What is it like to cruise during Covid-19? My family is fresh off our first voyage in two years — a 7-day Carnival trip out of Long Beach, Calif. — and I’m happy to report that cruising is still a good time! Some things have changed, and some things I expected to change haven’t. Let’s break it down.
First, about the trip
This cruise was a make-up for our April 2020 trip that was canceled when the world collectively held its breath as Covid-19 started to spread widely. We were originally leaving from Florida, but now a year and a half later we moved our plans to take the Mexican Riviera itinerary on Carnival’s Panorama.
Built in 2019, the Panorama is by far the newest Carnival ship I have sailed on. It sports new features like a sky tram, where you can pedal around a track on the outside of the ship, a ropes course, water slides, and a trampoline park. The look was clean and modern, rather than the gaudy old-school Vegas look of some of the more veteran ships I’ve been on.
My wife and daughter joined me in our three-person cabin in the Family Harbor section on Deck 2. Family Harbor is about half of the second deck, and a cabin in this area grants you access to a special lounge that serves meals, snacks, and various drinks throughout the day. Cereal, sandwiches, desserts, chips and salsa, ice cream, a fancy coffee machine, milk and juices were all just a few doors away nearly any time. Our room also had not only a shower, but also a bathtub, presumably for families with little ones.
One difference in service right off the bat was that the room steward only does one cleaning a day. She asked our preference for a morning or evening service, and we choose evening. It’s nice to come back to a clean place after dinner.
Staying safe at sea
The ship was about 60-65 percent full, and Carnival is currently requiring 95% of those on board to be vaccinated against Covid-19. With around 2,400 guests aboard, that meant somewhere around 120 people were not vaccinated. While I believe many of them were children too young to qualify, there also were at least a handful of adults.
Quite frankly, from a sheer probability standpoint that made the Carnival Panorama MUCH safer than just about anywhere you go in the United States. But that did not mean things were “back to normal.” Staff wore masks at all times. Guests were asked to wear masks indoors in common areas where people congregate unless they were eating or drinking.
For the most part people seemed to do their part, and I didn’t see any scenes where there was a problem about masking. There were some complaints here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. From my view, the fact that we’re able to cruise at all right now is a positive. You may recall as the outbreak first took hold that several cruise ships were denied port, stranding passengers and crew aboard with several confirmed cases and even deaths on the ship. Cruising in general was banned by government order.
Even when Carnival restarted earlier this year there were immediately reports of a passenger who came down with Covid-19 during her voyage and later died. After such a tumultuous year-plus, I can’t blame cruise operators for wanting to be as careful as they can in restarting operations and proving that they can do so safely. Staff were very obviously sanitizing high-touch areas such as the Lido deck drink stations. Deck chairs were also sanitized, as were our cabin doors and handles.
Carnival also has the neat handwashing stations shown in the video above all over the Lido deck. While not new (the video was posted in 2014), they are extra cool in today’s environment.
Testing requirements for the vaxxed and unvaxxed
The requirements for cruising undoubtedly will change as time goes on. To cover my bases, here’s a link to Carnival’s current protocols.
As far as when we set sail, vaccinated passengers had to show proof of vaccination and a negative rapid test taken within two days of the sailing date. Unvaccinated passengers had to have a letter from Carnival giving them an exemption, proof of a negative PCR test (the more accurate one) taken within three days of sailing, and a negative rapid test taken just before embarkation. Another rapid test was given to unvaccinated guests the day before getting off the ship, as well.
In addition to more stringent testing, unvaccinated guests were only allowed off the ship on “bubble tours.” With these excursions you are kept within the same group and are not allowed to venture out on your own while in port. We did two such excursions. The selection is most definitely limited, and they tend to gear more toward something that a child would also find entertaining.
