Safely taking to rivers and high seas on a cruise for your next vacation

Passengers flocking back to cruises are finding a new definition of normal. With CDC requirements for passenger COVID-19 vaccinations firmly in place, cruise lines now find themselves in the happy position of offering customers COVID-safe bubbles. Advance bookings are booming, coinciding with the long-planned introduction of new ships. Travelers itching to either return to cruising or knock a coveted cruise off their bucket lists will find refreshed amenities, new procedures, and few bargains. 

As ardently as the cruise industry wants to streamline COVID-19 protocols, the new procedures require non-negotiable advance proof of vaccination and last-minute testing. The extra effort has boosted passengers’ determination to make the most of their cruises: people are booking bigger suites, earlier, and for longer cruises. “People are saying, ‘If I’m going to go through all this testing and effort, I’m going to go for a longer vacation,” says John Kusek, manager of travel agency operations with AAA Hudson Valley in Albany. 

For financially beleaguered cruise lines, the burst of bookings is building needed momentum. For passengers, the upswell of interest, combined with the difficulty of conforming with last-minute health protocols, complicates bargain-hunting. The upshot: if you crave a particular cruise, especially with sufficient private space on board to escape the crowds, don’t delay. 

A shot in the arm for bookings

“Healthy return” is the byword at Royal Caribbean International, said President Michael Bayley at the christening of its newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, in November in Fort Lauderdale.  

At Royal Caribbean and other major lines, the cruise experience has been recentered around on-the-spot health procedures. At the entrance to the airy Windjammer food court on the Odyssey, guests are directed to multi-fauceted trough sinks for efficient hand-washing before approaching the buffets. Pre-portioned buffet items are now served by staff. Instead of guests helping themselves, guests now point to the plate bearing a portion, such as a bagel topped with swirls of cream cheese and twirls of lox. Staffers wield the spoons and forks to add vegetables, pastries, and meats and side dishes to guests’ plates. Want a yogurt parfait? A staffer will hand you one and then top it off with the chopped nuts and fruit you request.  

While social distancing is universally requested, that’s not always possible on ship elevators and in corridors. So far ship protocols apply mask mandates according to the mix of vaccinated guests—that would be all adults, in compliance with CDC guidelines—and proportion of children, who are less likely to be vaccinated. (See sidebar for tips on navigating health protocols) The more children on board, the more likely that masks will be required in public areas. 

Experienced cruise passengers must learn the new COVID-management ropes, say advisors, and that extends beyond health protocols. 

Cruise lines took the forced hiatus to build mobile apps that bring health verifications, travel documents, agendas, reservations and other travel tools all to one place, streamlining confirmations and on-board time and event management. 

Onboard messaging among guests, itineraries, health records, onboard charges and reservations largely can be handled through each line’s dedicated app. But, at the same time, cruise lines offer only bare-bones onboard Wi-Fi: the emerging industry standard is one device per cabin online at any given time. That means that a couple, for instance, must switch back and forth between their devices to pick up external email and go online. Upgraded Wi-Fi is available for about $10 a day. 

The mismatch between app functionality and Wi-Fi bandwidth means that you might not be able to use the app just when you need it most—to track down a traveling companion or family member. It’s best to print out copies of the itinerary in advance and have a Plan B for rendezvousing with companions in the likely event that the app doesn’t keep you as connected at sea as it might on land. 

Size matters

Managing exposure to crowds and the risk of picking up any illness, but especially COVID-19, has reordered traveler expectations. 

Large-ship lines have organized their space and activities to enable a few travelers to create their own bubbles, with pools, hot tubs, common lounges and large suites that keep those guests in contact with fewer people. “Bubble class” is a new concept that many large-ship aficionados might not be familiar with, say advisors, especially as the extra space comes at a high premium. 

Cruise lines that offer dedicated destinations enable guests to limit their exposure to only those on their boat. Royal Caribbean and other big-boat lines own small islands for the exclusive use of their guests. That extends the online bubble of vaccinated guests to one shore destination. 

