Could Cruising Become the Safest Mode of Travel?

Could Cruising Become the Safest Mode of Travel?

Of all the segments of the travel industry that took a hit from the pandemic, none emerged with more damage to its reputation than the cruise trade. With sensational stories of passengers and crew—many sick with Covid-19 and some even dying—being unwelcome at ports around the world and some cruise lines criticized for their cavalier approach to the pandemic, cruising fell into a deep hole that it’s spent the last year digging out of.

So it might be surprising to consider that cruising may emerge as one of the most secure modes of travel in 2021 and beyond. To rebuild consumer confidence and avoid future health and optics disasters, cruise companies are setting up rigid protocols to make sure passengers and crew arrive onboard healthy and stay that way for their entire journey.

A Year to Regroup

 The 2020 cruise season effectively ended late last spring, when the last COVID-afflicted ships finally found safe harbors. In the interim, the industry has been doing its homework, with the dual task of inspiring confidence and embracing reality. “They’ve spent the year studying the science of how Covid-19 is transmitted,” says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic, “and the protocols they need to put in place to make people feel comfortable once they’re on board.”

While a lot of cleaning and sanitizing protocols have actually always been there, explains Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld River Cruises, they are now more front-facing—part of an effort to reassure passengers that they are taking a safe vacation. New protocols, depending on the cruise line, include social distancing measures onboard, staggered seatings at mealtime, and readier availability of handwashing and sanitizing stations. Techier solutions include individual air filtration systems in every cabin, electrostatic sprayers that disinfect large areas, onboard PCR testing, and facial recognition devices that touchlessly take passengers’ temperature every time they enter the ship.

Testing & Vaccines: Mandatory or Maybe?

A clean ship and safe passengers onboard work just fine once the vessel has left port. But how will cruise lines ensure they’re boarding COVID-free passengers, and keep them from being exposed to the virus while they’re out on shore excursions? Like so many of the questions surrounding travel in the era of Covid, the answer is: It depends.

Saga, Virgin Voyages, Avalon Waterways and Crystal are among the more high-profile lines that have made the call—they’ll require passengers to be fully vaccinated in order to sail. Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, will also require all passengers be vaccinated—that’s part of the reason its maiden voyages are sailing from Israel, which has a very high percentage of its population already vaccinated.

 

Uniworld has yet to decide on mandatory vaccines for passengers, but Bettridge seemed to suggest it might not be necessary. The line, which suspended sailings in early March of last year and hopes to resume European cruises by May, caters primarily to American tourists. Since most of their passengers will be flying to reach their port of call, the company assumes that most, if not all, will already be vaccinated by the time they undertake a trip. “We’re kind of the second layer of a vacation,” she says, “and we’re watching what the airlines are going to require.” For now, the company plans to have passengers sign a ‘well-being travel declaration’ attesting to their negative COVID status. Many other cruise lines are planning to require proof of a negative COVID test within several days of sailing.

 

Questions also remain as to how exactly shore excursions will be handled. Expedition cruise lines have it easy—most of their excursions take place in remote, unpopulated natural areas. River and ocean cruises, however, have to deal with letting passengers leave the ship and wander on their own. Solutions may include requiring passengers to take ship-sponsored excursions in order to disembark. “Sponsored excursions protect people by keeping them in a bubble,” says Gray Faust. “Plus, most of the excursions are for things you might want to do anyway.” But will passengers balk at having to stay in an excursion bubble, unable to explore on their own?

“The situation is literally evolving day by day,” says Gray Faust. “Cruise lines are trying to adjust according to what’s happening on land.” A month ago, vaccine requirements and mandatory sponsored excursions may have seemed like extreme, but necessary measures. Six months from now, they may be redundant.

 Important too is the situation from country-to-country, as the industry looks to individual governments for guidance. Currently, no large operators have sailings scheduled from U.S. ports, in part because the CDC hasn’t issued guidelines for ships that carry more than 250 passengers. In the United Kingdom, where Viking and P&O have recently announced the resumption of cruises, Andy Harmer, director of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) for the UK & Ireland, says these developments are part of a long-planned, phased-in restart. “UK domestic cruises represent the first stage of this plan. We continue to work collaboratively with the government, including through the Global Travel Taskforce, in order to ensure the safe restart of international cruises in time for the summer season.” For now, these itineraries are only open to UK residents, and the P&O cruises are “scenic-only”—also referred to as “cruises to nowhere.” They have no ports-of-call, but give travel-starved passengers the perks of the cruise experience—minus the excursions.

Bettridge predicts that at the outset of the 2021 season, Uniworld and others may opt for similar single-country cruises in countries that are both welcoming cruise passengers and have been declared Covid-safe. “Then once Europe starts to open up,” she says, they’ll bring back the multi-state itineraries that river cruisers love.

