(1:55 p.m. EDT) -- Royal Caribbean returned to sailing from the United States this weekend with a cruise onboard Freedom of the Seas. The cruise was the first one from a U.S. homeport for the company since March 2020, when the pandemic effectively shut down the entire cruise industry.
It sure took some time -- and a whole lot of work -- to get here.
When Freedom of the Seas left its Miami homeport Friday, it had a celebratory sense of relief from passengers and crew alike. It also sailed away with some new health and safety protocols in place.
And while cruise ships have slowly been returning to the seas around the world, Freedom of the Seas is unique in that it is sailing with both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers aboard.
Royal Caribbean reports 93 percent of those onboard are considered vaccinated. All crew are completely vaccinated, so that percentage comes solely from the roughly 1,100 passengers sailing. It's worth noting that the cruise ship had more than 125 children onboard, making up the majority of that 7 percent of unvaccinated passengers. (Royal Caribbean says children routinely comprise about 10 percent of its passengers.)
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The cruising experience on Freedom of the Seas is different depending on whether you've been vaccinated. Here's what it's like sailing on a cruise ship with both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers onboard.
When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined two paths to resumption of sailing, Royal Caribbean chose the path that would allow it to return to sailing with families; more than 1 million children sail on Royal Caribbean ships each year, according to Mark Tamis, the cruise line's senior vice president of hotel operations.
The cruise line is running simulated voyages in partnership with the CDC and requiring all eligible passengers to be vaccinated. (In the state of Florida, there's an additional wrinkle because of a new law -- which went into effect July 1 -- that prevents businesses from requiring proof of vaccination of patrons. That means cruise ships leaving from Florida can't require passengers to be vaccinated.)
To work with this law and to comply with CDC mandates, Royal Caribbean made showing proof of vaccination voluntary -- though those who choose not to do so would be subjected to additional testing measures and restrictions.
In the era of COVID, new rules are in place designed to keep everyone healthy and safe while moving people through protocols as efficiently as possible. We saw them as soon as we arrived at the port of Miami on embarkation day.
To keep things moving smoothly, we had to show up specifically at our preselected window -- 2:30 p.m. for us. (Passengers who came early were directed to wait until their assigned time, though we saw employees ushering early birds in when lines were short.)
On entering the terminal, we were asked for either our PCR test or proof of vaccination. Passengers who declined to show proof of vaccination (and therefore considered unvaccinated) were required to have had a negative PCR test within three days of sailing. We showed our vaccination cards, and the greeter scanned them into the system, then handed us purple wristbands that would identify us as vaccinated for our trip.
Those who instead showed their PCR results were ushered to a waiting area where they'd have a rapid test done. Results came within 30 minutes, and those passengers were then able to board the ship.
Without need for a test, we were on the ship in less than 10 minutes after checking in. Neither group, vaccinated or not, faced long lines anywhere in the process, which was straightforward and involved a lot of helpful people pointing the way the whole time.
Masks are required onboard in all indoor spaces on Freedom of the Seas, except when passengers are eating, drinking or working out. Guests don't have to wear masks outdoors. And while we know some people balk at mask-wearing onboard cruise ships, the truth is, most of the time, you're participating in a mask-free activity. We found we really only wore masks to get to and from locations -- when we were walking around.
Freedom of the Seas has spaces designated for everyone, but it also has restricted use of some spots for only those guests who are vaccinated. Most of the spaces are those children wouldn't visit anyway, because they're adult zones.
Popular spots including the Solarium, the casino, the spa, R Bar, Schooner Bar, Chef's Table, Izumi, Pub and Viking Crown Nightclub are open only to vaccinated passengers. Additionally, Deck 3 of the main dining room is open only to vaccinated passengers. Guests spending time in those areas don't need to wear masks at all.
We grabbed dinner in Izumi, and it felt like one of the most normal things we've done in months. Being able to drop our masks as soon as we walked in was liberating. Sitting side-by-side with fellow passengers, watching as our hibachi chef flipped meat, veggies and rice was a blast that had us all laughing out loud, sharing in something special if only for its normalcy.
Still, it's clear why this space is on the vaccinated-only list; to enjoy it, social distancing isn't really possible as diners surround the chef and his hibachi grill. We're sure it will be a hit with kids, but for now, they'll have to wait.
Hours for the fitness center are restricted for those without wristbands: The gym is open to them two hours a day; once in the morning, once in the evening. (Unvaccinated passengers must wear masks while working out.) Both sessions are followed by a 30-minute sanitization period before opening again.
Entertainment and activities that require close contact -- like Quest and The RED Party -- are open only to vaccinated passengers.
Activities and spaces that are restricted are clearly marked with signs as well as outlined as such in the daily planner and on the app, which became an invaluable tool on our cruise.
Crew are enforcing -- kindly -- the protocols, and if they can't see your wristband, they'll ask you to show it. Unvaccinated passengers have a hole punched in their SeaPass cards, which are required to purchase drinks -- and anything else -- onboard. Crewmembers will also gently remind you to put on your mask if you've forgotten.
Royal Caribbean President and CEO Michael Bayley told journalists onboard that the CDC could be relaxing mask restrictions as soon as this week, so we expect rules on Freedom of the Seas -- and fleetwide -- could change rapidly.
Our cruise aboard Freedom of the Seas visited two ports: Nassau and Royal Caribbean's private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay.
In pre-COVID times, exploring ports on your own was always an option, but these days, it's not a given. Still, passengers who were vaccinated were allowed to explore Nassau on their own, heading off to Junkanoo Beach for some sand and cocktails or booking independent excursions.
Unvaccinated passengers were required to book shore excursions through the ship as a way to ensure the "bubble" remained unburst if they wanted to visit Nassau. Tamis told us Royal Caribbean added more excursion options aimed at families and covered a variety of price points, so as not to be an onerous restriction. Independent exploration, however, is not allowed for unvaccinated passengers at this time in ports like Nassau.
Because Perfect Day at CocoCay is a private port stop, run by Royal Caribbean, the company can ensure the bubble is adhered to, and therefore masks weren't required to be worn by any passengers.
Because all activities on Perfect Day are outdoors, vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers were able to explore the port freely. The only people wearing masks on Perfect Day at CocoCay were crewmembers. Incidentally, lines for the port's popular attractions, like the waterslides, were nonexistent on our sailing, thanks in part to the reduced number of passengers onboard (the ship typically can accommodate up to 4,500 people), and the fact that our ship was the only one in port.
Ahead of our sailing, we thought the difference in experiences for vaccinated vs. non-vaccinated would be significant, but in reality, we didn't really notice a disparity. Maybe that's because we didn't have any restrictions, but it's more likely that the cruise line and crew enforcing the protocols had run through the changes and were well-versed in ensuring everyone had a fun cruise.