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Would you take a cruise during the pandemic? We did.
In November of 2021, my family of four, which included 3 fully vaccinated people over the age of 12, and one partially vaccinated child under 12, took our chances on a 5-day Royal Caribbean cruise from Tampa to Cozumel, Mexico, with a stop at the cruiseline’s private island, Coco Cay.
I’ll detail how things went, what safety precautions were in place, and what limitations we experienced traveling as a family that could not yet be fully vaccinated.
Stick around to the end for information on a couple of cruises we’ve got booked for 2022. While we don’t plan any formal group cruise, we would welcome readers to book the same itinerary for a casual meetup.
Our Cruising History
Some people are cruise people; they love it and schedule most vacations on cruise ships.
Others are the opposite, and they either have no interest in stepping foot on a ship or maybe they tried it once and said “never again.”
I fall somewhere in between. I do like them for the fact that much of the entertainment and activities are pre-planned and pre-paid. All of the food is prepaid, and, if you choose, drinks can be prepaid, as well.
When I was working and my kids had a school schedule, I was good for one cruise every two to three years. It’s not my favorite way to travel, but I do enjoy them.
Now that I have unlimited time off and we’ve chosen to “worldschool” our boys for a few years, I’m willing to embark on cruises more often.
In our 17 years together, my wife and I have cruised 7 or 8 times, bringing our boys along for the last 3 of them.
The Cruises the Pandemic Took Away
We had an epic trip planned. 30 days from Los Angeles to Shanghai with stops in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea, and several stops along the coast of China in the fall of 2020.
After five months of self-guided travel through southeast Asia and possibly New Zealand and/or Australia, we would cruise back from Japan to Vancouver, stopping in Russia along the way, returning in late spring of 2021.
None of that happened, obviously. The exact ship that was to be our slow boat to China ended up stranded off the coast of California for a couple of weeks with hundreds of COVID cases before the passengers were allowed to quarantine at a military base.
However, after about 18 months of idleness, the cruise industry was able to resume sailing in the summer of 2021 with plenty of new rules to help prevent disease outbreaks.
A Last Minute Booking
One of the consolation prizes we gave our kids were annual passes to Universal Orlando, which we used in March, July (never again!), and we made plans to return in November, pairing a trip to the parks with a scheduled DLP Prosperity meeting.
Like so many other events in the last 20 months, the DLP meeting was transitioned to a virtual conference, and I’ll be honest… I don’t get nearly as much out of a virtual conference.
We look at our options for those dates, and, lo and behold, there was a cruise at a good price that lined up perfectly with our calendar. We booked the cruise 11 days before the Mariner of the Seas left port.
Cruise Booking Tips
Sailing Search Engines
When travel agents help you book a cruise, they get a commission for the referral. This incentive has led to numerous sites that allow you to search all the cruise lines for sailings based on your specific criteria.
The best one that I have found, by far, is Cruisesheet.com. It was created by an interesting digital nomad named Tynan whose other claim to fame is being a gifted pickup artist — but that’s neither here nor there. His cruise search engine, borne out of frustration, is excellent.
You can find itineraries based on a wide variety of criteria and easily organize the results in the way you want to see them. Each sailing has a price tracking graph so you can see how the current price compares to what they’ve charged in the past, day by day.
Cruise Line Websites
While Cruisesheet is a standout (let me know in the comments if you’ve found something better), it’s not perfect. For example, I found a bunch of sailings on the Princess website that didn’t show up in Cruisesheet’s search results.
If you want to ensure you’re seeing every possible sailing, search the individual cruiseline’s website. You may also find discounts not offered elsewhere, but I’ll bet a real live human travel agent (as opposed to a website-as-a-travel-agent) can get you those discounts and perhaps more.
Use a Human Travel Agent
I’m a DIY guy, and I book most travel myself, but the fact is that most of the travel search engines are essentially acting as a travel agent. Once I’ve found an itinerary I want to book, I turn the booking process over to a real, live, friendly human.
A friend of mine that cruised with us to Cuba introduced me to her travel agent, and we’ve used her to book each of our cruises ever since.
She’s found discounts that the search engines and cruise lines didn’t offer. For example, a AAA discount (her association, not mine) and a Michigan resident discount. She has spent hours on hold for us, getting us the precise package we’ve asked for, and her communication (email or phone if she’s not on hold for someone) is outstanding. As a Physician on FIRE referral, you can also get a $50 AAA travel credit on your first booking with her.
Book Extras Ahead of Time
I imagine every cruise line is different, but in general, you’ll save money if you buy any extras before the ship leaves the port. This includes things like wifi, drink packages, and shore excursions.
We booked two future cruises during the recent Thanksgiving holiday weekend and were able to purchase extras for substantial discounts.
On Royal Caribbean, the combo package with one device wifi and unlimited sodas was 45% off the onboard price.
On Princess, the Princess Plus package, which includes prepaid gratuities (about $15 a day otherwise), one device wifi, and unlimited sodas and alcoholic beverages, was about $40 a day. Since you’ve got to pay the gratuities anyway, it worked out to about $25 a day for both wifi and drinks.
This is quite the bargain when you compare to the discounted price of about $60 a day for drinks-only on Royal Caribbean and another $15 for wifi.
Every cruise line has a loyalty program, and it could make sense to take most of your cruises with the same cruise line for this reason.
For a detailed comparison of the various programs and perks, see this blog post from Cruise Fever.
Since we’ve already cruised 17 nights with Royal Caribbean and we’ve been pleased with the ships and the value we’ve gotten on the three cruises we’ve taken with them, we’ll probably focus on attaining status there.
