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What's It Like Being Back on Royal Caribbean? We Answer Your Cruise Questions About Being Back Onboard

Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Jun 21, 2021

Read time
16 min read

The first Royal Caribbean cruise in North America, Adventure of the Seas, went off without a hitch last week, returning with a weeklong sailing from Nassau, in The Bahamas.

As I wrote in my live stories, the line's comeback came with plenty of emotion and excitement from the passengers onboard. The initial boarding processes went well, even without a real terminal in Nassau, and the two days spent at Perfect Day at CocoCay represented everything that Royal is so good at.

Finally, we documented the comeback of Cozumel cruise favorite, Senor Frog's, and sat down with Matt Hochberg of the Royal Caribbean Blog to talk about some changes.

But we realize that people still have a lot of questions about these first few Royal Caribbean cruises. With that in mind, we've drawn up a Q and A, where we try to answer your burning questions. Also keep in mind that cruise protocols are still in flux, and things could change without a lot of advance warning.

How many passengers were on your sailing? How full was the ship?

The official count for the June 12 cruise came in at 1,068 people. How you judge capacity depends on if you take the ship's double occupancy figure -- 3,114 passengers-  or how full the ship can be if every stateroom has a family with kids in it --  3,800.

Either way, you are looking at a much lower capacity than usual – 34 percent or 28 percent. We're told that the sailing that boarded after us, on June 19, has even fewer people onboard, a little over 900. number of people onboard.

What was the vaccine policy and what percentage of people onboard were vaccinated?

For these sailings out of The Bahamas, all eligible passengers for vaccines over the age of 16 were required to have them (that age will lower to 12 in August). The crew were fully vaccinated. Given that the cruise does accept kids with proof of a negative COVID-19 test, approximately 94 percent of the ship ended up being vaccinated. For those who love math, that means there were about 64 kids onboard, give or take a few.

94 percent is lower than what the CDC has required for cruise ships in the U.S. that want to skip test cruises! Did it feel unsafe?

Not at all. Remember, all adults onboard were fully vaccinated. The only unvaccinated passengers onboard were kids, and they were required to wear masks indoors, unless they were eating and drinking.

As I've written before, I'm definitely in favor of fully vaccinated ships, but this cruise also made me realize that I would be OK with it if a higher percentage of young kids were allowed onboard, as long as they masked and followed protocols.

It's hard to get kids to wear masks! Were they really complying?

Yes, for the most part. While I did see a few kids without masks near the elevator a few times, I was actually pleasantly surprised at how well most seemed to adapt. Remember, kids have been wearing masks to go to school and in other public places in most parts of the country for months. The parents I talked to said it wasn't an issue.

The only time I really saw kids unmasked was in the buffet when they were eating and drinking; at the splash park, main pool and whirlpools in the main area; and at Perfect Day at CocoCay when we were all outdoors anyway.

Did you take a COVID-19 test before you boarded?

Yes, we took a rapid antigen test at the British Colonial Hilton, our de facto terminal, right before boarding. One thing that's great about sailing out of The Bahamas, as opposed to some other Caribbean islands such as St. Maarten, is that the government does not require a test to enter the islands if you've been vaccinated (unvaccinated kids do have to present a negative COVID-19 test result before they enter the country). The test before boarding is an extra layer of precaution that Royal has implemented and makes sense.

How did you show proof of vaccination?

Royal Caribbean is asking people to bring their original vaccine card with them. It was scanned during check in at the hotel. I also uploaded my vaccine card twice before I arrived – once for The Bahamas Health Visa, which you must fill out two weeks before your cruise, and once on my United Airlines app. (The latter is not required, I just wanted to do it so I could be entered into their contest to win a free trip).

Having the vaccine card came in handy at other points in The Bahamas. The island is currently restricting indoor dining to vaccinated people, and our hostess checked our cards at the Fish Fry before seating us.

What about this Health Visa? How much does it cost? Do you really need it?

Yes, The visa costs $40 and you can start the process two weeks before your trip. It's nothing to stress over, honestly – once I filled it out and uploaded my vaccine card documentation, it was approved within a matter of hours.

When I arrived at the United check in at Newark, the attendants asked to see it, and I had also uploaded it to my airline's app ahead of time. Pro tip: You can access the visa through a QR code on your phone, but it's much easier to print it out because you will have to show it at various points. Some people on my flight did not do their visa ahead of time, and they were directed to another line to get it processed; save yourself this hassle. The attendants put a sticker on a paper copy of your boarding pass that proves you have it (on connecting flights, you might be asked to come up to the gate attendant and show it there).

