For those who have asked me about my recent, back-to-back cruises and what current cruising is like, I will soon be publishing a magazine article detailing my thoughts on the matter. However, because my next book is soon to be released and is focused on cruising stories, the magazine article will be more generic in nature and focused on general cruising comments and current issues. This blog posting is to give those of you who follow me, my specific experience and thoughts on the current state of cruising and travel.
Like most of you, I was anxious to return to cruising and to taking vacations in general. Travel has been a big part of my life and frankly, I have always maintained that I would travel as much as I could, as often as my budget would permit, and as continuously as my health would allow. I was never going to be that person who regretted the trips not taken.
Covid put a restriction on travel throughout the world and then impacted vacations in the subsequent years as people evaluated IF they wanted to travel and HOW they would do so. As a travel writer, I was inundated with questions as to whether I thought it was safe to fly, take any form of public transportation or stay in hotels. Cruising, which had ground to a halt, took a while to start up again as full resumption of various cruise line routes was staggered. Restrictions imposed by certain countries, meant some itineraries could not be completed and my Hawaii to Sydney Australia cruise, booked for 2020, was rebooked for 2021 and then 2022 when the routes were impacted. Two specific port countries on that itinerary, New Zealand and Australia, were closed to all but domestic cruises for an extended period of time.
Arguments in Favour of Cruising
I enjoy cruising. Consequently, I was looking forward to resuming sailing and I had visions of myself ensconced on an aft ship balcony, sipping my morning coffee and watching the sun rise over a distant, watery, horizon.
In 2021, when cruising was still an “Iffy” prospect, I opted in favour of land vacations having received stories from readers that recounted problems with cruises that had already resumed. My rationale was “Why pay money for a bad experience?” However, in a fit of optimism, I booked two cruises for the fall of 2022 (back-to-back), with the justification that everything should be back to normal by then. I would be travelling from Vancouver to Honolulu and then Honolulu to Sydney.
With the advent of covid vaccines and pre-cruise covid testing protocols, my confidence in cruising increased. I was ready. By mid 2022, I had joined the queue of people saying that covid would always be on the horizon; like the cold, or annual flu season and we would just have to learn to live with it. If we were vaccinated and took realistic precautions, there was no reason not to travel or take that long awaited cruise. I looked forward to September 2022 with great anticipation.
The start of our back-to-back cruises was the city of Vancouver. Our cruise ship had been engaged in Alaskan cruises over the summer departing/returning from that city’s port. I had followed online chatter about Alaskan cruises, so I was aware that there were incidences of covid on Alaskan sailings and I certainly heard of people getting off Alaskan cruises with covid. Ships reported to have had covid breakouts, were associated with all cruise lines so no one cruise line was singled out. The online chatter focused on whether the source of the covid on the ships related to passengers, ship personnel or infections picked up at various port stops. People also pointed fingers at assorted airlines use to travel to the port as possible culprits.
Despite the reports of covid onboard ships, I was still confident that the pre cruise covid testing would weed out any active covid cases on our sailing. This theory was validated when an online friend was one of the people whose pre-cruise testing resulted in their being denied boarding. They were doing three Eclipse sailings in a row starting with an Alaskan cruise and continuing on to Hawaii and then Sydney. In Vancouver, following their Alaskan cruise, they were tested by the cruise line and told they would have to leave the ship as one of them had tested positive for covid. They were told IF they were negative in time for their scheduled third booked cruise, they could rejoin the ship (for the Hawaii to Australia segment). I was told that they were not the only ones directed to leave the ship due to a positive covid test, but they were the only ones with whom I was familiar. They reported that they had to find their own accommodation in Vancouver (to stay while recovering from covid), and then arrange their own transportation from Vancouver to Honolulu to rejoin the ship. They ended up cancelling the rest of their trip. I am not sure whether they were to receive a full refund for the third sailing, or only a future cruise credit. For the Vancouver to Honolulu sailing (where they had been refused boarding), it is my understanding that they were given a refund.
Vancouver to Honolulu
When on the ship for the Vancouver to Honolulu cruise, there was no requirement for people to be masked. People could choose to be masked, or not, depending on their personal preference. We started the cruise with a number of sea days and it did not take long for covid to rear its head and we were soon advised to wear masks in the casino and theatre. A few days later, that changed to wearing a mask at all times when not eating or drinking. People who were coughing were regarded with suspicion and avoided if possible. Breakfast in the dining room at group tables was not a fan favourite.
For those of us who were doing back-to-back sailings, we knew we would have to be tested for covid again when in Honolulu and no one wanted to miss the next cruise which was the Hawaii to Sydney leg. We avoided the casino and theatre and most of us wore masks. One fellow with whom we had a passing acquaintance, did not mask and had a rather firm opinion on the merits of masking. He ended up testing positive and had to leave the ship in Honolulu. Let’s just say he was not a happy man. We were told that there were several couples who were scheduled for back-to-back cruises who were asked to leave the ship due to positive tests. I have no specific knowledge as to the accuracy of that information or of numbers, as the ship’s rumour mill was in overdrive regarding covid numbers and people adversely affected by positive covid tests.
Honolulu to Sydney
It was with great relief that my husband and I took our onboard covid tests in Honolulu and received the news that we were negative. We were good to go on our second booked cruise. Sydney here we come!
