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Why The Points Guy's cruise expert isn't shying away from cruising

March 07, 2020
14 min read
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In just four months, I'll be traveling through the famously scenic Douro River Valley in Portugal on a cruise ship, visiting vineyards, tasting locally made wines and touring historic villages.

Or, at least, that's the plan.

My wife and I, and almost a dozen of our closest friends, began talking about a group trip on the Douro River nearly two years ago. We've been booked on a July sailing of a small AmaWaterways vessel (and fully paid up with the line) for nearly a year.

For now, despite the growing panic over the coronavirus outbreak, we're not making any changes to our plan.

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I lived through (and covered) the outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 influenza and Ebola in 2003, 2009 and 2014, respectively. I also lived through (and covered) the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 economic collapse. As someone who has written about cruising for more than 20 years, I've gotten an up-close view of the way these events can affect the traveling public.

In each case, there was at least a bit of concern, sometimes a lot, and would-be travelers froze -- in some cases, just for a few days; in other cases, for weeks or months. Bookings plummeted. Cancellations poured in. At times, it felt like the world was coming to an end.

It turns out the world didn't come to an end. We're still here.

As noted, my cruise still is roughly four months away. A lot can happen in four months.

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It may very well be the coronavirus outbreak blows up into a major pandemic by July that affects hundreds of millions of people. It could prompt governments to put in place extraordinary measures that make it impossible for me and my friends to travel to Portugal. It might even be that some cruise vessels around the world stop sailing for a time while the virus runs its course.

But it also might be that the virus already is well on its way to waning by July, or turns out to be less serious than it now seems.

Whether or not you cancel a cruise — or any travel, for that matter — planned for the coming months is a personal decision. There are many good reasons not to travel right now, not just by cruise ship but by airplane, train or bus. If you have a trip scheduled for the next week or two, you're clearly in a different situation than I am, given my trip is four months away. But, for now, I don't see a good reason for us to cancel our long-made plans for a July cruise getaway.

Here's how I'm making this decision:

I am assuming the world will not end

I am not naive: I am operating under the assumption that world health authorities have lost control of the virus. It will not be contained, and I don't discount some of the worst-case scenarios that it could infect tens of millions of Americans.

But I'm also betting that it'll run through the population over the next few months, for better or for worse, and life soon will begin to return to normal.

I'm also not nearly as afraid of contracting the coronavirus as many people I know.

Maybe this will be like the first year of the H1N1 outbreak, during which nearly 61 million Americans were infected and more than 12,000 Americans died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Maybe it'll be much worse, like the "Spanish flu" of 1918, which reportedly killed at least 500,000 Americans.

But, either way, I am taking the word of health experts such as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head, Anthony Fauci, who are saying the vast majority of Americans who get this new coronavirus will experience a relatively mild illness.

I am relatively young, healthy and fit. I don't have a chronic illness of the sort that health experts have flagged as a danger. I'm not going to hide away from the world for the next year on what from all accounts seems to be a very small chance that I'll get a more serious form of the illness.

The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan at the christening of a Viking river ship in 2018. Gene has traveled to 87 countries and sailed on more than 150 cruise vessels.
The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan at the christening of a Viking river ship in 2019. Gene has traveled to 87 countries and sailed on more than 150 cruise vessels. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

In that sense, I am taking a calculated risk, something that I do all the time as someone who loves to travel the world. I have visited 87 countries over the past couple of decades, including many with serious endemic illnesses such as Japanese encephalitis, malaria, typhoid, rabies and yellow fever. Malaria alone kills nearly 600,000 people a year.

It's true that there are preventative measures for many of the above illnesses. I get a typhoid vaccine every few years, and I always take malaria pills when I'm in a country with malaria. But these preventative measures often aren't surefire fixes. Typhoid vaccines, for instance, only are about 80% effective.

There is risk to everything in life. But living in a bunker is not the answer.

By July, I figure, I'll either have had coronavirus or I won't have had it. It'll either have blown up or it won't have blown up. But, either way, I'll be more than ready for a cruise.

For now, of course, the outbreak of the virus in the U.S. remains small. As of Saturday morning, there had been just 17 deaths attributed to the illness in the country. By comparison, the CDC estimates there have been as many as 46,000 deaths from influenza in the U.S. since early October. That's one more piece of context that is in my mind.

I do want to stress that if I were older, infirm, immunocompromised or had a chronic illness, I would surely feel very differently about the idea of travel in the coming months. I also can sympathize with people who don't want to be far from family members at a time like this. A fellow staffer here at The Points Guy who helps care for two elders in her family just canceled a cruise scheduled for May. I think that makes perfect sense.

As I mentioned above, I do think everybody needs to regard their own comfort level before making a decision to travel right now, and anybody with concerns should consult a medical professional. I also want to emphasize that I have no intention of traveling if I become sick myself. I wouldn't want to put others with whom I come in contact at risk.

Related: The extreme measures cruise lines are taking as coronavirus spread

I trust my cruise line

Maybe I am all wrong about the long-term trajectory of the illness. Maybe, by July, the world will have devolved into some sort of dystopian "Mad Max" situation where people are fighting over the last N95 mask.

It that's the case, I am confident that my line, AmaWaterways, will do right by me, and let me cancel or postpone my trip. AmaWaterways is known for treating its customers right.

