Covid’s Impact on Cruising

We just completed a 2 night “Simulation Sailing” onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas from Port Canaveral stopping at Perfect Day at CocoCay.  This was a requirement by the CDC as part of their Conditional Sailing Order that must be successfully completed prior to allowing paid passenger sailings to resume.    Here’s what has changed from pre-pandemic cruising and what you can expect once onboard:

Royal Caribbean Port Canaveral Cruise Terminal

Embarkation

When you complete your onboard check-in prior to departure, you will be assigned a designated half hour check in window at the port.  Pre-pandemic, you could just show up at your convenience and boarding would usually begin around 11:30 or Noon.  Expect later check in times and they are strictly enforcing the time, so if you show up early you will be directed to an outdoor waiting area outside of the terminal.  This is to allow for social distancing inside, but it also makes the check in process quick and painless once you do get inside.

The first step is at a wellness station, where you are asked a few health questions and if you would like to present your covid vaccination card.  If you do, you will be presented with a rubber bracelet that says #TheROYALComeback that you must wear throughout the cruise.  This will allow you access to every area of the ship.  You will not need to show your Covid vaccine cards again throughout your cruise. 

If you opt not to show your Covid Vaccine card (in Florida) or have not been vaccinated, you will be escorted to a separate area for testing (at your expense).  More on Royal Caribbean’s policy can be found here:  https://www.royalcaribbean.com/faq/questions/do-i-need-a-covid-vaccine-to-cruise-what-counts-as-proof 

Wellness Check Station

Next is a quick pass through security and a scan of your luggage.

Royal Caribbean Terminal Security Area

The next stop is at the actual cruise check in area, where they will scan your passports and take your embarkation picture.  Royal was using both the traditional check in stations (if you did not complete the pre sailing steps in the Royal Caribbean app and have your set sail pass) and the mobile Ipad stations (if you did complete pre cruise check in and have a set sail pass) at Port Canaveral.  There you will be presented with your second piece of cruise bling, your covid tracking bracelet.  They have a variety of colors and it must be worn at all times both on the ship and in port.  We were advised that they are water resistant but not completely waterproof, which seems strange for a cruise vacation. 

Royal Caribbean Port Canaveral Check In
Royal Caribbean Bling

That’s it! On our sailing our stateroom keys were sealed in a cardboard envelope on our stateroom door.  We were told that unvaccinated guests would have a hole punched in their keycard, but I am unclear as to how that process will work if your keycard is on your door.

Balcony Cabin Door on Arrival

The last step to complete before you can really get the cruise party started is to view the safety briefing on the Royal Caribbean app and then stop by your muster station (ours was in the Champagne Bar! 😊) to get a sticker placed on your Seapass card.  You can also view the video on the tv in your cabin.  No need to stand around in the heat for half an hour wearing an uncomfortable orange lifejacket!  This is one of the best perks of the new safety procedures. 

Masks

The #1 question people ask is “Will we have to wear a mask onboard?” and the answer is Yes, for now.  Royal Caribbean requires that all passengers wear a mask when walking around indoors.  Masks for vaccinated guests are not required outside on deck, in Central Park or on the Boardwalk, or in your stateroom.  Unvaccinated guests are required to wear a mask indoors at all times unless actively eating or drinking. 

Many areas of the ship are designated for vaccinated guests only.  In those venues, your will be asked to sanitize your hands and show your bracelet prior to entering and can then remove your mask and move freely throughout the area. 

Vaccinated Only areas on the Allure include (subject to change):

Fitness:  Vitality Spa and Vitality Fitness Center

Bars and Clubs:  Live Comedy Club, Studio B for any ice shows or other events, Bow and Stern Pub, Schooner Bar, Jazz on 4, Blaze, Rising Tides

Specialty Dining:  Hibachi Teppanyaki and Chefs Table

Other Areas:  The Solarium and Casino

Dining

Dining is one of the areas where we felt the most changes to the cruise experience, but not in a bad way.  Many of the dining options onboard either require or prefer reservations to ensure social distancing.  All the bars and restaurants use QR codes to view their menus.  If you have any issues with the technology the waitstaff will assist you. 

