In June, cruise lines began testing the waters on finally bringing back their services with vaccinated and closely monitored sailings. Fast forward to today, and there are more than 15 cruise lines sailing from various U.S. ports, all ready and willing to take you onboard.
The cruise industry has gone a long way to re-design and implement new safety protocols to help travelers cruise with confidence and have the dream vacation they’ve been missing. However, the question remains the same: What is cruising like right now?
We chatted with three cruise experts that recently took a cruise to get their best takeaways for going on a cruise in a time of Covid.
The New Boarding Process
One of the biggest changes, according to John Mast, Sr. Director of Global Cruise Marketing at Expedia, is that many cruise lines have adopted is a no-contact check-in, or at least a more digital one.
“All online check-in details were completed in advance so there is little to no paperwork to do at the pier. We had to complete a Covid-19 antigen test before being permitted to board. In addition to those two, we had to have our vaccine cards verified and hand over our passports for the duration of the cruise. Then, when your Covid test is clear you are allowed to go straight to your stateroom where your door is open, and your keys and welcome details are in your room.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that “cruise lines do not want you arriving early for embarkation as they are trying to minimize the crowds and the line,” said Jasmine Moore, Sr Manager, Global Learning & Development (for EPS & STP) at Expedia. Once you check in online, you’ll be given the exact time for your embarkation.
Many cruise lines have implemented the use of their own apps not only for embarkation purposes but also to minimize the physical contact onboard. Using these cruise apps allows travellers to preview and book shore excursions, check out the restaurants onboard, make dining reservations, track onboard purchases, and more.
Moore, who sailed aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, had to download Holland America's Navigator App to complete her booking process which is now paperless. Princess started this practice even before the pandemic with their Princess Medallion Class®, and Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line also recommend the use of their app for a faster check in, and a better cruise experience in general.
The use of an app helps to reduce the time and avoid possible physical contact at the pier, however not all cruise lines are at this stage. We chatted with Elton Richey, Expedia Cruises™ Franchise owner, who recently took two cruises, one aboard the Emerald Radiance and the other aboard the Celestyal Crystal. In both cases he reported that neither Emerald nor Celestyal required the use of their app to check in.
Vaccination and Testing
It is without a doubt that sailing during these times will require more preparation and some flexibility.
Vaccination policies differ depending on the chosen cruise line. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, has decided to sail only with 100% fully vaccinated guests and crew. In addition to that, they offer complementary testing during embarkation day. Royal Caribbean also requires all guests who are 12 and older present proof of Covid-19 vaccination, however they will still allow kids who are 11 or younger to sail with a negative Covid-19-test result. Guests 2 years or older must complete a Covid-19 test before cruising and at their own expense.
Regardless of the check in process, all cruise lines will require to see your vaccination card, and most importantly your second dose, which needs to be administrated at least 14 days before your departure date. Our three cruise experts had to show their government-issued vaccine cards showing both doses and the brand.
Vaccine policies are subject to change and can look different in each port of call. Cruise lines continue to evaluate and update vaccination requirements and protocols as added information becomes available. We strongly recommend that travelers keep checking the latest requirements from their cruise line as they get closer to their departure dates.
What’s Happening Aboard the Ship?
Despite the extra preparation and flexibility, going on a cruise right now can still be a lot of fun! Many cruise ships have started sailing at reduced capacities (this number will be different for each cruise line) which means physical distance is easier to practice, and that table by the window has higher chances to be available for you.
Let’s navigate what else is different once you’re aboard your ship:
Those who love cruising because of the convenience of visiting different cities are wondering what the new rules around shore excursions are. Can I go ashore on my own? Do I need to book all my excursions with the cruise line?
The practices around shore excursions continue to vary from cruise line to cruise line. Moore shared:
“We were not required to book our excursions through Holland America, and we had the option to go ashore on our own. We did a mix of things. We booked one of our excursions on the pier with a local provider, we did another tour through the cruise line, and we also wandered on our own in a few other ports.”
Richey had a similar experience on his last two river cruises. It is well-known that many river cruise lines include shore excursions in their fare, but he said that he also had the chance to visit the ports of call on his own.
The story was a bit different for Mast who said:
“On shore, Seabourn did require us to be in a bubble. You could only book tours from the ship.”
This was not an inconvenience for Mast who said Seabourn has partnered with high quality tour operators that provide an extensive array of shore excursion options.
Some cruise lines that are sailing with 100% vaccinated guests such as Princess and Norwegian Cruise Line, are allowing guests to go ashore in the ports of call on their own. Carnival has kept the same practice only for the vaccinated guests; unvaccinated guests will have to book tours through the cruise line and remain in the same bubble.
