With COVID cases continuing to fall across the United States, many people are feeling much less apprehensive about travel, including about a mode of transportation that was off-limits during much of the pandemic: cruising. But as Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”—so it’s best to be prepared when things do go south.
In 2019, my dad lucked out on a raffle and won an Alaskan cruise for four. My mother, father, husband, and I planned to sail in the fall of 2020, but obviously, that didn’t quite work out—cruising had been fully halted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at that point—and we postponed the trip.
After bumping back the cruise a few more times (Things will look better in the spring! Maybe next fall! Maybe next year!), we finally decided we were going to set sail in August 2022—infection rates were dropping and we were all vaccinated and boosted. Worryingly, the CDC stopped monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships just a month before our excursion, a move that allowed cruise lines to set their own policies of how they would handle cases aboard their vessels. Prior to that, there were more exacting requirements. Passengers and crew were previously required to be up-to-date on vaccines (or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test) before embarkation, and there were also stringent plans outlined for ships to follow in response to any cases that might occur onboard.
However, I was (perhaps naively) feeling pretty good—I’d gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two doses of the Moderna vaccine, and a booster (not the newer, recently released bivalent booster which targets omicron). I also habitually wore a mask in public places and hadn’t gotten sick yet. What could go wrong?
Three days into our seven-night Alaskan cruise, which began in Seattle and sailed up to Juneau with several stops on the way, things were going according to plan—we’d left the port of Seattle, tramped around Sitka National Historical Park, and rode the White Pass Railroad in Skagway. But on the fourth day, I awoke with the dreaded dry cough and the chills. The at-home rapid tests that I’d brought with me confirmed what I suspected: I had COVID-19. After a quick visit to the ship’s infirmary, I soon found myself in a new quarantine room—away from my family, who all tested negative—where I would remain for the rest of the cruise until all other passengers had disembarked from the vessel.
Here are five tips to keep in mind prior to any upcoming cruise so that you can be prepared should COVID come a-knockin’. (Hopefully, it doesn’t, of course—but knowledge and good planning are power.)
Stay up to date on your vaccinations—and wear a mask if you’re worried
Before considering a cruise, infectious disease experts recommend that travelers make sure they are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
“COVID-19 vaccines have consistently shown that they reduce the chance of severe infection and death,” Amira Roess, professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, explained in an email. “The new bivalent booster is expected to be even better at reducing the chance of infection and, if you do get infected, the duration and severity of COVID-19. Getting the booster about two to three weeks before you travel will give your body a chance to develop antibodies and increase your protection against infection and severe disease.”
For those who are concerned about getting sick, it’s also smart to wear a mask in certain settings since there’s still a chance you can get sick even if you are vaccinated and boosted.
“It is a good idea to wear a mask when you are in crowded indoor settings with people you don’t know, especially if you are vulnerable to severe infection,” wrote Roess. “Those who are vulnerable to severe infection could also modify their behavior while traveling to protect themselves. They could wear good-quality masks, travel during less popular times, avoid crowds particularly when eating or doing things we know increase exposure.”
There’s almost no way to avoid being in tight quarters with strangers on a cruise ship unless you decide to take all your meals in your room and greatly inconvenience yourself during any port stops. And if you’re going to a cold-weather destination like Alaska or Antarctica, you’ll likely be spending most of your time inside.
Of course, wearing a mask isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get infected either. But since most people are probably not willing to wear a mask for a week during a vacation (especially as COVID cases continue to fall), it might be wise to keep one handy just in case—especially if you’re at higher risk of developing severe complications.
For those who want the utmost protection, the CDC and infectious disease experts recommend an N95 or KN95-grade mask.
Be prepared—and don’t expect the ship to have everything you will need if you get sick
Don’t be surprised if the ship’s infirmary is woefully incapable of handling a COVID outbreak. At the nurse’s station, I was given another rapid test, and I tested positive again. Afterwards, I was whisked away to quarantine and given a six-ounce container of generic Mucinex, a box of acetaminophen, and some cherry cough drops. Even though I was vaccinated and boosted, I got pretty sick—that dry cough evolved into a feverish, phlegmy hack (which ended up lingering for more than a month) and I had trouble breathing, especially when lying down. But when I called to inform the doctor on board that I was having trouble breathing, I was told there wasn’t much they could do for me.
Given my experience, there are several things that I wish I had brought with me:
- Thermometer. My temperature was only taken once on board during my one and only visit to the nurse’s station. But my fever actually lasted for a few days, and it would have been helpful to continue to track it myself.
