(10 a.m. EST) -- A year after the global pandemic shut down much of the world, including the travel and cruise industries, we're finally seeing positive signs that cruising is returning. This month, two river cruise lines -- American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines -- returned to the Mississippi River with new health and safety protocols in place.
We're onboard AQSC's new ship, American Countess, for its maiden voyage from New Orleans to Memphis. The cruise line is hosting a small group of journalists, VIPs, friends of the line and travel advisors on a shakedown cruise -- a sailing designed to smooth out kinks on the ship and to refine the processes for crew and staff. The ship, which was christened earlier this week, initially will sail with no more than 166 passengers, well below its 245 capacity, to ensure proper social distancing.
The pandemic, of course, has been devastating, affecting all of us uniquely. As someone who was accustomed to traveling at least one week each month, often hopping on as many as 10 cruises a year, this past year has been particularly challenging. It's always exciting to sail on a new ship (and American Countess is a beautiful riverboat), but this cruise has generated an extra special feeling and made me more hopeful than I've been about travel in more than a year.
Here's what it's like getting ready for and being onboard American Countess as the ship sails with new protocols in place.
Precruise Procedures Well Thought Out
The night before we were scheduled to cruise, I had a nightmare: I dreamed I had failed my onsite PCR test for COVID and would be unable to sail.
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After talking to other passengers, this was a common anxiety dream. Apparently, we're all eager to travel again. To get onboard any American Queen Steamboat Company ship, all passengers and crew must pass a PCR test. (As of July 1, the company will have the additional requirement of proof of vaccination.)
To make the process seamless, AQSC had arranged for testing at the hotel the night before through partner and testing company Vikand Solutions -- which is what will happen when passenger cruises restart.
Our journey actually started before we left home, when we received our precruise paperwork, which included a link to a health survey and a link to Impact Health, where we scheduled our PCR test in New Orleans.
We flew into New Orleans on Saturday for our Sunday cruise, staying at the New Orleans Hilton Riverside. We showed up for our 4 p.m. appointment in one of the hotel's ballrooms, and moved through the check-in process quickly. Some COVID questions, a quick photo and then it was off for the test. After the PCR nasal swab, which took all of 15 seconds, we were done for the day.
My results were delivered to my inbox and were as I had expected, despite my disorienting dream the night before: negative.
I was cleared to cruise!
Changes That Feel Minor
Confession time: Before going on this trip, I was worried that everything I love about cruising would be different because of new protocols. I recognize the necessity for these rules, but I worried the experience I've come to expect would be greatly diminished by masks, physical distancing and the like.
It hasn't. In fact, it's made some parts of the trip somewhat better.
Getting from the hotel to the ship, for example, was more orderly than I've ever experienced. The cruise line assigned everyone boarding times and capped capacity of its branded buses at 25. There was no elbowing for seating, no waiting on stragglers and no long lines to board. We waited outside, wearing masks, handed off luggage and were onboard and on our way in no time.
Likewise, embarkation was faster and more efficient thanks to facial-recognition software, which pulls double-duty and takes passenger temperatures at the same time, which is used every time passengers return to the ship.
Onboard, wearing masks has felt pretty much the way it feels on land. You leave your cabin and make sure you have your keycard and mask. Masks are required anytime you are in a group outside your stateroom when social distancing isn't possible. Signs are strategically placed to remind you that you should keep your distance, and you'll find hand-washing stations outside every dining area. It doesn't feel intrusive, simply cautious and appropriate.
What We'll Miss for a While
One of my favorite things about American Queen Steamboat Company are its ubiquitous, branded hop-on, hop-off buses. These buses drop off passengers at strategic points around the port cities and make loops, picking up people to bring them back to the ship. It's a service that lets guests explore on their own but provides peace of mind that you've still got a ride back to the boat.
HOHO buses are off the docket for now, as using them would break the bubble AQSC has so carefully created. Likewise, a number of excursions are pared down, as large tour groups aren't a fit for the current environment. (On our cruise, for example, a visit to an old mansion was limited to a self-guided experience.) Self-exploration in towns is also severely limited -- passengers must sign waivers stating they won't break the bubble.
Onboard, the lack of self-service options is noticeable. Buffet options in the restaurants are served by crew, and even getting yourself coffee, tea, popcorn (from a cart) and soft-serve ice cream requires a crew member's assistance. White-glove service has been replaced by blue latex glove service, all in the name of limiting potential transmission.
This is a change I'm happy to live with, I've never been keen on buffet service where passengers share serving utensils. It's also a great reminder of portion size and helps cut down on food waste.
I was also worried social distancing would limit my ability to meet people and make new friends, but it turns out, chatting across 6 feet of space isn't so onerous. In the theater, for example, some seats are strategically "closed for social distancing," but ahead of events, you still can chat with guests in the next row or section. In the lounge and restaurants, smaller tables are available, but walk-bys from other masked guests are welcome.
Cruise vs. Other Travel
I once considered myself a master of travel and took pride in the fact I could pack for a weeklong cruise in 15 minutes with only a carry-on bag. Getting ready for this one, I felt rusty. I also was a little apprehensive about getting to the ship.
During the pandemic, I've had little exposure to travel. My trip to the airport was an eye-opener. Clearly, travelers for spring break were out in full force. Lines to the check-in counter wrapped around the building, with passengers shoulder to shoulder, ignoring the signs on the floor denoting the recommended 6-foot distances. Likewise, the line for security stretched as far as the eye could see. Passengers packed the train to get to terminal. My flight was full, with passengers sharing and breathing the same recirculated air for three hours. Sure, everyone wore masks if they weren't eating or drinking, but after some combination of isolation, lockdowns and social distancing for the better part of a year, the reality of air travel was a shock to the system.
Air travel has been getting busier and busier -- with planes and airports growing more and more crowded for several months. Yet, cruise travel has been mostly shutdown worldwide for more than a year. This trip put me face to face with the reality that the disparity between these two facts is impossible to justify.
The hotel was a far more pleasant experience, with distancing in place and mask requirements enforced. Still, our trip from the airport through the busy streets of New Orleans revealed that people were out in droves, ready to do the things that felt more normal to them.
Boarding American Countess was a contrast to the scenes we'd witnessed on our way to the ship. A passenger who had taken his mask off to pose for a picture in front of the ship was gently reminded to put it back on as he boarded.
And then, there's the bubble. To sail on the ship, every passenger had to have tested negative for COVID. While this method isn't infallible, it gives me great reassurance that cruising offers a responsible and sensible to approach to a safe travel -- compared with many other businesses in the travel industry.
Many -- I'd venture to say most -- of the passengers on our ship already have been fully vaccinated, something people shared openly and eagerly. "Have you been vaccinated?" often replaced "What do you do for a living?" as the conversation opener when meeting new people. (Full disclosure: My travel companion and I have been fully vaccinated.)
It's created an additional layer of comfort for many on our sailing, something that has all of us onboard feeling optimistic that we can soon be traveling more often.