Pool Bar

In the main dining room, one level or area is designated for vaccinated only guests, so guests without a vaccinated bracelet will dine in one area of another deck away from other passengers.  Tables are spaced out and only every other table is in use at a time. 

Reservations are required at most of the restaurants on board, including all of the alternate dining restaurants and the My Time dining room.  Reservations are preferred in the Windjammer.  All dining reservations can be made once onboard via the app.  No reservations are required for the Wipeout Café, Solarium buffet, Park Café Boardwalk Dog House, Café Promenade and Sorrento’s. 

The Windjammer is still a traditional buffet experience, just not self-serve.  You simply point out what you would like and a crew member serves it to you.  Tables were marked as unavailable to ensure social distancing and had place cards to indicate if they had been sanitized. 

Windjammer Cafe

Shows and Entertainment

One major change to the evening shows was that reservations made through your Royal Caribbean app are required to ensure social distancing.  You must present your seapass card to be scanned for admission.  Some rows were blocked off completely and they requested that you keep 2 seats open between your party and other guests.  At the end of the shows, they dismiss the audience by section to reduce crowding.  In the main showroom, one section of the balcony is reserved for unvaccinated guests.

Other Random Facts and Observations

Cruise Transfers in Orlando – Royal Caribbean did not offer transfer services to Port Canaveral for this two night “simulation” cruise. I contacted quite a few local transfer companies and most of them are not currently operating shuttles or have gone out of business in the last 16 months.  My research also indicated that Ubers and Lyfts are in short supply in the Orlando area, particularly returning from Port Canaveral. 

Just when I was starting to panic, we lucked out and found Corey who owns Cruise Control Transportation.  He was wonderful and professional to work with, offered us a private van transfer at our requested times for $80 each way and even accommodated our request to switch our pickup time on the return by an hour without hesitation.  These companies have been devastated by the cruise industry shutdown and I would not hesitate to book with and support Cruise Control Transportation in Port Canaveral. 

Cruise Control Trasnportation

Orlando Airport – The Orlando Airport was a complete zoo.  It was packed inside with no where to sit and long lines to get anything to eat.  It was impossible to social distance.  The entrance to the airport was backed up for about half a mile with cars waiting to get in for pick ups and drop offs.  I have no idea how they are going to handle the crowds once cruising resumes and travel is back to 100%. 

Marriott Orlando Airport Lakeside – We spent one night before the cruise at the Marriott Orlando Lakeside.  It was super close to the airport, offered a free shuttle and had a nice pool area.  When we claimed our bag and went to the shuttle area, we tried calling the hotel repeatedly to let them know we were ready to be picked up.  We must have called 10 times and got no answer.  When they finally did pick up, they said the shuttle would be there in 10 minutes.  It was actually a half an hour before it came.  When we checked in and went up to our room, they gave us a room with people in it already.  Like I opened the door and there were people there.  Super awkward.  Once we finally got settled in a room it was very nice and would be a good location for one-night pre or post cruise stays.  There are lots of other options in the area and this probably would not be our first choice when we return.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, it felt amazing to be back out at sea.  The ship was spotlessly clean and the crew was fantastic.  They cheered as we entered each venue on the first day and everyone was just so happy and helpful.  There are definitely a lot of crew that are new to this ship or to Royal Caribbean, so they were making drinks from recipes or shadowing more experienced staff.  I felt perfectly safe onboard, and it was a wonderful relaxing experience.  If you are fully vaccinated, there has never been a better time to sail.  With reduced capacity, there are no long lines or fights for a chair by the pool. If you are an adult and are not vaccinated, I would suggest waiting to cruise.  The current CDC guidelines and safety protocols would restrict your ability to fully enjoy the cruise experience. 

