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MEI Travel

I went on my first cruise in nearly 2 years – here’s how it went

Carnival Pride life ring

My last cruise before the pandemic was a late November 2019 sailing on Norwegian Encore. I was booked on MSC Meraviglia in March 2020, but the world shut down a week before I was supposed to depart. Nearly two years and two doses of Pfizer vaccine later, I finally boarded my first post-pandemic cruise ship, Carnival Pride.

Did I spend the cruise anxiously avoiding my shipmates and hiding on my cabin balcony? Did I throw caution – and masks – to the wind, and join the crowds like it was 2019? Was it the relaxing getaway I’d been dreaming about through lockdown?

Here’s a recap of my first cruise in nearly two years.

Pre-cruise

I’ll be honest – I had extra pre-cruise jitters before this sailing. I was nervous about being around crowds of people and eating in indoor restaurants, something I hadn’t done yet. What if I brought Covid home to my unvaccinated children? I checked Amazon daily to see if my new face masks and snorkel set would arrive in time. I worried that my Covid test results would be delayed and I’d be turned away at the pier. 

I was a hot mess.

In reality, scheduling a Covid test through CVS was easy; the only trick is making an appointment two weeks before for the best availability. My results were in my hands within hours. Amazon delivered on schedule. My suitcase was still functional, if a bit dusty from sitting in a closet for two years. My children were thrilled about two weeks with extra Daddy time. Everything was going to be OK.

Embarkation

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Empty Baltimore cruise terminal

Whenever I road trip up or down I-95 from my Northern Virginia home, I like to build in buffer time for the inevitable traffic. But previous Baltimore cruisers were reporting that due to new protocols, you couldn’t even park your car in the Baltimore cruise port parking lot much before your designated cruise check-in time. And there isn’t an obvious place to wait in the industrial setting. (Though now that I’ve been, I know there’s a Harris Teeter a mile away where all the crew go.)

Somehow I managed to time it perfectly, and we were allowed to park. I’ve heard that in pre-pandemic times, it could take an hour to get from the port entrance through luggage drop-off to parking and check-in, but we saw maybe two cars ahead of us. The whole process was fast and convenient, and the terminal building was a minute’s walk from the parking lot.

The terminal was also empty. I might have seen more staff than cruisers! Everyone wore their mandatory masks. At security, a guard checked our documents, vaccination card, and test results, and we didn’t need to show them more than once. Our bags went through the X-ray machine, and no one asked about our bottle of wine or cans of seltzer. Perhaps they only check if you are carrying excessive alcohol?

We only waited a minute post-security before a port worker waved us over to a check-in station. (Experienced cruisers know that this is usually where you wait forever.) We were asked to remove our masks briefly to take the security photo.

Not only was it perhaps the most pleasant cruise check-in I’ve experienced, we got the welcome news that Carnival had upgraded us from a balcony cabin to a suite!

Another embarkation day win was the changed muster drill procedures. I have yet to meet a cruiser who isn’t annoyed to stop what they’re doing, grab a life jacket, and stand shoulder to shoulder in the heat listening to a safety briefing. 

To avoid crowds, Carnival now requires that all guests report to their muster station anytime between boarding and sailaway, check in with the crew members there, and learn how to put on a life jacket. A safety announcement is broadcast before sailaway throughout the entire ship, so you can listen from your cabin, your deck chair, or a bar stool. The muster was quick and easy, and I hope Carnival keeps the new procedures after the world returns to normal.

Social distancing and masks

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Carnival Pride lido deck music trivia

Carnival recommends that guests wear face masks indoors, except when actively eating and drinking. However, masks are only required in elevators, shops, casino, and at indoor events where children are present. Additionally, you must wear a mask when being seated at a restaurant, getting food in the buffet, and walking through the gym and spa, though you don’t need masks when seated at a restaurant table or actively exercising.

Many people, like myself, wore masks in indoor areas at all times. Others only wore them when absolutely required. On several occasions, I saw buffet workers remind guests to put their masks on and in one case, gave the passenger a mask to wear. Most people complied. We did share an elevator with one man who was curt with the crew member asking him to put on his mask in the elevator and not only refused to put it on, but spent the entire ride complaining about the need for masks.

With the ship at 70 percent capacity, social distancing was easier than I thought. I avoided peak hours at the buffet, and brought my food to a quiet corner or to the outside decks to eat. I had the flexible dining plan, so I could avoid the crush of hungry cruisers descending on the main restaurant all at once. The Butteflies Lounge where the comedians performed was likely the most packed space on the ship, and the emcee would remind folks to put on their masks.