The traditional appeal of smaller ships—that they can go to smaller ports and harbors where big ships won’t fit—now is layered with the draw of fewer passengers, says George Balough, owner of Blue Skies Travel in East Greenbush. “With only 200 people or so, you’re creating your own bubble, and you know that you’ll see destinations that are not visited by that many other travelers,” he says. 

The bucket-list crowd is booking well in advance, often for the most spacious and expensive suites, according to Steve Simao, vice president of sales for Windstar Cruises. Windstar operates smaller ships that accommodate 200 to 300 guests and that frequent lesser-known ports in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Asia—such as Monemvasia, Greece, and Lipari, Italy.

“We’re way ahead for 2022,” he says, “For 2023, we’re in double-digits for our 79-day cruise, and that’s a long cruise.” 

Riverboats and canal barges are the smallest ships of all, but also were located in the hardest to reach destinations in the past year, as ever-changing health guidelines complicated Americans’ access to European and Asia, Balough says. Indeed, specific countries are moved on and off the CDC’s warning lists on a weekly basis. In mid-November, Iceland, a popular cruise destination, abruptly moved into the “avoid” list.  

Given the high stakes of cruise plans, many Americans have turned their cruise enthusiasm to the more reliable domestic destinations, such as the Mississippi, New England coast and Western rivers. “People are looking inward at the history of the U.S.,” says Balough, who reports an unprecedented volume of U.S. river cruise demand in the past 12 months.   

On board the 5,000-passenger Odyssey, options for fresh-air relaxation abound. While the ship offers secluded lounges and a pool reserved only for suite guests, it also offers multiple open-air pools and spas accessible to all passengers. And there’s nothing like an evening walk around the perimeter of a ship under a spray of stars in the warm breeze off the Florida coast.

Getting to the Boat on Time

Take nothing for granted: The logistics of arriving on time for cruise departure, with the correct paperwork, change almost daily. Here’s a checklist of considerations and resources to help ensure that you are on the ship when it leaves. 

Rely on the cruise line mobile app as your wallet for identification, documents, vaccination validation, and onboard itinerary, maps, and reservations. The current generation of apps includes more than ship diagrams and maps; it enables the cruise operator to potentially track where you have been onboard and whom you might have encountered, for purposes of contact tracing if a COVID outbreak occurs. Note, that thin Wi-Fi access on board could short-circuit your reliance on the app. Always bring paper printouts of your reservations, itineraries, and health paperwork. 

Assume you need your passport. Some large-ship cruise lines own their own Caribbean islands, but those islands are in the jurisdiction of another country. For instance, the CocoCay island owned by Royal Caribbean and operated as its captive destination is in the Berry Islands of the Bahamas. 

Don’t rely on split-second timing to arrive on time. Your airline might be caught in a maelstrom of staff shortages, supply shortages and weather chaos. Even in the mild, blue skies of autumn 2021, Southwest and American airlines both canceled hundreds of flights over multiple consecutive days. Plan to arrive the day before your cruise is set to depart and have a Plan B in hand for finding a substitute flight. 

Monitor the TSA pandemic protocols (, and allow plenty of time to navigate airport security. 

Monitor travel regulations at the Centers for Disease Control website, which has a section devoted to cruise policies and practices.

Expect your cruise line to require proof that you are COVID-free via a COVID test taken within 48 hours of departure, the standard required by the CDC at press time. And, note that the CDC recommends that for your own guidance, you should take a COVID test three to five days after you arrive home. 

Document your vaccination and test status in several formats so you have a backup if the internet fails. Carry digital photos and paper printouts. 

Be prepared to show both digital and paper verifications of COVID-free status at the point of departure. Kusek notes that while the major cruise lines have largely adopted similar processes, it’s important not to assume there is a universal standard for the industry. When in doubt, duplicate health documents, carrying both print and digital versions; upload as many documents as you can in advance via the cruise line’s app, and still expect to show last-minute verifications in paper as part of the onboarding process. 

Masks: Cruise lines stock them at onboard shops, but bring several so you are always complying with onboard protocols. And, know that connecting transportation and security lines almost surely will require masks. 

The bottom line: Expect to comply with the most stringent health protocols, and do not assume that the recent experience of another cruise passenger is a firm indication of the expectations for the cruise you are about to have.