And what is a holiday if we don’t have the food taken care of? The dining experience onboard is one of the most favorite features of many seasoned cruise travelers.
At first, there was a lot of uncertainty on how the cruise lines will continue to provide the same level of variety, however after chatting with our three cruise experts, it seems that the dining onboard hasn’t changed much, and if ever there have been some positive improvements.
“Due to the reduced sailing capacity, none of the dining venues ever appeared to be full at the Nieuw Amsterdam. There were no longer two specific sittings at the main dining room, but rather you could dine 'as you please', a similar approach of what Norwegian does with its ‘Freestyle dining.’ You could make reservations for the main dining room, but you didn’t have to. The specialty restaurants, however required reservations.”
Similar to that sentiment, Mast said:
“One nice touch aboard Seabourn Odyssey was that the smaller specialty venues that are usually only bookable once per cruise had more availability and we were able to dine at both several times due to the lower number of cruisers on board. That was a treat!”
While the buffet continues to be operating as a self-serve service in many cruise lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, and Disney Cruise Line, there are still some cruise lines – MSC, Crystal Cruises, and Holland America, where the self-service is temporarily unavailable, and the food is plated and served by the crew.
Another common practice for those guests who like to socialize and meet new people onboard is to share a big table in the main dining room with other guests. Based on the comments of our cruise experts, this practice has remained the same. At times they were asked if they wanted to share a table, and other times they were the ones who asked to be seated with other people.
One of the things cruisers most look forward to when they book a cruise is the wide variety of activities available onboard. From Zip lining to bumper cars and surfing simulators, the choices are endless and cater to every activity level.
The good news is that cruise lines have created and implemented new protocols, not only to maintain health and safety standards, but also to keep most of the onboard activities the same.
Before the pandemic, many cruise lines offered the option to book your shows ahead of time, while the option to walk-in to most of the shows remains the same. Moore shared, “We saw most of the shows -mainstage, comedy, magician and the music-walk. Reservations were not required, and we were able to see anything we walked in for.”
Richey noticed that since many cruise lines are trying to encourage social distance, some of the seats in the theater will be blocked for use, meaning that reservations for your shows might be helpful if you want to grab good seats.
Let’s not forget that the entertainment cruise staff continues to be onboard, which means that activities such as trivia, game shows, and karaoke are still on. Whenever these activities take place indoors, masks are required and when social distancing is not possible outdoors, the use of masks is encouraged.
Cruise lines continue to innovate in their practices. Disney Cruise is famous for having meet & greet sessions between the guests and the Disney characters. This activity is still in place but with a few modifications - guests cannot come in close contact with the character (sorry, no more hugs) but they can take selfies or chat with them while keeping a proper distance.
Wearing a mask continues to be standard across all cruise lines, with masks being required indoors and in public areas, except when dining or having drinks at the bar. Where social distancing is not possible outdoors, mask use is recommended for all guests. This protocol will continue to evolve as the CDC and other government and local authorities continue to evaluate safety and health measures.
The crew will continue to wear masks whether indoors or outdoors, but rest assured they are smiling behind their masks. Our three cruise experts agreed on how happy and excited the crew were and the level of hospitality they received when being welcomed back on board.
So, then, is it safe to go on a cruise right now?
You can take comfort in knowing that the new onboard protocols have been planned out and executed in detail to make cruising as safe and enjoyable as possible.
The answer to this question will need to be answered individually based on your current circumstances. However, we do know that you will need to present a negative Covid-19 test result and proof that you’ve been fully vaccinated, and these two requirements can give you great piece of mind knowing you’ll be cruising with people that have gone through a health check.
In addition to those two requirements, cleaning onboard has been taken to the next level, Richey shared, “Staff on the Emerald were in a constant state of ship cleaning and maintenance.” Moore had a similar experience, “We saw constant cleaning and our cabin steward asked how often we would like to have service.”
It’s nothing new to find multiple hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the ships, however as an enhanced measurement the number of dispensers has increased. Mast said: “There was a lot of extra cleaning and sanitizer dispensers everywhere. They even had a new model of sanitizer dispenser that also took your temperature at the same time and displayed it every time you sanitized. Clever!”
Overall, you can take comfort in knowing that the new onboard protocols have been planned out and executed in detail to make cruising as safe and enjoyable as possible. If you have a cruise in mind, our professional Vacation Consultants would be happy to get you up to speed on the specific cruise you are thinking about and ensure you have the information you need to plan your much-needed vacation soon. Contact your local Vacation Consultant today!