You show the visa again when you go through immigration in The Bahamas. Finally, we showed it again when we checked into our hotel, the British Colonial Hilton. After that, you don't need it.

I usually sail from Florida. Was it a huge hassle to cruise from Nassau instead? What were the flights and airport like?

Given that Nassau is a new homeport for Royal Caribbean, I was expecting some hiccups -- and was pleasantly surprised when I didn't have any. Sure, the flight to Nassau is an extra cost if you're used to driving to your port, but if you don't live in Florida, the cost of the airfare was less than I would have paid flying to Orlando.

My direct flight from Newark was smooth. There was a short 10-minute line at immigration. The Nassau airport had our bags out quickly and it was a quick $35 cab ride to our hotel. It maybe took 40 minutes.

The ship doesn't leave until 9 p.m. Does that mean I can fly in on embarkation day?

You can. There are numerous morning flights between Nassau and Miami (and at least one from Newark and New York). But we really don't recommend it. We saw many stressed-out social media posts on embarkation day about delayed and canceled flights. Save yourself the hassle and come in the day before.

Royal wants me to sign up for a certain check-in time, but I'd rather just show up when I feel like it. Cool?

No. The process is more structured because there are more processes to go through, such as the COVID test. The line is also trying to encourage social distancing and avoid crowds, so you are required to sign up for a check in time and stick to it. Our advice is to make sure you buy your flight first, so you can accurately gauge a realistic check in time, and be prepared to be on time.

Ugh, this all sounds like it takes a lot of time.

It sounds that way, but it doesn't. Our full check in, from getting our nasal swab to taking the shuttle to the ship to walking down the pier, took 35 minutes. And that was the first sailing! While it could feasibly take longer as the ship allows more guests onboard, the process was all very smooth.

How was E-Muster?

Easy! And a huge improvement over the pre-COVID process. You watch the safety video on your phone or in your cabin, and visit your muster station to check in on your own time. So much better than having your embarkation day interrupted.

Let's talk food. What was the Windjammer buffet like?

This is one of the areas where I noticed the most changes. The buffet recommends reservations for breakfast and lunch, and your SeaPass card is scanned when you enter and leave for contact tracing purposes. Everything is served by crew members, from the food to the coffee and drinks. Seating is also marked off, with tables given room for people to socially distancing.

Wait, the servers make your coffee too?

Yep, not just in Windjammer but in Café Promenade as well. An attendant also gets your soft-serve cone for you near the pool deck and mans the soda machine down in the Promenade.

How is the main dining room?

Pretty much the same as you remember. The biggest difference here is that you're encouraged to use your phone and pull up the menus with a QR code. This goes for the specialty restaurants too, although you can ask for a paper menu if you'd like one.

With all of these tables blocked off, what do I do if I'm traveling by myself? Where can I eat dinner if the Windjammer is closed?

Cafe Promenade is open 24/7 and has a nice mix of food during day, as well as pizza (which seemed improved from the last time we were onboard Royal in Marrch 2020. At this time, the main dining room is only seating people together who have their reservations linked. There aren't big tables anymore where the maitre'd will seat you with strangers.

Izumi is a specialty restaurant, but it's also a nice option for solos. On Adventure, it's right on the Promenade, so you can see people walking by and feel like you're in the thick of things.

It sounds like you have to carry your phone with you a lot. Do you need to buy the Wi-Fi package?

You do not need to have the Wi-Fi package to access the Royal Caribbean app or use it onboard for menus or show reservations. And if you'd like a paper copy of the Compass -- we found that we wanted one -- you can get them at Guest Services or ask your cabin steward to put them out for you every night in your room.

I don't have a smart phone. What do I do instead?

You can still do everything the old fashioned way, but it will likely require a few trips to Guest Services. You can sign up for your Health Visa on your laptop at home and then print it out (I recommend doing this anyway). You can watch the e-muster drill on a TV in your cabin. You likely will have to go to guest services to sign up for your COVID-19 test to return to the U.S. You can always call from your room for restaurant and show reservations.

But yeah, it's a lot easier if you have a smart phone, that's for sure.

Were you able to see all the shows? What was the seating like in the theaters?

The theater and Studio B were two areas where it was obvious that capacity had been reduced. Entire rows were blocked off for social distancing, and you could only sit in groups of two. You are asked to reserve shows when you're onboard.

That being said, the ship added more shows than usual during the week. We saw three shows in total -- the dance production, a special guest musician and the ice show -- and never had a problem getting in, either with or without a reservation.

Are there other areas onboard with reduced capacity and a reservation requirement?