We initially had five sea days and it did not take long for covid to once again put in an appearance and start to adversely affect various people. On day three, a couple, who was part of our progressive trivia team, texted me to say they were going to miss trivia as they were going to the medical clinic for a covid test. One of them subsequently tested positive and they were confined to their cabin until they tested negative. That took ten (yes 10), days. They missed the three port stops in the French Polynesian islands which were exceptional port stops. They were not the only ones and we soon saw “sleeping” signs spring up on doors around the ship and loads of room service trays outside those cabins. People told us that covid sufferers had been told to put the “sleeping” signs on their cabin doors so they would not be disturbed.
Once again, the captain recommended that people wear masks in the casino and theatre and that soon expanded to anywhere on the ship when not eating or drinking. It also involved tender boat use although to be perfectly blunt, compliance on the tender boats was hit and miss. I spent one ride back from the port listening to two couples complain about the “masking requirement” although neither couple were actually wearing masks. One kept coughing and saying that people were suspicious of her cough but according to her, she “Did not care.” The woman confided that she, and her husband, flushed all their Kleenex down the toilet so the room attendant would not be able to see that they were using a lot of tissue to blow their noses. I suddenly became suspicious that this was one of the reasons the toilets in the area of our cabin kept getting blocked. The toilet in our cabin had twice stopped working as a result of blockages which were cleared down the hallway.
As for the mask requirements, most people complied, while some did not. The position of the non-maskers was that the cruise line was merely making “recommendations” and wearing a mask was not compulsory.
As time passed, another couple we knew tested positive for covid. They were confined to their cabin and missed out on various port stops including the two stops in New Zealand. They finally tested negative the day before the cruise ended. Our neighbours, in the cabin next to ours, never confirmed that they had contracted covid but their sleeping sign was on their cabin door for seven days and it appeared that they only had room service during that time. Hmmm.
Once we arrived in Sydney, we experienced some difficulty getting a taxi to take us to our hotel. We were subsequently told by our taxi driver that the drivers were leery about picking up people from a cruise ship. We had zero luck with Uber as the app would show the ride and as the driver(s) got closer and realized they were picking up at the port stop, the ride was cancelled. I wonder how easy it is to obtain a ride now following the news that a subsequent cruise ship arrived with over 800 covid infected people onboard.
Overall Impression of the state of Cruising
My impression of the current state of cruising is based on the back-to-back cruises, port stop changes made to an upcoming booked cruise in January 2023 and finally information given to me by readers of my articles and visitors to my website.
I believe that the cruise lines are still confined by restrictions that might be imposed by port stop countries, illnesses onboard and some austerity measures implemented by the various lines to combat the loss of income during the covid shutdowns.
I found the food was hit and miss as to quality and the sommelier could move at times with glacial speed. Gone were the days of hovering waiters and a sommelier at the ready to pour wine when the level in one’s glass looked a little low. We tipped daily even though gratuities were included in our cruise, consequently we soon had more efficient service. On two occasions I was served food on chipped plates and once I was served a drink with a large obvious chip and crack in the glass. The first two times I did not bother to complain and merely mentioned to the waiter, when they were removing the dishes, that they might want to jettison the plate. The chipped and cracked wine glass warranted an immediate notification.
Even the specialty restaurants were not immune. We had five specialty meals and service was hit and miss. We had outstanding service on some nights, other nights, not so much. In the Tuscan restaurant, we had two superb meals with excellent service. On our third visit, the sommelier poured our wine and then went missing. After an hour we finally asked our waiter to pour us a second glass of wine and simply gave up on any prospect of having a drink (port) with our cheese plate. Dinner service in the Murano was exceptional on one night and merely satisfactory on the second although the food was excellent on both nights.
Ship’s staff would disappear for days to address “personal issues”, so we were aware that covid was affecting the staff. That resulted in staff shortages in all areas of the ship. I was in the medical facility receiving intravenous antibiotics for an infected blister that was courtesy of walking in the Pacific Ocean. FYI - don’t think that all salt water is good salt water. While in the medical facility for three rounds of IV antibiotics, I saw crew members there complaining of/being treated for covid symptoms.
There seemed to be fewer activities on the ship, and I brought a few daily planners home to compare the quantity and quality of activities available now versus in the past.
Currently, for me, the concern about being on a cruise, is the possibility of being confined to one’s cabin due to illness. To be on a cruise and be sitting next to someone who is obviously sick and not isolating, can be nerve wracking. Their proximity puts me at risk and no argument that it is “just like getting a cold or flu” holds water. Cabin isolation requirements or removal from a ship are not attractive prospects. Remember, tables in dining rooms, seats in the theatre, casino or other public areas are always close together. Since the cruises have returned to full capacity, ships are back to being crowded. Even waiting to disembark or embark at port stops can result in long lines with lots of people close together.
The fact that some onboard activities, that normally would be well attended, had fewer attendees, gave rise to my belief that people were taking measures to protect themselves by forgoing shows or other events. These activities are part of the attraction(s) of being on a ship so missing them out of health concerns means that the cruising experience is diminished.
Now, it is not unusual to have port stop changes that have nothing to do with inclement weather but everything to do with health restrictions or port stop staff shortages. I think cruising needs a little more adjustment time before I can say that a return to normal is here.