What cruising is like right now, according to seven people who spent weeks at sea

Cruisers are fielding a lot of questions about what it's like on board - what the mask rules are, the fate of buffets, and what they can and can't do on land

July 2021 – Freedom of the Seas set sail from its new home of Miami on July 2 as Royal Caribbean International’s first ship to cruise from the U.S. in nearly 16 months.

Hannah Sampson© Washington Post

Cruises have been sailing in places around the world for months now, and are back in business in North America since last month - but operations are still far from normal.

As ships venture out from ports in the Caribbean, Florida and elsewhere in the US, those who make their living writing about or selling cruises have spent extra time on the water for the past several weeks.

Many have already sailed on two or three voyages.

"It feels like I've been on ships about every other week since June 4," said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a news and review site. "This is kind of a breakneck pace."

Those who have spent time back on ships are fielding a lot of questions about what it's like on board - what the mask rules are, the fate of buffets, and what they can and can't do on land. Based on interviews with seven people who have each taken at least two cruises, here is what potential passengers can expect.

Vaccination status matters a lot

Many ships are sailing with a vaccine requirement as they restart operations. Even those that aren't requiring passengers to be vaccinated will ask about your status as part of an extensive health screening.

In the United States, those with at least 95pc of passengers and crew fully vaccinated are allowed to relax safety rules. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, operators of those cruises "may advise passengers and crew that they do not have to wear a mask or maintain physical distance in any areas."

Casino games on Celebrity Edge, the first revenue-earning cruise ship to depart from the U.S. after the pandemic-induced hiatus. Bloomberg photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui.

If fewer than 95pc of passengers are vaccinated on a ship, there may be areas designated for those who have gotten the shot. In those vaccinated-only areas, passengers can go without a mask. But in other indoor areas where all passengers are together, both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers may have to wear masks unless they are eating and drinking. Those who are not vaccinated also have to pay for extra tests.

The CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated avoid cruise travel.

Although she is vaccinated, McDaniel had to wear a mask in many indoor venues on Freedom of the Seas, which sailed from Miami with both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers.

She said she couldn't easily tell who was and was not vaccinated based on their experiences, though vaccinated passengers were given a wristband to wear. She noticed that the wristband mattered: When she went into a pub on the ship, which is restricted to vaccinated passengers only, she was wearing long sleeves. "The crew said, 'Could I see your wristband?' " she said.

Crowds are smaller

Ships are sailing at reduced capacity for now, though how reduced depends on the cruise line. There were not many complaints about this new and temporary reality.

"It feels like being on a very big yacht with so few people," Stewart Chiron, CEO of the site CruiseGuy.com, said in an email from Greece, where he is on Celebrity Apex. "Sometimes you wish there were more people, but enjoying no lines nor waiting for anything. Service levels are extraordinarily high."

On his three cruises so far, on Celebrity ships in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, capacity has been below 40pc.

Travel adviser Peggy Mellen, who owns Bucket List Buster - Dream Vacations with her husband, said she noticed the difference right away on the two cruises she took, from the Bahamas and Miami, on Royal Caribbean International.

"Normally on a ship, you have to get out there pretty early in the morning to get the prime real estate for a lounge chair that overlooks the pool," she said. "Right now that's not an issue."

Carnival cruises have been more full, said Doug Parker, the creator of Cruise Radio. He took a six-night cruise on Carnival Horizon earlier this month, and he said the ship was about 70pc full. While the voyage lacked some of the camaraderie that might be found on a fuller cruise, he said people still had a good time.

Celebrity Millenium

"Selfishly, it was a lot nicer," he said. "You kind of walk up to a lounge chair or you can walk up to guest services and not have a mile-long line."

Safety drills are mostly digital

Every cruiser interviewed for this story was a fan of the new approach by Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Carnival to the "muster drill," a safety exercise that in pre-covid times required passengers to assemble in a large group at the location where they would be assigned to go in case of an emergency.

