I recently booked a four-day cruise, from Galveston, on the first sailing for the Carnival Breeze since COVID 19 shut down operations. I wanted to personally experience the updated protocols so I could prepare future cruisers. I was excited about this adventure because it was the first time I have flown with Southwest Airlines and my first time to sail out of Galveston, Texas.
Let’s start with the flights out of Jackson, Mississippi on Southwest Airlines. If you have never flown with them, they do things a little differently. I HIGHLY recommend you set your alarm so you can check-in online 24 hours prior to boarding. This is important because it gives you a chance to be assigned a group letter of A or B. If you are group letter A or B, this allows you to board first. Southwest Airlines does not assign seats so the earlier you check-in online, the better your chances of securing an A or B boarding number. If you really do not care where you sit or whom you sit next to, then you do not have to worry about checking in early. You will be boarding in group C or D and will more than likely be at the back of the plane. If you are traveling with a group, then each member of the group needs to check-in early so you can board as close together as possible. Once on the plane, you can choose seats close together based on availability. While COVID protocols are still in place, please get to the airport early, especially Jackson. They are allowing one person at a time to go through security, so this will delay you in long lines if you are late arriving, which makes your chances of missing your flight higher.
I flew on a nonstop flight into William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) which lasted roughly about an hour. While waiting on my luggage, my friend booked a Lyft to the cruise terminal in Galveston. We split the cost and it was 25.00 per person. Carnival does offer an airport transport if you are not an Uber or Lyft user. We booked an Uber for our return trip also. The return trip resulted in a long wait time because everyone was attempting to reserve Uber and Lyft and rates were expensive right outside of the terminal. We decided to walk a few blocks away from the terminal and our rates decreased to a more responsible rate, but we still had a long wait time. In hindsight, I might would have booked an airport transfer with Carnival for my return or have a scheduled Uber or Lyft. On my next cruise out of Galveston, I will have to try it this way and see which way is best.
Carnival’s online pre-boarding forms are slightly different. They had a COVID 19 form that was required to be completed by a certain date. If you are not an email checker, I would suggest you check your email and your Carnival account frequently after booking to make sure you have completed all forms within the required time frames. Carnival has required pre-boarding reservations in the past but were not very strict on adhering to the scheduled time frame. Please be advised that Carnival’s crew is checking reservation times now. They did allow me to join the queue approximately one hour prior to my reservation time. I had to show my passport, driver’s license, COVID vaccination card, and my boarding pass. You CANNOT board with a photocopy of your documentation. After verifying my information, the attendant stamped my boarding pass, and I was allowed to enter the queue for account verification.
My group was promptly sent to an attendant. She verified that all forms were completed and scanned our passports. This is where the process is quick and efficient if all forms were completed online before boarding. We were given a group boarding letter and number. We were scanned with facial recognition and then proceeded to a waiting room. We waited approximately thirty minutes for our boarding group to be called. Since this was the first sailing since COVID, we did not have to wait for cruisers to disembark. Our group was called, and we boarded the Carnival Breeze!!! Masks were required for everyone until guests got on board the ship. Afterwards, masks were required for unvaccinated guests in certain areas and these areas had a sign posted.
We were allowed to go directly to our stateroom because we were the first sailing since COVID. Our luggage and room keys were waiting on us at our stateroom. This process could be a little different on future sailings. I would suggest downloading Carnival’s app to your phone prior to sailing, but if you forget, do it immediately upon boarding. Carnival is really pushing the use of the app while onboard. The app allows you to make dinner and spa reservations, provides day to day activities, and daily dining menus. Menus were available via QR Codes in the restaurants. If you enjoy specialty dining, please note that preboarding reservations were only available to me for the specialty steakhouse. However, once onboard, more specialty restaurants became available to me via the app, and I was able to make a reservation while on board.
I know some of you reading this blog are avid cruisers and you have a level of expectation while on board. Honestly, I do too! I cannot stress this enough, BE PATIENT! The cruise lines are dealing with new government demands and are trying to keep the cruising experience as close to normal as possible. I experienced limited menus and variety in the main dining room and at the buffet. At times, I had to wait for a beverage or refills. I was conversing with another cruiser, and we addressed the ever-present issue of staffing. I think the cruise lines are experiencing this issue just like every other business. Also, it is impossible to know if the head wait staff at my table NOW was the cabin attendant prior to Covid. The main dining room staff apologized frequently for providing less than normal service. So again, be patient!!! I have no doubt they will work out the kinks very soon. The crew was so excited to see us and welcomed us so energetically. They are trying their best!
To answer the pressing question for those that are not vaccinated, “Can I cruise if I am not vaccinated?” The answer is a vague, “maybe.” Each cruise line has a different policy to address this issue. Carnival’s policy at the time of my cruise was to allow a certain number of unvaccinated travelers onboard our ship; however, each cruiser had to apply in advance for exemption. From my understanding, approval for boarding was not received by the cruiser until around 14 days prior to departure. In my opinion, I just would not cruise now without being vaccinated. I have heard some grumbling about vaccines being required, but understand, the cruise industry is trying anything and everything to get back to work and meet the strict demands of the CDC. They were the ones hit the hardest in the travel industry and were met with overwhelming governmental demands in order to return. The cruising policies currently being adhered to can and will be modified as COVID numbers decrease. So again, be patient. The kinks are being worked out. Believe me, the cruise industry wants all of us back and are trying their best to make that wish a reality.
To address international travel in general, each country has different COVID policies in place, which makes visiting a lot smoother for the vaccinated in some situations. Being vaccinated can reduce the number of pre-travel, during-travel, and post-travel COVID testing required for international vacations in certain countries. I highly recommend checking the countries government websites for current travel restrictions and requirements prior to booking your vacation whether you are cruising or not. These requirements are changing frequently so stay up to date if you have a destination in mind.
I HIGHLY recommend travel protection during these unpredictable times whether you are cruising or not. Make sure you choose a plan that covers interruptions or cancellations to your vacation. Another suggestion for cruisers, is to plan to travel the day before your cruise. Currently, flights are being rescheduled very frequently and could impact your cruise if you wait to arrive on the day of embarking.
I hope you will take advantage of the great rates currently being provided by all cruise lines. They are wanting desperately to get back to normalcy too. I recently took advantage of these discounted rates and booked an ocean view suite. I am super excited because I have never stayed in one before. I have booked in every other stateroom type and consider myself somewhat of a cruise snob. I love having a balcony!!! I am staying in a suite this time for around the same price as I have paid in the past for a balcony.
Please stay tuned to my blog, Facebook page, and Instagram. I would love to do a live feed of the suite stateroom once I get onboard.
Happy Cruising Everyone!
UPDATE: As of August 28 through October, Carnival announced vaccine exemptions will be limited to children under 12, and those with a medical condition that does not allow them to be vaccinated. In addition, new testing requirements went into effect August 14 and now vaccinated cruisers must present negative COVID test (PCR or antigen) taken within three days prior to embarkation.