Our recent Royal Caribbean vacation to Alaska on the Serenade of the Seas began like most of our cruises. It had anticipation, excitement, and eager planning for our trip. However, COVID interrupted our cruise journey because my husband and I tested positive part way through our cruise. So, if you’re fearful of getting COVID during a cruise, read on.
Many of us share the same fears, from the uncertainty to what happens if you get sick. This article describes our experience and what we learned during our ‘COVID cruise.’
However, without too much of a ‘Spoiler Alert,’ you will see that we still LOVE cruising and plan to sail to Alaska again. It’s important to remember that all cruise lines have interpreted the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.
However, the cruise line you are traveling on may handle COVID differently from our experience due to many different factors. You can read our full review of the Serenade of the Seas cruise ship.
COVID Guidelines Are Always Changing
In addition, our COVID experience occurred in May 2022, and the CDC guidelines regarding COVID are constantly being reviewed and updated. Cruise lines revise their procedures and protocols in response to changing CDC guidelines.
What happened to us in May could be very different in July or September, even within the same cruise line! Also, it is likely that as time goes on, cruise lines will offer less coverage and benefits for their passengers that contract COVID.
Cruise lines continue to battle substantial financial losses and will look to reduce high COVID costs. Norwegian Cruise Lines just announced a $1B loss in the last quarter.
I hope you find this information helpful in making an “informed decision” about your risks when cruising. As we all know, “COVID is the New-Normal,” but it is YOUR responsibility to keep as informed as possible.
Before sailing, check your cruise line’s website for the latest COVID information. Also, consider checking any government or health sites for the latest news.
Before The Cruise
Brian and I are fully-vaccinated with double vaccines, and both of us received our booster (3rd) dose within the past six months. We actually took our first post-pandemic cruise to Mexico two months earlier……….without any issues.
Days before our Alaska cruise, we booked our antigen test at one of the local test centers near us. In British Columbia, there are limited options for inexpensive COVID tests that meet the cruise line requirements.
For us, the cost was CAD 90 + tax each for a rapid antigen test with results promised within three hours.
We both completed our ArriveCan application, which is a requirement of the Canadian government since we were sailing out of Vancouver. Also, we completed the health questionnaire on the Royal Caribbean app, required the day before sailing.
Once at the Vancouver Cruise Terminal, we showed all our documentation to the Royal Caribbean representative, including our negative COVID test. After more health-related questions, we got permission to proceed to the gangway to board the ship. Let the fun begin!
After boarding, we could tell our ship was not cruising at capacity, and based upon what some staff told us, we estimate there were 1800 passengers on board. The Serenade of the Seas has a passenger capacity of 2,476, so we were sailing at 73% full.
Masks are optional on Royal Caribbean vessels, and we noticed most passengers were not wearing them. In our balcony cabin, we received two complimentary COVID masks and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
First Signs Of COVID On A Cruise Ship
The first several days of the cruise were terrific as we traveled with our 26-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. They were in another cabin just a few doors down the hall on Deck 9.
Fortunately, we had balconies which I would recommend for any Alaska cruise if you can afford the increased cost. On the fourth day, we approached Hubbard Glacier, and the scratchy throat I developed earlier had grown worse.
We had packed a variety of usual medicines for pain, motion sickness, gas, diarrhea, etc., but nothing for COVID or flu symptoms. This was our first lesson learned for the future!
As we cruised closer to Hubbard Glacier, I watched from the balcony as Brian went to buy medication. We don’t have air-conditioning at home, and I typically don’t tolerate cabin air conditioning. I often get a sore throat and had assumed this was just that.
They had little worth purchasing at the tiny sundries store on Deck 5. According to CDC guidelines, the store clerk said that they are not allowed to sell medicinal remedies.
If you need them, you must contact Medical Services on Deck 2. Brian found this frustrating because he knew (at least that’s what he thought!) I didn’t have COVID.
He had heard the horror stories from the early days in 2020 on the Diamond Princess and with an entire ship in LOCKDOWN. This was only our 2nd cruise since 2019, but honestly, we didn’t think I had COVID. Heck, I was TRIPLE-VACCINATED and had survived the entire pandemic so far without catching COVID!!
Brian jogged down to Deck 2 only to find Medical Services had closed ten minutes earlier! He thought to himself, how hard is it to get my wife some relief from the air conditioning!
The only alternative was to call Medical Services on one of the house phones and speak to a Ship Nurse. Once speaking to the Nurse, she asked a long series of questions. This included details on my symptoms, exactly when it started, vaccination status, etc.
Brian knew that the “COVID Machine” had started, and we were now part of an extensive protocol we had to follow. Again, all we thought was… “Can’t we just get some DayQuil or NeoCitran to help me feel better!” It’s NOT COVID!
The “COVID Machine” Begins
Brian returned to the room and let me know that he couldn’t purchase any medicine. However, the Ship Doctor would be calling soon to ask me some questions. I was hopeful this was just a minor delay in getting some remedy to relieve my sore throat.
A few minutes later, our cabin phone rang, and it was the doctor. Like what Brian experienced with the ship nurse, he asked a long series of questions. It covered my symptoms, recent history, vaccination status, etc.
