How to cruise in a time of COVID

Going on a cruise during a pandemic comes with a lot of uncertainty. With COVID-19 still surging in many parts of the world and the cruise industry embarking on a measured return to business, many of us are wondering whether it’s safe to set sail again.

Having kept isolated in New York for 15 months due to COVID-19 we badly needed a break and were excited to return to the high seas. At the same time, we were nervous to leave dry land, still remembering the images of the pandemic taking over stranded cruise ships in early 2020.

We eventually bit the bullet and just returned from two back to back cruises – both among the first few to resume following the no-sail-order during the pandemic. We are sharing our experiences and tips with you below.

Cursing in the time of COVID looks and feels quite different but is a very enjoyable and, if done right, safe way to vacation.

The Good

Living in a cruise bubble
As we all know, practically any virus spreads more easily between people in the close quarters aboard cruise ships – not a reassuring thought during a global pandemic. However, with most cruise lines sailing with fully vaccinated crew and passengers, and mandating rigorous testing, cleaning and contact tracing protocols the experience is akin to traveling in a safe bubble. With COVID-19 cases raging in Florida around the time of our departure we actually felt much more safe than on land where we wouldn’t know everybody’s health and vaccination status.

Limited capacity
One of the best perks of these early days of cruising after the industry shutdown is that there’s a lot less people on board. As they kick things off again, cruise ships run at a significantly limited capacity. While neither the Celebrity nor Chrystal cruises we went on divulged any specific cap on the number of travelers, they shared that their cruises ran at around 40% passenger capacity. There were no buffet lines, wait times for entertainment, packed casinos or struggles to find chairs on deck. In fact, a lot of times it felt like we had the ship to ourselves. On our Western Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Edge we sailed with 1200 guests instead of 3000. While island hopping around the Bahamas on Crystal Serenity we only had over 300 fellow passengers on a ship that normally carries almost 1000. The difference is noticeable off board as well, as many tourist destinations visited by cruise lines also have significantly less visitors.

Measures are in place
Cruise lines are going to extreme measures to ensure the safety of guests and crew. Both our Celebrity and Crystal ships had completely overhauled their ventilation systems to ensure no air is re-circulated. Several areas of the ship are reserved as quarantine staterooms in the event that staff or passengers test positive. Testing is mandatory for all passengers prior to getting on board and provided free of charge for those disembarking. Contact tracing measures are in place. For instance, on Crystal we had to wear bracelets with a contract tracing device anytime we left our stateroom. Muster drills – normally a crowded activity – were conducted online, or in case of Crystal, in small groups. Buffets are now staffed by servers and all staff wore masks at all times.
Without these and other precautions we never would have even considered setting foot on a ship.

The bad

There’s a lot of regulation (and it changes all the time)
Each cruise ship and region of the world varies with regards to their rules for cruise ships, passengers and staff. Protocols and local regulations in ports are complicated and ever changing.
For instance, several cruise companies require masks or face coverings in some or all areas of the ship. Some insist on temperature checks or mandatory contact tracing wrist bands when you enter common areas. Some cruise lines mandate vaccines for all passengers and staff, while others allow a small number of unvaccinated guests and again others have no provisions beyond just recommending vaccines.
There are also differences in what vaccines are accepted by cruise lines (some don’t acknowledge mix-and-match vaccinations offered by several countries).
At shore, country regulations vary as well. Several ports only allow passengers to leave the ship for official shore excursions organized by the cruise line. Others, like the Bahamas, require passengers to acquire health visas or register in advance.
Keeping track of all regulations and national guidelines is challenging, especially as they may not add up and constantly change (in some cases even while we were on the ship).

It’s not all smooth sailing
Although the cruise industry is bouncing back, we are far from a full return to “normal.” Even among fully vaccinated passengers and crew, life on board our two cruises didn’t quite feel normal or fully comfortable. Between health screenings, masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing there is a bit of discomfort with regular interactions and activities on the ship.
Once several staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 and were quickly isolated on our Crystal cruise, the anxiety over what would follow was palpable. The ship handled the situation very transparently and immediately adjusted protocols. Luckily, we were safe and tested negative but the thought of actually catching the virus on board and wondering what this would mean was quite disconcerting.

The Bottom line

Be clear of what you are looking for.
If you are ready to cruise, establish what you are comfortable with and book your cruise accordingly.
For us, going on a cruise made up of non-vaccinated passengers was a non-starter, so we looked for cruises that were fully vaccinated and had clear safety protocols in place. If necessary, it’s very helpful to call the cruise lines to ask about their policies and talk through all what if-scenarios.
We preferred to cruise out of the United States, rather than flying to the Caribbean to start the cruise.
We also looked out for cruise lines with solid COVID19-related cancellation policies that would avoid any financial loss for us should something go wrong. The good news is that many cruise lines have great incentives and are sharing the risk so you can have a lot of flexibility (Crystal cruises, to our surprise, was very disappointing in this regard and wouldn’t commit to refund the cost of the cruise should we, for instance, test positive at the terminal or be denied the necessary health visa by the Bahamas).

Roll with the punches
Rules, protocols and maybe even your itinerary will change constantly and at the last minute. In these strange pandemic times, understand that this is inevitable and be prepared to be flexible. Remember that traveling during the lingering days of COVID-19 is a privilege and enjoy this unique moment responsibly.
We had an absolutely phenomenal time on both of our cruises. Being able to return to the seas and to dip our toes into the gorgeous Caribbean waters after a year and a half of isolation in New York was cathartic. If you live cruising, we are certain you will feel the same way.

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