It has been over a year since the last cruise line canceled due to the pandemic that paralyzed its ability to set sail from U.S. ports, leaving cruisers scrambling to receive refunds and rebook their previously scheduled trips for a later date.
Due to mass cancelations in 2020, the cruise industry is now allowing cruisers to book voyages for 2023.
Travel consultant Tamara Jacobs explained, “Cruise lines have put out their 2023 schedule because so many people pushed their trips to the end of 2021 and 2022, since people did not want to schedule too soon from fear of their trips getting canceled [once again].”
Another problem the industry encountered, Jacobs said, was adhering to the mandates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that govern “over the United States and its ports,” not allowing ships to set sail. Instead, “people were flying to St. Martín and the Bahamas to catch their next cruise from there.”
The CDC recommends that, “Since the virus spreads more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships, the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high. It is especially important that people who are not fully vaccinated with an increased risk of severe illness avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises.”
Jacobs, a certified travel consultant with Destinations by Tamara, hopes that cruise lines will stick to the final decision of reopening U.S. ports, like Seattle, Texas and Florida by mid-July, while adhering to the CDC protocols of “updating sanitary guidelines of cleanliness, ship capacity and 95 percent of employees who must be vaccinated.”
While activities and food buffets will continue as normal, “employees will be the ones serving people, rather than the individual serving himself, … promoting a better way of avoiding contact where each person ends up touching the serving utensils.”
Jacobs said it’s up to the individual cruise line whether vaccinations will be mandatory or not. For instance, “Royal Caribbean has reversed its initial decision of mandating 100 percent of their employees and cruisers to be vaccinated.”
Another restriction cruisers may find daunting is that “lines are making it mandatory for cruisers to partake in its excursions [once the ship docks], not allowing travelers to wander off on their own, or use another company for their off-ship tours,” Jacobs said.
For some avid Atlanta cruisers such as Varda Cheskis Sauer, it is less of a problem. “I’ve been cruising for years.” In her experience, there are two types of cruises. “There is cruising if you are going to travel.” Just like the time she sailed to New Zealand, Australia, the Baltics in Russia or the British Isles. “These voyages are different. The ships are bigger, you enjoy the ocean and every morning you wake up in a different coast,” she said. “But then there are the relaxing cruises where you just relax and have fun. You hang out on the ship, sit inside the hot tub and enjoy.”
Sauer believes the travel cruises are the most exciting ones. “It’s just great waking up in a different city.”
A teacher for 24 years at North Springs High School, Sauer admits that Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Solstice are her two favorite cruise lines.
During the pandemic, the retired teacher did away with the refund offered and instead accepted cruise credits for whenever the ships decide to set sail. “I didn’t have the option of a refund because it was so unclear as of how it was working, and it came to the point where I knew that there is no way I’m getting on a cruise ship in August.”
Sauer is one of the lucky ones. She pushed her trip to the end of 2021 and in return, got a deluxe suite and a 12-night cruise to the Caribbean Islands. “But not on the trip of her dreams, Alaska.”
So far, Sauer and her husband have traveled to Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm, Sweden; Tallinn, Estonia; Copenhagen, Denmark. “And the cruise that went to the Baltics was the most incredible destination I’ve ever been on,” she recalled, “I would do it again.”
Despite her optimism about cruising, Sauer shared one concern about traveling. “We are going to sit at a table for two; we will not go into big party areas. In the theaters and concerts, I will wear a mask and will keep my distance,” since she admits owning a variety of facemasks. “Although I am a social butterfly, I will have to keep to myself.”
In terms of those who aren’t vaccinated, Royal Caribbean stated on its website that some of its ships will keep the engagement of non-vaccinators to a minimum, have strict mask mandates and require tables be reserved at designated times in the main dining. For instance, Freedom of the Seas ships, leaving from the port of Miami, require unvaccinated guests to “undergo additional COVID-19 testing at their own expense” and follow specific health protocols based on CDC guidance.
“If you do not wish to undergo or pay for additional testing, or adhere to these health and safety protocols, we are happy to provide you with a refund,” Royal Caribbean states on its website.
A well-traveled Wendy Vitale of Marietta shared how she sails on special family occasions, such as a birthday or anniversary, or even just for the fun of it. The next trip the Vitale family had planned was a cruise to Alaska. It was canceled due to the pandemic that spooked the rest of the world, but Vitale secured a refund.
“We booked the Alaska trip with Holland America Line in January 2020, and right about February or March, Canada had closed its ports for the rest of 2020.
“I couldn’t go next year because I already planned a cruise to Greece,” said Vitale, a senior manager at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers). “It’s too hard to plan two cruises in one year when you have to work.”
Vitale anticipates sailing soon but raises some doubts. “My concern is that they will cut down on the services.”
She said her favorite cruise lines are Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian. “I like how Disney did their cruise,” Vitale said. She hopes to find other cruise lines that offer the same high standards for adults. “There is good and bad in all cruises; ships can be crowded at times and service may be lacking for some.”
Cruise specialist Barbara Diener found that the rules and cancelations during COVID erratic. “Cruise lines have been impossible, making promises that they can’t keep,” she said. A land and cruise specialist from Cruise Planners, Diener recalled that just last week a cruise line canceled her trips. She said that it is “exhausting, disappointing, and it is a lot of work for absolutely nothing.”
Typically, when an agent calls the industry to rebook, it takes up to two hours of wait time for anybody to answer, she continued. “Once you do get someone on the line, they send the paperwork, they get it all wrong and now you find yourself calling them again,” she said.
Nancy Miller has cruised more than a dozen times. The family started making it a priority to cruise together on a regular basis. “In 2015, it was our first grand cruise where we traveled to the Mediterranean Sea, waking up in Spain, then Greece,” she recalled. Miller, who is a paralegal and a retired preschool teacher, said what she enjoys most about sailing is “you just get a small taste of each place. … We got the last taste of it before it all got canceled.”
She booked an Alaska trip for July 2020 — it was on her bucket list — and waited in the hopes it would happen, until it got canceled. Then she rebooked another cruise for the winter with insurance, airfare, excursions and other items on a typical cruise-planning checklist.
“We are prepared for anything; … we will never reach herd immunity vaccinations and if we wait for that, we will be quarantined for life.” So Miller is holding out once more, preferring to enjoy and explore the world than stay put.