I almost canceled a cruise last week due to COVID-19 worries. I’m so glad I didn’t

Sep 1, 2021

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I just got back over the weekend from one of the best vacations that I’ve taken in years.

It’s a trip that I almost didn’t do.

Just days before departing on the week-long getaway — a river cruise in Portugal with my wife and three other couples we’ve known for years — I was ready to pull the plug on it.

I was worried about the surge in COVID-19 cases around the world. I also wasn’t sure the hassle of traveling long distances in this new era of COVID-19 restrictions was worth the payoff of being able to get-away-from-it-all for a few days.

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But as the hours to departure ticked down, I found myself bowing to peer pressure — my wife and our friends still were eager to go — and I made the “no-call,” as they say in basketball, to go along for the ride.

I’m so glad I did.

Traveling to Europe right now isn’t as carefree as it used to be, and it comes with some new risks. But it also offers some new rewards.

The hardest part was getting there

I’ve been no stranger to the new hassles of travel in the past few months. As one of the cruise writers at TPG, I’ve been zipping around the world, from the Bahamas to Greece to Alaska, to write about cruise ships starting back up after many months of shutdown. It hasn’t always been easy.

As I saw on a trip to see a new Atlas Ocean Voyages ship in Greece that ended just five days before my wife and I departed for Portugal, the most nerve-wracking part of many trips right now comes at the very beginning. Greece, Portugal and many other countries are requiring all or at least some Americans to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within two or three days of arrival to visit, and getting such proof isn’t always as easy as one would think.

TPG’s Gene Sloan just returned from a vacation in Portugal that started with a two-night stay in the historic riverfront city of Porto. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Where I live in the relatively unpopulated mountains of North Carolina, the number of COVID-19 testing sites isn’t as widespread as they are in more populated areas, and with COVID-19 surging, the availability of slots for testing has been dwindling. Meanwhile, stores that sell at-home tests in my area are inevitably sold out.

When I went to arrange COVID-19 tests for our Portugal trip, there wasn’t a site within 100 miles that would do a rapid antigen test for days. Luckily, I was able to snag spots for the more involved PCR tests for my wife and me. But with demand soaring, processing times for such tests in my area have been getting longer. We didn’t receive the (negative) results for our tests until just a few hours before we were scheduled to head to the airport for our first flight.

If these test results had arrived just a few hours later, we would have had to cancel the trip.

Once through that hurdle, the next “getting there” challenge was enduring more than 24 straight hours of mask-wearing as we flew from Asheville, North Carolina, to Lisbon, Portugal, to Porto, Portugal — the gateway city for our cruise — and then proceeded by taxi to a pre-cruise hotel.

Wearing a mask for an hour or two while you run errands is one thing. Wearing one for more than 24 hours straight is something completely different. If there is one thing that pro- and anti-maskers probably can agree on, it is that it isn’t particularly pleasant to have a mask on non-stop through an entire day, night and the next day.

TPG’s Gene Sloan boarded an AmaWaterways river ship, AmaDouro (right), in Porto, Portugal, for a week-long trip up the Douro River. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Our 24-plus-hours of travel time was the result, in part, of the COVID-related cutbacks to flight schedules that airlines have made over the past year — another factor making travel to Europe tougher right now. We originally were supposed to get from Asheville to Porto in two flights. It became a three-flight odyssey after United dropped its Newark to Porto route.

Let’s just say that when we finally arrived in Porto, where we spent two nights before joining our friends for the cruise, we were a bit frazzled.

Once there, it was wonderful

Thankfully, the frazzled feeling didn’t last long.

I had booked us a river-view room at 1872 River House, a cozy, eight-room inn overlooking the Douro River, and as we threw open the doors to its French balconies (glasses of complimentary, locally made port in hand), the tension of the lead-up to the trip began melting away.

I’d been to Porto before, for a river ship christening, and knew it was a gem of a city. But it was even more of a gem than I remembered — in part because it was less crowded than normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has been keeping visitors away.

After freshening up a bit, we soon were heading up the Rua das Flores to Fabrica Nortada, a three-year-old brewpub of note (we’re big craft beer fans) where we had our choice of tables to taste its fabulously danky Hoptoplus Imperial IPA.

The lack of crowds was evident again the next morning as we headed to the beach at the mouth of the Douro, about three miles away. We had no trouble snagging a seat on the vintage tram that will take you there for 3 euros, and we pretty much had the beach to ourselves.

Access to wide-open beaches is one of the allures of visiting Porto, Portugal, right now. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

We also had no problem finding tables in the normally bustling bars and port wine houses of Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south side of the Douro, for an afternoon of port wine tasting. Nor did we have trouble getting a romantic table for two overlooking the water at a local seafood restaurant for dinner, despite lacking reservations.

