Snowbird Savvy: What You Need to Know About Cruising in COVID Times
From COVID-19 screening to limitations on independent exploration at ports, we take a look at what you can expect in your return to cruising. Photo: Lisa Strachan/Getty Images
Cruise lines have invested millions — as well as their reputations — in providing safe sailing environments to raise people’s confidence in cruising. In a review of reputable lines that are registered with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) this writer learned that while stringent protocols are mandatory for all CLIA-associated lines, certain ports of call demand extra precautions.
Full Vaccination Mandatory
Eager to sail to a warm clime, feeling confident in my own well-being — having received three vaccines (including booster) plus the seniors flu shot — I admittedly felt apprehensive of entering an environment beyond my control. So, I carefully scrutinized the health protocols of Royal Caribbean International before booking on the line’s new Odyssey of the Seas, a mega-ship the size of three football fields, no less.
I learned that every crew member is fully vaccinated, tested several times weekly and forbidden to go ashore except to RCI’s private island. Passenger embarkation is strictly monitored at the cruise terminal with pre-board screening. Everyone over 12 must produce proof of having received two vaccines at least 14 days prior to embarkation, plus proof of a recognized, negative COVID-19 result received prior to embarkation, no more than 48 hours for the antigen test and 72 hours for PCR. Children under 12 must produce valid proof of negative results received 72 hours prior to boarding, and are tested again at the gangway. Should an unfortunate child surprisingly test positive, the parents and entire family will be turned away.
Be Prepared for Spontaneous Testing
For my upcoming cruise on Silversea’s new Silver Moon, sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Panama, I just learned that even though I will have proof of a negative antigen test taken at the appropriate time in Toronto, I will be re-tested at the ship’s gangway before boarding.
Read the Fine Print
As the coronavirus appears unexpectedly, most cruise lines offer flexible or “worry-free” promises so passengers may be rest assured about the safety of their holiday. Before booking, read the specific ship’s cruise contract, as ships differ on details.
Some ships mandate masks be worn both indoors and out, unless the passengers are eating or drinking. Some insist on masks indoors only, while others allow passengers (excluding those under 12) to be unmasked at all times.
Testing and Contact Tracing on Board
Certain ships have onboard testing on a regular basis, particularly during certain itineraries. For example, my American friend, Judi Cuervo, an avid cruiser who recently sailed two Mediterranean itineraries on the Viking Star and Viking Venus, described her daily PCR testing.
“Every morning, each guest and crew member completed a health questionnaire and spit in a labelled test tube that was soon collected by the cabin steward, and delivered to the ships’ on-board lab for analysis. I haven’t spit so much since I was six, but after a few days, it became second nature.”
As well, each guest had daily temperature checks and wore a contact tracing device to monitor interaction with others.
As I write this article, contact tracing devices like those worn by Viking and Seabourn passengers, are becoming more common, along with secondary screenings to thwart COVID. Passengers who exhibit symptoms are tested right away and, if positive, are immediately quarantined, then sent home at the next port, often by chartered jet. All of their contacts are tested to avoid spread.
Expect Subdued Cruise Activities
To facilitate social distancing, all CLIA-associated ships are currently operating at reduced capacity. On my Odyssey cruise, barely 2,200 passengers sailed on the ship built to carry 5,510.
Dancing is forbidden, so be prepared for more time to enjoy the shows and live music in bars and lounges.
Adventurous types should be prepared for the fact that independent explorations may not be allowed in certain countries where passengers are restricted to cruise line sponsored excursions called “bubble tours.” Passengers who stray from these tours are denied the ability to re-embark the ship, and must make their own arrangements to travel home. Meantime, as most destinations allow passengers to tour independently or take a ship’s excursion, passengers may be tested again at the gangway.
As cruise protocols may evolve, it’s worth checking up-to-date details here.
Editor’s Note: This story is meant to provide information for your travel planning — for whenever you’re comfortable cruising abroad. Keep an eye on Canada’s Travel Advisories for the latest pandemic guidelines. Currently, the Canadian government is advising to avoid all travel on cruise ships outside Canada due to COVID-19.