Dip a COVID-cautious toe in cruise waters

We maintain a COVID-cautious* household as the third pandemic summer waxes. Where one member of our family is at high risk, we all choose to modify our daily behaviors to continue to protect him.

This is a cost of multi-generational living, though I find the personal and familial benefits of sharing our home with an elder abundant and easily justified. Since we can afford all the masks and testing we need, expending this trivial effort is well worth it. That’s the calculus in our home.Disposable surgical mask

Given our status, then, as “more careful than most,” it may surprise some that we plan to embark on a cruise with our teens in a little more than a month. Cruising, after all, gave the world its first widely reported COVID-19 super-spreader event.

Read a CDC research paper on the epidemiology of the Diamond Princess outbreak in February 2020 here.Cruise line booking page headlined 37 days before you leave with photos of Icelandic ports

There’s no doubt that the closed environment of a cruise ship offers a unique opportunity for certain germs to infect a captive audience of susceptible passengers. Many minds will leap immediately to norovirus. In truth, however, norovirus is common everywhere, but an outbreak is much more noticeable when a group of thousands travels en masse for seven or more days and management is required to track cases on board.

Similarly, though COVID-19 is definitively joining current passengers on cruise ships—in spite of requirements for vaccination and pre-embarkation testing—there is little evidence that the virus passes between personal staterooms via HVAC or other means. Actual contact tracing of ship-acquired infections, as on land, suggests spread directly from infected person to uninfected person.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

The greater risk on a cruise comes from queuing to board or partake in activities, eating or drinking in common facilities, or from socializing with other guests. More bodies in close proximity invites more infections. It’s math, not a magical zone of infection brought on by taking a ship out to sea.

Why, then, if we remain vigilant and siloed on land, is my family setting sail?

Like many, the pandemic disrupted our travel plans in 2020. For us, the result was a Future Cruise Credit (a.k.a., an F.C.C.). Cruise Critic defines Future Cruise Credits here.

We could have requested a cash refund when COVID-19 kept us from our 2020 voyage between Copenhagen and Boston. Instead, we opted to gamble on the future solvency of Holland America Line (HAL) and took the F.C.C. instead. Part of my personal rationale was the simple desire to see HAL survive the economic hit of the sudden shutdown.

The major down side to any credit like this is the set of contingencies for spending it. Unless we wanted to argue over the details of the F.C.C. we’d accepted, we had to book a cruise before the end of 2022.Pile of money

Here’s the key to why my family is cruising this summer: we’re not all going. While our 2020 trip would have included a grandparent, our 2022 party consists only of parents and children. All of us are vaccinated, boosted, and at statistically low risk of COVID-19 complications if infected. Our high risk loved ones are not inclined to sail at this time.

For those of us embarking on a pandemic-era Holland America Line cruise, we are opting in based upon a few important understandings:

  • We realize that we will be taking a greater risk of catching COVID-19 than we do at home, but we have decided that this risk is worth the benefit of a relaxing vacation together with the reward of a chance to visit foreign destinations long on our wish list(s).
  • We prefer the risk of being cruise ship passengers over that of unmasked air travel for the summer of 2022, especially given recent frequent flight cancellations and spectacular, hours’ long delays reported at major airports worldwide. We don’t have to fly to get to our embarkation/debarkation port, and we won’t have to leave** our cabin once aboard a ship unless we want to.
  • We booked two staterooms for our party of four, and one of them is a suite° with an extra large balcony. This is more space than we have ever paid for in the past, but we believe we might prefer to remain mostly cloistered while at sea, depending upon COVID case rates when and where we sail. We decided we wouldn’t travel without private access to fresh air, i.e., a balcony.
  • We reserved an additional, extra-fee private outdoor space for this sailing—on HAL’s fleet, these are dubbed Cabanas, placed in a restricted access area called the Retreat, and, again, booking one is a first for us—so we will have a dedicated area beyond our cabins to spend time if case rates exceed our comfort thresholds.
  • We’re prepared to skip going ashore at early stops in easily reached ports close to home in order to increase the odds*** we stay healthy for visits to rare, “bucket list” destinations further afield.
  • We’re each packing extra amusements that will allow any one of us to spend days on end alone in a room, and I’ve beefed up the travel medicine kit.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, we are setting sail having decided in advance that even isolating in our staterooms—aside from accessing our cabana via the stairs, no elevators—would be “enough” vacation to make the entire trip worthwhile. Dining on room service and entertaining ourselves on a balcony at sea will be sufficient, if not ideal. If we also get to enjoy the rest of the ship’s public amenities, all the better.

