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What it was like to board one of the first cruises in the US in over a year

March 22, 2021
8 min read
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.

I'm talking about the process of boarding the newly unveiled American Countess -- one of the first cruise vessels to restart operations in U.S. waters since cruising worldwide shut down a year ago.

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.

The temperature screening machine upon arriving at the American Countess riverboat on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of John Roberts/In The Loop Travel)
Getting a temperature check before boarding American Countess. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

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.

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A negative COVID-19 PCR test is mandatory to board American Countess. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

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.

Passengers boarding American Countess receive the results of overnight PCR tests for COVID-19 via an encrypted website. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

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.

Cruising already has resumed in a limited way in parts of Europe and Asia in recent months with few coronavirus-related incidents.

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.

Some chairs in the American Countess theater are blocked off to allow for social distancing between passengers. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

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.

A sign at the Grand Bar on American Countess asks passengers to keep a safe distance from each other. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
Every other row of seats in the motorcoaches that American Queen Steamboat uses for touring is blocked off in a measure designed to encourage social distancing between passengers. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

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 by The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan arrives at the American Countess riverboat for its first sailing. (Photo courtesy of John Roberts)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023