Yes. Both the fitness center and the kids club had a 16-person limit, with reservations enforced. On our sailing, it was pretty easy to show up on standby for both. But once capacity goes up, you're going to want to visit these venues on the first day to secure your spots.

The bars, too, have limited capacity, simply because seats are blocked off. You can't sit at the bar at all, anywhere on the ship, so if you want to sit for popular events like trivia in the Schooner Bar, you'll want to get there on the early side.

We noticed that the ship kept adjusting to avoid crowding -- a popular singer in the pub was moved to the larger Imperial Lounge, for example.

What was the casino like?

Just like the arcades and the fitness machines, the slots were shut evey other one to encourage distancing. People were also seated on every other seat at the table games, and the craps table had restricted people on each side. You did not need a reservation.

**What's the elevator situation? Did you have to wait a lot?

SIgns tell you to restrict the number of people in the elevator to either four at a time, or members of your own party. I didn't notice any issues or long waits, mainly because there were no real times when there were huge crowds anywhere (remember, the shows have reduced capacity so you don't have a ton of people pouring out of the theater at any one time).

Are the crew wearing masks? Was that weird?

Yes, the crew were all wearing masks, but it wasn't weird. Most restaurants and bars where I live still have servers in masks, so it seems pretty in line with COVID regulations on land. Royal has all crew wear a button (or badge, if you're in the UK), with a full face photo on it. It was still very easy to hear people. You'd be surprised by how much humor and personality still comes through, particularly with the outgoing Activities staff.

Musicians and entertainers do not have to wear masks during their shows. Plexiglass spit screens are put up during their performances. In the Studio B ice rink and theater, no one was allowed to sit in the front row.

Did you have to wear a mask in port? Could you book your own shore excursions?

Yes, because we were a vaccinated sailing, we could go off on our own in port. But it's important to note that other countries are way behind the U.S. in terms of their own vaccination rate, so you will be subject to their protocols. In both Mexico and The Bahamas, we were required to wear a mask outdoors and in public places, except when eating and drinking.

Did you have to get a COVID-19 test to get back into the U.S.?

Yes, and Royal Caribbean had us schedule this via a QR code. The antigen tests were given on the Thursday and Friday of our cruise. Again, the process was fairly seamless, and took place on the Deck 5 portion of the Dining Room. Results were sent via email (or the TrustOne app) within a few hours.

Besides seeing the results on your app, Royal provided a letter with the results in your cabin the night before you left. I uploaded a copy to my United app, and so I didn't have to present it at the airport. A friend of mine who didn't have the app was asked to show the paper results at the airport when she checked in.

Was debarkation a pain?

Nope! Again, we had a limited number of people onboard, but we put our bags out at 10 p.m. the night before, just like old times, and they appeared pier-side the next morning. Finding a taxi was extremely easy, and The Bahamas airport was not crowded at 8:30 a.m. (we were told it would get busier as the day went on). All in all, it took about 90 minutes to get from our cabin to the airport gate, mostly because the Nassau airport does not have TSA pre-check (although it does have Global Entry).

Were people able to do back to back cruises? What was that like?

Yes. About 70 passengers stayed on for another round. Instead of taking the rapid antigen COVID-19 test to get back into the U.S. on the Thursday and Friday of the cruise, they took theirs on that Saturday -- debarkation day -- instead. They did not have to leave the ship.

With so few people onboard, did it feel like a regular cruise? Did you like it?

Hey, my last cruise in April took place on a ship in Alaska with only seven people, so I like having space. I loved being back at sea on a big ship again for the first time in 15 months. Highlights included playing (and occasionally winning) a bunch of trivia games, seeing live music, watching the sun rise -- and set -- over the ocean, talking and laughing with the international crew and having a blast in port.

I'm sure you love cruising for different reasons. While the ship did lack large group events such as huge deck parties or Meet and Mingles, the fun Royal Caribbean vibe is still there. And I really loved being able to always get a deck chair at the pool.

Finally, the service was simply outstanding. From our steward Marlon to our main dining room server Cecilia to the Activity staff trio of Jhun, Grace and Felix, we had a blast laughing and talking with them, all of us thrilled to be back at sea.

C'mon, is there anything that you didn't like?

I do like sitting at a bar and meeting new people, so not being able to do that was a bit of a bummer. I also like being able to pop into Windjammer for a quick bite at dinner, so I didn't love that it was closed (but not forever, we were told it will reopen for dinner once the ship is around 65 percent capacity).

But these are very small things, in an industry that has gone through its roughest time. In short, we were honored to be part of cruising's return -- and I think you will be too.

Updated June 21, 2021
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