It’s been a long 16 months, but it is wonderful to see the cruise lines rising to the challenge and adapting to provide a safe and fantastic cruising experience for their guests.  Bon Voyage!

Girls Trip!

We’re Back to Bon Voyage!

After 18 months of waiting, cruising is finally returning to service. I was really starting to think this day would never come! Slowly, but surely, the cruise lines are setting sail, mostly on shorter itineraries at reduced capacity. We were lucky enough to be chosen to be among the first guests to sail from a US port since the pandemic shut down the entire cruise industry in March of 2020.

The CDC has given the cruise lines two ways that they can return to service. The first option is to require that 95% of all passengers and crew onboard have been fully vaccinated. This is the route that Celebrity Cruises picked and they are back at sea. Because Royal Caribbean caters to families and current vaccination recommendations do not apply to children under 12, they have opted to conduct “simulation sailings” prior to opening up to the public to ensure that they are compliant with all of the CDC’s requirements and guidelines.

My daughter and I are flying to Orlando today to participate in a 2 day “simulation sailing” onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it! This will be a fully operating cruise at a reduced capacity with a stop to enjoy a Perfect Day at CocoCay. Everyone on the simulation cruise must be fully vaccinated, so I think there has never been a safer time to sail!

Have I told you lately how good it is to be me?

Watch for updates and lots of pictures as we mojito our way through the high seas.

Virgin Voyages

(Disclaimer…You do not have to be an actual Virgin to set sail)

I just finished a training program and seminar about Virgin Voyages and I’ll admit it…

I am hooked and can’t wait to cruise with them!

What’s the Virgin Voyages Advantage?

  • Adults only.  Yep!  No kids programs, chicken finger/hot dog meals or kiddie pools.  I remember the days of traveling with kids on their schedule and feeling like I needed a vacation to recover from our vacation.  This is the trip where you leave the little ones at home with the grandparents while you party like a rock star.   This is also a perfect option for all of us “empty nesters”!  We’ve raised our kids and deserve some adult time.
  • They include most of those “extras” that the other cruise lines tack onto their base price, like bottled water and soft drinks, tips, wifi and alternate dining charges.  Most of the mainstream cruise lines feel like my cable bill…they add so many extras to the base price that the actual cost doubles!
  • Speaking of alternate dining, it is all ala carte restaurants onboard with no set dining times or tables.  Imagine that?!?  Eat what you want, when you want, where you want.  No more bellying up to the buffet!
  • There is no dress code.  Wear what you want, when you want.  Feeling fancy?  Go for it!  Still feeling the effects of last night’s party and opting for comfy and casual?  That works, too.  Do you see a common theme here?
  • They don’t offer a drink package.  You can pre purchase drink credit in $300 increments and get a $50 bonus added to your onboard account.  Drink prices are reasonable, with $5 bottled beers, $8 glasses of wine and $10-12 cocktails.  You can even shake your cellphone activating the Virgin App and a bottle of champagne will be delivered to you wherever you are on the ship.  That’s the rockstar lifestyle we love!
  • Virgin Voyages stays later in port so you aren’t rushing to make it back before the ship sails without you.  One of our favorite past times is relaxing on our balcony watching the running of the drunks in Cozumel as they stagger up the pier trying to get back onboard in time for the 5 pm sailaway. With Virgin Voyages, you can sleep in and head out to explore whenever you are ready.  And, they stay late into the evening at their private beach club in Bimini so you can dance the night away in the sand under the stars.
  • All crew and passengers must be fully vaccinated to sail, so you can relax and enjoy your vacation knowing you are covid safe.  Finally.

Come Sail With Me

Pricing is reasonable considering all that is included.  Check out their brochure and email me if you are interested in booking a Virgin Voyage, because they have some great promotions available.  If it’s not in the budget right now, I am planning to kick off 2022 onboard the Scarlet Lady and will take you with me virtually.  😊

March Minimalist Challenge

So, I’ll admit it…I love a good double dog dare.  I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro (I mean…on my treadmill in my family room using the I Fit App). I’ve been known to do a nice 7 day fruit and veggie detox cleanse to debloat and reset.  I am a self-proclaimed goal getter.  Tell me I should drink half my weight in water daily and I’ll have it done by noon.

