I’ve sailed on 7 cruises in North America and Europe in the last few months; here are 8 things I’ve learned

Sep 18, 2021

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Cruise ships may finally be operating again in much of the world. But not everything about cruising is back to normal.

As I’ve experienced first-hand over the past few months on some of the first sailings to resume in North America and several voyages in Europe, the cruise experience has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways big and small — for both better and worse.

Taking a cruise right now involves dealing with new hassles such as pre-cruise COVID-19 testing and once-unthinkable restrictions both onboard ships and on land. But it also brings some unexpected rewards, including experiencing ships and destinations that are in some cases far less crowded than they once were.

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In all, as the head of the cruise team at TPG, I’ve spent 59 days on eight cruises since the cruise industry began bouncing back from a complete shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic — seven of which took place in just the last few months.

These cruises have included six ocean voyages and two river voyages on vessels that range in size from tiny to giant, from the 102-passenger AmaDouro (an AmaWaterways river ship based in Portugal) to Royal Caribbean‘s 3,807-passenger Adventure of the Seas.

The cruises have involved port excursions in nine countries: The United States, Mexico, the Bahamas, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Iceland.

In short, it’s been a whirlwind of cruise travel that has given me a good sense of what it’s really like right now in the cruise world.

Here, based on my first-hand experiences during these trips, is a look at eight things worth noting about cruising in this new era of COVID-19:

The pre-cruise process is full of new hassles

The weeks leading up to a cruise usually are a time of excitement and anticipation. But, as I’ve experienced multiple times in recent months, it now can be a time of significant stress, too.

Many countries where cruises start are requiring all or at least some Americans to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within two or three days of arrival to visit, and as I’ve seen first-hand in preparation for cruises in Greece, Portugal and Iceland in recent weeks, getting such proof in a short timeframe isn’t always as easy as one would think. Cruise lines often are asking for such tests, too.

In addition to the tests, some countries also now require travelers to fill out online “locator” or health forms in advance of travel with information on their COVID-19 vaccine status, where there’ll be staying in the country, entry dates, exit dates and the like. Sometimes there is an associated fee, which must be paid online, and an approval process that results in a document that you must show upon arrival. Sometimes the instructions are clear. Sometimes they’re not.

Meanwhile, many airlines are asking for all of these test results and documents to be uploaded onto their websites before you can check-in for a flight, adding to the pre-travel hassle. And the hassles with flying extend to worrying about the COVID-19 rules related to countries through which you might be transiting, not just your end destination.

The bottom line is preparing for a cruise trip isn’t as simple — or stress free — as it used to be.

Onboard policies are all over the map

Once you get to a ship, you’ll find that the onboard policies related to COVID-19 vary widely. Of the seven cruise vessels on which I’ve sailed since March, four required passengers to wear masks while on board. But three did not. Most of the vessels instituted at least some social distancing measures such as blocking off tables in restaurants and seats in lounges. But they varied greatly.

Notably, when I sailed in the Caribbean on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas in June, huge swaths of the seats in the theaters were blocked off for social distancing. But just a few days later, when I sailed in the Caribbean on Celebrity Cruises‘ Celebrity Edge, owned by the very same parent company, none of the seats in the theater were blocked off. Passengers packed into the nightclub for a “silent disco” night of face-to-face dancing.

Three-quarters of the 1,362 seats in Adventure of the Seas’ main theater were blocked off as a social distancing measure when TPG’s Gene Sloan sailed on the ship. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

In the last few months, I’ve been on a number of ships where the gym only is open by appointment as well as some where the gym still is come-when-you-want. I’ve been on ships where you could sit at a bar and others where all bar seating on board was blocked off. I’ve also been on ships where you only could mingle with passengers from your traveling party (no joining a stranger for dinner). Others had no such restrictions.

In addition, I’ve been on one ship (Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, sailing from Seattle to Alaska) where some of the key venues (including the ship’s pub, casino and wine bar) only were open to passengers vaccinated for COVID-19. You showed your vaccine card at the start of the cruise to get a wristband that got you into all of the areas.

