
“We realize COVID is a potentially devastating virus,” Savela says, “but we’ve been on so many cruises and have never had a problem. And now, with a tremendous amount of people getting vaccinated, and the fact we’re pretty healthy, we don’t really see a big problem with this thing.”
“We’ve lived good lives and we’re just not going to live in fear,” Sheryl Savela adds.
“We’ve lost two years of cruising,” says longtime cruiser Linda Beilstein. “I’m 72, and my husband is 83. How much more time do we have left that we’ll be physically able to do this?” The Beilsteins, of Edgewater, Maryland, have been cruising since 2008, and they figure they’ve done at least 30 cruises — with more planned. They’ve already booked a Douro Valley (Portugal) river cruise with Emerald Cruises for November and have four cruises — to Iceland, the Great Lakes, the British Isles and Canada/New England — on various other lines reserved for next year.
Still taking precautions
Don’t think these cruising fanatics are throwing caution to the wind; most plan to take precautionary measures of their own. For example, in the past, Monegan has sometimes booked inside cabins because she and her husband often spend very little time in their quarters. “But since the pandemic— and those pictures we saw from the Grand Princess — we’ve always booked at minimum a balcony, but most of the time a mini suite, regardless of the price. If something were to happen and we’d be quarantined in our room, I want to know that I can still get some fresh air and see daylight,” she says.
Even though Amit Mazumdar, 63, has no qualms about a Mediterranean cruise on Royal Caribbean with his family this September, he says they will be taking steps to stay safe. “We won’t be taking undue risks,” Mazumdar says.
They’ll likely be paying extra to eat more meals in specialty restaurants, reasoning that they’re less crowded and their tables are more spread out. No crowded bars for them either; rather, he says, they’ll look for quiet tables on the edge. They’ll also use the stairs more often than the elevators. And for that reason, he says, a deck somewhere in the middle appeals to them more than a higher one.
When it comes to shore excursions, many cruisers will be sticking with their cruise line. “Right now, I wouldn’t take a shore excursion that’s not through the ship itself,” Beilstein says. “I feel like the tour guides and tour companies the cruise lines use will be vetted to the same level of cleanliness standards that a ship is going to use.”
Note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lowered its warning level for cruising from level 4 (COVID-19 risk is very high) to level 3 (COVID-19 risk is high), and now it is not explicitly warning those who are fully vaccinated against cruise travel. It does still recommend that those who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 avoid travel on cruise ships.
The CDC suggests that even those who are fully vaccinated get a COVID-19 viral test one to three days before departure, and it advises that everyone wear masks in public spaces on cruise ships and other public forms of transportation (like on airplanes and trains).
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