In 2020, I had two cruise vacations planned. While some may feel queasy about staying on a floating object at sea for a week, I revel in it. I love that in one trip, I can take a much-needed break from my phone, embark on adventurous activities in places I’ve never been before (ziplining through the Jamaican jungle, anyone?), and of course, dine on the all-you-can-eat options. Needless to say, with the spread of COVID-19—and its infamous and newsworthy connection to cruise lines—it wasn’t long before my 2020 travel plans were shelved until further notice. And by fall of 2021, with vaccines, boosters and testing, my family decided we were ready to book another trip. This time, for January 2022. Alas, it was déjà vu. This time with Omicron. But after a lot of back and forth amongst our family, the cruise line’s new COVID regulations and our own negative tests, we packed our bags and boarded a ship once again. Here’s what it’s like to take a cruise at the height of Omicron.
All Aboard a 6000-Person Ship at One-Third Capacity
I went on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which is known as one of the largest ships in the world. It can hold more than 6,000 people, but on this voyage, there were fewer than 2,000 of us at about one-third capacity. Plus, vaccination was required for those 12 years and older. On the last two ships I’d been on, I was accustomed to such large crowds (especially when we were at sea) that I'm not sure I ever saw the same person twice.
But this time around, I really recognized the people on the ship with me. It was so consistent that my family and I created nicknames for people. “Ah, there’s the goalie again near the Sports pool.” or “There goes the escape room crew winning Bingo.” The much smaller manifest made things more intimate, which was nice. It also meant my family and I to enjoy every inch of the boat. As mentioned, this boat is HUGE. It has 16 floors filled with food, activities and events. Whether we were riding the slides in the pool over and over again because there no lines or breaking it down in my own little dance area at silent disco, there were times it felt like we lucked into a secret VIP package. Even going to the popular Coco Cay port in the Bahamas was like running through my own private island with no wait for the tallest waterslide in North America. (If you can’t tell, I love a good waterslide.)
To Buffet or Not Buffet?
Now, this is my second time on a Royal Caribbean cruise, so I was used to the hand sanitizer stations. But this time, there wasn’t just an increase of those, but also new hand-washing stations at the buffet to keep things germ-free when touching counters, tables, chairs, etc.
Still, guests weren’t allowed to grab a plate and go ham on the food selections. While there were still plenty of options—everything from yogurt parfaits to rib-eye steaks—crew members oversaw serving us everything. Once we were given a plate, we walked around to different stations—the soups and salads, the international foods or the sweet treats—and a crew member would portion it out on our plates. It really brought me back to my high school years when food was plopped on the those pesky styrofoam tray (although this time around it was done with a gentler touch).
Minimizing how many hands touched the mashed potato spoon made sense, but they also roped off the condiments station so there was unfortunately always a crew member standing between me and the ample amount of ketchup my tastebuds require. Insert awkward, “Um, hi can you add a little bit more?” Part of the reason I love a good ol’ cruise buffet is the freedom of it. A scoop of mac and cheese, a dab of gravy, a slice of pork belly, why not? But with this new system, I felt more eyes on my plate, making one of my favorite parts of being on a cruise a more self-conscious experience. The back and forth with the servers also made it an exhausting communication game—“Oh, just a little—no that’s fine, thank you.” But ultimately I understood that new system also it made things quicker, cleaner and safer for all of us.
Excuse me, do you have a reservation?
To limit big gatherings, the cruise line implemented a reservation system to keep the audience size down. (And getting reservations was like scoring the hottest ticket in town.) From the Aqua80 water show to Cats, we had to grab a spot as soon as we boarded the boat or it would be sold out by that evening.
It was also a blessing to separate the showings between adults only (in which it was all vaccinated people only) to families which allowed any unvaccinated kids under 12 to enjoy the show too. So, the viewings were never crowded and people were distributed well throughout the venues.
But did anyone ever get covid?
Despite it being a vaccinated-only cruise, the captain made it clear on the first day that he’d keep us informed if a case ever emerged, and we wound up being notified once that a performer from the water show did test positive. As a result, the ship immediately canceled the show for the day.
I was surprisingly relaxed throughout the whole trip. I was reassured by the strong health measures in place and overall, I felt safe and like I was still on an actual vacation. I’d be more nervous hopping on the NYC subway at rush hour than participating in Star Wars trivia at the small bar on deck six. As for the condiment station, I’m a little more open to an upgrade.