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Going on a cruise in a COVID-19 climate is filled with many unknowns. There may be some hesitancy to sail without knowing all the rules and restrictions, or if it will be similar to how cruising was before the pandemic hit. In July and August, I boarded two different ships; one was for a short 3-day cruise, and the other was a longer 7-day cruise. What I learned from this experience is that no two cruises are alike. Each cruise had its own restrictions in place to keep everyone and their crew safe.
I boarded Odyssey of the Seas for a test cruise in July. It was a short 3-day cruise that stopped at Perfect Day in Coco Cay. We began our adventure out of Port Miami. It was, therefore, a short distance for us to board the ship since we live in Miami.
The longer, 7-day cruise, was onboard Celebrity Millennium and was a birthday cruise for my husband and I. This cruise started and ended out of Seattle and required a cross-country flight for us to board. We visited 3 different port cities in Alaska and did some scenic sailing through Endicott Armes to Dawes Glacier.
Each cruise had its own COVID-19 restrictions and rules, and they even changed the closer we got to our trip. The test cruise on Royal Caribbean was for vaccinated guests only. Since they were testing how the cruise would work with unvaccinated guests on board, Royal Caribbean randomly picked people to be the unvaccinated guest. If picked, there were restrictions in place. There were specific times for unvaccinated guests to use the different facilities. Masks are required in all indoor spaces — except in your own personal cabin and while you were eating and drinking. A negative test prior to the cruise was not necessary. This rule has since changed, even if you are vaccinated.
When we first booked the cruise on Celebrity Millennium, we did not need a negative test to sail. If you were eligible for the vaccine, you had to be vaccinated to board. Therefore, the expectation was that it would be like cruising pre-COVID. As the delta variant spread, and there were more breakthrough cases, Celebrity changed this requirement so everyone who sailed (regardless of vaccination status) needed to have a negative test prior to boarding.
Once onboard, masking was not mandatory, but people still voluntarily masked in enclosed spaces like elevators. At the Alaskan ports, masks were necessary on excursions or when walking around the area and exploring the different shops, eateries and sights.
Prior to boarding each of the cruises, we needed to make an “appointment” to board at a certain time. This is so that people came to the terminal at staggered intervals. I found, especially in Seattle, that the line at the terminal was still long and people were not socially distancing. They were checking everyones documents prior to entering the building, so this is what caused the long line. Once inside, everything flowed a lot quicker. From passing through the doors, to getting into your stateroom, it took no more than 30 minutes.
Mustering is no longer the same either. Now, you watch a mustering video on the brand’s app on your smartphone or in your stateroom TV. You go through all the different videos and check yourself and your travel party in. To finalize the muster drill, you have to physically go to your muster station. Here you will meet with crew members where they will check you in and place a sticker on your card. Since this can be done as soon as you board the ship, people are mustering at different times. This means that there weren’t a lot of people when you physically go to your muster station.
Taking part in the muster drill was always the worst part of the cruise for me. I understand why it’s necessary, but I just detested it. This new mustering is so much better. I hope this new process will remain even in cruising post-COVID .
The big question prior to cruising during COVID was how the buffet would work. The buffet is still available, but now instead of serving yourself, the crew will serve you what you ask for. Where I see a vulnerability is that you are handing your plate to different crew members to serve you your food. Servers wear gloves, but I think that passing your plate around could open you up to possible infection. This may be me being a little paranoid though because that doesn’t seem to be a problem solely from seeing how cases have not spread on cruises. The same can also be true at main dining because the plates are handled by multiple people in the kitchen and wait staff.
You do see people cleaning constantly in the buffet, and all over the ship really, making sure everything is clean and disinfected. And, of course, there are handwashing stations before entering the buffet and hand sanitizing stations prior to entering all the different dining options.
What’s Open and What’s Not
On the cruise with mixed populations, certain venues would be only for vaccinated people only. This is something to consider if you’d like to sail on a cruise. To get the full experience of everything onboard, I would highly suggest you get vaccinated. Otherwise, you may miss out on certain experiences.
One thing I didn’t notice because I was not sailing with my kids is if the kids clubs were operational. For the test cruise they were not since children were not allowed, but I’m not sure if Millennium’s club was open for kids under 12. I do know that Adventure Ocean on Royal Caribbean lines are open, but again, this could be different across the brands.
Sailing in this new COVID world really requires some research and knowing what kind of an experience you want for your vacation, because not all cruises are the same. A travel advisor can help you with this to make sure you have all the most recent information. This is why I experience cruises myself so I can pass on what I’ve learned to my clients and be able to inform you of what you may face. I also network with a host other travel advisors who share their experiences and together we can keep each other up to date with everything that’s going on.
Overall, from what I saw on the public cruise, everyone was happy with the rules in place. Everyone seemed genuinely satisfied with the care that was being taken to ensure everyone’s safety. People were voluntarily masking even when they didn’t need to. The ships are following CDC criteria and most have even stricter rules in place then what the CDC requires. They really are going above and beyond to ensure the safety of their passengers and crew. The CDC is monitoring all cruises sailing in US waters.
If you have seen any news about outbreaks on cruise ships, it truly is a case study for how well vaccines work. The worst case of an outbreak happened on the Carnival Vista. 27 people onboard (26 crew) had breakthrough cases and the passenger unfortunately died. The ship had 2,895 guests and 1,441 crew. Total capacity for this ship is 4,977 passengers and 1,450 crew. It was at about 67% capacity when this happened, whereas most other ships are sailing closer to 40% capacity. Even though, the percentage of infected passengers and crew was .6% and most were asymptomatic cases, so I would say that is a great case to show the efficacy of vaccines.
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