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Carnival Pride pandemic formal night

I soon got over my nervousness in crowds, reminding myself that the chance that these vaccinated and recently Covid tested passengers had contracted the virus was very slim. Still, I tried to stay outside as much as possible (so easy on a Bahamas cruise) and keep away from others when I could. Carnival Pride has not had a case of Covid since its mid-September relaunch, so the precautions are helping.

I don’t mind wearing masks, and I recommend the disposable masks vs. the cloth masks for cruising as they’re lighter weight. On the other hand, it was fun to see all the different masks cruisers brought – including sparkly masks for formal nights and masks with tropical or nautical themes. You could really have fun accessorizing if you’re so inclined.

Shipboard activities and dining

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Thriller dance lesson on Carnival Pride

Ship life is much the same as it was pre-Covid. A few staple Carnival events, like the Groove for St. Jude and hairy chest contest, are canceled for the time being because they create crowds or require too much passenger interaction. Camp Ocean is closed.

I was able to take my pick of multiple trivia contests each day, and the Lido Deck music trivia still gathers a crowd and turns into a huge singalong during the answer reveal. Carnival is known for its live music, and multiple performers were staged around the ship. The only difference was that the stage areas were cordoned off so passengers wouldn’t get too close to the unmasked musicians. 
The casino was hopping on sea days, and the pool area packed. But it wasn’t too difficult to find a lounge chair somewhere, especially in the morning or late afternoon. (Lunchtime remains a popular time on the pool deck.)

All the onboard restaurants were open. Carnival Pride has so many Lido Deck restaurants – burgers, Mexican, pizza, deli, and the buffet – that it was easy to pick up food and eat outside, and passengers were dispersed among the various food counters. Note that unlike on other lines, Carnival’s buffet is still self-serve, so I tried to use the hand sanitizer before and after touching all those communal tongs.

I would have liked both the salad bar and the fruit and dessert buffet to be open longer into the afternoon because I found myself doing a late brunch on sea days and wanting to eat again around 3:30 when the only options were pizza, burgers, and deli – and self-serve ice cream for dessert. Room service is now all fee-based, which is a bummer when you want to dine off hours.

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Edy the dancing waiter on Carnival Pride

Menus in all dining venues and bars have moved online; check them via the Carnival Hub app or by scanning a QR code. The waiters do have access to print menus when your phone is struggling with the codes.

The main dining room did not feel crowded, and we never had to wait for a table. Even two-tops were easy to get. The Carnival waiters wore masks, but that didn’t stop them from dancing on the serving stands. Food and service were as I remembered, and there’s plenty of chocolate melting cake to go around.

Onshore activities

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Paradise Cove beach resort in Freeport Bahamas

For me, the ports have always been the highlight of cruising. Tourism is definitely down. Nassau can accommodate six to eight cruise ships at a time, but Carnival Pride shared the pier with only Freedom of the Seas. Stores and beaches were not crowded, and tours are operating at reduced capacity.

For example, our Nassau snorkeling trip, booked through Carnival, could only take 10 passengers rather than 16. It meant that we all had room to stretch out on the speed boat instead of being crammed in like sardines, and had fewer people to collect every time we got back on the boat. I know it’s bad for the operators, but it made the guest experience more enjoyable. In Freeport, we booked an independent outing to a private beach and were the only people there for the entire morning. 

Half Moon Cay was crowded, of course, as the private island is an itinerary highlight. By walking down the beach, we were able to find a shady and more secluded area. We did not experience lines at the barbecue, and it was easy to claim a picnic table to ourselves. 

On this trip, I definitely felt compelled to maximize my time off the ship, which meant I put more effort into finding things to do onshore. To me, this made for a better overall cruise experience – even if we raced up to the ship in Freeport about one minute before the All Aboard time. 

Final thoughts

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Towel heart on Carnival Pride

I needn’t have worried. Getting away from daily responsibilities, the flood of emails, the home I’ve been stuck in for 19 months, and the stress of not knowing whether the people you encounter can infect you with Covid was something I desperately needed. The risk of catching Covid on the ship is so small compared to the mental health benefits of a week of R&R.

Once you get used to seeing your shipmates and crew in masks, the cruise experience is much the same as it was before the pandemic. I never found wearing a mask to get in the way of the fun I was having, and I never felt like any of the activities I wanted to do were curtailed due to Covid.

Would I cruise again this year? Definitely! I would want an itinerary where I could spend the majority of time outdoors, and I’d much prefer a drive-to cruise than a fly-in one. I likely will wait until my kids are vaccinated to bring them onboard. But overall, the experience was less stressful than I had feared, and I feel wonderfully refreshed after my time away. 

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