Cruise need-to-knows during the COVID-19 pandemic: Smaller crowds, buffets, sales

Morgan Hines

Last month, I boarded and sailed on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas. The ship departed from Nassau, Bahamas, and cruised around the Caribbean with stops at the cruise line's private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay; Cozumel, Mexico; and Grand Bahama Island.

When I embarked, Royal Caribbean had carried out several sailings in the Bahamas after being shut down since the onset of the pandemic.

Truth be told, I was a bit nervous. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued, I wasn't sure how safe I would feel on board (turns out, I felt safer than I may have at home). Not to mention, it was my first cruise.

I've been reporting on cruises for USA TODAY for nearly two years. I hadn't had the opportunity to board a ship amid the pandemic until last month. 

Here's what I learned about what it's like to take a cruise vacation:

There's plenty to do on a cruise ship

Cruises are like small cities or towns combined with an amusement park level of entertainment. 

And there wasn't a dull moment on board.

On Adventure of the Seas, people were rock climbing; taking fitness classes, both indoors and outdoors; attempting the FlowRider; swimming and lounging; gambling in the casino; playing mini-golf at an onboard course; dancing at a lounge; taking in dance, music and skating shows; and even riding down an onboard waterslide. 

I took an onboard spin class (for a fee of $15), which was my first in-person workout class since the start of the pandemic. I also spent time tanning, taking in two impressive shows at the theater and listening to live music at the Duck & Dog Pub on the fifth-deck promenade, all included experiences. 

Reporter Morgan Hines posted this shot to her Instagram story while starting a spin class on board Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas

Cruise dining choices are plentiful, even without specialty options

I had no idea what to expect in terms of dining. I'd heard about endless buffets, deluxe dining packages and beverage packages but didn't know what to make of them and whether the pricing was fair. Not to mention, I have food sensitivities and wasn't sure how I would find the onboard fare. 

Weeks before boarding, while researching dining packages, I decided to stick with the basic package rather than opting for the more expensive option, which included specialty restaurants on board. 

And I didn't regret it. 

Fruit plate at breakfast on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas.

For breakfast, passengers had multiple options open to them, including at a fast stop open all day called Café Promenade, the buffet dubbed The Windjammer and in the main dining room. I tended to alternate during my time on board between The Windjammer and the main dining hall – a fruit plate and bowl of market vegetables, goat cheese and eggs were favorites.

For lunch, the buffet and the café on a lower deck were open, including on days with port calls. 

The buffet, while open, was different than it had been before the pandemic. Self-serve was no longer an option. Instead, crew members stationed behind the counters were doling out servings of food to passengers in line. And it wasn't open for dinner.

Sharine Grayson-Thomas, 51, and Dana Grayson-Thomas, 52, from New York City, who got married on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship 10 years ago and were on the cruise celebrating their anniversary, told me that they missed having the buffet option for dinner.

It was convenient to have as an option when the main dining room's menu wasn't appealing or if they missed dinner there, they said.

Dining off the ship on Royal Caribbean's private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay, included salads, burgers and more at venues that were considered part of the cruise's included dining options.

While I didn't purchase a package that included specialty dining, I did try Giovanni's Table, a specialty Royal Caribbean restaurant serving Italian food available on board for an additional fee. It was delicious and still relatively inexpensive compared to a multiple-course meal at a nice restaurant shoreside. 

That said, it's definitely not necessary to purchase a specialty dining package for a cruise since there are plenty of included options.

The drinks package was worth the extra money though, with unlimited access to specialty coffees (including at Café Promenade, which featured Starbucks drinks), fresh-squeezed orange juice, bottled water and cocktails. 

Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas in Nassau, Bahamas, July 2021.

At this point in the pandemic, many ships may be less crowded

When I sailed on Adventure of the Seas, capacity was at 35%, according to Lyan Sierra-Caro, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean. The ship was carrying 1,182 passengers and 900 crew members on board. 

That meant that it was less crowded on board than usual, as was Royal Caribbean's private island Perfect Day at CocoCay.

"It’s less crowded, so we have more room, more availability when you come to the venue like this," 10-time cruiser Chris Piligiam, 64, from Southern California, told me during the trip. "I’d rather pay more money to be on the cruise with less people." 

View from the deck of Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas.

Sharine and Dana Grayson-Thomas said they think there are pluses and minuses to a less crowded ship.

The lack of lines was a good thing, Sharine said, noting there was no need to rush off the ship to find a beach chair when visiting a destination like CocoCay. 

On the other hand, Dana said she was struggling with the lack of crowds for nightlife. "It was empty," she said, of the dance floor the night before. 

"Even the sail-away was different," she continued, noting that usually, a large crowd gathers on deck as the ship pulls out of port. 

But Dana and Sharine agreed that overall it was a more relaxing cruise without the crowds.

Before boarding, watch for sales on cruise amenities

With added fees, one tip that we received from a friend was to watch for amenities sales in emails from the cruise line. We did, finding a deal on internet and on the drink package, making both much more affordable.

Once on board, these amenities would have been significantly more expensive to purchase.

Morgan Hines connected to the internet on the cruise ship to work from a balcony.

Check requirements for COVID-19 travel prior to booking and traveling

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the delta variant surges, cruise lines' health protocols are evolving. It's important to keep up to date to make sure you are prepared with the proper documents to board when arriving at the cruise terminal.

To get on Adventure of the Seas in July, I needed to be fully vaccinated and show my vaccine card, had to show proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test and had to have my passport. 

Some cruise lines and ships require full vaccination against COVID-19 to board, some require a negative COVID-19 test, and some require masks in indoor areas. 

And on some ships that allow unvaccinated travelers, there are additional requirements for them that can cost more, including travel insurance or additional testing.

Sometimes, too, depending on where the ship departs from, there are different requirements. Before arriving  at the Bahamas, I had to fill out a Bahamas Health Visa, as I was reminded by the cruise line. Make sure to check on those requirements before beginning travel, too.

Meet other cruisers online before boarding

If you're traveling solo or looking for insights, there are Facebook groups for many sailings created in advance of boarding.

The group was useful for advice, but it also created a sense of onboard community that was nice to have for the week.