In the era of Covid, it’s literally been a challenge to stay challenged.  I’ve been watching lots of YouTube videos and listening to self-help podcasts and stumbled upon the minimalist challenge.  I am intrigued.

The premise is pretty simple…you eliminate the non-essential items in your life over a month-long period by throwing them out, selling them or donating them to charity. So, on the first of the month, you eliminate 1 item from your life.  One the 2nd, you reduce by 2 items.   Easy-peasy, right?  The challenge part comes in on the 21st, 22nd, 23rd.  I originally planned to do this in February because it’s the shortest month.  LOL!

So, here I go.  Ready to Marie Kondo my way through my stuff to see what sparks joy.  I have a few big boxes set aside to fill with donations and I am ready to be cutthroat as I cut through the clutter.  Check back to see my progress as I attack Minimalist March!  

Traveling to Cancun and Covid Testing- Follow Up Questions

Y’all had some great questions about traveling to Cancun and Covid testing, so I wanted to do a quick Q and A to get you some answers!

Did you have to get a Covid test done to go to Cancun?

Nope!  The U.S. only requires a negative test result within 72 hours of your return.  Mexico does not require any testing to enter the Country. 

Did you have to convert your U.S. dollars to pesos?

Nope again!  We used US cash for tips without any issues.  You may get Pesos as change, though, if you are paying in shops or restaurants.  I also used my Visa everywhere to take advantage of the exchange rate. Both US dollars and Pesos were accepted at the airport shops and restaurants and they quoted prices in both denominations. My daughter ordered a spicy margarita at Margaritaville at the Cancun Airport. It was served in a plastic cup for $24. So, the good news is you can take your cocktails to go at the airport in Cancun. The bad news is you will pay a crazy price for that privilege. 😉

Did people in Cancun wear masks everywhere?

Yes, inside.  We only had one encounter during our stay where a woman rushed into our elevator at the last minute and wasn’t wearing a mask.  People wore masks in the restaurants until they were seated.  But masks were not worn outside by the beach or pool.  I mean, can you imagine those tan lines?  But seriously, the hotel was not crowded at all and it was very easy to stay socially distanced outside. 

Did you feel safe?  Would you go back?

Yes.  I’d go back tomorrow.  The worst part of the whole experience was quarantining when we got home.  If you feel like you need a tropical vacation and can work from home for a week when you get back, treat yourself to a Cancun vacation.  You may never see pricing and crowd levels this low again.  Need an agent to help you?  Click here and start packing.  😊

Onsite Resort Covid Testing for Re-Entry into the U.S.

A week before we left on our trip, the CDC implemented a new policy requiring all international passengers returning to the U.S. to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test administered within 72 hours of their flight. More information is available here. My first thought was to cancel, honestly.  I had visions of my daughter and I paying some guy in a parking lot in downtown Cancun for fake COVID-19 tests to get back into the country.  Within 48 hours of the CDC’s announcement, many resorts advised that they would provide free antigen (quick) testing onsite, including our hotel, the Beach Palace Resort.  We decided it was worth the hassle and moved ahead with our plans.  Tequila and tan lines were waiting!

When to get tested?

We went ahead and scheduled our COVID-19 tests while enjoying our welcome cocktails during check in at the Beach Palace.  We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and scheduled the test for Friday morning, since our return flight was on Sunday and the test is required to be taken within 72 hours of your return.  I really just wanted to get it out of the way so that we could relax and enjoy the rest of our stay.

Where to get tested?

