Cruising is restarting in the US this week — and I’m going to check things out

Mar 19, 2021

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Don’t look now, but the comeback of cruising is, finally, upon us.

Yeah, I know: Most cruises around the world remain on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many of the world’s biggest cruise lines haven’t operated a single departure since early 2020 and already have canceled all or most future departures as far out as June.

But little by little, cruising has been starting back up in small pockets around the world — from the waters around Singapore to, just this week, the Mississippi River.

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Cruise fans are no longer locked out of watery getaways, though the choices are still limited — particularly if you’re an American. Most of the cruise vessels that have restarted operations are in Asia and Europe and only taking bookings from local residents.

But as I’m about to show you in the coming days, it’s no longer impossible for an American to take a cruise that’s relatively close to home.

That’s right, The Points Guy’s cruise guy is heading back on the water.

On Sunday, I’ll be boarding one of the first vessels to restart sailings on the Mississippi River — the 245-passenger paddlewheeler, American Countess — as a guest of the cruise line.

Related: The 10 most exciting new river ships of 2021

Scheduled to be christened on Sunday in New Orleans, American Countess is the newest paddlewheeler from river line American Queen Steamboat Company, which is just restarting operations on the Mississippi River this week.

In a milestone for the comeback of cruising in North America, American Queen Steamboat’s 166-passenger paddlewheeler, American Duchess, pulled out of New Orleans on Monday on a chartered, seven-night sailing to Memphis. It was the first river cruise to take place in U.S. waters in more than a year.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

The 166-passenger American Duchess paddlewheeler restarted operations on the Mississippi River this week. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company)

On Sunday, American Countess and an American Cruise Lines vessel, the 190-passenger American Jazz, will become the second and third vessels to restart operations on the Mississippi. Like American Duchess, both vessels initially will sail week-long trips between New Orleans and Memphis.

In another sign of a cruising comeback, American Cruise Lines this week also has restarted sailings along the intracoastal waterways of Georgia and South Carolina with its 100-passenger vessel, Independence.

Together, the American Queen Steamboat and American Cruise Lines sailings mark the first sustained restart of cruising in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic began. One other small-ship line, UnCruise Adventures, attempted to resume cruises in Alaska in August. But it aborted the attempt after just three days when a passenger tested positive for COVID-19. There also was some multiday cruising last summer along the coast of Maine on very small sailing vessels, but the offerings were very limited.

The comeback of river and intracoastal cruising in U.S. waters is occurring amidst a rapid rise in the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the country and falling COVID-19 case counts, and it mirrors the reopening of other types of travel in many U.S. states.

As noted above, it also mirrors a budding comeback of cruising in some other parts of the world. In recent weeks:

  • Israel has given Royal Caribbean a green light to begin Mediterranean cruises from the country in May, citing rising vaccination rates and falling COVID-19 case counts. The trips will be for locals only.
  • The United Kingdom, also citing positive numbers, has given cruise lines permission to start U.K.-focused cruises out of the country’s ports in May. The trips also will be for locals only.
  • Greece has said cruises to the country could resume in May.

Cruising also has resumed in recent months in a very limited way out of Italy and in the Canary Islands.

All of the lines that have restarted operations or plan to restart soon are doing so with a long list of new health protocols aimed at reducing the chances that COVID-19 could spread on vessels.

American Queen Steamboat, for instance, is testing all passengers for COVID-19 before they board, and passengers will undergo temperature checks. There also will be a mask-wearing requirement on board the vessel.

In addition, all the air conditioning systems on the company’s vessels have been refitted with disinfecting ultraviolet lighting systems, and the vessels will be sailing 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.

Starting in July, American Queen Steamboat also will require that all passengers show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before boarding. The line was one of the first to announce such a measure.

The vessels that American Queen Steamboat and American Cruise Lines are starting back up are so small, they aren’t covered under the current cruising restrictions imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has kept cruise lines that operate big ships from sailing from U.S. ports for the past 12 months. And, even with case counts falling across the country, the agency isn’t expected to allow big ships to resume sailings in U.S. waters for at least several more months. But the CDC’s prohibition on cruises doesn’t apply to small vessels of the sort operated by American Queen Steamboat and American Cruise Lines.

Related: In a bid to restart voyages, this cruise line is planning all-Bahamas sailings

Instead, lines that operate small vessels on U.S. waterways need approvals to operate from various states and local port towns that their vessels visit — approvals that the lines now have in hand.

With as few as 50 rooms each and a cruising style that often finds them tied up along the waterfront of a U.S. town or city, American Queen Steamboat and American Cruise Lines vessels are more akin to boutique hotels than traditional cruise ships. Many hotels in the country, of course, have been open for many months.

The first sailing of American Countess beginning on Sunday will be a non-revenue “preview” cruise for company employees, their friends and family, and travel and local officials. But it has been designed to be similar to the ship’s regular sailings with paying passengers, which will begin on March 27.

What will it be like cruising in U.S. waters in this new era of coronavirus? Will new health protocols such as mask-wearing requirements affect the onboard experience? I hope to answer these questions and many more in the coming days.

I’ll post live from the ship starting on Sunday. To see all my posts, check back regularly at my author’s page here at TPG.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company

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