Every destination is doing things a little differently

It’s not just on ships where COVID-19-related policies vary. It’s at the destinations where the ships visit, too. Depending on where you cruise, you may find the rules for such things as mask-wearing and social distancing either very strict or not strict at all. You’ll also find differing levels of enforcement of whatever rules are in place.

When I sailed out of Nassau in the Bahamas in June, there was not only a mask-on-everywhere-both-indoors-and-outdoors rule, but it was being vigorously enforced. Bahamian police officers were stopping tourists who weren’t wearing masks and asking them to put them on, with threats of fines. In addition, cruisers who were in town to board ships weren’t allowed into bars and restaurants for inside seating unless they could show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

When I was cruising in Greece a few weeks later, there was a mask-wearing rule but some people ignored it in public areas, and it didn’t seem to be widely enforced. I carried my vaccine card with me as instructed by the cruise line for tours to historic sites but was never asked to show it.

Masks were required even while outdoors when TPG’s Gene Sloan traveled to Nassau in the Bahamas to board Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Cruisers also will find that some destinations are requiring them to stick to “bubble tours” when visiting — that is, cruisers only will be allowed off the ship as part of a ship-organized group. Other destinations are letting passengers roam free during port calls. Be warned that this is something that can change from week to week. When I visited Cozumel one week on a cruise in June, I was allowed to travel wherever I wanted. But when I came back the very next week on a different cruise, the rules had changed, and I only was allowed off on a group tour.

The takeaway from this section and the one above is that you may have to do some research to find a line, ship and itinerary with COVID-19 policy rules that match up with the environment that you are seeking. If you want to be on a cruise where masking both on and off the ship is widespread, for instance, not every cruise operating today will do. Ditto if you only want to cruise in an environment where masking is not as widespread.

Itinerary disruptions are more common

Anyone cruising right now needs to be prepared for more hiccups than usual, including disruptions to itineraries. While many sailings are taking place as planned, not all are going perfectly smooth. In some cases, cruise ships are missing ports due to COVID-19-related issues, such as a passenger testing positive for the illness while on board. Sometimes entire itineraries are having to be reworked on short notice due to unexpected changes to countrywide travel restrictions.

Of the seven cruises that I’ve taken since March, two have had notable disruptions. When I was sailing on Atlas Ocean Voyages’ new World Navigator in August, the ship was denied entry to the port of Alexandria, Egypt, after a passenger on board tested positive for COVID-19 during routine testing. The ship had to return to the Greek island of Crete, where it had been two days earlier, so that the passenger could be removed from the vessel for quarantine.

I also experienced a last-minute change of itinerary for a Crystal Cruises voyage that I took earlier this month. It originally had been scheduled as a Norway-focused sailing. But about three weeks before departure, the trip was switched to an all-Iceland cruise due to unexpected restrictions to cruising in Norway.

The crowds are gone

As noted above, there are some significant downsides to cruising right now, from the hassle of new pre-cruise testing requirements to the risk of itinerary disruptions. But there are some big upsides, too — the most notable of which is that ships are fabulously uncrowded as many cruisers wait to return to the seas.

Indeed, I haven’t sailed on a single vessel in the past few months that was anywhere near its passenger capacity. Many were just a quarter to a third full.

During my just-finished sailing to Iceland, on Crystal Cruises‘ new Crystal Endeavor, for instance, there were just 53 passengers on board. That for a vessel that normally holds 200 passengers.

I also was one of just 632 passengers on the abovementioned Royal Caribbean sailing to Alaska, which took place on a ship that normally holds up to 2,476 passengers.

As regular cruisers know, cruise vessels generally sail completely or almost completely full. Anything less than 100% occupancy for many ships is unusual.

Some people love the bustle of a full ship. But full ships also mean crowds at onboard shows and restaurants, and they can result in shipboard tours that sell out.