We did the buffet lunch with a dancing horse, folkloric dancing, and tequila tasting in Puerta Vallerta. My 9-year-old got hammered! (Just kidding. They gave her a shot of agave nectar and a spoonful of chocolate.) In Cabo San Lucas, we opted for the dolphin swim, which I have to say was pretty awesome. We stayed on the ship in Mazatlan. For anyone going ashore in that port you had to bring your proof of vaccination, but the others didn’t seem to have that requirement.
Kids club activities were shut down right now because all of those kids would be unvaccinated. I anticipate those will return as younger children become eligible for the vaccine. Also, the unvaccinated were not allowed to use the trampoline park at this time.
Masks here, masks there, but not masks everywhere
As I said earlier, there were certain areas where masks were required and others where they were encouraged but optional. They were required during the entire embarkation and debarkation process. They were required when walking through a dining area while not actively eating or drinking. They were required while seated in a room for a comedy show or performance and in some closed-off areas like the piano bar. They were required while dancing. They were required while in the elevators.
They were not necessary while outside, while walking through the corridors (although many wore them anyway), or while sitting in the larger gathering spaces to watch music while having a drink. (The Panorama Rockband is on point, by the way. Killer group. The Latin group Midnight Project in the Havana Lounge was also stellar.) All in all I would say I wore the mask more during my time in the airport and airplane to and from Salt Lake than I did in total while on the ship.
If you’re concerned that wearing a mask is going to be a huge detractor from having a good time on board, let me put your mind at ease. It’s not a big deal.
A bit of a rant
I want to take a minute to address some things I saw and heard on board. These things really struck a nerve with me, and I feel like it’s worth mentioning. You see, not everyone was as happy as I was to be back on a luxury cruise ship sipping blended drinks in the warm Mexican sun.
There was a man in the pool going on at length about how much he preferred Princess’s ships, food, and overall experience. How he hated Mazatlan because it’s humid and has mosquitoes (although I saw none). When another passenger asked where he’d rather be, he said, “Just about anywhere.” He was saying all this while relaxing in a nearly empty pool on a gorgeous day with the sun shining and a Coors Light in his hand on a 7-day cruise that he says he paid $25 to be on thanks to an offer from the casino. Let that sink in.
Along the same lines, some of the guests who joined us at a communal table for dinner seemed incapable of anything but complaining. They arrived late to dinner and were upset when their food didn’t come out with everyone else’s. Every dish was angrily sent back because the woman was “very picky” and said so before she’d even sat down — which she believes gives you the right to berate the serving staff when your meal doesn’t have the exact right amount of sauce or your cut of meat isn’t the precise temperature you expect. It doesn’t. These folks are doing their best. Don’t be a jerk.
I bring these up as a bit of warning. The cruise industry is slowly bringing itself back to life. I have no doubt many, many years of experience were lost as former cruise ship employees found new jobs at home. New processes intended to keep the ships operating are probably putting a crimp in previous ways of doing it. Ships won’t be operating at full staffing capacity because they aren’t operating at full guest capacity. And after missing out on 18 months of revenue, the companies can’t afford to go back to the way things were yet.
If you are a long-time cruiser and can’t bear the thought of getting on the ship unless everything is exactly the way you demand it be, now is not the time for you to book a trip. If, however, you can understand that we’re all still in this crazy mess together and that means everyone has to suck it up a little and carry on, there are some incredible deals and amazing times to be had.
What else is different?
There were a few other things that have changed since I last sailed. These aren’t major in my mind, but were noticed.
Gone are the plastic straws. Carnival now hands out Sorbos edible straws in lime, strawberry or chocolate flavor with your mixed beverages. They hold up much better than paper straws, but at a cost of 12.5 cents apiece if I were to buy them online myself they are about five times the cost of the plastic ones. Interesting to note: The straws are not vegetarian thanks to the use of bovine gelatin. My wife brought her own metal reusable straw, and Carnival will sell you those, too, if you prefer.
Also gone are the wooden coffee stirring sticks. Now they have spoons out to stir your drink and then put into a different container when you’re done.