The biggest bump in rewards comes with Diamond status after 80 nights (you get double points for nights in a suite). That includes a few free drinks per day and/or some time in the Diamond lounge where free drinks are offered. When cocktails go for $13 plus tip and beers are $8 or more apiece, this is a valuable perk!
You can see the various perks for Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor Society here. You’ll also get equivalent status when cruising with other cruiselines under the same umbrella, like Celebrity, although I don’t believe you can earn points toward Royal Caribbean on partner cruise lines.
Safety Precautions on Our Cruise
Consider this a historical document. A few weeks have passed since our cruise, and I’ll bet things have changed already. The emergence of the Omicron variant may very well have an impact, and the ability of all kids aged 5 and up to be fully vaccinated also changes the landscape.
For instance, Disney will soon be requiring all guests age 5 and up to be fully vaccinated, and I expect others to follow suit.
Prior to our cruise, all four of us were required to take a COVID test within 72 hours, and obviously, that had to be negative to be allowed on board. All children under 12 had to have another test at the cruise terminal. Our 11-year old got his nasal swab there, and we waited as a family until that proved to be negative before walking the gangplank to the big boat.
Our ship, at full capacity, could carry about 3,200 passengers. It was roughly two-thirds full with around 2,100 passengers, making crowding less of an issue than it might be on a full ship.
When we cruised, all staff, save for the on-stage entertainment, wore masks when on duty. All were required to be fully vaccinated.
Every passenger 12 and up had to show evidence of being fully vaccinated. Our 11-year old had just gotten his first shot, so even though he was rightfully regarded as an unvaccinated passenger, he did have at least some immunity building up at the time.
In every common area and part of the ship where people of all ages could be, guests were required to wear masks unless actively eating or drinking.
There were some parts of the ship reserved for vaccinated guests only, including the lower levels of the theater and dining room and some bars. Masks were not required in those 12-and-up or adults-only areas.
Limitations on Our Cruise
Since our youngest wasn’t yet fully vaccinated, we were seated in the sparsely-populated third floor of the dining room (Deck 5) for our dinners.
Also, we were required to sit in the balcony seats for the evening entertainment. There’s really no bad seat in the house, although the illusionist would have been better to see up close. The cameras can only capture so much.
The biggest bummer, which was assuredly in the fine print that I hadn’t read, was the fact that unvaccinated kids could only leave the ship in Mexico as part of an official shore excursion.
That meant no wandering the streets or main square that my parents took me to once as a high-schooler and again as a college student on a family SCUBA trip.
Nevertheless, we were able to swim with sharks and rays with an excursion purchased in advance for a total of about $150 for the four of us. I think we could have easily snuck off on our own afterward before returning to the ship and no one from Royal Caribbean would have been the wiser, but when the potential pentalty is not being let back on the ship, that’s a risk we weren’t willing to take!
Our 11-year old has now has his second dose of Pfizer and will be considered fully vaccinated the next time we step foot on a cruise ship.
Are Cruisers Getting COVID?
Of course, cruisers can get COVID. Many measures have been put into place to lower the likelihood, but, as they say, the virus is going to virus.
Fortunately, when nearly everyone is vaccinated, the cases are generally breakthrough cases and milder in nature. They’re also not very common, and when the do occur, they tend to make headlines, like the recent outbreak that infected 17 individuals aboard the Norwegian Breakaway vessel. The first 10 identified were all asymptomatic; at this time, it’s unclear about the next 7, as this is currently a developing story, and it appears that the Omicron variant may be responsible.
While an outbreak is not a good look, it’s important to look at the data, and that’s what the CDC has been doing since the no-sail order was lifted this summer. In the first 2 months, 452 cases were reported out of a conservatively estimated 262,000 passengers, for a rate of 0.17% or less than one fifth of one percent. Read the full report here.
When I think about those odds as compared to the potential risk of other recreation, like attending an outdoor football game with no mask mandate or vaccine requirements, as millions of Americans, including me, chose to do a number of times this fall, cruising doesn’t feel like a terribly risky endeavor, even if it is riskier than staying home.
Would we cruise again during this pandemic?
Yes, indeed. In fact, we’ve booked two more for 2022.
We’ll get our chance to wander around Cozumel after all, just a few months later on a cruise out of Florida that straddles February and March.
Sometime in the fall, we’ll take a one-way flight to Europe, bounce around for a bit, and come back on a repositioning cruise from England to Florida with a handful of stops before making the long journey across the Atlantic.
If you’re interested in joining us on either itinerary, contact me, and I’ll share the details. Bonus points for those with middle-school-aged kids!
Cruising for Free
While some cruiselines do have their own co-branded credit cards, I think the best option to earn a free cruise is by accumulating flexible points that can be redeemed to cover travel expenses, and charges from cruiselines obviously qualify.
My recommendation would be to open either a Capital One Venture or Capital One Venture X card. The latter currently has a 100,000 point bonus good for $1,000 worth of travel reimbursement after spending $10,000 on the card in your first six months.
They also give you a $300 credit on travel booked via the Capital One Travel search engine, and they give you an annual point bonus of 10,000 points — a $100 value. That makes the effective fee -$5 ($5 in your favor) after your first year.
For a limited time, they’re also offering a $200 statement credit to cover any travel booked with Airbnb or VRBO. And, like the CSR, they also offer reimbursement of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓.
Up to $300 credit each year for travel booked on Capital One Travel, 10,000 bonus miles each account anniversary ($100 value). Unlimited Priority Pass Lounge Access, $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓ credit. $395 fee can be more than offset with travel credit & annual point bonus
Whether you pay for some or all of your cruise with a new card or not, I hope to see you on the open seas soon!
If you’d rather wait until this entire pandemic is behind us, I can’t blame you. Here’s hoping that we might be talking about this coronavirus as endemic rather than a pandemic by the time we cruise back from Europe in November of 2022.
Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.