Following a Covid-induced shut down in March of 2020, most cruise lines returned to service last year with varying health and safety protocols for passengers that seem to change by the month. The results have been mixed.
After cancelling several cruise vacations during the peak of Covid, we were delighted when passenger ships began returning to the seas in the latter half of 2021. Sure, the onboard experience would be different than pre-Covid, but with the wide availability of vaccines and infection rates waning, my wife Gail and I felt the new health protocols would be easy to manage, uniformly enforced, and help to make our voyage safe and enjoyable.
So far, the results have been a mixed bag.
Our first post-Covid cruise experience took place last December with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) on an Eastern Caribbean sailing aboard the Encore from Miami. We had booked the cruise many months in advance after receiving our second vaccine dose, as being fully vaccinated was a requirement. “Great,” we thought. “We qualify and don’t need to do anything else.”
A few months before the cruise was about to depart, NCL notified us that not only did we need to be double vaxxed, but they would not accept AstraZeneca as one of the doses. Unfortunately, like many Canadians we had received one dose of Pfizer and one dose of AstraZeneca, making us ineligible to board the ship. To make matters worse, a third vaccine dose of Pfizer was still not available to us in the province where we lived — Ontario.
We were about to cancel the cruise, lose our airfare, and leave our friends who were taking it with us in the lurch when a friend told us that the Province of Quebec was giving a third vaccine dose to people who needed it for international travel. So, we drove to Montreal, and got the second dose of Pfizer that made us eligible for the NCL cruise. Crisis averted!
A month later NCL changed its rules again and decided it would now accept AstraZeneca as a legitimate vaccine dose. Oh, well.
Since the cruise was departing from the US, we also needed proof of a negative Covid test within 48 hours of boarding our flight from Toronto to Miami. One more hurdle, but easy enough to jump over.
When we arrived at the pier to board the ship, there was a huge line of people waiting to get the mandatory Covid test provided by the cruise line before boarding the ship (our negative tests taken the day before were of no interest to NCL). We wouldn’t have minded waiting over an hour in the sun for our new tests, but about 20 per cent of the people in line with us were not wearing masks, including some nearby us.
The good news is that we both passed the Covid tests, and we were let on the ship where wearing masks was optional in most locations. Two weeks later as a new strain of Covid spread, NCL changed the mask rules again and made them mandatory in most places. It has changed them again since then. At least we didn’t have to go through daily temperature checks and more Covid tests to go ashore in ports of call.
We had a similar bewildering experience in February when we cruised the Caribbean with Seabourn from Barbados.
Before boarding the Odyssey, we were given pier-side Covid tests, which we passed. We were then allowed to board the ship but wearing a mask was required in all public areas. On board, we were then informed that several of the ports on our itinerary were not accepting cruise ship passengers, or that we could only visit them on excursions organized by Seabourn. In other words, no going ashore on our own in most ports. We also had to have Covid tests on board before visiting some ports, and before getting off the ship at the end of the cruise.
In addition, rules and protocols changed during our three-week cruise. For example, one morning it was announced that we no longer had to wear masks in most public areas. And as the cruise went on, some ports that had previously been unavailable for us to visit were suddenly available (the list of ports changed weekly).
Since this cruise, rules and protocols have continued to change, and uncertainty continues to reign.
For example, we recently embarked on our third post-lockdown cruise, this time in Iceland with Silversea. Before the cruise started, the Silversea health and safety protocols changed several times, including the availability of pier-side testing and the acceptable time span for proof of a negative Covid test before boarding.
Silversea was providing pier-side Covid testing to passengers but stopped in June. Now, passengers must show up with their own negative Covid test and it they don’t, they won’t be allowed to board the ship. Furthermore, up until a few weeks ago Silversea required that passengers get a Covid test no more than three days before embarking on a cruise, and now it is 72 hours before the time a passenger boards the ship. And, once on board, passengers were previously required to have their temperature checked daily by their butler, a rule that has since been dispensed with (at least for the time being).
In addition, Silversea’s current rules on our ship (Silver Whisper) only require passengers to wear masks on tenders, tour buses, the casino and in the show lounge. However, the mask rule is rarely enforced and about 15 to 20 per cent of passengers ignore it. Furthermore, all food selections at the breakfast and lunch buffets must be served to guests by a crew member to keep the serving spoons germ free – a policy that has been rigorously applied on our cruise.
There are also no live port lectures on our cruise, even though we are visiting many out-of-the-way places that would benefit from them (the port lecturer tested positive for Covid and was not able to join the ship). Instead, we have previously recorded lectures from another cruise that had a similar itinerary. However, the lectures are hard to find on the interactive TV system on the ship, which means many people miss them. And there is no opportunity to ask questions of the port lecturer.
With almost all cruise ships if you test positive for Covid while on board, you will be confined to a cabin (sometimes in a special quarantine section of the ship), and not let out until you test negative or the cruise comes to an end. As of today (July 25), we have more than 20 people in quarantine on our ship who tested positive for Covid. And, if there is a widespread Covid outbreak on a ship, or if countries on the itinerary require it, the mask wearing policy can change overnight, leaving passengers who chose a cruise because they did not want to wear masks now having to do so everywhere on the ship.
In addition, spa appointments and entertainment can be cancelled on short notice if a crew member becomes sick or was in close proximity to someone who was ill. This has already happened on our cruise when a hairdresser cancelled her appointments for “a medical emergency” that lasted five days. Furthermore, on our ship, people who have been in close contact with passengers who tested positive for Covid are required to wear an N-95 mask for several days afterwards and get retested.
None of this should be interpreted as criticism of NCL, Seabourn, Silversea or any other cruise line employing Covid-related health and safety protocols. Cruise lines are doing their best to cope with changing circumstances related to Covid, and many of these circumstances are beyond their control.
However, the changing protocols employed by cruise lines and the related uncertainty will continue to produce some good, bad, and ugly effects for passengers. If you can live with this uncertainty and are willing to cope with the related impacts, then sit back and get ready to enjoy seeing the world by cruise ship again. If not, you may want to stay in dry dock a little longer.
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