Until our embarkation, we won’t really know which activities will or won’t meet our risk tolerance and feel worthwhile. This is a higher than usual level of uncertainty for me to embrace. I acknowledge I can be prone to anxiety; I’m better known for demanding control than going with the flow.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 1

Living through a pandemic serves to remind me, though, that life is short, and opportunities not taken can be lost forever. We have educated ourselves about the current situation with the virus, and we’ve prepared as best we can for such unpleasant scenarios as believing the risk of infection too high to risk socializing aboard ship or catching COVID at sea.

My kids are growing up fast. One will be moving away from home for the first time in just a couple of months. I want to take us all on one more vacation before it becomes necessary to negotiate with yet another adult life and all its mature entanglements to get away together.Woman hugs child

COVID-19 stole from everyone: lives, time, opportunities… I can’t know for certain that our cruise will be smooth sailing, but, if my analysis is correct, it should be worth the risk.

* Since there is no universal definition for “being careful” with regards to COVID, I’ll post mine. Our household choices in June 2022 continue to include:

  • limiting time inside any building beyond our home with the exception of one child who goes to school/camp in person,
  • wearing masks indoors anywhere but at home,
  • requesting that all visitors or tradespeople entering our home wear a mask,
  • wearing masks outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible,
  • antigen testing the kid who attends school/camp every weekend before he spends one unmasked afternoon per week with his grandfather (otherwise, that kid masks around Grandpa),
  • antigen testing our occasional visitors before eating or drinking with them,
  • only eating or drinking with visitors to our home outdoors or at a distance of ~10+ feet indoors.

We use—and offer those entering our home—several styles of N95, KN94, and surgical masks to ensure all this masking is as efficacious as possible. Even within the family, our faces don’t fit the same masks well.

See the CDC epidemiology paper referenced in paragraph three. The following quote comes from the Discussion section of that report, and it matches what I’ve read elsewhere over the past two years following pandemic news coverage:

“Spatial clustering was not identified on a specific deck or zone, and transmission does not seem to have spread to neighboring cabins, implying that droplet or contact transmission to nearby cabins was not the major mode of infection. Risk of infection did increase with cabin occupancy, but a relatively small proportion of cases in the same cabin had >4 days between their onsets, implying a common source of infection. Beyond that, however, the major transmission routes might include a common source outside the cabin and aerosolized fomite or contact transmission across different deck levels.”

I feel it is only fair to disclose that we had only paid a deposit for a fraction of the total cost, not the full fare for our cancelled 2020 vacation. Wagering many thousands of dollars would have felt foolish to me in support of a corporation, but a few hundred was an amount I could afford to lose with equanimity.

In particular, I found the crew aboard my past HAL sailing to be simultaneously professional and amiable. Keeping this subsidiary of Carnival Corporation in the black seemed likely to keep more of these excellent employees on the payroll during a bleak time.

**Apart from the mandatory muster—or lifeboat—drill. Cruise ships rightly enforce the requirement that every person aboard learns what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency at sea. Due to COVID, these are now conducted with less crowding and standing around in large groups than they used to entail.

°This will be our first experience of the Holland America Line suite category NS, or a Neptune Suite. The corner aft NS we chose is known for its exceptionally large balcony that wraps around the side and back of the ship, offering seating with more likelihood of shade-, sun-, or wind- protection than a standard balcony would.