It was as if all of Porto was just waiting there for us to arrive.

This is the payoff to the hassles of traveling right now.

When we moved to our cruise vessel, the AmaDouro, two days later, the experience was much the same. Marketed by California-based AmaWaterways, the gold-painted, two-deck-high ship normally carries 102 passengers up the Douro River at a time to visit the vineyard-lined Douro River Valley. But on our sailing, there were just 35 passengers. In other words, it was just a third full.

The rest had been scared away by COVID.

A passenger watches as AmaDouro passes through a set of locks on the Douro River. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

In fact, there were fewer passengers on board AmaDouro last week than crew. Whether full or not, the ship sails with around 39 crew members on board.

That made for an incredibly intimate experience — one that river cruisers on the Douro have rarely experienced before and are unlikely to experience again.

Notably, our friends group of eight people accounted for nearly a quarter of all the passengers on AmaDouro, and we received incredibly personalized service. During a tour of the historic Spanish university town of Salamanca — the highlight of any Douro cruise — our group had one of the four guides that AmaWaterways normally hires to lead tours entirely to itself. Normally, each guide would be responsible for about 25 people.

The buses that AmaWaterways used to transport us to Salamanca and other sites along the Douro River, meanwhile, were more than half empty. The sites themselves, from palaces to vineyards, were equally uncrowded.

The central square in Salamanca, Spain, was relatively uncrowded when TPG’s Gene Sloan visited last week. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

At the glass-walled dining room on AmaDouro, where fewer than 10 tables were occupied at any given meal, we had a small army of servers that seemed to be there just for us.

A big part of what made this particular trip one of the best my wife and I have taken in years was that we were able to spend time with friends that we had been unable to see during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a chance to reconnect in person in a meaningful way. But the uncrowded nature of the destination for this meet-up also was a significant factor in what made it so wonderful.

It felt safe

As I noted above, I had worries before traveling about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases around the world. Both my wife and I are vaccinated for COVID-19. But with so-called “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 among vaccinated travelers increasingly common, I still had some concern about us leaving home for an extended leisure trip to Europe.

Perhaps my biggest worry was around getting stranded overseas should one of us test positive at some point during the trip. I had just come off a ship in Greece where a vaccinated passenger had tested positive for COVID-19 during routine testing. Despite being asymptomatic, he found himself suddenly stuck in quarantine in Greece, at his own expense, for many days.  

When I travel for work, I take on such risk as part of the job. But the calculus is different for a “nonessential” leisure trip and also for a trip that involves another member of one’s family or friends. The balance of the cost/benefit analysis shifts — at least a bit.

Still, in the end, I concluded that the benefits of this trip outweighed the risks. And my experience during the trip confirmed my thinking.

Among the outings during TPG writer Gene Sloan’s Douro River cruise was a walk up the 686 steps to the hilltop Remedios church in Lamego, Portugal. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

For much of the trip, I was in a quasi-bubble of safety created by traveling on AmaDouro.

Like many cruise companies, AmaWaterways requires that every single passenger on its ships be vaccinated for COVID-19 — no exceptions. As a result, my wife and friends and I knew that all the passengers around us each day in the ships’ restaurant and lounge and out on tours were vaccinated.

The AmaWaterways vessel also operated with a mask-wearing mandate, and mask-wearing also is required just about everywhere you go in Portugal — for now, even on the streets. The crew on AmaDouro wore masks at all times, even when on open decks.

Social distancing rules also were in effect on AmaDouro, including a rule that passengers couldn’t mix and mingle in the dining room. Seating was assigned, and passengers were asked to remain with their traveling parties — in our case, our friends group of eight.

These rules were on top of the fact that, as noted above, everyone arriving in Portugal for a cruise or any other type of trip must show proof of a negative result on a COVID-19 test taken within two or three days of departure (depending on the test type).

As an aside, none of these rules were in place when we originally booked the trip — way back in 2019. Originally, we had been scheduled to take this group cruise in the summer of 2020. But our original departure date was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we rebooked last summer for this year. Even when we rebooked last year, cruise companies had yet to come up with the stringent new health protocols that they now have in place. But we’re glad they did. It was the deciding factor in giving everyone in our group the peace of mind to travel.

Bottom line

I was close to calling off a long-planned vacation last week due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in recent months — and the hassles of travel restrictions related to the illness. But after wavering at the last minute, I went ahead with the trip, and I’m thankful that I did. It was a wonderful outing — a chance to catch up with friends that I hadn’t seen in an extended period due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a chance to see new places in the world.

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Featured image by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.

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