"You'd be unpacking your suitcase in a cabin and all of a sudden they'd announce you have to show up at this muster drill," Mellen said about the previous routine. "You'd be lined up in rows. Depending on the ship, a lot of time you'd be outside in the heat."

Instead, passengers on several recent cruises said, they were able to watch safety information on a video and then simply check in at their emergency location within a couple of hours of boarding a ship. No crowds, no wait in the heat, no long demonstrations.

"Everybody loves that," said Adam Martindale, a Cruise Planners travel adviser who took back-to-back cruises in June and July on Celebrity Millennium in St. Maarten.

The buffet lives on (in some cases, with tweaks)

On some cruise lines, such as Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, buffets are staffed with crew members who serve passengers. But Carnival is letting passengers serve themselves - with some crew around to keep an eye on behaviour.

"You can use the buffet like pre-pandemic times," Parker said of his Carnival cruise. "They are changing out the tongs and everything, and there are people standing there to 'buffet patrol' - maybe just making sure that no one's doing anything they shouldn't be doing."

McDaniel, who has been on two Celebrity and one Royal Caribbean cruise since June, said she is a fan of the don't-serve-yourself approach that she experienced. She pointed out that the buffet was closed for dinner on her cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas.

"Truly it does cut down on people touching tongs or directly reaching in and grabbing food, which we all have seen happen occasionally on cruise ships," she said. "It also really does cut down on waste."

Someone might test positive. It shouldn't ruin the cruise.

Routine testing has turned up positive Covid cases on a few sailings so far - which cruise operators have expected. Their goal is to make sure a couple of cases don't become an outbreak that would force a cruise to end early. So far, the efforts have been successful.

Mellen was on Adventure of the Seas in June when two unvaccinated children tested positive - one asymptomatic and one with mild symptoms - and had to be flown home. The captain announced the cases and "that's all we heard about it," she said. Everyone 16 and older was required to be vaccinated on that sailing.

"Nobody was like, "Oh no,' " she said. "We know the protocols work, we saw it in action, and we just went on with the rest of our cruise."

Mellen said she is glad she is able to explain to customers how the situation was handled after experiencing it herself.

McDaniel was also on a cruise when two vaccinated passengers tested positive during an end-of-cruise test. Those who had come into close contact with those passengers had to be isolated while they awaited extra testing, but no one else ended up infected on the sailing, which also required anyone 16 and older to be vaccinated.

"It didn't really disrupt that vacation," she said. "No one was locked down for an exceptionally long period of time."

Rules vary by port - onboard and on land

Cruise lines will not have the same rules for testing and mask-wearing on each ship because those measures are dictated by the ports from which they sail. Passengers should expect to have to wear masks in terminals, but the onboard experience will vary.

"We have sailed on three cruises from three different cruise lines thus far; each has had different protocols in place," said Don and Heidi Bucolo, who run the cruise review site EatSleepCruise.com, in an email from Iceland, where they are on a cruise. "One thing that stands out is that there isn't consistency across the cruise lines in healthy and safety measures."

The couple has sailed on Royal Caribbean International from the Bahamas, Celebrity Cruises from Florida and Viking Cruises from Iceland since June 12.

Rules for what you can do off the ships will vary as well

"Depending on the port of call, the cruise line, and your vaccination status, you may not be able to explore independently," the Bucolos said. "While we could explore freely on two cruises, one cruise required all guests to book shore excursions with the cruise line for two out of three ports of call."

Martindale, of Cruise Planners, said those rules are also frequently in flux. Two days before arrival, one island said passengers couldn't go ashore by themselves; it changed course the next day during his cruise.

"It's changing every day," he said.

McDaniel said flexibility is key for anyone booking a cruise in the near term. On one of her sailings, a destination country changed its time frame for getting a negative test in advance of visiting, forcing passengers to scramble.

"You can book a cruise today for a month from now, and they'll send you the protocols and what you should expect on board," she said. "Things are continuing to change. So what the protocols are today, that won't necessarily be the case a month down the road."