On the ships on which I’ve sailed in recent months, I’ve never had a problem getting a seat at a bar, a reservation for a top restaurant or — perhaps most notably — a lounge chair around the pool. In some cases — as on a river cruise in Portugal where I was one of just 35 passengers — it almost felt as if I was sailing on my own private yacht.

Note that the lack of crowds has extended beyond the ships on which I’ve sailed. Visitor numbers are down in many of the places that these vessels are visiting, and the destinations themselves have felt blissfully uncrowded, too, in many cases.

Onboard service is better than ever

While passenger counts on many ships are down sharply, the vessels still are sailing with most if not all of their crew. As a result, the staff-to-crew ratio on cruise ships right now — and the resulting service levels — is at an unprecedented level.

On my recent Crystal sailing around Iceland, there were more than 200 crew members on board to serve 53 passengers. That’s a ratio of around 4-to-1. It’s a level so high as to be almost ridiculous.

As I wrote last week in a first look at the ship, the service was fabulous.

COVID-19 cases on ships seem relatively rare

There were several thousand cruisers in all on the seven cruises that I have taken since March. But, as far as I know, only one tested positive for COVID-19 during the voyages — the passenger on the Atlas Ocean Voyages sailing.

Some of the lines on which I sailed tested every single passenger in the midst of the cruise, typically toward the middle or near the end of the voyage. But not all did. Some lines only did onboard COVID-19 testing for passengers who felt ill or needed a negative test result to fly back to their home countries. As a result, it’s hard to know for sure if that one passenger on the Atlas Ocean Voyages sailings really was the only one who was positive for COVID-19.

That said, my experience jibes with what cruise line executives have been reporting. Michael Bayley, the CEO of world’s largest cruise line Royal Caribbean, recently said that, on average, just one or two passengers a week on vessels sailing with more than 1,000 people have been testing positive for COVID-19. That’s roughly in line with my experience.

As part of its restart, the cruise industry has implemented some of the strictest COVID-19 vaccine and testing requirements in the travel industry, and these requirements appear to be working in keeping the illness from spreading widely on ships. On many ships, all passengers must be vaccinated for COVID-19 and also test negative for COVID-19 in advance of sailing. Some of the ships on which I’ve sailed have required two negative COVID-19 tests in advance of sailing — one taken just before departing for the cruise and another taken at the pier on the day of boarding.

There is one line, Viking, that is requiring a COVID-19 test every day of its voyages.

Things are changing fast

Everything that I’ve written above is up-to-date as of this week. But next week, it all could be different. Or, at least, some things could be different. It seems like every week brings changes to how lines, ships, ports and whole countries are handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

That includes changes to vaccination requirements, testing requirements, onboard policies and itineraries — some of which have been changing with very short notice.

The Netherlands, a major hub for river cruises on Europe’s Rhine River, for instance, recently implemented a new quarantine requirement for arriving visitors, including cruisers, on very short notice. This caused river cruise lines to scramble to come up with a workaround for customers heading to ships. Then with just as little notice, a few days later, the country walked back the policy. In the interim, some cruisers canceled upcoming river trips in Europe.

Vaccine and testing requirements for cruisers also have been changing a lot in recent weeks. The fallout has been a growing number of passengers being turned away from sailings after not hearing about the latest changes or misunderstanding them.

The key takeaway here is that cruisers need to stay on top of the policies of their cruise lines and the ports and countries that they will move through as part of their trip. Check these policies early in the booking process and then keep checking them again and again, right up until the day you leave for your cruise.

In addition, be sure to read every email that you get from your cruise line, even if you’re the kind of person who normally pays no attention to such emails. Ditto for emails from travel agents and airlines. The days of just showing up at a port without much preparation are over for now.

Bottom line

Anyone taking a cruise right now should know going into it that things will be different. There will be more hassles leading up to the voyage and changes to the onboard experience. There might be changes to the itinerary and the way the destinations on the itinerary interact with visitors. But there also are a lot of rewards to cruising right now, a couple of which I spelled out above.

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Featured image courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises.

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