The buffet is still mostly self-serve, but serving utensils are swapped out fairly frequently. This was a cruise staple I thought was a goner for sure, but it appears not.
While the towel animals still remain, there are no more mints on the pillows before bed.
The dinner menu no longer features “local finds” tied to that day’s port of call. There are still the “rare finds” such as escargot, frog legs and ox tongue for you to sample, though. I’m sure paring back on the amount of food coming on board was part of the return strategy. Oh, and because of the current bacon supply issues the ship only offers bacon at the buffet every other day.
The Pixels photo gallery that used to be a massive game of Where’s Waldo trying to find your group’s pictures among a sea of other pictures is gone. Instead, you can conveniently bring up all of your photos on any of the many iPads in the gallery or even on your own device through the Carnival Hub app. That’s a huge improvement in my mind, and I’m not sure if it’s only this way on the new ships or if they retrofitted the old ones to be this way.
Lastly, the dreaded muster drill has been replaced. Previously, mustering required everyone to be herded like sheep into a massive sweaty group of humanity to listen to the safety briefing. Now there’s a self-mustering check-in where you get a much smaller demonstration of how to use a life vest. I’m not sure if this will be a permanent change, but I sure hope so.
How much did it cost?
This is largely a blog about finances, and my previous post about how much another of our Carnival cruises cost remains one of my most popular. So I’ll address some costs with the huge caveat that I think right now there are better deals to be had and you should only take this as an example.
Remember, I was booking this with credits from a previously canceled cruise. For our Family Harbor Deluxe Ocean View room, including all taxes and fees, the price for three people was $2,095. This doesn’t include the gratuities, which were an extra $294 tacked on to the final bill, and we also left more for the room steward. We got $300 in onboard credit, which basically offset the gratuities.
The biggest cost for us is drinks, with adult beverages being between $8 and $13 generally. There was a package for this cruise that included the Cheers beverage add-on as part of the room fare, but sadly we didn’t qualify for it because we had more than two people in our room. (This was a major fail on Carnival’s part, in my opinion, because they were really pushing this promotion hard and it would have been great to limit it to two free Cheers packages per room. Instead, because we had a third person — and a child no less — we were completely shut out.) Our full bill at the end with photos, drinks, and a few random things was just over $1,100.
Here’s the overall breakdown:
Cruise (including taxes, fees and gratuities, minus onboard credit): $2,089
Excursions & photos: $824
Transit to/from airport: $75
Misc. food and tips: $200
Flights: ~$700 – more than half of which was remaining airline credit from a previously canceled flight
That makes this particular cruise quite a bit more expensive than our 2018 adventure that clocked in at just over $1,500 for everything. Why so much more? Well, this cruise was longer, in a nicer room, during a theoretically more valuable time (fall break for our schools), with a better itinerary, on a newer ship. We also bought excursions, including the pricier dolphin one, and photos. And flights were not purchased with points this time around. Which goes to show how wildly the price can vary depending on how you plan your vacation.
This was my 11th cruise, and the first time since 2016 that I hadn’t gone on at least one cruise a year. I was very glad to be back! Going in with the expectation that things would be different and that would be fine really helped set the tone. I’m sure my next voyage will look a little different, too, and the one after that. Eventually, I hope, we’ll get to a place where Covid testing and masking and such isn’t necessary. Until then, I will do my part to enjoy my favorite style of vacationing while trying to ensure it can keep happening.
Not only did the cruise ships and employees lose out on their livelihoods over the past 18 months, so too did those who live in port cities. Cruise ships bring in big money, and without the cruise tourists they undoubtedly had some tough times and hard decisions to make. Bring extra tips with you and support these people still offering excursions and goods that help make your trip memorable. They still aren’t seeing a normal income, either.
I already have a couple cruises scheduled on different lines next year, so it will be interesting to see how they differ from Carnival. By then my daughter may be vaccinated and we won’t have as many limitations based on that. Either way, it’s nice to be back on the water.