I’m on the first big-ship cruise in North America in more than a year; here’s what it’s like
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I’m currently onboard Celebrity Millennium. That might not mean anything to someone who’s unfamiliar with cruising, but this sailing is significant because it’s the first large, mainstream ship to allow American passengers back onboard since the COVID-19 pandemic forced an industry shutdown more than 15 months ago.
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Why it matters
This first voyage of Celebrity Millennium kicks off the rebirth of an industry that has had to fight its way back from “floating petri dish” stereotypes and financial burdens that have caused cruise lines to take on billions of dollars in debt and scrap old hardware.
But, in this case, it’s old hardware that’s leading the charge. In early 2019, Celebrity Millennium underwent a refurbishment to the tune of $90 million — a sizeable investment for a ship that’s more than 20 years old. It has left the ship feeling shiny and new again.
I booked the trip because, for me, it’s the rebirth of a decade-long travel writing career that has focused almost exclusively on the cruise sector. (The fact that Celebrity matched my status with Royal Caribbean and offered me quadruple points on the booking was just a nice bonus.) But, for as much as I love cruising, I was terrified of being back on board.
Why would someone who has spent hundreds of days at sea, and who knows that ships have been clean and safe since before coronavirus became a household word, be nervous?
It wasn’t the threat of illness that scared me. Having spent months familiarising myself with the details of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s initial No-Sail Order and subsequent Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, I was anxious that the level of required protocol for North American voyages — even ones like this, where foreign port departures mean the CDC has no jurisdiction — would detract from the onboard experience I know and love.
In the following sections, I’ll highlight the changes I’ve seen in everything from pre-cruise prep and terminal operations to boarding and the onboard vibe.
Changes in pre-cruise prep
In order to even reach the ship, I had to meet the requirements for entry to St Maarten, which include proof of both full vaccination and a negative COVID-19 PCR test (no older than 120 hours prior to arrival). I also had to obtain approval to enter via the country’s Electronic Health Authorization System (EHAS).
Tip: When travelling, having paper copies of any verification needed (test results, application approvals, travel insurance, etc.) can save a ton of time. We saw lots of people holding up lines while fumbling with their phones. Keep in mind that, if you’re flying, your airline can deny you boarding if you don’t have all of the documents required by your destination country.
Changes at the terminal
After my flight, I took a cab to the cruise terminal and checked my bag — a process that remains unchanged from the pre-COVID days.
I was directed to sanitise my hands and make my way to the health screening area, which consisted of numbered sections of chairs, where passengers could sit for agents to take their information. My agent asked to see my proof of vaccination and negative PCR test results. She then took photos of them with an iPad before fitting me with a wristband.
Changes at the gangway
I checked in the day prior to embarkation via the Celebrity smartphone app, so, after my health check, I was able to breeze through the terminal, straight to the gangway, using my digital Express Pass. At the gangway ramp, my temperature was taken, and I was ushered onto the ship, where my pass was scanned, along with my carry-on luggage. Again, this process was the same as always, with the exception of the temperature check.
From there, two lines of crew and officers — some tearful — flanked the usual walk from the metal detector to the elevators. As I passed by, there were claps, cheers and smiles all around, and calls of “Welcome back!” have been a common refrain for the past two days.
OK, time for answers to the biggest question you have: How have cruise lines adjusted to make sailings safer for passengers, and how do the new rules affect the holiday experience?
I’m thrilled to report that I actually think the vibe has been enhanced by the yearlong hiatus. In a “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” sort of way, everyone is legitimately happy to be here — crew and passengers alike. People are smiling more. They seem more thankful, more courteous and more willing to roll with the punches.
Here’s where things stand on the major bones of contention:
- Vaccination is required for all passengers 16 and older. (For sailings departing on or after 1 August, that changes to all passengers 12 and older.) Original vaccine cards are required as proof.
- All passengers, regardless of vaccination status, must show proof of a negative PCR test result that’s no more than 72 hours old. (Note that this is different from the St. Maarten-specific requirement of 120 hours.)
- Masks are required for crew while onboard, but they are not required for passengers who are vaccinated. Anybody younger than 16 who is unvaccinated still has to wear one when in public areas. (This one has been an adjustment for me and many other passengers. Overall, though, it’s freeing.)
- The cruise line does not require ship-sponsored excursions unless the ports it’s visiting do. On this sailing, we’re permitted to go ashore on our own in Aruba and Curacao but not in Barbados.
- Celebrity provides branded masks and hand sanitiser in each cabin, which is thoughtful. There are also tons of additional hand sanitising stations throughout the vessel.
- Additionally, Celebrity has added handwashing stations to buffets on all ships that didn’t previously have them. They’re convenient, and attendants are on hand to make sure you scrub your digits before you eat.
- Speaking of the buffet, it’s open, but food is no longer self-serve. (Oddly, you can still grab drinks yourself.)
- Capacity onboard is reduced to less than half, so the ship feels uncrowded.
- Reminders about social distancing and handwashing/sanitising abound throughout hallways and elevators, in the theatre and at customer service desks.
- Passengers now have to complete their muster drills virtually within a certain window of time, either on their cabin TVs or via the Celebrity phone app. After completing the steps, cruisers must then physically report to their muster stations for verification. (A crew member will take your cabin number and place a sticker on your keycard.) Overall, the process took me less than 10 minutes, including my walk to my assembly station.
- There are no specific social distancing requirements in the theatre or restaurants, but cruisers with set dining times are no longer seated with passengers from different travel groups unless it’s specifically requested.
- Crew are constantly cleaning. At every turn, they’re wiping down handrails, elevator buttons and other high-touch areas.
- Stronger HVAC filters have been put in place to help with particulates.
Ultimately, I’m impressed with how seamlessly Celebrity has implemented its new requirements and how safe and, frankly, normal this cruise feels. Socializing without masks and being able to hug old friends is wonderfully liberating after a year of restrictions in most places.
The biggest headaches, in my opinion, came pre-cruise, when I struggled to schedule my PCR test and ensure my paperwork was all in order. So far, everything else has been easy and enjoyable.
Last night, I excused myself from dinner and went to one of the ship’s top decks to find a quiet, secluded spot to watch sailaway. As we slowly pulled away from the dock in St. Maarten, I cried. Hard. Throughout the pandemic nightmare, my general mantra has been “Someday things will be back to normal.” As Celebrity now says, “Someday is here.”
Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.
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