The doctor let me know they would need to do a COVID test. In addition, he notified me that I would need to remain in my stateroom until the results came back. My ‘COVID Lockdown’ had begun!
There was a knock on our cabin door as the doctor and nurse arrived about 15 minutes later. They were dressed in full-COVID protection as they entered our cabin.
Again, they asked me a series of questions as if following the Royal Caribbean COVID protocols. The doctor administered a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, which requires inserting a long cotton swab deep into my sinuses through my nose. Ouch!!
My eyes watered briefly, but at least the ordeal was over quickly. The alternative Antigen test requires a simpler rotating of a cotton swab inside both nostrils. I assume they opted for the PCR test because it’s more reliable.
They also checked my oxygen saturation levels (O2 %) and pulse with a finger monitor. The doctor checked my temperature, and I had no fever. After a few more minutes, the examination was complete.
With no symptoms other than a sore throat, the doctor thought I did not have COVID. But I could NOT leave the room until I knew the rapid test results.
Waiting for My COVID Test Results
Once outside the room, they removed their protective gear and placed it in a pile inside our room. The doctor asked us to notify our cabin steward to dispose of the discarded equipment. Later, she put the used COVID garb in a red “Infectious Waste” bag and removed it from our cabin.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was now deeply in a “Quarantine Zone.” However, I knew everyone was being safe and doing what they needed to do as part of a larger COVID protocol.
I was told I’d receive the rapid PCR test results within an hour. Obviously, I would be negative, but an hour is a long time to wait to be sure. We were cruising to Hubbard Glacier, and I could only see the views from the balcony while my husband went to watch from the ship’s bow.
Minutes ticked by, and finally, the cabin phone rang. I picked up the phone only to hear my PCR test result was “POSITIVE!”
I’m Positive, Now What?
“Oh!!” I exclaimed. Suddenly, my 2022 Alaskan Cruise journey hit an abrupt DETOUR! A bunch of questions raced through my mind. What about the rest of the cruise?
Will I be taken off in Ketchikan, the next port? What about Brian – does he have it too? What about the kids? Will they get COVID now?
The doctor planned to move me to another room with better air control near the medical facility. Putting me in isolation would reduce the risk of my infection spreading across neighboring cabins.
The medical staff offered me a chest X-ray and bloodwork. Seeing as I had no difficulty breathing, I declined the additional tests.
Being separated from my husband, Brian was NOT how we planned to spend the cruise. Being a good husband, Brian interjected and said he would move with me to the isolation cabin. While I appreciated the thought and devotion, I protested!
This was Brian’s first cruise to Alaska and my fifth. If anyone missed a port or two, it would be best if it was ME! I had tested positive, and he still had no symptoms.
Tensions rose briefly as we debated the matter, and eventually, we agreed that I would move and Brian would stay in our existing balcony cabin.
Happily married couples don’t go cruising only to find they need to sleep in separate staterooms. When the doctor called, I informed him I needed about 30 minutes to get packed.
COVID Isolation On A Cruise
A couple of cabin stewards knocked on the door within an hour, ready to move me. I didn’t even know where I would be moving, which added to the stress of the situation.
Staff stood at both ends of the corridor to prevent other guests from entering the hallway. I traveled down the crew elevator in a path I had never seen as a passenger.
The staff assigned me a new cabin on Deck 4. The cabin had been used by new crew members who needed to quarantine. Every day, I’d receive a call from guest services asking how I was doing and if I needed anything. The nurse would phone me twice a day too.
My New Cabin
I feared the cruise line was moving me from a balcony stateroom to an inside cabin. Instead, I had an outside stateroom with a large round window.
While the same size as my balcony room, the space lacked a cozy feel. Since these isolation rooms need sanitizing after each COVID guest, a cold floor replaced the carpet.
There was no bedskirt or curtain between the living and bedroom area and no hairdryer in the drawer. Staff had placed the oval table outside the cabin door to receive food, drinks, and notifications.
My TV had one informational channel, and I feared I’d die of boredom. However, Royal Caribbean gave me complimentary Voom WiFi, which helped pass the time.
There was a case (24 bottles) of water, four cans of ginger ale, some paper cups, tea bags, and sugar on the desk. There were bottles of cleaning fluids, there were plastic knives and forks, and red “Infectious Waste” bags.
Next to them, a small pouch contained a sample toothpaste, toothbrush, razor, comb, and mini deodorant. It was a stark reality that I had gone from being a guest to a captive “patient.”
After moving into my new digs, the nurse arrived to take my temperature and blood oxygen. I was given a new thermometer and a fingertip pulse oximeter, with instructions to use them twice a day. She would phone me at 9 am and 5 pm to get my readings.
Getting Food In Isolation
I could order room service in isolation and wasn’t charged a fee. The first day was quite problematic as I received food I could eat.
There had been a disconnect between those working with isolation guests and restaurant managers providing meals to cruise passengers with food allergies.
While I didn’t have an appetite, I tried to eat to keep up my strength. Keeping to the theme of having everything disposable, my meals arrived in paper or plastic containers with plastic utensils.
