I Went On a Cruise During the Coronavirus Pandemic. This Is What Happened.
Coronavirus concerns, itinerary changes and uncertainty lead to an unusual vacation.
Our much-anticipated cruise vacation took a nerve-wracking turn. (Getty Images)
As a travel editor, it's hard to turn down the opportunity to see the world. My husband and I – childless and in our late 20s – try to plan a few trips per year if time and money allow. So, when two of our friends approached us in early January with the idea of going on a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean, we were ready to pack our bags and hop on board.
Around the end of January, the novel coronavirus – which to date has infected more than 500,000 people and killed 20,000-plus around the world – had started to make the news cycle. Its undeniable impact throughout Asia and Europe was frightening, but the stories we pored over during our commutes and before bed every night were still fairly removed from our reality in the United States. The Caribbean had reported very few cases as well, none of which were in the islands we were considering. After further discussion, we booked a mid-March itinerary on the Norwegian Epic and began dreaming of the bucket-list destinations we'd soon visit.
In the weeks leading up to our cruise, we watched the Diamond Princess fiasco unfold. The four of us wavered between hesitations about our much-anticipated getaway and excursion-planning sessions over shared bottles of Trader Joe's merlot. In the moments when our nerves took over, we mused that if Norwegian Cruise Line gave us an out, we might take it as a precaution.
A few days before we were set to leave, an out came – but not for us. Providing more flexibility in light of the coronavirus concerns worldwide, the cruise line was offering free rescheduling for itineraries starting on March 10 or later. Since our March 8 start date did not qualify, we weighed our options. Life in the U.S. had not yet reached a standstill like it had in other countries and we had no idea how quickly things would escalate. Stores and restaurants remained open and offices continued business as usual. Though hand sanitizer was starting to disappear off shelves at an alarming rate, we hadn't drifted too far into uncharted territories.
With our (perhaps misguided) sense of confidence and no available refund or cruise credit for our specific dates, we packed our bags – with some extra clothing and a full container of Clorox wipes – and headed on our journey.
Life On Board
Upon arriving at San Juan's Pan-American Pier, all passengers' temperatures were checked with a no-touch forehead thermometer. The process lasted only a few seconds per person.
We continued on through security and into the loading area. We were all required to fill out a form before getting on the ship, confirming that we had not experienced any coronavirus-linked symptoms recently (such as a fever or a cough) and had not visited mainland China or Italy in the past two weeks. The cruise line took these forms but also checked everyone's passports to be sure our information was accurate. Once checked in, we were shuttled through an optional photo area, where passengers grinned against a backdrop of an unspecified tropical location. It was time to leave our worries behind.
The atmosphere on the ship was pretty normal. People laid by the pool and soaked in the hot tubs in droves. Travelers happily hopped off the ship at every port and loaded into buses and taxi cabs. Still, tiny cues here and there jolted us back to reality. Several hand sanitizer stations were positioned around the ship and attendants served the food at the buffet, which is normally self-service.
Muffled conversations about the spread of the virus – supported mostly by the two news channels available to us in our rooms – could be heard from bow to stern. Our room attendant's eyes widened when we told him we were from Washington, D.C.; he initially mistook that to mean Washington state, which at the time had the most cases in the country.
Though Wi-Fi access was limited, we did our best to stay up to date on our phones. We began our mornings rattling off as many COVID-19 headlines as our Twitter accounts could load, and ended our afternoons with fresh mango daiquiris on the beach. Balance was key.
Visiting the Islands
We chose our Southern Caribbean sailing primarily for its diverse itinerary. It started and ended in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with stops in Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and St. Thomas, plus one day at sea. Before the cruise, I feared some of our stops would be cut short by local port authorities as a preventative measure to minimize the spread of the virus. These small islands were not equipped to handle a massive outbreak – nor should they have to if limiting tourist activity was an option.
Still, we were grateful to be able to visit all of our intended ports, and we had a wonderful time on the beach, in open-air jeeps and at stunning overlooks during our trip. To our knowledge, excursions were not limited to a set amount of people due to the coronavirus. In fact, a few even filled up; our travel mates initially had to be put on a waitlist to tour through St. Lucia.
These were the destinations we visited:
San Juan, Puerto Rico
We began our journey in the capital of Puerto Rico. Uber drivers were readily available to transport us from the airport to the cruise terminal, where we dropped off our bags, gulped down some complimentary water and headed back out to wander through Old San Juan for a few hours. The charm of this city is undeniable; colorful buildings line cobblestone streets and delicious local restaurants serve up authentic food, such as mofongo, a plantain dish that we enjoyed for lunch.
