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Are cruises fun again? COVID rules have been eased, but some things may never go back to the way they were.

By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

As cruise lines rebuild their reputations, here are some suggestions from a pro to help you enjoy your trip to the fullest

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

In 2019, I discovered the joy of ocean cruising. I love the all-inclusive food and drink packages, the myriad of entertainment and the opportunity to experience different ports of call -- often seeing several different countries in a week or less.

I enjoyed my first cruise so much, I booked another to a different part of the Caribbean and bought a discount package for more cruises before I even left the ship.

Two short months later, COVID changed the world, both on land and at sea. The cruise industry shut down and my second planned excursion in 2020 was canceled.

Since then, my travel buddy Jeanie and I scrapped our plans for a second Caribbean cruise and decided instead on an Alaskan trip scheduled to set sail in September of this year.

"What? I wouldn't be caught on one of those floating petri dishes," many friends and family told me. When COVID numbers spiked again this past spring, we decided to rebook our Alaskan cruise, this time for September 2023.

Signs of a (slow) recovery

Since that time, Jeanie has had COVID, and with the reported easy transmission of the latest variant I'm leery once again about being out and about too much. However, it seems we are in the minority of cruise passengers.

Writers and others who track the industry for a living say that people are returning to this form of travel, an observation supported by financial filings by the three biggest cruise lines. Carnival (CCL) was back to 69% of capacity at the end of May, the end of its most recent quarter, up from 31% a year earlier; Royal Caribbean (RCL) was at 82% of capacity at the end of June, up from 27.5%; and Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCLH) was at 64.6%, compared with 58.1% a year ago.

"For the most part, everyone is thrilled to be back, and crew and passengers alike want to make it work," says David Yeskel, travel journalist and cruise expert for Cruise Guru, based in Santa Monica, California.

See: Royal Caribbean stock gains after disclosing bookings were 'significantly outpacing' pre-pandemic levels

People may be returning in part, due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropping its risk advisory for cruise ship passengers in March and issuing new guidelines in July.

Susan Stafford, co-founder of The Event Architects in Tallahassee, Florida, which books many event cruises for clients, says she was on a cruise in November 2021 and another in April 2022. Although the cruises were just five months apart, there was a world of difference.

Improving the passenger experience

In November, Stafford says, all passengers were required to mask and maintain social distancing while in any public space on the ship. Stafford adds the cruise in November wasn't as much fun as those pre-COVID. "They were at 50% capacity and there just wasn't the energy you find and love on ships," she says.

By April, however, the cruise line she sailed on (and declined to name) had relaxed its mask and some social distancing restrictions and streamlined vaccination requirements and boarding protocols.

"Three years ago, if you'd cruise, you check in at the dock and get your keys there," Stafford says. "They now don't want that many people herded into a waiting area together, so many allow you to check in and collect your keycards that are hanging on the door of your room."

Check out:Three common travel disasters and what to do about them

Ramping back up, cautiously

Most cruise lines also have digitalized the proof of vaccination documentation (although some still require you to show a hard copy at check-in) and negative COVID test results, which must be done 48 hours before boarding. The tests can be self-administered but must be remotely monitored.

For now, at least, passengers should prepare to produce proof of vaccination. Stafford says cruise lines currently allow few exemptions. The CDC recommends between 90% to 95% percent of passengers be vaccinated

"I did find with the loosening of restrictions, we were treated much more like adults on the April cruise," says Stafford. The cruise line she was on had also increased capacity to 75%, giving passengers the opportunity for more social interaction and shared energy one expects of the cruising experience. "It still wasn't crowded, but there were enough people to make it fun."

Stafford did note that on-ship stores no longer carry pain medication.

"If you have a headache, they don't want you taking a Tylenol," she says. "They want you to visit the infirmary immediately."

Medical experts mostly agree that COVID-19 and its variants are likely to be around for a long time, if not forever, much like the flu virus. Those who specialize in cruises say they expect cruise lines will keep protocols, at least for the next few years.

Also see:Health experts dismayed by President Biden's view that the pandemic is over: 'Hell no -- not even close'

So long, self-serve

Yeskel says a permanent change may be coming to the self-service buffets that allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers to step up and use the same serving utensils. "I don't know of any cruise lines doing that anymore," he says. "There are still buffets, but you are served by the staff."

While most cruise lines have relaxed mask rules, many still require staff to always wear them and passengers to keep them on in crowded theaters and other cramped spaces. "They want to stay in business, their priority is rebuilding their reputation," says Stafford. Some cruise lines have already committed to, or have installed, fresh air filters.

The CDC believes that cruise operators have the tools needed to prevent and manage coronavirus transmission on their ships so it recently shut down a digital dashboard that tracked viral outbreaks throughout the industry.

You might like: Looking to unplug? Here are 12 peaceful towns great for going off the grid

Tips from a professional

Still, it can pay to be cautious, especially when traveling abroad. Jeremy Clubb, founder of Rainforest Cruises, which puts together small ship and river cruise packages, offers these suggestions to help you enjoy your cruise to the fullest:

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a full-time freelance writer and author living in the Ozark Mountains. She is the founder and administrator for the public Facebook page, Years of Light: Living Large in Widowhood and a private Facebook group, Finding Myself After Losing My Spouse, dedicated to helping widows/widowers move forward.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, (c) 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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10-07-22 1238ET

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