The Beach Palace had a clinic set up near the Sports Bar dedicated to COVID-19 testing.  Our appointment time was 11:15, but they were running a little behind schedule because a family of 6 was in front of us and the kids were simply not cooperating.  Once we filled out a basic form and sat down, the process was quick and painless.  I joked before we went to Cancun that they would just stick a q tip up our nose and say it’s negative, but they actually did a real test and we had the negative results in 15 minutes.  The paperwork and results were emailed to me that evening and we were able to print off the required document in the hotel business center.  Everything ran seamlessly and there was no cost to us at all.  It was my first COVID-19 test, so I was a little nervous about the whole swab up the nose process, but it is just a little uncomfortable for about 3 seconds.  I, of course, made my daughter go first…

Who cares if we got tested?

When we checked in at Delta Airlines for our return flight, they asked for the COVID-19 test documentation and stapled it to our boarding pass along with the bottom part of the Mexican immigration form that we completed upon arrival.  There was a QR code that they asked us to scan with an online survey to complete.  It was basic questions like your name, birthdate, home address, had you been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, did you have any symptoms, etc.  When we got to the security agent, the QR code would not scan, so we ended up having to answer the questions manually on a little piece of paper.  No big deal and the entire process probably added about 5 minutes to our total check in time. 

Yes, you should go ahead and get tested

I would not let having to get a COVID-19 test be a deterrent to traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean.  We were actually joking around about hoping for a false positive on our test, because Palace Resorts will provide you will free accommodations for up to 14 days if you test positive.  The actual hard part is quarantining for 7 days after you return if you have a real job where working from home isn’t an option. I took a follow up test yesterday and am waiting for the results before reentering the world.  My main concern is exposing my 86-year-old mother to COVID-19, so I am being extra cautious before seeing her. 

Hopefully, this will be a short-term mandate and we can get back to living and traveling soon!

Cancun During Covid – Beach Palace Resort

This was just a quick girl’s getaway.  My daughter and I decided we needed a few days of sun and fun to help us regroup so we can power through another brutal Michigan winter.  We picked the Beach Palace Resort because we have stayed at the Moon Palace twice and enjoyed it but wanted something different and close to the airport so we didn’t waste a lot of our limited time transferring back and forth. 

Random Resort Ramblings:

  • Reservations are not required at the restaurants, so that was nice compared to some of the huge all inclusive resorts that require preplanning.  We were seated immediately each night around 7 pm. We ate in Tequila (The Mexican Restaurant), Bocelli (The Italian Restaurant) and The Smokehouse Grill (The Steakhouse).   All of the food was good.  Bocelli was very good.  Breakfast and lunch we ate in the main restaurant or the snack shop poolside. 
  • Our room was sealed when we entered and we did not utilize housekeeping during our 3 night stay. I did bring Lysol and Clorox wipes and wiped things down myself just for extra peace of mind. The hotel also provided a kit of supplies in the room.
  • We had a lagoon view room, which was perfect to watch the sunset at 6:30 each night.  The ocean side offers sunrise views.  We had 2 double beds, a large jacuzzi tub in the room, a large balcony with a lounge bed and double sinks.  Counter space in the bathroom area was limited.   There was a stocked mini fridge and liquor dispenser, plus a bottle of wine and coffee maker. 
  • Another favorite sunset spot for us was the rooftop pool bar, where they have 2 pools and 2 large Jacuzzis to enjoy along with stunning views.
  • We enjoyed open air massages on the beach while listening to the waves crash in for $45 each for 30 minutes.  They were fantastic and just what we needed to relax and unwind.
  • The beach was beautiful white sand with very little seaweed.  It was windy during our stay, so the waves were crashing in.  Lifeguards were on duty.
  • They had limited daytime activities poolside (Zumba, water aerobics, bingo, beach volleyball) and a nightly show.
  • Drinks were wonderful and liquor brands varied by bar.  My daughter learned how to make amazing spicy margaritas and bloody marys during our visit.  My mojitos were perfection. 
  • We did a little shopping in the gift shop and used my credit card to get the best exchange rate.  My daughter loved the spa-ey air freshener scent that they use throughout the resort and they sold it in the gift shop as a spray and a reed diffuser, so we got both! Now our foyer at home smells like a vacation.
  • We tipped in USD everywhere and no one complained.  I’ve been reading that the Mexican government is requiring that pesos be used by tourists, but it was not an issue at the resort or at the Cancun airport.

