(10 a.m. EDT) -- Consistent and practical health protocols are the key for safe cruising in times of COVID-19. Several mainstream cruise lines in Europe have been sailing for a number of weeks now -- so far without a single incident.
As we discuss the health protocols, one thing needs to be mentioned as well: From our experience, the overall vacation experience on both ships was not too far from what we knew from before the pandemic. It is cruising with most of its highlights still in place -- even with some new perks.
Mask wearing policies, no buffet in the restaurants and limitations with shore excursions, though, are things we’ll obviously have to get used to at least for the near future.
Here's our breakdown on the key differences in terms of new health and safety protocols on both lines.
Low Passenger Loads, Lots of Individual Space
While cruise lines are aiming for around 60 to 70 percent of the regular passenger load, both ships at this time are sailing with only about 25 percent. On MSC Grandiosa: 1,200 passengers out of a regular capacity of 4,842, on Costa Deliziosa: 700 out of 2,828.
Practically this means even during the day you’ll have a fair chance for one of those few wide, comfortable sun beds right at the pool waiting just for you. There are no lines at the reception desk, while Costa doesn’t even have a guest services desk anymore but offers all services by phone to minimize close contacts. And the crew provides service on a level not observed on these ships before.
And while social distancing is of little concern under these conditions, there are still a lot of details around the ship to maintain social distancing, just in case. On Costa Deliziosa this is more eye-catching in terms of size and color of the signs than on MSC Grandiosa. Both ships for example do have markings for walking directions on the floor, maximum occupancy signs for pools, elevators and lounges.
Some places do have separate entry and exit routes like the buffet restaurants. There is no service directly at the bars but only at the lounge tables where every second seat is blocked to keep the distance. Sun chairs on the pool deck are separated from each other pair-wise.
Similar Protocols With Significant Differences
The health protocols of Costa and MSC do have a lot in common as they both have to comply with Italian regulations. But they also show significant differences mostly depending on different technological setups and features of the two ships.
The most obvious example is this: Contact tracing is considered as one of the key factors in safety. In case of an outbreak, close contacts of the infected person need to be tracked down and quarantined. To avoid a lockdown of the whole ship, contact tracing needs to be accurately documented for the local authorities.
The 2019-built MSC Grandiosa has an excessive passenger tracking system from the beginning, based on Bluetooth and NFC technology amongst others. The ten years old Costa Deliziosa uses transactional data instead: a passenger’s location and contacts can be traced through the use of their cabin card, e.g. for purchases at a shop, ordering a drink at the bar, card scanning at the restaurant table, checking in to the fitness studio or the theater.
Check-in and Testing
But the most important goal is not letting the virus on board in the first place. Crew go through a multi-level procedure of testing and quarantine. All passengers undergo a rapid antigen test at the cruise terminal prior to check-in. Those coming from a risk country additionally must present a negative PCR test not older than 72 hours.
This makes the check-in process more time consuming, one to one-and-a-half hours in total and includes these additional protocols:
- temperature checks when entering the terminal
- swab test
- waiting in boarding groups, with social distancing and mask on for the tests results
- cruise documentation and passport checks as usual
- MSC performs a disinfection of hand luggage prior to boarding and hands out a tracking wrist band to be used throughout the cruise and on excursions
There are predefined check-in times assigned to each passenger and the cruise lines request to strictly stick with these time slots to avoid crowding in front of the terminal. Both cruise lines embark passengers in several ports, called “interporting”, which significantly reduces the number of embarking guests as well.
A negative result of the PCR test gives the green light for boarding. Otherwise, boarding will be refused and local health authorities take over over, deciding how to proceed.
Dealing With the Remaining Risk
A second pillar besides the testing is further reducing the already low risk by preventing the spread of the virus in case an infected person is not identified before entering the bubble.
These rules and measures are what we experience most significantly on board, like mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowds as well as excessive cleaning, disinfecting and efficient ventilation of indoor spaces. This is implemented by a well-coordinated system of dozens if not hundreds of details.
Wearing a mask, or not?
Do I have to wear a face mask during the cruise? The answer is: yes. Masks are required whenever social distancing can’t be maintained, indoors or outdoors. What sounds like wearing a mask all day long, in reality it is by far less intrusive. People wear masks when walking from A to B, but as soon as they’re sitting down somewhere, the mask is off. Only exemptions are in the theater and during shore excursions where masks are required all the time.
