If you put together a Venn diagram of what I like best about life -- both on and off a cruise ship -- it's being social, and the activities that enhance that.
Drinks at the bar? I'm there. Meeting strangers at a large dinner table? Love it. Gathering interesting people together into a trivia team that dominates the ship? Guilty, always.
COVID-19 and its social distancing requirements certainly put a crimp in my style at home; staying safe meant seeing almost no one beyond my immediate circle, for months. And when cruising resumed, along with stringent health protocols, I wondered – could this extrovert still remain social on a cruise, while continuing to keep a healthy distance?
I'm now three cruises in, sailing on Alaskan Dream Cruises out of Sitka, Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas from The Bahamas, and Celebrity Edge from Fort Lauderdale, with at least two more on tap for summer 2021. Here are my top tips on for those who draw their energy by being social with people around them:
If you want your cruise to feel as normal as possible, being vaccinated against COVID-19 is the most important first step. When you're vaccinated, you have more options in terms of cruise lines and ships, as most lines and ships have vaccine requirements. You'll also have the ability to ditch the mask in many areas of the ship, if not get rid of them entirely.
I was vaccinated for all three of my cruises, and simply having that peace of mind made it much easier to meet people. On my April cruise, being fully vaccinated was still new enough that it was an ice-breaker with my fellow passengers. We were all eager to shed off those lockdown requirements and talk to people other than our own families.
Cruise Critic editors have now been on ships around the world as they resume service -- and the ones that feel the most normal are those where all or most of the passengers onboard are vaccinated.
My June sailing on Celebrity Edge carried a minimum of restrictions. With 99 percent of the passengers onboard vaccinated -- save two dozen kids under 12 -- we were able to do all of the social activities that we loved before the pandemic. Within the span of week, we ate with strangers, sat at a bar to have drinks, participated in a group trivia and danced at a silent disco.
As the Celebrity Edge Atrium dance floor let loose, with the crowd singing along to the music, we experienced an overwhelming feeling of group joy – a term that the New York Times has dubbed "collective effervescence." This fizzy bubbly emotion of being one with others in a group setting had been sorely missing during the pandemic, and it was only during a cruise where I got it back.
Your chances of having a more normal and social experience onboard also go up when you are visiting a location where the vaccine rate is similar or on par with the U.S. While Greece has been open to vaccinated cruisers, passengers still have to wear a mask for much of the experience, both onboard and onshore, because of that country's regulations. Islands that are open to visit on one sailing might be closed on another.
Travelers to Alaska's Inside Passage will encounter towns that, in general, have some of the higher vaccination rates in the state. It was in Sitka in April where I ventured into my first bar since the pandemic began. Our group, comprised of friends just made among passengers and crew onboard the cruise, sat together, socially distanced from the rest of the patrons. But it still felt novel and exciting and social.
(What's tricky in summer 2021 is that COVID-19 rates can change. The Delta variant has caused COVID-19 cases to spike in Alaska this summer, even in heavily vaccinated towns in the Inside Passage. It's the same story on the party island of Mykonos, in Greece, which went into a snap lockdown in July to try and contain the virus. In these cases, it's almost safer to stay onboard, in the cruise ship bubble, than venture onshore, or take a cruise ship-sponsored excursion).
As with cruising before, you are more likely to find people you want to socialize with if you share activities in common. Trivia sessions often draw similarly minded cruisers, and you tend to see the same people at each event.
Before the pandemic, it was fairly common for me and my companion to invite someone to join us. On my Adventure of the Seas sailing, however, we were discouraged from having a team with people outside our immediate traveling group.
But that didn't mean we couldn't stay social. Because we attended many sessions, always sitting in the same seats, we ended up seeing many of the same teams over and over again. So it became a friendly competition that satisfied our social itch, while remaining distanced.
If you're the type of person who likes to hang at the bar and meet people, we're sorry to say that at least in summer 2021, cruisers are no longer able to belly up and share some laughs on some ships. On Adventure of the Seas, the seats by the bar were marked off, forcing patrons to sit at separate tables and have waiter service. Same story on Celebrity Silhouette's new bar, Craft Social, and the popular Sunset bar -- waiter service only (though this seemed to be relaxed at the Martini Bar, where we sat and met people).
But that's ok. The pub on our ship had tables that went out into Adventure's Grand Promenade, making it easy to sit adjacent to other people and be social, while distant. Beyond the pub, we found that many people were using the spots along the Grand Promenade, such as Café Promenade, for similar socially distant meeting spots.
For an extrovert, there's nothing more fun than asking to be seated at a large table with other people during a cruise. Sure, they could be annoying. But it's a one-and-done scenario; if the convo is awkward, you never have to see them again (and you just might meet your new BFF).
On Adventure, however, parties were not allowed to mix. The set-up hurt solo travelers in particular, and it did make the large Main Dining Room seem a bit sad. The buzz just wasn't there.
Our socially distant solution? Dinner at Izumi, the ship's sushi restaurant on the Grand Promenade. Even though we were still at our table for two, the space was smaller, which made it seem more lively. And it opened up to people walking by, so it seemed more like a sidewalk café.
FWIW, we didn't experience the same lack of energy on our Celebrity Edge sailing. That's because the ship has four smaller main dining rooms, as opposed to one large one. So the restaurants automatically felt more "normal," even if the ship overall had fewer people.
Even on ships with a mixed passenger base, you're allowed to take your masks off when you are outside. So naturally, you're going to gravitate and have more satisfying encounters when you're on the pool or sundeck.
On Celebrity Edge, we found some of our better conversations took place on the Retreat Sundeck. While the loungers were socially distanced, the overall space was intimate enough that you ended up seeing the same people every day -- which naturally leads to better social interaction.
We saw many people chatting it up in the Solarium, as well. While hot tubs and pools do have capacity limits, people felt safer when they were outdoors. On Royal Caribbean ships with a mixed group of vaccinated and unvaccinated, these Solarium areas are restricted to people who have received vaccines, which also leads to peace of mind.
Shore excursions are tricky in this current era. Some ships require you to stick with the bubble and take their excursions, while others allow you to explore the destination on your own. The actual rules can also change on a dime, depending on what the requirements are in the country, as well as their COVID-19 infection and vaccination rates are within a destination.
Masking is fairly standard in other countries at this point, even if you don't have to wear them onboard. Both Mexico and The Bahamas on Caribbean cruises require masks to be worn when you're in port and shopping, no matter what your vaccination status.
But once you get to your outdoor destination, you are generally able to drop the mask. On my Celebrity Edge sailing, we were able to socially distance at the ruins of Chacchoben, walking freely on our own and able to marvel over the ancient Mayan world with our fellow passengers. In The Bahamas, we bonded at the Blue Lagoon resortwith our fellow passengers dodging the rain. We also made friends in Cozumel on the day that Senor Frog's opened for the first time since the pandemic began.
In the end, there's nothing like a cruise to meet fun people. While you have to work a bit harder with current social distancing practices, it's still possible for extroverts to get their energy fix.