In town, I chatted with another cruiser while in line to buy bottles of water at a convenience store. She was a middle-aged woman on a Costa Cruises ship that was originally scheduled to sail throughout the Caribbean and then on to Italy. Instead, she told me, they had been rerouted to France due to the coronavirus. Upon returning home, we learned that a Costa ship – the Luminosa – with this same story and matching dates had gone on to be denied entry at multiple ports and was sailing aimlessly with multiple cases on board.
After one day at sea, we arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados. We took one of the cruise line's excursions to Carlisle Bay, located on the island's southwestern coast. The sand was soft and white, and we could see tiny fish swimming around our feet in the crystal-clear water. Although we had a good amount of space to ourselves in the sea, our rows of designated beach chairs and umbrellas made social distancing a challenge.
There are no words to truly describe the beauty of St. Lucia. After a (somewhat harrowing) drive through winding hills, we beheld The Pitons, two stunning mountains rising out of the sea. After more sightseeing (including a snack stop for some local banana bread), we enjoyed an authentic lunch and a tour at Morne Coubaril Estate, a must-see for those interested in the history of the island. The on-site plantation produces cocoa and coffee, and bright pink bougainvillea stretches as far as the eye can see.
We didn't have much of a plan for our stop in Antigua, but it turned out to be one of our favorite days. It was my husband's birthday, and the morning started out rainy. Dozens of persistent taxi drivers vied for our business. We eventually chose one and headed to Nelson's Dockyard, where we waited out the rain with frozen cocktails. Once the sun came out, we explored the property and took a tiny boat across the harbor to a quaint restaurant with fresh seafood, an infinity pool and bay views. This day was a nice reset and a much-needed reminder that even if a day starts out grim, the sun might come back out eventually.
At our fourth stop, we visited The Baths on Virgin Gorda: a bucket-list experience. (Getty Images)
In Tortola, a picturesque island in the British Virgin Islands, we took a boat to The Baths on Virgin Gorda. From there, we traversed rocky paths, wandered through caves, climbed down steep ladders into shallow pools and waded in the warm waters. This natural marvel is a must-see. I'd recommend wearing a small backpack or leaving most of your belongings on your ship or in your hotel room to keep your hands free.
Our final stop was St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. We took a scenic jeep tour to lookouts around the island and sampled its famed banana daiquiris, which did not disappoint. After our tour, we headed to Magens Bay Beach, which was beautiful, but a bit crowded. If you'd like to visit this beach, do so through a ship excursion. Otherwise, you will have to pay for your own umbrellas and beach chairs and drag them back to the rental hut by yourself.
Aside from some of the extra onboard hand sanitizer, we were having a relatively normal vacation. In contrast, it seemed like things back home were falling apart: toilet paper was flying off shelves, offices were closing and life as we had left it a short six days prior had completely changed.
Little did we know, life on board was about to change for us as well.
Trying to Disembark: A Change of Plans
Around 3 a.m. on Sunday morning – the day we were set to return to San Juan – we awoke to the sound of the anchor being pulled back up into the boat. We hit rough seas after that: an odd sensation, as we should have been docked by then.
Our first official coronavirus-related announcement came around 6 a.m. In both English and Spanish, the captain and cruise director informed us that the National Guard had closed San Juan's port. They told us that even though there were no known COVID-19 cases on our ship, any boat that chose to end its journey there would subject all passengers to a three-day quarantine. The ship in front of us (a Royal Caribbean vessel, we were told) declined this offer and sailed on to Miami, and our captain turned us around and continued our voyage to Port Canaveral near Orlando, Florida, extending our trip by about two days.
Suddenly, we had a lot of new travel, work and pet arrangements to make back home, but not a lot of ways to make them. I headed straight to the internet cafe once the announcement finished, where I was met by about a dozen other passengers with the same idea. After a few minutes, we were told that the internet would not be accessible until at least 9 a.m., due to the position of the satellites in relation to our new route.
Some cruisers left the room upon receiving this news, but one of our travel mates and I lingered. Other cruisers came and went until a Norwegian attendant informed us they were setting up eight laptops in a meeting room, which would be wired to provide us with complimentary internet access. Crowds rushed to the room and formed a line, and I quickly assumed my position at around No. 30. By the time I finished, the room would be filled to capacity and the line would be snaking down the hall.
As we waited, some cruisers found the situation stressful. A female passenger, seemingly in her 30s, broke down in tears claiming that someone had cut her in line. Waiters passed around cups of water, which most travelers declined. Over the loudspeaker, the cruise director announced that they would be organizing activities for our unexpected days at sea, including charades and bingo.