Whatever the timing, industry experts say there’s cause for optimism. Both Gray Faust and Bettridge used the term “gangbusters” to describe prospects going forward. Bettridge says that while this summer might get off to a slow start, “late 2021 looks really strong and 2022 is on fire.” Antarctic cruises—some of the most expensive in the industry—are also selling briskly, especially for this December’s solar eclipse itineraries. And judging from their audience surveys, Gray Faust says enthusiasm is high across all segments of the industry. “Avid cruisers are ready to go.”

Source article 

What Countries Are Likely to Reopen to Travel First?

What Countries Are Likely to Reopen to Travel First?

Are countries reopening? We answer this question and ones on face masks, TSA PreCheck, and more in this month’s edition of our travel advice column.

Q. “I’m hoping to get my vaccine soon, and I want to book a trip (safely) for late summer. What countries are most likely to be open to American travelers the soonest?” – KT

A. To figure out what countries are most likely to be open to tourism, take a look at what current rules are. There are some countries (like Mexico, Costa Rica, Albania, The Dominican Republic, and Tanzania) that have already opened to American tourists, and they’re likely to still be welcoming visitors when you’re ready to travel. Other countries, like Belize, Iceland, and Georgia, are opening without restrictions to fully vaccinated visitors. (See the full list of countries open to vaccinated tourists here.) 

 

Hoping for a vacation to Australia or Thailand? Both countries have announced tentative plans to reopen to tourists in October. 

Regions that seem the most likely to reopen first to American tourists include the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. Much of Europe and Asia are estimated to open later in the year. 

Q. “I have had Global Entry for at least four years, but I do not always get PreCheck. I went through the PreCheck line once, and was sent back despite showing my Global Entry card, because I had no PreCheck on my pass. This has happened several times and when I ask TSA agents, they always tell me that most global entry subscribers think the PreCheck comes automatically. However, it does not. I even ended up paying for both, and I still do not get PreCheck about five percent of the time. Why?” – AP

 

A. The good news is, you can stop paying double for both PreCheck and Global Entry. The bad news is, neither service automatically guarantees that you’ll get PreCheck every time. Global Entry includes PreCheck, along with giving you expedited customs screening when you reenter the U.S., so there’s no need to buy both services.

However, PreCheck is never guaranteed to travelers. According to the TSA, they use “unpredictable security measures, both seen and unseen, throughout the airport. All travelers will be screened, and no individual is guaranteed expedited screening.”

Not getting PreCheck is pretty rare, and it’s more likely that the airline didn’t get your trusted traveler number in their system. I’ve had this happen fairly frequently, where I know I put the trusted traveler number in during booking, but then when I check-in ahead of time, I don’t get the PreCheck symbol on my boarding pass. When that happens, I call the airline, and they add my trusted traveler number to the reservation, and 99% of the time, I’m able to reprint my boarding pass with the PreCheck symbol.

 

To avoid having to wait in the regular line, always check-in as early as possible, and if you don’t get PreCheck, give your airline a call to make sure they have your trusted traveler number. While you’re at it, make sure your trusted traveler number is added to your profile for each airline, which can save you time in the future.

 

Q. “Have there been any updates on the “vaccine passport” idea?” – PH

A. There aren’t any official vaccine passports in place yet, but many countries are beginning to require proof of vaccines for entry, so hang on to that vaccine card once you get it. The closest thing we’ve seen to a vaccine passport is the European Union’s proposed Digital Green Certificate, which will contain information including “date of issuance, relevant information about vaccine/ test/recovery and a unique identifier”.

 

The Digital Green Certificate is designed to serve as proof of vaccination, and allow unrestricted travel around the E.U.

Q. “Am I too late to book something for cheap?” – RS

A. You’re not too late! Airlines are focusing their attention on ramping domestic routes back up, and there are plenty of great deals to be found to popular U.S. vacation spots like Florida and California. International deals are likely to be more elusive (especially to destinations that don’t have a clear reopening strategy) as airlines aren’t ready to invest resources in those routes yet.

 

My advice is to be flexible both with dates and destinations, and have some fun on Google Explore or Skyscanner (put “everywhere”) as your destination. You’ll find some smoking deals that way.

Q. “What are some good trip ideas for people who want to have a vacation but are still too nervous to travel too far from home?” – CM

A. If you’re ready to ease back into travel, the safest way would be with a road trip and a vacation rental. Unlike flying or hotel stays, this combination lets you be in total control of how close you get to other people. Decide how far you want to drive, and pick a theme for your trip (for example, beach or mountains)? It should be easy to decide on a getaway spot that’s not too far, but still feels like a real vacation from there.

Q. “I live in Texas, where face masks are not mandatory, but I keep hearing that face masks are required to fly. Is that true?” – TS

A. Mask up on a plane or face a $250 fine (or up to $1,500 if it’s not your first time refusing to wear a mask). An emergency order requiring face masks on all modes of public transportation (including planes, buses, and trains) is in effect until May 11, 2021. This rule will absolutely be enforced by both the TSA and flight crew at the airport and in the air, so don’t travel unless you’re prepared to wear a mask.