Cruise report: HAL Nieuw Statendam transatlantic with teens

The kids and I sailed with Holland America Line once before, when they were fairly young. Embarking on HAL’s Nieuw Statendam in August 2022 was my husband’s first cruise with this company. We spent 24 days together on this grand vessel, visiting four countries in addition to the United States, and briefly crossing into the Arctic Circle.Certificate signed by Captain Barhorst showing crossing Friday, 8/12/2022 at 20:25

The experience was good enough for us to purchase Future Cruise Credits (FCC)—a minor commitment to future travel with the same company—while still on board.

Link to explanation of FCC’s at The Points Guy site

Our transatlantic (TATL) cruise itinerary called for boarding the ship in Boston, calling in several Canadian ports, followed by stops in Greenland, Iceland, Greenland again, Canada again, France in the form of the island of St. Pierre, Canada third time, then Bar Harbor, Maine, and finally back to Boston.

The round trip itinerary—no flights required from our New England home—absolutely sold us on this particular itinerary. HAL transatlantic cruise itinerary round trip Boston

If we hadn’t had a credit to use from a scheduled 2020 trip cancelled due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely we would have gone anywhere during the rampant snarling of summer travel in 2022. If we’d had an international flight planned, I can guarantee we would have called off any trip as reports of hours’ long lines snaking outside of airports proliferated in the lead up to our departure.

While our cruise wasn’t perfect, the hassles were fairly minimal and we found the experience well worth the bumps in those road that we did encounter.Holland America line vessel, rear view

I plan to publish a series of posts covering ports we visited, but, today, I’ll begin with an overview of embarking on transatlantic travel on HAL as a family with teens. I hope this perspective is helpful to other potential family cruisers since Holland America has a reputation for catering to an elderly crowd.

My kids enjoyed the trip, but there were very few people their age on the ship. We socialized with each other and with adults with whom I’d become acquainted on Cruise Critic prior to the voyage.

In addition to a lack of youth-oriented trip reports, I also couldn’t find much information for travelers with special needs regarding Polar-adjacent travel in the North Atlantic. I live with a chronic condition that sometimes affects my mobility and energy levels. Here’s hoping I can offer relevant tips for future adventurers with similar limitations in this and future posts.

First impressions

As it happens, one of the first SNAFU’s of our trip occurred at its very beginning: embarkation from Boston’s Flynn (formerly Black Falcon) Cruise Port was a mess. More frequent cruisers than I commented later that they’d never endured such a poorly executed boarding elsewhere or in Boston.

Here’s the official Massport site for the cruise terminal.

It’s easy to mock social media and blame it for many of society’s ills, but the utility of crowdsourced information cannot be denied. If I weren’t an active member of Cruise Critic—and a participant in a Roll Call for our August voyage—my embarkation experience could have been even worse. Tips from passengers who arrived at the port earlier than we did saved us at least a couple of hours of unnecessary waiting on site since we could elect to leave our home later to drive to the terminal.

To begin with, HAL sent notification a day ahead of boarding offering a completely revised boarding plan with new times for each passenger, all of which superseded the information given on one’s boarding pass. By not updating boarding passes—offered in digital format for cruise passengers just like most of us use on flights!—Holland America missed an opportunity to reduce confusion instead of sowing it.

Screenshot of HAL's recommended cruise app, NavigatorHAL reaped what it sowed. Thousands of people waited outside for hours beyond the embarkation time on their documents.

Nowhere in their last minute, change-of-plans missive did HAL inform embarking passengers that their digital documents would fail to update to reflect the new instructions. It’s bad to have a communication system that can’t update digital docs in real time; it’s worse not to confess to this fact up front to help reduce confusion!

At least two ambulances were required to whisk away people who weren’t up to the physical demands of standing in line for so long. We were incredibly fortunate that a recent heat wave ended before this marathon queue, but even 80°F became uncomfortable to many, and, while much of the line was shaded by adjacent buildings, there was no other shelter. Almost no seating was available, either.

Purple aluminum HurryCane walking stick freestanding on a wood floorBecause my own mobility limitations wax and wane, I always register a request with common carriers at the time of booking for wheelchair assistance. I’m often well enough to decline the requested service upon arrival at a terminal, but it is harder to get help on demand when it is needed if I haven’t initiated the process in advance. At Boston’s cruise port, it was lucky I was having a pretty good day.

When we arrived at the port, I checked in with an employee and noted we’d requested wheelchair assistance. According to that agent, “So did 1/3 of the people here waiting to board!”

Massport was short by at least dozens of personnel to offer wheelchair assistance. I believe that the lack of “timely assistance” was in violation of U.S. law. It reflected poorly on the port and on the city of Boston.

While the kind Massport employee I’d encountered couldn’t do much for me or anyone else, this lady did find folding chairs for a few of us who were concerned about walking the length of the line that disappeared out of sight across at least two long city blocks. Later arrivals sat on the curb.

My husband and kids trekked to the back of the line, and I waited in tolerable conditions if not comfort with the “special assistance” crowd. It was from that vantage point near the entrance that I saw one woman collapse and get taken away by ambulance.

