Curious what it's like to take a cruise during omicron? You're in luck: Cruise Critic is wrapping up a five-day Mexican Riviera cruise on Carnival Radiance, Carnival's recently refurbished ship, and I'm prepared to spill the tea.
The last few weeks have been tricky for the cruise lines. While ships restarted sailing in the U.S. last June, the various COVID-19 surges have made people wary of many forms of travel. The fast-spreading omicron variant, in particular, upended the holidays, which are a traditionally strong time for family cruises. And while the virus is reaching its peak in some U.S. cities, the cruise industry has still been adversely affected.
Even the most loyal Cruise Critic readers are in wait-and-see mode, according to our recent survey. Our message boards are full of questions, particularly after recent CDC actions. So we did what Cruise Critic does best -- get on a cruise ship to see how things are right now. Our sailing left Los Angeles, stopping in Catalina Island, California and Ensenada, Mexico, and included one full day at sea.
On paper, this sailing on the newly updated Carnival Radiance (previously Carnival Victory), looks like any other pre-COVID cruise. The buffet features self-serve food and drink stations; nightly theater and comedy shows are in full swing; karaoke, bingo and other favorite cruise activities are on the schedule; restaurants, cafes, bars and specialty restaurants are all operating as expected; kids clubs are alive with stomping and giggles; and the spa is offering treatments and pamper parties.
Zooming in, the only notable differences are that people are all masked up -- and there are a lot fewer people.
Carnival Cruise Line confirmed that 800 people were sailing, on a ship with a capacity for 2,764 (there are 1,502 crew, which is an excellent ratio for service). The incredibly low capacity of this sailing has been felt in every corner of the cruise experience.
Make no mistake: It has been incredible.
Not only has the low number of passengers made it a cinch to physical distance, but it's also created the most relaxed and carefree vibe I've yet to experience on a Carnival ship. There are no lines at the bar or cafe restaurants, no long waits to be served on the pool deck, dinner and spa reservations are readily available, there is no need to circle tables in the dining room in the buffet like a shark (and no piles of empty dishes left sitting around to be picked up) and the hot tubs aren't overflowing with people.
We're not the only passengers who were happy to find the ship at a fraction of its overall capacity -- it was on the lips of almost everyone we've spoken to. The vibe has been less frantic, more fun and relaxed, and, as a sailing during COVID-19, the extra space between passengers seems to have taken the edge off of any lingering pandemic paranoia.
The ship is lively, but not quite up to the energetic party level that some Carnival Cruise lovers expect, though no one on this sailing seems to mind. Everyone just genuinely seems happy to be here, on a cruise, enjoying what feels like a true, if temporary, escape from the chaos on land.
Because the ship's masking rules mirror those back home in Los Angeles, they've barely caused me to bat an eyelash. Masks are required onboard whenever you're in a public indoor space, regardless of vaccination status. However, the constant masking-up would likely be more noticeable for cruisers from cities or states without local mask mandates.
Know that Carnival Radiance leaves no room for playing the ignorance card when it comes masking rules. KN95 masks are waiting for passengers in their rooms, and it's practically impossible to walk anywhere on the ship without tripping over signs reminding passengers to mask up or how to properly wear and care for a mask. The messaging must be working because, although we haven't noticed anyone enforcing the masking policy, nearly every single passenger we've seen has been diligently wearing a mask and even honoring the "slip and sip" method of pulling a mask down only to actively drink while at a show or venue event.
Similarly, passengers seem to be taking it upon themselves to physically distance. There seems to be an unspoken understanding (or maybe it's just habit) to sit or lounge with adequate distance. Again, this wouldn't be possible if the ship were closer to full capacity.
To top it off, the ship's fully masked staff are constantly cleaning and wiping down surfaces and frequently used furniture. They are so on top of it, that I've yet to see an abandoned cup or crumpled napkin.
We've heard little about COVID-19 since we've been onboard. If there are positive cases or people in quarantine, it's not broadcast to guests. The ship does remind people over the intercom to mask up, particularly while visiting port cities.
There have been a lot of concerning reports about ships sailing with fewer onboard activities, no theater shows or other changes to the onboard experience we're used to and expect. This has not been the case on Carnival Radiance.
Although everything onboard has been in full swing, it's not to say there haven't been tweaks to make it all a bit more COVID-19 safe. The first night, we spent the 10-minute wait for our table in the main dining room watching karaoke in the nearby lounge. Spectators were masked, disinfecting wipes were onstage at the ready and everyone was having a blast. By the time our table was ready, we made a mental note to give it a go ourselves on the mic the next day.
The dining room was sporadically peppered with guests, though the spacing seemed less planned and more arbitrary. At 7:30 p.m. on elegant night, the dining room looked to be less than 40 percent full. Seating at last night's visit to the Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse was also spaced out with at least a table between parties.
The main dining room has options for both flexible and assigned dining times. Those who opt-in for an assigned time can specify if they'd rather have a private table or be grouped with other cruisers.
Entertainment on the cruise has not been stalled. The daily activities are robust and places like the casino and comedy club have drawn large crowds. In fact, the late-night comedy show we attended played to a full house -- everyone diligent about masking -- making it the largest number of people we were around at one time for the entire cruise.
As far as I can tell, there's been no snag in daytime or nighttime activities, from the rushing waters of the Waterworks slide and outdoor Dive-In Movies to the themed deck dance parties and sing-a-longs at Piano Bar 88. Even the gym, fitness classes and spa's thermal area were open and operating (including a clearly marked "vaccinated only" dry sauna). Vaccinated passengers are not required to wear a mask during their spa treatments, and, though required in the thermal area and gym, these two areas had the most sightings of people not wearing masks.
All-in-all, I did not feel the need to modify my own activities onboard. I exercised the same risk assessment I would back on land, and even found myself feeling more relaxed in certain situations, knowing that the cruise ship had such a high vaccination rate.
Shore excursion experiences aren't too far off what you'd normally experience. The main difference being that you were required to wear a mask. As a fully vaccinated passenger, I had the choice of booking a guided excursion or visiting both Catalina Island and Ensenada at my leisure. Unvaccinated passengers were required to book a Carnival-sponsored bubble tour to leave the ship.
I opted to walk around on my own in Catalina but joined a group food and drink tour in Ensenada. Aside from the masking rules, which included whenever we were on the small bus or in an indoor public space, there were no telltale signs that the excursion experience would be any different during non-pandemic times. The whole experience felt refreshingly normal.
No matter how many safety protocols are in place, some risk, of course, is involved in traveling during the pandemic, and, ultimately, everyone is responsible for making their own choices and calculating their own feeling of safety. As someone who has been extra cautious throughout COVID-19, the choice to sail during omicron came down to the trifecta of protocols required by cruise ships – high vaccination rates of at least 95%, pre-cruise PCR and rapid testing and mandatory masking in indoor areas.
However, I can confidently say that this cruise has been one of the only true feelings of escape and normalcy I have experienced in the last year.
For more on my Carnival Radiance experience, visit the Cruise Critic boards where we're taking questions about what it's like to cruise during omicron.
Updated January 21, 2022