Should I cruise now? That's the question many cruisers are asking for summer and fall 2021, as the industry restarts around the world.
Although there are still certain restrictions, in some cases life onboard is almost the same as pre-pandemic. On Celebrity's fully-vaccinated cruises on Celebrity Edge, for example, there is no mask-wearing and no physical distancing. On Carnival, they have even brought back the self-serve buffet!
There are also some changes for the better. Here we give our reasons why now is a great time to take a cruise.
All ships are sailing at a reduced capacity, depending on where in the world they are sailing. Carnival out of Texas has begun sailing at the upper limit of capacity, at around 75 percent full, whereas the U.K.-based cruise lines are at 50 percent or a 1,000 passengers (whatever is less), until July 19.
In Greece, however, government guidelines state that you must put aside five percent of cabins for any COVID-19 cases. Many ships are either choosing to set their own caps (Celestyal, for example, sails at 80 percent full); or are sailing at lower levels due to an inability to sell cabins to the US market.
Greece-based Celestyal Cruises is even using it in marketing material:
"More space to stretch out and relish your freedom. More time living in the moment, not waiting turn. More chances to smile and say cheese without sharing the spotlight. Sailing with reduced capacity has plenty of silver linings!"
And although fewer passengers is not good news for the line, it is for you and here's why:
Fewer people of course means less stress for the crew in dealing with passenger demands, and in theory faster service, though we have noticed that some ships are not fully crewed up and certain areas of the ship might be closed.
We have also noticed that crew are extra happy to be back onboard (see Number 10, below) after months away from the ship.
This is one of the biggest pluses being reported by passengers -- for bars, restaurants, the buffet, the Shore Ex desk, Reception, the theater, spa and crucially -- securing your sun lounger.
It's the same with port calls, fewer people means less hanging around to get off the ship and get onto waiting coaches. All in all, a much more pleasant experience.
Because the ships are still sailing with a lot of cabins empty and the lines need to make money, one way they are doing it is encouraging people to bid on suites at very reasonable prices -- so look out for offers!
You are with other people, which makes those who miss socializing happy, but it's in a safe environment. Because everyone onboard is fully vaccinated and has been tested multiple times, you feel much more comfortable meeting strangers, sharing the elevator and even attending the silent disco.
As we wrote last year, seeing Greek islands like Santorini and Mykonos in the midst of a pandemic (when cruises briefly restarted over the summer), was a bizarre experience -- no lines for the cable car and so few people in Fira.
And although it won't be as quiet this year as restrictions are lifting, it's still a great time to visit places that would normally be overcrowded, such as the aforementioned Greek islands, Dubrovnik, Barcelona and many Caribbean islands.
You'll also be met with a very warm welcome from the retailers and tour guides who have been on pause for 15 months, as we have discovered everywhere from Belfast to the Bahamas.
Missing the hit of live music? You'll find it at sea, whether that's on deck, in the main atrium or on stage. And on some ships (mainly U.S.-based ones such as Celebrity Edge and the Carnival ships out of Texas), you'll also find dancing like we did pre-pandemic, with silent discos and dancefloors reopened.
And if you've missed Broadway or London's West End, you can get your hit back onboard whether that's a genuine Broadway transfer such as on Anthem of the Seas out of Southampton, which has "We Will Rock You" onboard; or big theater productions such as "Life" onboard Celebrity Silhouette or live music in the form a tribute act Uptown Soul onboard Celebrity Edge.
Cruise lines have long pushed the idea that taking a cruise, with full board and lodging plus entertainment, is cheaper than a land-based vacation of similar length.
Well, this year that has absolutely proved to be true as holidaymakers from the U.S. to the U.K. opt for a "staycation" while there is still a degree of uncertainty surrounding travel.
As a result, demand is outstripping supply, so much so that either prices are sky high, or there is simply nothing available.
In addition, vacations right now in both the U.S and U.K. are very expensive, with airfare, car rentals and hotels. A cruise remains a relative bargain -- and one where you can control the costs.
"As international travel is very unclear at the moment and the fact that staycations are the holidays people are doing, this is a great way for people to experience a great holiday they might not have thought of before," Jo Rzymowska, Celebrity's vice president and managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, noted.
Cruise lines may not say it, but where else do you have to be double-jabbed to get onboard and show proof of a negative PCR test? Answer? Nowhere. Certainly not on an airplane, a train or a hotel. And it doesn't end there -- almost all crew are now vaccinated. Where else would you find your bar steward, restaurant server and masseur fully vaxxed? Answer? Very few places.
It's a lot better to get a spa service or a meal served from someone you know is vaxxed than going out to a restaurant or somewhere like Massage Envy where you have no idea.
Add the completely revamped ventilation systems onboard, constant deep cleaning, hand sanitisers everywhere, and still on many ships, mask wearing and social distancing, and you have one of the safest vacation choices in the world.
We have long said this, but it's very hard to beat the service levels on a cruise ship at any level, from your room steward right up to the Maitre' D and everyone inbetween. Well that's still the case (in fact even more so), but now you have an extra layer of service -- crew welcoming you back with palpable joy.
On many of the first cruises we have been privileged to sail on, crew have been clapping passengers back onboard, asking them how they are, telling them how much they missed them -- and we're not afraid to admit, there have been a few moist eyes in the process.
There is no better way to unplug after the 15 months of stress and uncertainty than enjoying the calming effects of the ocean. This has been proven scientifically of course (many people fall asleep listening to waves crashing on a beach), but we've found it too on the recent cruises we have been on. Whether that's staring out at the horizon, or finding a quiet nook with a view to read a book or being gently rocked to sleep, being out at sea (especially if you have switched your phone to "Airplane Mode") is a chance to reset and realign.
The pandemic is a once-in-a generation event and the effect it has had on many industries has been profound and far reaching, not least on the cruise industry, which has had to think long and hard about the future during the pause.
All of the above reasons to take a cruise right now can be wrapped up into this last reason -- the experience you will have onboard for the next few months will be unique, and will hopefully not happen again. Aligned to this, you can also be part of something bigger -- the restart of an industry you love.
Updated July 13, 2021