By the time I boarded, I had yet to see a single passenger escorted onto the ship via wheelchair pushed by port employees. That period of time extended for well over an hour. The fortunate disabled passengers were those traveling with their own mobility aids and friends or family members capable of providing assistance.

After about an hour waiting alone, my family made it to the front of the line where I was sitting. Since no wheelchair assistance passengers were being taken aboard the ship as far as I could see, I rejoined them. My kids took my carry on bag, and I walked myself carefully through the disorganized thicket inside the terminal building with an occasional hand from one of my able-bodied relatives.Embarkation crowdThe gangway with which we boarded Nieuw Statendam was set at a particularly steep angle, too. A fellow passenger said they’d heard that the usual “jet bridge” style boarding ramp for Boston was broken and awaiting repairs, but I have no confirmation for that rumor. I was glad I’d brought my cane to help negotiate boarding, though, fortunately, I didn’t need it much once we were at sea.

Again, according to people who have cruised Boston more than I have, there is a port building here with some features of a modern travel terminal. We were not in that space! Instead, the Nieuw Statendam passengers were being processed in an open, warehouse-like space that might’ve felt familiar to our forebears’ experience at Ellis Island.

The flooring was uneven asphalt, there was no climate control, and there was no reasonable signage to help anyone self-select the correct lines. With various levels of “self check in” one might have performed prior to arriving at the port, there were at least three different types of confirmations that might be required to complete check in on site.

Through dumb luck, we were in the correct line for those who had performed the maximum online steps ahead of time, and we spent only ten to 20 minutes finishing up the check in process before preceding to the gangway that led onto the ship. The new facial recognition software did speed up check in, and, interestingly, could identify ³⁄4 of us with our N95 masks still in place.

One member of the family had to remove a protective mask to be correctly ID’d by the computer.

Some of the confusing requirements befuddling our embarkation day may be laid at the feet of COVID-19. There are national directives demanding certain steps or paperwork, it’s true. Failing to post signage to correctly direct thousands of boarding passengers into the correct lines based upon the status of government and health requirements, however, was entirely the fault of the Flynn Cruise Terminal and its staff.

The communication from HAL that changed boarding times at the last minute stated that a mandatory Coast Guard drill was the cause of the adjustment. That is probably true, but the Coast Guard didn’t prevent HAL from updating information on our virtual boarding passes or within the cruise line’s own app which they tout as an innovation in cruising convenience.

Neither was the Coast Guard responsible for inadequate staffing on the part of Massport, the government agency that runs land-side port operations.

Once we made it on board, the giddy relief of dropping our bags in our beautiful staterooms quickly eased the frustrations of the long morning day. Running the gauntlet of Boston’s cruise terminal was sufficiently exhausting that all of us—even the teens!—spent some part of our first afternoon aboard napping instead of exploring or reveling.

We were told in advance that we would board at 11:40; the port actually seemed to begin embarkation proceedings closer to 14:00 from our vantage amongst the crowds. My first photos from our cabin were taken at 15:45. We were scheduled to sail at 16:00. Nieuw Statendam actually cast off from its Boston mooring at 19:31.

port employees releasing ropes holding Nieuw Statendam to dockI think I’m being generous when I say we experienced a delay of at least three hours. For those who view lunch on the ship as the start of their vacation, our embarkation must have been particularly painful. It was certainly debilitating to those of us with health issues, and proved tiring even to young travelers.

Aside from mentioning that disembarkation three weeks later was similarly hideous—with poor communication again being the element for which HAL itself should be held fully accountable—I won’t go into detail for the latter fiasco. Suffice to say that I will still sail in or out of Boston because “not flying” remains on my list of “good to have” vacation characteristics, but I will always travel through this port carrying as little as possible to preserve my energy, and I will assume zero mobility assistance will be offered regardless of what’s legally mandated or promised.

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend embarking on a cruise out of Boston’s port for anyone with severe mobility restrictions at this time unless that person can afford to travel with sufficient personal assistance to cover all boarding needs. I hope the situation will improve if staffing levels recover, but I wouldn’t bet a friend or loved one’s comfort on it personally.

Also, on the subject of advance communication, I think it is worth pointing out that Holland America Line mandated the wearing of masks indoors, when not eating or drinking, for all passengers as well as crew for the duration of our sailing. This was not announced in advance of embarkation, though it could have been. The captain announced the policy on board the ship, and reminders were broadcast by him and other officers once or twice a day over the public address system.Disposable surgical mask

Most destinations, and all excursions, appeared to have dropped all COVID prevention rules or requirements, though the majority of our fellow travelers opted to wear masks on the one tour bus we joined.

Our group enjoyed a much greater degree of relaxation and feelings of safety due to the enhanced precautions, but some cruisers felt deceived and complained bitterly about the unexpected need to mask. At least one Cruise Critic member in my Roll Call group bragged about “always carrying a drink” in order to intentionally and spitefully subvert the protocols as much as possible.

Most Nieuw Statendam passengers appeared to make a sincere effort to adhere to the mask rules, in our personal experience on the ship. We elected to exceed HAL’s requirements, and we all avoided catching COVID-19, testing negative on our own home tests multiple times during and after the journey. There were reports of viral spread on the ship, however, and visibility of guests in isolation increased over time.