Another half-hour or so passed. By now, my husband had joined me in the makeshift waiting area, where I had begun making a to-do list on my phone. Priorities included contacting our dog's boarding facility (and finding friends to drop off more food for him), changing our flights, emailing our bosses and letting our families know what was happening.
Once it was our turn to use a laptop, we sent off all necessary emails – only to learn about 15 minutes later that they had not gone through. We were able to get in touch with our parents using our phone Wi-Fi instead (which was free for the first 60 minutes). They sprang into action; my parents called our dog's boarding location, and my husband's parents booked us rental cars in two Orlando locations, should we have to drive back to Washington, D.C.
On the laptop, we were able to book a fairly inexpensive flight out of Orlando International Airport for two days later – a reservation we later canceled after learning of a sick TSA worker in that airport. Instead, we set our sights on flying out of Tampa International Airport, a roughly 135-mile (around two-hour) drive west of the port. With so many unknowns, we wanted to make sure we had as many options as possible to get home.
Once we had everything taken care of, we decided we might as well enjoy the rest of our extended vacation. We headed out to the pool deck, where Clean Bandit's "Rather Be" blared from the DJ booth. We laughed at the irony of the lyrics: "When I am with you, there's no place I'd rather be."
Later on, we played cards in the cafe and looked out at the ocean, which was the calmest it had been during our entire journey. Concerned friends and family continued to contact us, and we chatted with them with the free Wi-Fi minutes we had left.
On our final day at sea, we hit another obstacle. All passengers' key cards had deactivated, leaving many travelers essentially stranded in the ship's common areas. Lines wrapped along the length of the vessel, from the guest services desk near the front all the way to the onboard art gallery at the rear. Several passengers groaned in disbelief and one woman began filming the situation on her smartphone. Norwegian employees eventually settled the crowds and separated us by floor, which sped up the process to fix our cards. At this point, we could not wait to step foot on land.
Disembarking the ship the next morning was a success. The customs process at Port Canaveral was alarmingly quick – we were not screened in any way and we simply had to hold our passport photos up to our faces as we walked past the agents. After that, we picked up our rental car and drove to Tampa International Airport. Our flight back to Washington, D.C., on March 17 had 64 people on board, less than half its normal capacity.
Planning Ahead for Uncertainty
Despite our unplanned trip extension and difficulties returning home, I don't regret taking our vacation. I have counted our blessings every day that we were not on one of the ill-fated ships with sick passengers on board. Through it all, Norwegian's onboard staff remained poised and positive – a feat, given the bumps we encountered along the way.
The choices that Norwegian Cruise Line and other cruise lines continue to make moving forward will be paramount in the success of their businesses. Cruise lines were instructed by the Cruise Lines International Association to cease operations until at least mid-April. Many have canceled select sailings through the remainder of 2020.
At the time of this writing, there are still a few cruise ships stuck at sea. I don't know the extent of what every passenger is feeling, but I'd guess they have an ongoing sense of uncertainty.
Statistics, numbers and protocols related to the coronavirus have been changing rapidly, and if you find yourself on a ship, a plane or anywhere other than home, you need to be able to adjust your plans quickly. Here are a few recommendations:
- Be prepared: If you are traveling during uncertain times, it doesn't hurt to pack some extra clothes, medications or other necessities should you experience delays or other complications. Our group was also thankful that we packed a deck of cards, they came in handy during our unexpected days at sea.
- Remain flexible: When altering your existing travel arrangements, consider multiple methods of transportation. Renting a car and driving, taking a train or booking an alternate flight may all be viable options in emergency situations. If you do choose to fly, check the rates and flights at all nearby airports to ensure you're considering all options.
- Utilize friends and family: Sometimes, having a few helpers on the outside can make a huge difference when travel plans go awry. Our parents (mine in Florida and my husband's in Georgia) were a huge help to us when our emails weren't sending and we needed to change our plans. Additionally, our friends at home in Washington, D.C., were able to drop off more food for our dog at his boarding facility. We are endlessly grateful to have had their help during this chaotic time.
- Use airline points or miles: If you've already carefully budgeted out your vacation, being thrown a curveball like we were can add even more stress. When booking new flights, consider using airline points or miles to avoid going over your planned spending amount.
- Stay calm: Travel hiccups are stressful on a regular day. When there's also a worldwide pandemic to worry about, they can be completely overwhelming. Instead of spending time stressing about what you can't control, keep a level head and develop a plan that will get you home as quickly and safely as possible.
I'm booked to go on another cruise over the summer – this time, it's a once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan voyage to celebrate my mom's birthday. But I think it's safe to say that until this pandemic is over, I'll be staying on land.
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