For just over a year, cruise ships, like everything else, have changed. Fortunately, there are already many cruise lines that are back operating part of their fleet. Still, going on a cruise is different now than it was a couple of years ago, not just because of health and safety restrictions but because of activities and experiences that have changed.
Booking conditions and cancellations
It is normal if booking a cruise at this time causes you more doubts than certainties, especially after hundreds of cruises have been canceled during the last two years. Luckily, cruise lines have anticipated possible changes by modifying the reservation conditions. Now it's easier to find flexible policies that allow us to modify or cancel the reservation in advance. You should bear in mind in most cases you will receive the refund as a future cruise credit.
One of the biggest concerns you could have is knowing what happens if you contract COVID before or during the trip, since it would not be possible to stay on board. The only way to save yourself in such a situation is to have COVID insurance. You will have the chance to get it during the booking process. It is very important since, in the case of getting COVID mid-cruise, it would take over medical expenses, stay, and transfers. Traditional insurance does NOT cover COVID cases, as it is considered an extraordinary situation.
TIP: It is a great moment to take cruises in nearby ports, as the chances of being canceled decrease. They will even more if we avoid flights.
Check-in and embarkation
To reduce crowds, cruise lines are offering to check-in online a few hours before traveling. To do this, we will fill in the personal data and the health forms in which we declare that we have not experienced symptoms in the last few days. Once the check-in is completed, we will receive the documentation we must present on the embarkation day.
The most common now is being assigned a specific embarkation time that is important to respect. Try to contact your cruise line if, for some major reason, it is impossible to attend your time.
Once at the terminal, we carry out an antigen test or PCR, according to each situation or country of arrival. If the test concludes negative, we can embark. If positive, embarking would be denied, and the cruise would be reimbursed. It is recommendable to consult the conditions for each company. In the middle of the cruise, we will have another check test.
NOTE: Bringing a test or vaccination certificate will NOT allow us to avoid the diagnostic test. Despite this, some cruise lines could demand it as an extra requirement to embark. Check the conditions beforehand.
On board restrictions: distance, masks and hand-washing
Once onboard, the rules are very similar to those found anywhere else on land. As soon as we embark, we will notice venues labeled with a maximum capacity (as the ship is). Also, some signs will prevent us from occupying specific seats (such as the bars, for example), and we will find sun loungers already distanced.
The use of face masks is mandatory in all common areas. Obviously we can take them off while drinking or eating, in outdoor areas with proper distancing or in swimming pools or hot tubs (which can only be used with your cabin partners). Normally you will find surgical masks in the Welcome Kit in your cabin. In my case, Costa Cruises left us a pack of 5 they were also sold in bars for 2€ each pack. Across the ship, we find specific disposal points for the masks. Actually, counting the time we spend outdoors or consuming drinks and food on board, wearing the mask is not as overwhelming as it may seem.
Finally, let's talk about hand hygiene. If you are an experienced cruiser, you will already know that there have always been hands sanitizers on board to prevent norovirus, and many ships even have automatic doors in the bathrooms to minimize surface contact. With COVID, it has simply been necessary to reinforce the presence of these dispensers. We will also find daily temperature checks to detect possible symptoms.
One of the main concerns of returning to cruise ships was the inevitable lack of control of passengers passing through different cities every day, increasing the risk of contracting the virus. For this reason, most cruise lines currently only allow descent by getting their own excursions to ensure that everyone complies with sanitary measures at all times.
Although there may be an economic aspect too, it really makes sense since it would not be proper that each of the thousands of passengers on a ship could be in contact with people freely in each port and then embark again.
Excursions are being the biggest challenge for companies, since they are now managing smaller groups, buses with limited capacity and adapting to the restrictions of each port. Some of the reasons that generate more complaints are that excursions have been adapted cutting time or modifying the planned itineraries. In addition, cruise lines excursions have never been exactly cheap. That is why I advise you to think carefully about which ones you want to take and keep on mind you can also enjoy the ship, without having to get off at each and every one of the ports.
TIP: Before booking, check the price of excursions and also if there is any excursion pack. It may not include all of them, but it is a great way to prevent high expenses. In some cases, you could even pay more for excursions than for the cruise itself.
Life on board and experience
As I mentioned before, beyond the sanitary restrictions, more things have changed. Although there are services like buffets are back, parties and other activities may not have returned yet. Some benefits for members like VIP cocktails or ship visits have also been temporarily suspended during my last cruises.
Regardless, based on my experience, I have not noticed any significant changes in the overall experience. It is true that, for example, not being able to dance when the music is playing is quite sad, but it surprises me how they have managed to adapt the entertainment and live music offer. There is always something to do onboard. Shows in the theater proceed normally (with reduced capacity), and it is common to see them repeat so everyone can enjoy. Other experiences such as the Ristorante Lab at Costa Smeralda where you could be a chef for a day (in the MasterChef style) have converted into new proposals, in this case, a Steak House
Keep in mind that there are activities on board that require a reservation, while others are open until maximum capacity is reached. There might be counting systems such as cabin cards scannings at the entrance of venues, and some companies like MSC go even further and use tracking wristbands to detect possible close contacts in positive cases.
If I had to summarize my latest experiences, I would define them as different. I have read comments of all kinds, and there are indeed good and bad things. In my case, think they were positive experiences. I greatly appreciate the fast adaption of cruise lines and the chance of being onboard again. Protocols are very well-defined and some new experiences are good to try. I would recommend going on a cruise now to those who want to enjoy the ship, going down for a couple of days. Go with an open mind and the patience necessary for some ambiguous situations. The best thing is that there are currently great offers, and you have to take advantage of them.
For sure, every day we are one step closer to normality, and we will enjoy the usual vacations with total freedom. Have you already decided to try cruising again?
If you speak Spanish, here is a video about my last two experiences with Costa!