Whether to Cruise — or Not

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We miss cruising. My husband and I board big and small ships with friends or relatives every year. Sailing gives us interesting ports plus time together and apart without the hosting duties of cooking and cleaning. When Azamara canceled our August 2020 Norway voyage because of COVID-19, we understood. Our spirits sank until we saw their 2021 deals. Then we booked another exciting voyage — two weeks exploring the Black Sea in April 2021.

The good deal made it doable. We got 50% off the second fare, a cabin upgrade, a $500 onboard credit and a low deposit. The piece de resistance: was that we were able to trade our long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles for two business-class airline seats.

Such promotions are typical in the pandemic era. Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Holland America cut deposits. HAL tossed in free gratuities and signature dining (when booked by Sept. 30). Norwegian Cruise Line’s Labor Day promotion dangled balcony cabins for the price of ocean views plus added two “Free at Sea” packages that delivered unlimited drinks, free kids’ fare or complimentary Wi-Fi.

Just as David and I congratulated ourselves, twirling in a happy dance around our kitchen, my adult son phoned. We shared our coup. Big mistake.

“Floating petri dish,” “Unsafe,” “How could you even think of that?”

“All it takes is for one person, even a crew member, to get sick, and you’d be marooned in your cabin for weeks,” and on and on. He texted his sister. She immediately called, berated us for our poor judgment, and slapped on “Don’t you want to live to see your grandchildren grow up?”

By the time of the ship’s departure nine months away we felt confident that the cruise industry would implement effective health procedures and that the United States would roll out a vaccine. All would be well — or would it?

Members of the Cruise Lines International Association voluntarily suspended oceangoing voyages through October 2020. Cunard, Princess and others halted long journeys until spring 2021, and all lines ballyhooed their ongoing health committees.

We reasoned that the cruise companies would ramp up sanitation, lower passenger numbers, maintain social distancing and find a way to continue the onboard fun. The lines pledged enhanced cleaning of cabins, hallways, handrails and elevator banks. Many companies added temperature checks, eliminated buffets, spaced dining room tables 6 feet apart and cut the number of passengers. Virgin Voyages, AmaWaterways and other lines emphasized that their air-conditioning systems do not recirculate air.

Besides, the travel agent assured us that we could cancel without a penalty up to 48 hours before sailing. But we read the fine print. We wouldn’t receive a refund. Like most cruise lines, Azamara would apply our money to another voyage within 12 months of the original sail date. We did the math. Our funds could be in Azamara’s pockets for nearly two years. Insurance, even cancel-for-any-reason policies, wouldn’t help. That’s because since Feb. 3, 2020, insurance policies consider COVID-19 a “known event” and therefore not covered.

Then we considered the onboard and onshore experience. Intense cleaning, restructured dining and increased space per passenger only enhances shipboard life. We looked forward to that. A few lines announced spraying venues before every performance and blocking seats in showrooms so that passengers won’t be knee-to-knee. Wearing masks onboard would be odd but OK.

The onshore experience, however, worried us. MSC requires guests to go only on MSC shore tours in order to control possible exposure to COVID-19. To keep the “social bubble,” the line even refused to reboard a family who ventured beyond the tour. While Azamara and other lines have not, at this writing, announced their shore-tour policies, we felt warned.

Wandering in a new city on our own or with a private guide is a highlight for us. We look forward to sampling the iconic custard pastries at a local cafe, finding the shop with buttery soft leather gloves and discovering street sculptures in a port neighborhood. Or taking a coffee break at a cafe with delicious apple strudel. Experienced cruisers, we don’t want to sit in a bus for hours and see the obvious.

With our deadline looming for full payment, we reluctantly canceled our cruise. We hope we were wrong. There’s so much we like about traveling by ship — the exhilaration of viewing masterpieces in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum one day and then strolling past medieval buildings in Honfleur the next, all without packing, unpacking and schlepping suitcases. The upfront fee for lodging, children’s programs, entertainment and basic food makes cruise vacations easy to budget as long as we limit extras.

We keep checking promotions. Azamara now offers a two-cabin upgrade on the voyage we had reserved. Cruise companies are tossing out great deals like lifebuoys to catch passengers. Sometimes, when we hear our children’s chorus of doom, we think we did the prudent thing; other times, we lament missing out on a great cruise at a great price. It’s a difficult personal decision.

What would you do?

© Candyce H. Stapen Photography

A sculpture titled “The Bicycle Thief” delights cruise ship passengers in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

When You Go

Popular cruise lines include: AmaWaterways; Azamara; Carnival; Holland America; Norwegian Cruise Lines; Royal Caribbean; Virgin Voyages.