Overall, I would rate Beach Palace a solid 4 ½ stars.  The food was good, the drinks were cold and the service was outstanding.  Every single person we encountered went out of their way to make sure that we were happy and well taken care of.  Occupancy was very low…I would guess around 25%.  Beach Palace is a good option for really anyone looking for a long weekend getaway.  We had no complaints and would return without hesitation.  The sun was warm and the drinks were cold…what more can a girl ask for? Questions? Ask away in the comments or shoot me an email at ellen@ellensemptynesters.com

Hotel Transfers in Cancun During Covid

Here’s a pro travel tip from your buddy Ellen…we upgraded our transfers in Cancun to meet and greet service with a private car and driver.  If you haven’t ever been through the Cancun airport before, it’s a real treat.

As the automatic doors from customs open wide to welcome you to the sun and fun of Cancun, you will also be welcomed by 100 vendors working aggressively to earn your business.  Car rental agencies, tour suppliers, time share hosts and transfer drivers all compete for your hard earned vacation funds.  Loudly.  Aggressively.  Enthusiastically. “Hey, pretty lady!  Come rent with me!”  “I have your name on my list right here!”  “Free Tequila!”

Even if you have prepaid transfers through a tour company, you still need to weed through the people waving signs and yelling to find the company that you booked with.  Then, you will be led to another area to wait until everyone that is assigned to your bus or van has checked in.  Then you will line up and wait to have your luggage loaded and begin the process of boarding the vehicle with other hot sweaty tourists.  Once you are ready to hit the road, you’ll make regular stops along the way to drop off guests at their designated hotels.  Then, eventually, you will arrive at your resort, wait for your bags to get unloaded, check in, and get that vacation started.

With the upgraded service, our car and driver were waiting outside for us with a sign that had our names on it.  He took our bags, sprayed them down with some sort of disinfectant, loaded us into our private air-conditioned van and we were off for the 20 minute ride to the Beach Palace.  Well worth the $35 per person round trip add on to your price. Do it. You’re worth it. 🙂

Delta Airlines During Covid

For our weekend girls trip, we flew from DTW nonstop to Cancun.  Honestly, the flights were on time, the planes were clean, and the crew was all fun and friendly.  We couldn’t have asked for better service from Delta and there was nothing else they could have done to make us feel more safe.  There was hand sanitizer at the self-check in kiosks and the baggage drop.  They had plexiglass barriers everywhere.  As we boarded the flight, the Delta crew handed out individually packaged wipes to wipe down your seating area.  The middle seats were blocked off on the entire aircraft and Delta has extended this policy until April 30th, 2021.  Snacks were handed out in prepackaged plastic bags and included bottled water, another wipe, cheese goldfish crackers and a mini Cliff bar.  No Biscoff cookies!?! It is now a federal requirement in the U.S. to wear masks in airports and on planes, and everyone we saw was wearing one.  Really, I don’t think there has ever been a more sanitary time to fly.  You can find out more about flying Delta Airlines during the Covid Pandemic here

Views from 30,000 feet

Cancun During Covid

I’m leavin’…on a jet plane…

Yep!  You read that right!  I have volunteered to be the crash test dummy and fly down to Cancun, Mexico for the weekend to review the safety protocols in place at the resorts, how the CDC guidelines are enforced during our flight on Delta Airlines and to also be one of the first Americans to experience the new Covid testing process required for return travel to the U.S.  I also promise to enjoy some sun, fun and mojito or two along the way.  Have any specific questions you need answered about traveling to Cancun, Mexico during the Covid pandemic? Email me at ellen@ellensemptynesters.com and I’ll try to get you answers. Check back for updates! Hola!