We believe that it was possible for cruise passengers to make personal choices to increase the odds of avoiding getting sick, but that the mask mandate made it many times easier for cautious travelers to do than it would have been otherwise. For example, I would have felt far less comfortable without the face covering requirement when I squeezed onto any of the crowded ship’s tenders required to visit the smaller ports on which we called.

Our family felt fortunate that HAL mandated masks; other passengers felt cheated out of the freedom they thought they’d been promised on the same voyage. Continue reading

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.

A Tale of 3 Trousers: Lightweight kids’ pants for carry-on family travel

I have yet to find any company marketing lightweight, quick dry, travel friendly clothing for kids. Can I be the only parent who prefers to fly light?

Children’s relatively small clothes do pack up more easily than those of a big and tall man, but choosing wisely makes a noticeable difference in the total volume and weight of luggage for a family of four or more.

In my experience, many kids also get dirtier than adult travelers. The ability to wash a garment in a sink and have it dry overnight is vital for happy travels with my own sons.

Today, I’ll compare three pairs of lightweight trousers marketed for boys in Medium an American child’s size 10-12. My criteria for this search included:

  • lightweight fabric suitable for summer travel
  • neutral color that can be dressed up or down
  • quick dry fiber suitable for hotel sink laundering.

With apparently no one setting out to design “travel clothing” for children, the best approximation I’ve found for the lower body is “hiking pants.” Many options on the market were excluded for my purposes because the outdoor companies really love “convertible” trousers with zip-off lower legs.

Zippered knees never pass for dressy in my opinion.

I ended up with the following specific styles, ordered from REI and Amazon.com at the prevailing retail prices of mid-May 2019. And all are still being sold as of February 2020.

Links go to the manufacturers’ own listings for the first and third pairs that aren’t store brands regardless of where I purchased my pairs.

First, the good news. If I had been in a hurry and purchased just one pair, any of these dark grey trousers would work for my son as daily wear pants that could pass as “decent” clothing to wear out to dinner on vacation. Note: I wouldn’t have him wear these to a wedding or a truly elegant occasion unless we’d had a drastic wardrobe catastrophe and had no time to shop for proper formal wear.

As one would hope from quality hiking clothing made by well-known brands, all are sturdy, well-sewn, and free of obvious defects.

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Key Straps save my stuff: how Tom Bihn’s bags keep arthritic fumblefingers from ruining my day

In other posts, I’ve referred to the way Tom Bihn bags often make my life better. I want to expand upon that point lest I sound like a mere company shill.

Tom Bihn PCSB and Cafe Bag with Sunday Afternoons hat on hotel desk

Tom Bihn bags and Sunday Afternoons hat

Today I’ll talk about how one “key” feature of this particular brand helps me stay organized and deal with the ongoing issues of a chronic medical condition. I’m talking about removable Key Straps that can be attached to O-rings integral to Tom Bihn bags and many other anchors on luggage or in hotel rooms.Tom Bihn Clear 3D Organizer attached with Key Strap to handicapped rail in hotel bathroom

Key Straps are the “key” feature

I carry a Cafe Bag ($70, size: Medium, color: Original/black Halcyon with Wasabi lining) almost every day, sometimes swapping it out for a Travel Cubelet ($40) or my Packing Cube Shoulder Bag (PCSB, $34) when I travel light. My Cafe Bag is generally fitted out with six separate Key Straps at once, each serving a unique function.

Tom Bihn yellow Key Strap on Cafe BagKey Straps ($5) come in 8-inch and 16-inch lengths, and are currently offered in seven colors. Many of mine are the older style, sewn from folded Dyneema/Halcyon nylon fabric. Newer Key Straps are made of webbing instead. Key Straps come in two varieties: with a snap hook on both ends, or a snap hook on one end with an O-ring on the other.

Additional Tom Bihn accessories that go virtually everywhere with me include:

  • Clear Organizer Wallet ($17) for cash on Wasabi TB Key Strap
  • Coach purple leather card wallet on Steel/grey TB Key Strap
  • Solar/yellow TB Key Strap left empty for… my keys!
  • Pocket Pouch ($10) in Aubergine with Wasabi lining for lip balm attached with its own integrated clip
  • Eagle Creek pouch on Ultraviolet TB Key Strap
  • Aubergine Small Q-Kit ($18) on Iberian/red TB Key Strap for medication
  • Wasabi Mini Q-Kit ($15) on Wasabi TB Key Strap for electronic charging cables and earbuds
  • Clear pouch with red back for paper and longer objects I want to carry, often including a checkbook, a full length emery board (nail file), or a passport

I attach non-Bihn items by various methods. You can see the Key Strap snap hooks attached to a key ring on my card wallet and a fabric loop on my Eagle Creek purple pouch in my detail photos. The integrated O-rings and detachable Key Straps are tiny things that make a tremendous functional difference in my Tom Bihn satchel, but these accessories play very nicely with other brands.

By designing modular pockets, pouches, and parts for the end user to attach or not with separate Key Straps, every bag can be customized precisely for its specific purpose. This works really well for me.

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