***Testing positive for COVID-19 aboard a ship means a passenger will be quarantined according to that ship’s specific procedures. On HAL, last I heard, quarantined passengers are required to move to a balcony stateroom in a reserved section of rooms set aside and dedicated to housing those with COVID. On other lines, passengers quarantine in the stateroom they originally booked. In most cases reported by Cruise Critic board members, partners are given the option to stay together or lodge apart assuming only one tests positive.

We aren’t sure what will happen if both parents test positive but the young adults don’t, but we’re ready to live with the consequences either way.

These policies could change at any time, however, and I have read anecdotal evidence of ships adjusting rules on the fly by necessity when more passengers require quarantine than there were dedicated cabins for the sick.

Post-COVID, I’ll remember NCL, Delta & Alaska Airlines put safety first

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) Holdings announced on May 7th that, if Florida’s government holds to its misguided law preventing private businesses from enforcing vaccine compliance, NCL will take all of its sailings to other ports outside that state. For a Miami-based company, that’s a pretty bold promise.

While my sun-loathing, beach-avoiding tendencies made Florida’s appeal a mystery to me in the past, its near total lack of sensible governance paints it as a positively terrifying “vacation” destination today. I’m hardly the only one to notice Governor DeSantis’ lunatic anti-corporate stance on this question, either.

I want to commend NCL for making a rational commitment to protect passenger safety even as the pandemic wanes. I haven’t cruised with Norwegian yet, but taking a firm line on this issue after a year of unprecedented collapse in the travel industry gives me a powerful reason to consider them more seriously in the future.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

I’ve only taken a handful of cruises, having traveled twice with Crystal Cruises, once on Holland America Line, and once with Carnival. I’m delighted that Crystal has also adopted a 100% vaccinated passenger policy at this time.

At the same time, allow me to commend Delta for being the airline which blocked middle seats longer than any other major U.S. carrier. Delta ended that policy on May 1, 2021.

By contrast, American Airlines decided after just a couple of months in 2020 (April to June) that cramming passengers three abreast on flights of any duration—while an airborne virus sickened tens of thousands per day in a way science did not yet clearly understand—was sound policy.

AA made this choice well before the second surge of cases and deaths in the United States.AA entertainment welcome screen above pocket with A321S safety card visible

You can bet that Delta has moved up on the list of airlines I’ll choose to fly with going forward.

The day I got my first vaccine jab, I booked tickets home to see my dad for Christmas 2021.

I noticed when Alaska Airlines made the news for banning Alaska state Senator Lora Reinbold. The dis-Honorable Senator Reinbold repeatedly ignored staff instructions, violating a mask order designed to protect her fellow passengers.

Most of those good people were likely Reinbold’s constituents, yet she couldn’t be bothered to don a few square inches of cloth to reduce the risk of infecting them all with a contagious disease. The senator couldn’t know if any those in her vicinity were high risk; she simply didn’t care more about human life than she did political posturing.Tail of Alaska plane visible on tarmac through airport terminal window

I’m incredibly appreciative that Alaska Airlines chose to institute a face covering policy even before the United States federal government implemented its own mandate. I’m proud to say that Alaska is the airline with which I’ve had elite status for the greatest number of years.

I’m gratified that I’ve regularly paid a premium for flights with this airline that chose to do the right thing, even when doing so cost them the business of customers who couldn’t—wouldn’t—be bothered to take any small measure to respect others.

It’s interesting to me that I’ve long felt that customer service was better on Alaska and Delta than on other domestic airlines, even as frequent fliers began complaining bitterly about changes in the latter’s SkyMiles Frequent Flyer program devaluing their points. Personally, I prefer good service and more stringent safety protocols to a higher return paid in free trips.

This post is the product of a lot of noticing, over the course of a pandemic, which big companies took specific kinds of thoughtful action, and how often those actions corresponded with my previous impression of a given corporation. Trader Joe’s and American Airlines disappointed me; Delta, Alaska, and NCL have earned a great deal more of my esteem.

I have a long memory, and I’m the kind of traveler happy to pay a premium to support my values. Here’s hoping some pandemic-era changes in the aviation industry remain, and that the skies stay a little friendlier in the future.