Needless to say, they were stone cold when they came. Although no fault of the cruise line, it made it harder to consume anything.
Staff in protective gear left my meals on the table outside my door. The hallway resembled a sterile hospital with plastic on the floor and locked doors at either end.
What Happens To Travel Companions After Testing Positive?
My husband received his first antigen test after I moved to isolation. Thankfully, he tested negative. Then the nurse tested the kids too. Since they were traveling and eating with me, they needed an antigen test every day for five consecutive days.
Interestingly, they received a generic letter from Royal Caribbean saying “someone” they were traveling with had tested positive for COVID.
Since they all tested negative, they were free to roam the ship and get off in port as long as they wore a close-fitting mask. However, they could only consume meals in their cabins. They could order room service without the cost of a fee.
The following day, we arrived in Ketchikan, my favorite Alaskan port. We had planned to do a walkabout in Ketchikan, but with me in isolation, my family felt lost. They got off for a few hours to take photos and do some shopping.
That evening, they received their second antigen test. At 10 pm, my husband tested positive! Since it was late, he remained in his stateroom until he joined me at 9 am the following morning.
His symptoms were worse than mine. He had a fever of 102 F and was shivering. The nurse left Tylenol outside the door and instructions to take it every six hours. Brian bundled up under the covers and slept for the next 24 hours.
My daughter’s boyfriend tested positive using a home antigen test kit the following day. Even though we were disembarking the next day, he joined us in isolation that evening.
Royal Caribbean COVID Protocols
Although my cruise was cut short by COVID, I applaud Royal Caribbean for being organized, professional, and following its protocols. We were taken care of in isolation right up until we got home.
Since we were COVID positive, we couldn’t disembark the cruise ship in the usual way. We also needed to continue to isolate for a set amount of time.
Luckily, we are locals to Vancouver, and while we couldn’t take a taxi or transit home, guest services promised to arrange a private car. It’s important to note that your cruise line may have different health regulations to your disembarkation port.
The night before disembarkation, we received a letter stating the following:
Guests who live within driving distance of the port can drive themselves home. Alternatively, you can arrange a rental car. Royal Caribbean would reimburse guests for their car rental, up to USD 150 a day.
Since we were 30 minutes from a car rental at the airport, it didn’t make sense for the cruise line to provide a car to the airport when we lived 10 minutes further away. Instead, they offered a ride..
Guests who do not live within driving distance need to continue isolation in shoreside accommodations. COVID guests need to arrange their own hotel stays.
Our cruise line would reimburse for hotel rooms and food expenses up to a certain amount. Royal Caribbean also covered flight change fees up to USD 400.
The nurse instructed me to isolate five days; then, I’d no longer be contagious. Those in hotels were instructed to test again after six days. If they tested negative, they were told they could fly home.
However, if they are positive, they’d need to isolate for a full ten days. These were the protocols given to guests by Royal Caribbean. It’s important to note that every cruise line has different policies.
Some don’t cover costs related to getting COVID during a cruise, and some lines force their COVID guest off at the next port. To avoid unwanted isolation and medical costs, it’s best to purchase travel insurance.
Debarkation When You Have COVID
Arriving back in Vancouver, COVID guests needed to leave the cruise ship last. Guest services scheduled us to disembark at 10 am. But it didn’t happen until just after 11 am.
Three groups of COVID guests left the ship, and we estimated there were about 18 positive cases in all. Our group had ten people, although two were negative, including my daughter.
We gathered in a small room, waiting to leave, and it was an opportunity to talk to our COVID neighbors. One guy from California had tested positive the morning after embarkation. Unfortunately, he had missed the entire cruise.
Many guests had booked hotels near the Vancouver International Airport to complete their isolation. I was surprised that most passengers tested positive the night before debarkation. It made me wonder how many more walked off, not knowing they had COVID.
We didn’t swipe our cruise card one last time and bypassed security and immigration to avoid contact with others. After a long wait, we boarded a large shuttle bus. Then, the driver drove all over the city, dropping guests off at their hotels before taking us home.
Government Of Canada Rules Of Isolation
It was nice to get home to isolate in my own space and sleep in my bed. Six days after my initial diagnosis, I still tested positive and felt no better. On the seventh day, I received a call from the government of Canada asking about my experience.
I tested positive on day four of my cruise and disembarked three days later. But, according to the government’s website, I needed to isolate myself for 10 days, and isolation starts the day I land in Canada.
Thankfully, due to COVID, many people work from home, and thanks to grocery store deliveries, it is easy to get food supplies. In the two years of the pandemic, we had remained COVID-free. However, our cruise taught us that anyone could get COVID, no matter the precautions.
Thankfully, the vaccines do their job and lessen the symptoms. Looking back, I didn’t feel I got COVID on our cruise ship. Instead, I thought I caught COVID in Sitka during a shore excursion.
With a few days left in our isolation, my daughter tested positive. It just goes to show how incredibly contagious COVID is.
While I don’t think we could have done things differently to change the outcome, we feel confident about cruising again. In fact, we’re cruising with Cunard to Alaska later in the season.
Happy safe cruising ~ Karen and Brian