In our observation, most people even wear a mask outdoors when walking around. Everyone is getting used to these lightweight surgical masks that the cruise lines even provide to the cabin for free. Eventually it's more convenient to just leave the mask on instead of constantly think about it and taking it on and off depending whether someone else is close by or not.
Wearing a mask simply is not a big deal anymore for most and discipline is very high as observed on both, MSC Grandiosa and Costa Deliziosa.
A noticeable difference is the type of mask that are worn by the crew: MSC strictly requires FFP2/N95 from their crew while for Costa crew surgical masks are fine. On both ships crew wear masks all the time, even early in the morning when setting up the deck chairs at the pool deck with nobody else around.
Shore Excursions: Only Pre-Booked, With the Cruise Line
Probably the most limiting aspect of cruising in these times: There are no independent shore excursions. Passengers can go on land only in groups, booked through the cruise line and with the same strict bubble concept as on board. Costa even requires an antigen test from all bus drivers and guides prior to the excursion.
Wearing a mask is required throughout the whole excursion, even outdoors. Besides that, shore excursions are pretty much the same as before, except that there is no free roaming time, not even quick souvenir shopping or a cone of ice cream from a street vendor. On most of their excursions, Costa offers a brief stop at a designated souvenir shop, though.
No kidding: Guests who separate from their excursion group will not be allowed back on the ship. MSC as already demonstrated taking this rule very seriously, leaving those non-conforming passengers behind in the port of Naples a few weeks ago.
No Self-Service at the Buffet
Self-service in buffet restaurants does not exist anymore on cruise ships in these days. Costa completely skips buffets and only offers service at the table. MSC still has the buffet where people can line up in roped-off lines with defined walking directions. The buffets are fenced off with plexiglass and crew members are handing the food over the counter on request.
In the main restaurants, seating is assigned usually on smaller tables where only families or travel companions with the same booking number are seated together while there is significantly more distance between the tables than before.
For the menus, you’ll find a QR code on the table to be scanned with the smartphone which downloads the menu as a PDF file. The same is true for bar menus. MSC still offers printed menus in the specialty restaurants which are being disinfected after every use.
There are a lot of details that have changed in the pandemic, most of them little things easy to follow and some you won’t even recognize much anyway. Here is what else is relevant to know:
- Spa treatments are available, masks in most cases are required; Costa requires spa therapists to wear gloves when a treatment requires skin-to-skin contact.
- Wellness Areas: Thalasso pool and sauna are closed on Costa Diadema while the sauna is available on reservation on MSC Grandiosa
- fitness studio: no masks required as only every second training machine is in use; MSC requires reservation while Costa only asks for scanning the cabin card in and out.
- Parties: there is no disco or dance party like “White Night” on the Costa ship while MSC performs partys preferably open air on the pool deck with masks and some basic social distancing
- Kids Club: open but limited access restricted the parents and kids with prior reservation and reduced capacity
- Muster Drill: MSC reduces the time spent at the drill in the theater to a minimum; Costa performs “smart drills” where passengers check-in at their muster station in a given time frame independently, receiving a quick safety briefing on location plus watching the safety video in their cabin.
- Daily Programs: Costa only provides the daily program electronically via the smartphone app
- Theater Shows: MSC requires reservation via the smartphone app, Cirque du Soleil is not performing at this time; Costa doesn’t have free choice of seats but requires seating in the order of arrival at the theater; proper distancing is maintained through blocked seats.
- MSC requires body temperature checks at several occasions during the day; Costa performs mandatory checks when entering and leaving the ship
- cabin cleaning: fogging with virus-killing disinfectant prior to each cruise and daily disinfecting of the cabin
- Air Conditioning: MSC claims to provide 100 percent fresh air and no re-circulation; on the Costa Deliziosa re-circulation is reduced to a minimum according to Costa, using “highly efficient filters”
Covid-19 rules require more individual responsibility and discipline from the guests. But cruising is still this easy-going, carefree type of vacation we know from before the pandemic.
With testing 100 percent of crew and passengers, consistent acceptance of mask wearing, proper social distancing and keeping passengers and crew in a temporary bubble throughout the voyage, a cruise ship appears to be a much safer environment than supermarkets, subways or restaurants on land where all this is not maintained consistently and general testing is not done at all.
On a personal note, after coming back from my short cruises on the MSC Grandiosa and Costa Deliziosa, it was a strange experience on land, encountering all these mask-under-the-nose people, not caring about social distancing in public spaces. I’ve been feeling safe and comfortable on the ships, but I don’t on land.