2 cruises in 2 weeks: Here’s how the experiences have differed during the industry’s restart

Jun 20, 2021

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On June 19, I boarded Celebrity Cruises’ newest ship, Celebrity Apex, for its first revenue sailing ever. The ship debuted last year to muted fanfare, thanks to the pandemic. Exactly one week prior to this sailing, I disembarked Celebrity Millennium, which was the first major ship to allow Americans onboard in more than 15 months.

Just one day into my Apex sailing, I’ve noticed many ways in which it’s different from the one on Millennium – and it doesn’t just have to do with ship size, age or destination (although those are also factors).

Here, I’ll recap some of the key differences to help passengers understand that their experiences can — and will — differ by sailing, ship and destination.

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(Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises)

In This Post

Differences between the sailings

Mask-wearing

Mask bags are provided for storage during meals on Celebrity Apex. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

One major difference between these two sailings was their itineraries. What’s not obvious is that those itineraries — particularly the embarkation ports — directly affect whether or not passengers have to wear masks.

Vaccinated passengers didn’t have to wear them onboard Celebrity Millennium out of St. Maarten. Meanwhile, we all have to keep them on for our Celebrity Apex sailing out of Greece. The only places we can remove them are in our cabins, in the pool and while eating or drinking. The restaurants give out disposable paper bags for us to store our masks in while we’re eating instead of placing them on the table.

When asked why there are mask rules in place, even though most of the ship is fully vaccinated, Ewen Laing, traveling service excellence director for Celebrity Cruises, said, “We want to do right by the government [of Greece] that’s being kind enough to let us sail.” That means Greece’s rules apply for the entire sailing, even when the ship is in international waters.

Testing

In order to board Celebrity Apex in Athens, all passengers, regardless of vaccine status, had to take antigen tests. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

To embark on Celebrity Millennium, I had to provide a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours prior. For Celebrity Apex, there was no such requirement, but everyone had to undergo antigen testing at the port.

The results, they told us, were supposed to take about 15 minutes, but mine took an hour. The temporary testing facility set up in an outdoor tent can be stifling in the Greek heat, especially when it’s crowded with people.

The experience was definitely more smooth when boarding Millennium. I was on the ship about 10 minutes after arriving. Apex’s embarkation process took about 90 minutes for me.

Social distancing

Social distancing signage is prominent throughout Celebrity Apex. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Social distancing signs seem to be everywhere on Apex. They exist on Millennium too, but not in the same numbers. On the latter, there was nobody reminding passengers to keep space or limiting the number of people in an elevator.

“We aren’t here to be the police,” Laing said. “But we have to follow the protocols, of course.”

Shore excursions

In addition to mask-wearing, individual ports also determine whether passengers are required to be on ship-sponsored excursions to disembark. Of the three places we visited on Millennium, only one — Barbados — had that requirement. On Apex, there are no ports limiting our movement ashore.

There are also far more tours available on Apex than there were on Millennium. Apex’s options span several pages, while Millennium had only about five choices in each port.

Reservations

Despite the ship’s limited capacity, reservations weren’t required for most things on Celebrity Millennium. However, on Celebrity Apex, we learned that passengers must make appointments to use the onboard fitness center, despite the small number of cruisers onboard.

Fortunately, passengers don’t need tickets for nighttime shows on either ship.

Crew-to-passenger ratio

Celebrity Apex has capacity for 700 more passengers than Celebrity Millennium. On these sailings, each vessel was sailing less than half full. On Millennium, there were about 600 passengers and 700 crew; on Apex, the numbers were more like 700 and 900, respectively.

That means passengers are receiving extra-attentive service, and I have yet to see a queue anywhere.

Related: Go where you want, but wear a mask: The new rules for cruisers in Cozumel

What we’ve seen elsewhere

(Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Gene Sloan, TPG’s senior cruise reporter, just disembarked Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas following the line’s first sailing with U.S. passengers in more than a year. He noted that vaccines were required, but masks were not.

In less than a week, Celebrity Edge will become the first cruise ship to set sail from a U.S. port since the industry shut down in March of 2020. Laing said he currently does not expect passengers to be wearing masks onboard when the vessel departs from Fort Lauderdale on June 26. However, he stressed that nothing is set in stone, and requirements change daily.

Following Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ declaration that businesses cannot make vaccination a requirement for service, it is unclear whether Celebrity and other lines will make it mandatory for passengers to prove they’re inoculated as a condition for boarding. As things currently stand, cruise lines will be fined heavily if they ask for proof.

(Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Celebrity Cruises officials have said they fully expect some agreement to be reached before June 26. Until then, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International will not ask for proof that cruisers have had their shots. However, those who do not volunteer the information will be required to wear masks and take other precautions onboard sailings from Florida.

Royal Caribbean has taken that stance even further by saying it will offer two separate onboard experiences for passengers who prove they’ve vaccinated and those who don’t.

Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Line still says it will require 100% vaccination among passengers, and Carnival has walked back its original stance that it wouldn’t require passengers to have their shots.

Related: These LGBTQ-focused travel companies can help you plan the perfect cruise

Bottom line

What’s important to remember is that these rules are mainly dictated by the ports the ships visit. Requirements for testing, mask-wearing and mandatory ship-sponsored excursions are set forth by the countries where the ports are located.

A great way to figure out the rules for your sailing is to check the official government websites for your ports of call. In addition to telling you what you’ll need to do — obtain a test, provide proof of vaccination, fill out a health form — to enter the country if your embarkation port is a foreign one, that information will also help you to predict whether things like social distancing and mask-wearing will be compulsory onboard.

The key takeaway from this is that no two cruises are the same, especially right now, and passengers should prepare to be flexible. Local regulations and policies are changing all the time as countries reopen, and the rules in place for one cruise might not be the same ones passengers must follow on subsequent voyages.

Featured photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.

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