As I wrote about more than a year ago, AmaWaterways was one of the lines that was most flexible with customers during the disruptions to river cruises that occurred due to low water levels in 2018. The line gave passengers generous future cruise credits -- 15% of the amount they paid for their cruises -- for each day they experienced a disruption on a voyage.

This is one of the reasons my group booked with AmaWaterways. Several of the other people in our group had been on an AmaWaterways voyage in 2018 that was disrupted by low water, and they were impressed with how the line handled the situation.

The AmaWaterways ships AmaVida sailing on the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways)
The AmaWaterways ships AmaVida sailing on the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways)

If it's truly unsafe to travel come voyage time, I am sure AmaWaterways will not force me to go.

This raises a topic that I often bring up with people who ask me about which line to book: It always pays to do your homework before picking a company. Don't just book the cruise that is cheapest. Book on a line that has a good reputation, something you can learn by talking (and booking with) an experienced travel agent who specializes in cruises.

I don't have a fear of being quarantined

One of the big fears I think many people have about cruising right now is the fear of getting stuck on a ship. The much-publicized outbreak of coronavirus on a Princess Cruises vessel in Japan last month -- and resulting multiweek quarantine of passengers -- has come to define the sort of worst-case scenario that someone who goes ahead with a cruise in the coming weeks and months might face.

It's absolutely legitimate to worry about this sort of thing happening to you. But, it's good to put it into perspective. In any given month, there are well more than 1,000 cruise departures around the world. In the past six weeks, as coronavirus has been exploding around the globe, just two departures have been affected by an extended quarantine.

Related: What to do if you're stranded abroad during a crisis

We may very well see more such quarantines. As of Saturday morning, passengers on another Princess Cruises ship, Grand Princess, were awaiting news of whether they would be quarantined in the wake of a coronavirus outbreak on the vessel. But I don't expect many more. The quarantine of the Princess ship in Japan, Diamond Princess, was too big of a disaster for any level-headed government to want to repeat it.

We may see more quarantines of travelers in other settings, of course, and I'm not discounting the possibility that I could be caught up in one. But I think the odds are lower than many people might think.

That said, I will take precautions when I leave home. As I discussed in my recent story on ways to prepare for any kind of travel disaster, it's always a good idea to travel with your work computer, even when on vacation (assuming you have the sort of job you can do with nothing more than a MacBook). You never know when you'll be stuck somewhere and unable to get back to the office. It's also always a good idea to carry extra medications and other essentials.

I don't mind missing a port

One other big fear I think many people have right now is that of being on a ship that is turned away from a port. We've seen that happen a few times in recent weeks.

This, too, needs to be put in perspective. There are hundreds of cruise ships sailing around the world this week, and the vast majority of those vessels have seen no impact on their schedules from coronavirus fallout. The cases of ports blocking ship arrivals that we've seen in the media are the outliers, not the norm. That's why they made the news. They are, as we like to say, "man bites dog" situations.

This could change, of course. It could be that more ships begin to be turned away from ports. If this becomes commonplace, that would be a good reason to think twice about going ahead with a cruise.

Much of my trip is easy to cancel

It may seem like a little thing, but when scheduling a vacation, I always try to book flights and hotels that are easy to cancel at the last minute. That way, if something goes wrong and I need to pull out of a trip on short notice, I'm not out a huge amount of money.

To that end, I often try to use points and miles to book the bulk of my flights and hotels when planning a leisure trip, just as I did with this particular itinerary.

For air, I booked nonstop flights from New Jersey's Newark International (EWR) to the airport for Porto, Portugal (OPO), for both me and my wife on United using United MileagePlus miles.

At the time that I made the booking, last fall, I was Premier 1K on United, which meant I could change or cancel these flights at any time without penalty. For 2020, I have slipped to Premier Platinum (for the first time in nearly a decade; yes, I am in terrible Premier 1K withdrawal). At the Premier Platinum level, I can change or cancel these flights up to 61 days before departure for no fee. Closer to departure, I'll pay a $50 fee.

Either way, the most I could lose here by canceling is $100 for the two of us.

In making the flight bookings many months ago, I built in three extra nights for a hotel stay along the coast of Portugal in advance of our cruise. I had no idea where it would be, but I knew that I'd want to relax for a few days along a beach -- why not?

The good news is that, despite great intentions to research the perfect place with months to spare, I have yet to get organized about locking something down. What luck! In this case, procrastination is my friend.

For now, I'll be holding off on booking that beach hotel. I have a feeling plenty of rooms will open up in the coming weeks.

Related: How a global outbreak has left the travel industry reeling

Bottom line

Right now, we're in the middle of a storm. And when you're in the middle of a storm, it's sometimes hard to believe that the skies ever will clear. But they will.

If you're uncomfortable cruising in the current climate of coronavirus fear, you should feel no shame in just saying no to your upcoming trips. For some people that health officials have identified as the most at risk from the illness -- older people and those with underlying health conditions, for instance -- it is surely not a good time to travel. But for me, at least, this is not a time to pull back from my one great love, which is exploring the world. At the very least, I see no reason not to hold off a bit before making any drastic changes to my plans.

I suspect that, as it has so many times in the past, the ancient Persian adage will hold: "This too shall pass."

Planning a cruise for 2020? Find everything you need to know here:

Featured image by The AmaWaterways ships AmaVida sailing on the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways)