Returning to Cruising: 10 Changes To Cruising Since The Pandemic 

It is said that “good things come to those who wait.” Well, after a full 24-month wait, I think we have waited long enough to return to our favorite vacation and I’m betting that if you love a cruise vacation, you totally agree.

My husband and I finished our last cruise on March 1, 2020, mildly aware of worldwide events. However, a few days after we returned home, a full-fledged, worldwide pandemic shut the cruise industry down. As avid veteran cruisers, we watched in horror as cruise lines parked their ships at ports and anchored them at sea in an unprecedented industry-wide 18-month stoppage.

At long last, we have returned to cruising, CDC warnings, not really neglected, rather taken under advisement.  In fact, as we sailed, the CDC “downgraded” their warning for cruising.   

If you are considering a cruise, know that lingering pandemic conditions could change quickly and cruise lines will no doubt continue to be cautious aboard their ships to keep passengers healthy and their business moving forward.  As we started our first cruise since the pandemic began, we tried to remember that while at home, restrictions like mask mandates and social distancing are being dropped, the cruise industry is closely monitored due to the nature of the closed environment aboard ship and the ease of illness of all kinds to spread.  We expected some new elements to our favorite vacation but were apprehensive about what our trip would be like. 

Whether to return to cruising is a personal decision and for those of you who love to cruise but may have some concerns like we did,  these are 10 pandemic changes that we encountered on our ship that might help you as you consider returning to cruising.   

Beautiful Labadee, Haiti

Covid Testing  

As we considered our return to cruising, our biggest reservation was the pre-travel Covid testing.   

First, this was our first time needing to be tested so the procedure alone was anxiety-inducing for us.  We had concerns around what kind of testing the cruise line would accept, where we could get a test, and if we would have our results in time to board. 

Then, as we got closer to our sailing, our anxiety grew due to reports of limited testing supplies and appointments at the height of the Omicron strain.  Luckily, our cruise line’s website directed us to a company that sold cruise line-approved at-home testing kits.  We were able to complete our testing from the comfort of our home by way of a tele-med visit and within 15 minutes, we had our test results and emails with our documented results ready to present to the cruise line at embarkation.  It was easy, worry-free, efficient, and convenient. 

If your cruise line’s website makes similar suggestions about testing, I would recommend following their recommendation to ensure that this portion of your travel is smooth and worry-free.   

For us, the COVID testing will be a feature of all travel that we will be happy to see come to an end.  However, in the meantime, if you are planning to cruise, be sure that you understand what requirements your cruise line has in place regarding vaccination status for adults and children and COVID testing.  Read and re-read all instructions to be sure you understand and comply with all protocols so you don’t experience a delay or disruption to your embarkation. 

Ready to test so we can cruise

 Cruise Line App 

In pre-pandemic days, our cruise line had been offering an app that could be downloaded to our phones for various purposes on board.  On our last cruise in 2020, the app was limited in functionality so we rarely used it.     

For our return to cruising, our cruise line, Royal Caribbean, strongly encouraged the use of their app.  Many uses will be discussed throughout this blog but some of the features allowed us to make and adjust meal and entertainment reservations. 

For our cruise, the app was more helpful than we had experienced previously.  The app still has room for improvement but it was a nice tool to have aboard our Quantum-class ship.  We anticipate that moving forward, this app will improve and be a more prominent tool for our future cruises. 

Check to see if your cruise line has an app before you sail to see if it is recommended to enhance your trip. 

Royal Caribean’s App

Changes in itineraries  

A few weeks prior to our trip we were notified that our original itinerary, specifically two ports of call, would be changing.  At least one of those was due to the rise in cases of the most recent variant and the port was refusing all cruise ships.  We knew about this situation because we follow the cruise industry carefully so when the cruise line alerted us to the change, we were not caught off guard.  The cruise line found alternate ports and communicated the changes.     

However, as we arrived at our cruise terminal, we were informed that our ship would be adjusting back to our original itinerary.  We didn’t care!  We were just happy to be boarding ANY cruise ship.  For us, where we went really wasn’t what our return to cruising was about. 

The problem with all this flip-flopping of itineraries was shore excursion reservations that many cruisers sometimes make in advance of their trip.  While we had not made any reservations, our fellow cruisers who were planning ahead saw refunds for two sets of excursion reservations and long lines in Guest Services and at the Excursions desk for the first couple of sailing days to address adjustments and deal with a third set of excursion reservations. 

Our advice?  This will hopefully not happen to you but as variants come and go, it is hard to say what additional challenges the cruise lines will encounter.  Go ahead and book the excursions you want but watch carefully for communications from your cruise line and if there is a need to make changes, watch your credit card carefully to make sure that you receive the correct refunds that are due to you.  

Oh, and once onboard, we booked our own excursion through the cruise line’s app.  Easy! 

The beautiful colors of Labadee and St. Maarten

Check-in 

We chose to sail out of Bayonne, New Jersey, an easy ride from home.  Here, we were informed that COVID protocols required “strict” arrival times at the port to allow for staggered embarkation.  We had a great travel day but when we arrived an hour early, we discovered that this “strict requirement” was one that appeared to be relaxed, according to the staff helping us to find our way.   

Remember, the cruise lines used staggered embarkation in pre-pandemic times but I would argue that it never really worked well.   

In theory, staggered embarkation was a good idea to control crowds during a pandemic.  We chose one of the last embarkation time slots-which we liked and will try again-and the crowds at embarkation were noticeably smaller than the pre-pandemic mayhem that the first day of a cruise used to bring.  Ultimately though, I attribute that more to the reduced number of passengers on our sailing. 

While at home, practicing social distancing is growing less and less the norm, be aware that the cruise lines are still talking that talk even if it’s not always consistently practiced.  At embarkation, as part of the cruise line’s social distancing,  we, unfortunately, found ourselves standing in line (not socially distanced), outside, in February.  In our opinion, not a great start and a firm thumbs down from us.  If you are cruising out of Bayonne this winter, be aware and dress accordingly.  Hopefully, those of you sailing from Florida ports this winter did not have this experience. 

Once inside the terminal, we again stood in the zig-zag lines we all know well in cruise terminals.  However, if you are a veteran cruiser who has status with your cruise line, you might look forward to the perk of priority boarding that you’ve earned.  We found this perk currently not being offered for whatever reason.  Another thumbs down from us.  This really isn’t a big deal but for those of us who have earned this perk with the cruise line, just be aware and prepare to stand in line.      

The biggest part of our check-in took place at home!  Royal Caribbean encouraged all passengers to use their app for pre-cruise check-in prior to arriving at the terminal.  This was the method used for uploading important documents and photos that, in pre-pandemic days, were typically collected in person at the terminal.  Uploading all of this in advance helped to make the terminal check-in a bit more efficient, however, we were still asked to present original copies of all vital documents for confirmation.   

If your cruise line offers this type of pre-cruise check-in, be sure to follow the directions and use it as the helpful checklist it turned out to be.   

Safety drill 

The change here is a welcome one!  Here again, we used our cruise line’s app.  For the safety drill, all that was required was watching a safety video, listening to a recording of the emergency alarm that would sound on the ship, and a quick in-person check-in at our assigned muster station once on board.  We did all of this except our muster station check-in before we got to the terminal and once onboard, we stopped by our muster station before heading to find our stateroom.  This was quick, easy, and far better than lining up and standing for 30 minutes for the dreaded safety drill. For this change, we give two enthusiastic thumbs up and would definitely like to see the cruise lines keep this enhancement moving forward. 

The safety drill also involved notifications that came to our phones.  Instead of waiting until we got to the ship, our cruise line was sending countdown reminders marking how long we had to complete our safety drill.  For us, these messages started coming through while we were still over an hour from the terminal.  The reminders are helpful but distracting during travel and difficult to complete fully until onboard the ship.  Our assumption is that the messages started when boarding began, regardless of when our check-in window was set.  If you are sailing on Royal Caribbean, watch for these reminders and complete that safety drill as soon as you can so you can start your vacation. 

Safety first

Mask mandates 

Mask mandates for our cruise were still in place as our vacation started but we were aware that two days later, the cruise line planned to make this mandate an optional one for sailings that followed us.  Masks were required indoors at all times.  I can imagine that no one likes this particular requirement and at least one crew member expressed his wish for the mandate to end.  This is a quickly changing requirement and if you have to wear a mask and where on the ship you may go without one may vary between cruise lines. 

On this point, I recommend staying informed of your cruise line’s requirements. 

Mask mandates also extended to excursions off the ship and the cruise line will ask you to adhere to mandates that are required by local governments.  Tour guides will inform your group when and where a mask will be required.  I would note that social distancing was limited on tours. 

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Sailing sizes and crowds 

To return to cruising, most cruise lines restricted how many passengers would be allowed on each sailing.  For example, our ship, Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas can carry as many as 4,905  passengers.  Our cruise left Bayonne with 2,100 passengers.  This meant fewer crowds depending on what we chose to do and where we spent our day onboard the ship.  Sometimes we felt like all 2,100 of us were in one spot while other times, we felt like we were on the ship all by ourselves.  This is our favorite new aspect of cruising that we will be sorry to see come to an end.   

If you look forward to this nice change, be aware that many restrictions placed on the cruise industry may be expiring soon and the cruise lines anticipate cruising at full capacity again by summer 2022.     

Enjoying a cruise that we almost had to ourselves

Some limited or restricted  onboard ship services

Many onboard services were restricted by requiring reservations.  One notable spot where this happened was in the theatre.  Every show required reservations and vaccination status was a factor in whether you could sit on the balcony level or on the theatre floor. Masks were of course required and passengers were allowed to choose their seats but no additional protocols appeared to be in place such as social distancing except the entire front row at the stage and around the sound booth.  For cruisers who were not vaccinated, there appeared to be social distancing protocols in the theatre but we were not aware of any further restrictions for them elsewhere on the ship. 

Oh, and how did seating by vaccination status work?  At embarkation, vaccinated guests were required to wear a wristband.  When entering the theatre, we needed to present our sea pass to confirm our reservation AND our wristbands were required to be visible.  We were not aware of any similar designation for those that were not vaccinated.  After almost two years to handle this issue carefully, we felt that our cruise line failed here. Before boarding, we were required to upload pictures of our vaccination cards and we had to verify that upload in person at embarkation. Any vaccination designation should have been handled as any private medical information and handled more discretely for all passengers by possibly coding it into our sea pass card in some way.   

The band designated our vaccination status

Another prominent restriction and a great source of frustration for us was not being able to serve ourselves in the ship’s buffet. This was expected and understood to some degree but strangely, my husband found a self-serve coffee spot on board. We didn’t understand how grabbing your own coffee and serving yourself at the buffet differed.  This was an area of inconsistency in protocols that we noticed that seemed strange and might be an area of concern for some. 

Lack of spontaneity  

As veteran cruisers, we started to see an industry push for dining reservations in specialty restaurants and shows prior to the start of the pandemic, especially on the larger ships.  The one thing we liked about this was that we were ensured the ability to dine in that specialty restaurant we wanted to try or see that new show without having to fight a crowd.  On the other hand, we did not like having to over-schedule our cruise vacation. 

On this first cruise following the shutdown, reservations were slapped on nearly every aspect of our cruise.  We heard fellow cruisers moaning about this and we agreed.  These restrictions, while understood within reason, removed what we loved most about cruising, the spontaneity of our vacation, and doing what we wanted, when we wanted.  One example that we heard on our ship was from some fellow cruisers who wanted to enjoy the bumper cars.  When they went to the venue, early one Saturday morning, they found no other passengers there but they were turned away because they did not have a reservation.  That just seems a bit excessive and unnecessary.     

Thankfully, one notable event that we did not need to make a reservation for was the 2022 Big Game Sunday. Big screens all over the ship played the game so we didn’t miss a single touchdown! 

Social Distancing  

As noted already, we experienced some areas where social distancing was a thing and not so much for others.  One spot where we found it be a thing was in the ship’s buffet and main dining room.  The main dining room did not seem to follow this policy and we sat closer to fellow cruisers there.  But in the buffet, tables were “reserved” to encourage social distancing and it could often be as difficult to find a table at which to eat as it is when the ship’s capacity is full.  By mid-cruise, these signs were regularly dismissed as we all chose to sit where we wished.  Hopefully, the social distancing thing can start to be more relaxed as restrictions on cruise lines ease.   

One pleasant social distancing feature was the limit on how many passengers could be in an elevator at one time.  For our ship, the magical number was six.  We witnessed one passenger who barked at others when the elevator capacity went above the set number and others who asked if they could join us or if we would mind an extra person.  For the most part, riding the elevators was not an issue.  Temporarily gone are the pre-pandemic rushes into the elevators with 20 of your closest new friends.  Another thumbs up from me! 

Constant reminders

Should you consider a cruise? 

We are very happy to be back to cruising.  We never felt uncomfortable on our cruise except when having to wear a mask in the tropical heat.  We came home healthy and relaxed.   

If you are thinking about booking a cruise, my advice would be to go for it if you feel comfortable doing so.  Educate yourself on the most recent protocols for the ship on which you plan to sail and monitor those protocols for changes as your trip approaches.  The cruise line communicated well regarding requirements and their website was a good resource when needed.  If you feel like you need extra support to navigate the requirements of lingering COVID protocols, another great resource would be a travel professional who should be able to help you book your cruise and help with up-to-date information on protocols.  Also, be aware of your cruise line’s policy regarding cancelations or the ability to move your cruise if you need to due to illness.  As the pandemic situation changes, the cruise line policies too have been changing and there are deadlines to make changes to your cruise reservation so be sure to understand those policies before putting down a deposit. 

What to expect in a nutshell 

If you are a seasoned cruiser who has not yet returned to cruising, my advice would be to expect things to be different than your pre-pandemic cruise and expect the unexpected!

Most importantly, no matter your viewpoints on the pandemic, vaccinations, and other related protocols, do what you can to be flexible and go with the flow.  I have always said that traveling of any kind requires a degree of flexibility and respect of others.  Understanding that we are living in uncertain and sometimes unpredictable times is key to our lives right now, even on vacation.  

It is really nice to be back to something that feels so familiar. 

Enjoy your cruise vacation!  You’ve earned it! 

Now to figure out where are we going next!