Will Cruising Ever Return to Normal?
Some things may never go back to the way they were: bye-bye serve-yourself buffets
In 2019, I discovered the joy of ocean cruising. I love the all-inclusive food and drink packages, the myriad of entertainment and the opportunity to experience different ports of call — often seeing several different countries in a week or less.
I enjoyed my first cruise so much, I booked another to a different part of the Caribbean and bought a discount package for more cruises before I even left the ship.
Two short months later, COVID changed the world, both on land and at sea. The cruise industry shut down and my second planned excursion in 2020 was cancelled.
Since then, my travel buddy Jeanie and I scrapped our plans for a second Caribbean cruise and decided instead on an Alaskan trip scheduled to set sail in September of this year.
"What? I wouldn't be caught on one of those floating petri dishes," many friends and family told me. When COVID numbers spiked again this past spring, we decided to re-book our Alaskan cruise, this time for September 2023.
Signs of a (Slow) Recovery
Since that time, Jeanie has had COVID, and with the reported easy transmission of the latest variant I'm leery once again about being out and about too much. However, it seems we are in the minority of cruise passengers.
Writers and others who track the industry for a living say that people are returning to this form of travel, an observation supported by financial filings by the three biggest cruise lines. Carnival was back to 69% of capacity at the end of May, the end of its most recent quarter, up from 31% a year earlier; Royal Caribbean was at 82% of capacity at the end of June, up from 27.5%; and Norwegian Cruise Lines was at 64.6%, compared with 58.1% a year ago.
"I wouldn't be caught dead on one of those floating petri dishes," many friends and family told me.
"For the most part, everyone is thrilled to be back, and crew and passengers alike want to make it work," says David Yeskel, travel journalist and cruise expert for Cruise Guru, based in Santa Monica, California.
People may be returning in part, due to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) dropping its risk advisory for cruise ship passengers in March and issuing new guidelines in July.
Susan Stafford, co-founder of The Event Architects in Tallahassee, Florida, which books many event cruises for clients, says she was on cruises in November 2021 and April 2022. Although the cruises were just five months apart, there was a world of difference.
Improving the Passenger Experience
In November, Stafford says, all passengers were required to mask and maintain social distancing while in any public space on the ship. Stafford adds the cruise in November wasn't as much fun as those pre-COVID. "They were at fifty percent capacity and there just wasn't the energy you find and love on ships," she says.
"They want to stay in business, their priority is rebuilding their reputation."
By April, however, the cruise line she sailed on (and declined to name) had relaxed its mask and some social distancing restrictions and streamlined vaccination requirements and boarding protocols.
"Three years ago, if you'd cruise, you check in at the dock and get your keys there," Stafford says. "They now don't want that many people herded into a waiting area together, so many allow you to check in and collect your key cards that are hanging on the door of your room."
Ramping Back Up, Cautiously
Most cruise lines also have digitalized the proof of vaccination documentation (although some still require you to show a hard copy at check-in) and negative COVID test results, which must be done 48 hours before boarding. The tests can be self-administered but must be remotely monitored.
For now, at least, passengers should prepare to produce proof of vaccination. Stafford says cruise lines currently allow few exemptions. The CDC recommends between 90% to 95% percent of passengers be vaccinated.
"I did find with the loosening of restrictions, we were treated much more like adults on the April cruise," says Stafford. The cruise line she was on had also increased capacity to 75%, giving passengers the opportunity for more social interaction and shared energy one expects of the cruising experience. "It still wasn't crowded, but there were enough people to make it fun."
Stafford did note that on-ship stores no longer carry pain medication.
"If you have a headache, they don't want you taking a Tylenol," she says. "They want you to visit the infirmary immediately."
Medical experts mostly agree that COVID-19 and its variants are likely to be around for a long time, if not forever, much like the flu virus. Those who specialize in cruises say they expect cruise lines will keep protocols, at least for the next few years.
So Long, Self-Serve
According to Yeskel, changes have been made to the self-service buffets that allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers to step up and use the same serving utensils. "Some cruise lines have moved to having crew serve guests at the buffet, and others have implemented a modified hybrid policy - with some items full-service and others self-service," he says.
Buy cruise travel insurance and make sure the policy covers COVID-related illness.
While most cruise lines have relaxed mask rules, many still require staff to always wear them and passengers to keep them on in crowded theaters and other cramped spaces. "They want to stay in business, their priority is rebuilding their reputation," says Stafford. Some cruise lines have already committed to, or have installed, fresh air filters.
The CDC believes that cruise operators have the tools needed to prevent and manage coronavirus transmission on their ships so it recently shut down a digital dashboard that tracked viral outbreaks throughout the industry.
Tips from a Professional
Still, it can pay to be cautious, especially when traveling abroad. Jeremy Clubb, founder of Rainforest Cruises, which puts together small ship and river cruise packages, offers these suggestions to help you enjoy your cruise to the fullest:
- Read the guidelines for the cruise line, CDC and the countries in which you will be in port. Expect to be required to take a COVID test 48 hours before boarding, produce vaccine records and be thermally scanned on boarding (and perhaps again each time you return from a port).
- While many ships no longer require masks, use your best judgement to protect yourself by wearing them in crowded rooms, restaurants, shows and elevators.
- Anticipate airport check-in and cruise embarkation delays and give yourself plenty of time.
- Buy cruise travel insurance and make sure the policy covers COVID-related illness.
- Sail on ships, whether large or small, that have ample outdoor deck space with al fresco dining options and plenty of social areas outside.
- Prepare for canceled excursions. Clubb says many trips to tribal areas of the Amazon have been scuttled due to the risk of exposing unvaccinated indigenous people to COVID.
- Private cruises for family and corporate groups are becoming more popular. If you can afford it, check into this option.