- Pulse oximeter. Pulse oximeters monitor blood oxygen levels. If you’re COVID positive and having trouble breathing, this can be a vital piece of equipment to have—any reading below 90 percent is considered concerning and could bring about bouts of confusion and dizziness, according to the CDC.
- Extra rapid tests. When I went to the infirmary to confirm that I was positive, I was told that if I tested negative, I would have to pay $150 for the appointment. (If I was positive, all my COVID-related expenses would be covered by the cruise line.) Though it was necessary to have the positive test to be admitted into quarantine, it’s good to have a few of your own on hand to double-check if you’re infected without incurring a huge bill at the nurse’s station.
- Additional cough medicine. More than likely, the ship’s infirmary will not have antiviral drugs like Paxlovid on board (which require a prescription), so be prepared with over the counter meds like fever reducer ibuprofen and cough suppressants like dextromethorphan.
- Extra clothes. I’m usually a big fan of traveling with just one carry-on bag, but since the CDC recommends a five-day quarantine, I opted to continue my isolation on land in Seattle. Usually, I don’t mind washing my underthings in the bathtub or sink, but I didn’t enjoy doing that when I was at my sickest. It might be a good move to pack a little extra—just in case.
Get ready for some alone time
After I tested positive in the infirmary, I was asked to quickly pack my things in the stateroom (within 15 minutes) that I shared with my husband and was promptly moved to a separate cabin on the third deck of the ship in a hall where other COVID patients were kept behind a water-tight door. (There was a pretty sizable outbreak onboard, so nearly all the approximately 30 rooms in the corridor were occupied.)
Unlike my previous stateroom, this room didn’t have a balcony (thankfully, there was at least a porthole window so I could take in some of the scenery) and I was not allowed to leave—and no one was allowed to visit me—until the ship was ready to disembark COVID patients at the end of the cruise in Seattle, which only occurred after all other guests had left the vessel. In Juneau, on the fifth day of the cruise, my husband was able to find my room’s porthole window and we had a conversation on the phone while he ate a takeaway dinner on the dock. But that would be the last I would see of him until I flew home by myself five days later (he went home on the flight we had originally booked).
I also had minimal contact with staff. The infirmary would occasionally call me to see how I was doing, but otherwise food (I was able to order what I wanted through a digital form I submitted daily) was left outside my door three times a day. Meals were delivered on the dot at 7:00 a.m. (no sleeping in here), 1:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. I was also able to request an extra comforter to keep me warm during the worst of my fever, which was a blessing since the thermostat in my room was broken.
Internet on cruise ships can be pricey, but once I tested positive, I was thankfully given free internet access. However, satellite internet access on cruise ships is notoriously spotty, so I occasionally indulged in watching the on-board television, and I must say, Hallmark comfort movies just hit different when you’re hacking up a lung and battling fatigue. Phone calls to other rooms on board the ship were also free and I was able to speak to my parents and my husband without racking up a bill. But truthfully, most of my time was spent napping until we disembarked. After we left the ship, we boarded a bus that dropped us off at the hotels of our choice where we would stay for the remainder of our quarantine.
Check the cruise line’s COVID compensation policies
Since the CDC is not monitoring or regulating COVID guidelines on ships any longer, ships are setting their own protocol for how they handle outbreaks on board. On the cruise that I sailed, I elected to extend my time on land to meet the CDC’s recommended five-day quarantine—my hotel stay and food expenses were all covered by the cruise line, and I should also be compensated for cruising days I lost to isolation. Check to see what your cruise line will cover in the event of COVID-19 infection.
Buy travel insurance and book with airlines that accommodate flight changes without penalty
Mercifully, my extended quarantine on land was later reimbursed by the cruise line, but if I hadn’t had that option, it would have been handy to have travel insurance. It’s a good idea to have a back-up plan in place to ensure that you have peace of mind in the event that you’re forced to quarantine in an unfamiliar place or cancel a trip—and a way to pay for that back-up plan. When buying travel insurance, you might want to look into a CFAR (which stands for “cancel for any reason”) add-on to your package since travel complications due to the pandemic are now considered to be “foreseeable events.” If you have a travel credit card, check to see what your card may cover—you could be compensated for travel delays and cancellations.
On a related note, it’s useful to make sure that your flights have a flexible rescheduling policy should you need to quarantine on land. Thankfully, I had booked a Southwest flight home (its policy allows you to rebook your flight up to 10 minutes before your scheduled departure without a change fee), so I was easily able to change my plans. Over the course of the pandemic, all of the major U.S. airlines dropped their flight change fees, offering travelers more flexibility should something go awry.