What it was like to board one of the first cruises in the US in over a year
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In the end, it wasn’t nearly as complicated as I thought it would be.
From the moment I arrived at the vessel’s gangway on Sunday in New Orleans in advance of its first sailing on the Mississippi River to the time I was in my cabin, fewer than five minutes passed.
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The only hurdle I faced at the moment of boarding that was different than what I’ve experienced on past river cruises was the need to undergo a temperature screening — done with an electronic temperature reader located right at the end of the gangway.
My temperature was 97.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which apparently was just what they wanted to see. I was immediately allowed on board.
Still, the temperature check wasn’t the only gauntlet I had to pass in recent days to get on board the vessel. The ship’s operator, the American Queen Steamboat Company, also required me to take a COVID-19 PCR test after I arrived in New Orleans the day before the sailing.
The test was administered on Saturday afternoon in a conference room at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. This is where passengers departing on American Countess sailings from New Orleans traditionally stay the night before departure as part of their travel package.
American Queen Steamboat has hired an outside medical company, Vikand Medical Solutions, to administer the tests to all passengers before boarding. Only passengers who test negative are allowed on board the American Countess.
The tests are sent out for processing overnight while passengers sleep at the Hilton, and the results come back early in the morning. I woke up at the crack of dawn on Sunday to an encrypted message with the news that I had tested negative. I then had to show this to an American Queen Steamboat representative at the hotel to get my American Countess boarding pass.
To be safe, I also had taken a COVID-19 rapid test at my local CVS at home in North Carolina on Friday, the day before I flew to New Orleans. That test was negative, too.
TPG is one of just a handful of travel outlets getting exclusive access this week to the first sailing of American Countess — a nonrevenue “preview” cruise from New Orleans to Memphis with company executives, their friends and family, and local dignitaries.
The 166-passenger vessel was christened on Sunday along the waterfront of New Orleans before it departed the city — an event that, paired with this week’s sailing, is being seen as a milestone moment in what appears to be a budding comeback of cruising in North America.
The sailing comes just a week after another American Queen Steamboat Company riverboat and a small coastal cruiser operated by American Cruise Lines became the first cruise vessels to restart operations in U.S. waters since the pandemic began.
More sailings of the vessels and others operated by the two lines on U.S. waterways are planned in the coming weeks.
With vaccinations for COVID-19 becoming more available and case counts dropping, several other cruise companies that operate in North America also have recently announced definitive plans to restart voyages in the coming months out of ports in the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
Assuming all goes well with these first cruises in North America, it’ll pave the way for a broader resumption of cruising across the continent later this year, industry executives have said.
This week’s sailing of American Countess also offers one of the first glimpses of what cruising in North America really will be like when more cruise vessels restart operations.
Like many cruise lines, American Queen Steamboat has designed a long list of new health protocols to implement on its vessels as they return to service to make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t spread on board.
In addition to the COVID-19 testing and temperature checks mentioned above, all passengers boarding American Countess must answer a list of questions about their health upon checking in for their cruise the day before departure. Passengers also are asked to remain socially distanced on board the vessel, and there is a mask-wearing requirement on board the vessel in situations where social distancing isn’t possible.
In addition, to encourage social distancing, some seating in places like the ship’s theater are blocked off. Signs asking passengers to stay distanced and sanitize their hands are widespread.
American Queen Steamboat Company also has refitted all the air conditioning systems on American Countess with disinfecting ultraviolet lighting systems, and the vessel will sail with a licensed nurse on board. The company has formed new partnerships with entities in every port it visits to ensure that anyone who becomes sick can get quick care.
In one more effort to keep passengers a safe distance apart, the line also is blocking off every other row of seats in the motorcoaches it uses for touring in ports.
While I’ve only been on board American Countess for one day, I’ve found the new requirements relatively unobtrusive. Like everybody on board, I’ve been keeping my mask on in pretty much all settings except during meal times, when I’m sitting at a dining table. In that regard, it’s no different than the situation I live with in my home state right now.
The only awkward moment for me so far came last night, during pre-dinner cocktails around the vessel’s Grand Bar. It was a strange transition moment, when some people still were wearing their masks and others already had taken them off — presumably because they were sitting down for a drink. I ordered a beer, and then wondered: Do I keep the mask on while I wait for it to arrive, or do I take it off? And once I have the beer in hand, can I keep my mask off for good while drinking — even in between sips? Or do I only slip it down for a moment with each sip? If the former, do I need to put it back on for the 20-second walk over to the adjacent Grand Dining Room before taking it off when I sit down again? Or is that overkill?
I know: I’m overthinking things. But that’s where my mind was going last night.
I have a feeling we’ll all be working our way through these sorts of questions over the next few months on cruise vessels as cruising resumes in more places.
The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan is traveling on American Countess this week as a guest of the cruise line.
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Featured image of The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan boarding American Countess courtesy of John Roberts/In The Loop Travel.
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