What it was like to board one of the first cruises in the US in over a year
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
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.
For more cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s new cruise newsletter.
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.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured image of The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan boarding American Countess courtesy of John Roberts/In The Loop Travel.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 50,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants in the first three months of card membership.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Earn 50,000 Bonus Miles and 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.
- Plus, earn up to $100 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees