September 7, 2021 | Jesse Morris
It had been more than 500 days since I was last on board a cruise ship. I had doubts as to whether we would get back here or not. Covid-19 has taken so much away from us all. We are not out of the woods yet but based on my experience on board Celebrity Apex, I feel like we are a lot closer to normal than we were.
Our ship was sailing on a seven day trip from Athens, Greece. We flew in a day early. The CDC recently extended its mask usage requirements aboard aircraft. A very small price to pay to be able to travel again so we masked up and off we went. This was our first visit to Athens. We arranged private transportation to and from the airport, hotels and port. Mask usage was required by the company. Our driver met us at the airport and helped us with our bags and we were off.
We stayed at the King George hotel and had an amazing view of the Acropolis from the hotel. Most people in Athens are wearing masks outside. For dining, if you wanted to eat inside you needed to prove you have been vaccinated. Outdoor dining did not have this requirement. If you plan to see the sites they sell a combined pass for seven of the major places for 30 Euros per person and is good for five days. That is a really good deal as the price for the Acropolis alone was 20 Euros. There is an offseason price as well.
The areas in and around the Acropolis were far busier than I expected. It is a major tourist site and there were quite a few tourists but there were also a lot of locals. I would guess that about half the people were wearing masks but since everything is outside mask usage is not mandated. Anywhere you went inside, masks were on.
Before I jump into the actual cruise let me say that the majority of the people we interacted with in Athens were grateful to see tourists return. There are always a few people no matter where you go with a sour disposition but overall having people back was greeted more enthusiastically than not.
I was not totally sure what to expect with the embarkation process. I knew everything that had been shared publicly but things do not always go to plan. I was pleasantly surprised at just how smooth everything went. Celebrity has everyone complete an online check in via their computer or the Celebrity App and you are assigned an arrival time. Ours was 11:30am, among the first to board. When you get to the port a porter is available right away to take your checked bag (like normal) and you are immediately greeted by port personnel and asked to see your proof of vaccination. You are then moved inside and to a desk where they verify that you completed the process online that was required for your Covid test and you are given a vial with a sticker on it to identify you. You then walk around the corner, have your nasal swab done (a far easier process than expected) and then you wait 15 minutes for the results. There is a seating area that is distanced out so that you do not sit next to others and a huge television monitor where you look for your number. Once the number comes up, you return to the desk and get a sticker that shows you are approved to board. Very smooth and easy!
After the testing you start the walk toward the ship. There is no counter to wait at and no long lines. You walk to the next person who verifies your passport and your boarding pass on the app and you continue on to board the ship. At the ship they check your passport again and you are immediately on board! The rooms are ready and your room keycard is waiting there for you. As embarkations go, it was really one of the smoothest we have encountered to date. Masks are required on board except with eating, drinking or in the pool/hot tub.
If you have been on a cruise before, you are familiar with the muster drill. For those who haven’t, the muster drill is a safety briefing where they are required to review what happens in the event of an emergency. Normally, everyone piles into different areas on the ship, crowded into the clubs, restaurants or other venues and you sit there while they go over everything on the loudspeaker. You cannot skip the drill and the ship cannot depart until everyone is accounted for. Since Covid, this process has been reimagined and definitely for the better. When you get to your room you have the option of watching a brief video on your television or via the Celebrity app. After that, you hit a button that lets you hear what the airhorn will sound like in the event of an emergency. You then have anytime between when you board and the ships scheduled departure time to make your way to your muster station and have them scan your card. No waiting around, no sitting through a long speech and no crowds. Once you scan in you are done! It could not be more simple and I sincerely hope this process remains in place after Covid is a memory.
Celebrity Apex normally holds 2,910 passengers and 1,320 crew. They had a nearly full crew compliment but in our case, we only had about 500 passengers on board. 90% of the passengers were Americans with a large contingent of people from the United Kingdom as well. In chatting with staff on board the passenger counts ranged from 300-800 people for the most part. I have been on some of the smallest and most luxurious ships in the world and have been on the largest ships with a ton of people on board. This was by far the best service level experience of any ship I have been on. When you have that many crew and that few number of guests, it felt like they were falling over each other just to take care of us. Celebrity does a great job under normal circumstances with service but this was a different level and not something I would expect when the ships get closer to being full. In the conversations I had with the crew it was obvious that they were excited to be able to get back to work and to see people again. I think that’s a sentiment that many of us whose jobs were impacted by Covid can understand.
One thing I learned is that the crew is not allowed off the ship unless it is part of an organized shore excursion. They are trying to ensure that they minimize the exposure of the crew as much as possible. However, this does make it a challenge for crew to get the things they might need for day to day life. They can order whatever they need and have it brought to the dock and brought on board. However, this process can be lengthy. They really have to think well in advance about what they might need and there is no such thing and hopping off for a last minute item at a pharmacy or grocery store. There were no complaints about this process, it is merely the reality of the situation.
One challenge with such a small amount of people on board is that some activities may be poorly attended. We went to one trivia that was just my wife and I. (spoiler alert…we won). On the positive side, getting a good seat at a show or in a dining venue was very easy. Seats by the pool were abundant. Hot tubs were limited in that only people in your traveling party could be in them together, but that was never an issue as there were nearly always empty. One of our favorite spots on board is the Solarium. It is an enclosed area with a pool, chairs and a couple of hot tubs. Pre-Covid this would have been a hot spot on the ship. During our sailing it was mostly empty. The spa always had availability and the casinos had open seats and machines. The casinos did block off every other slot machine and seat at the table and still there were more than enough spaces for everyone. Social distancing was not an issue.
The shows on board were also among the best I had seen. My two favorite were Caravan and Crystallize. Caravan was done in “The Club” venue which is smaller and more intimate. The show is a twist on the circus variety show. I will not spoil it for you but it is definitely one I would recommend. Crystallize was in the main show theater and utilized lights and LED panels surrounding the stage along with aerial acrobatics to wow the audience.
The newest feature on board the Edge Class ships is the magic carpet. It is a platform that moves up and down the side of the ship that works as a multi purpose venue. On port days they use it to help people get off the ship. This is an improvement from the small ramp that most ships use. On sea days it becomes an open air lounge, full bar and a space for live music performances. Likely because there were so few people on the ship, I felt the space was a bit underutilized. I had expected it to be open in the evenings with music and the bar, but it was closed the majority of the time. As a focal point on the new class of ships, I thought it would be more available. Perhaps when the ship is back to full capacity that will change.
The Retreat Lounge, a spot for guests staying in suites, has its own pool, hot tubs and bar along with an indoor lounge. It’s a great spot to get away from the crowds when the ships are full. On our sailing it was more full than the rest of the ship.
Celebrity has 29 different dining venues, bars and lounges. Many of the dining venues are specialty dining options that come at an additional charge. Instead of a single “main” dining room, they have four separate venues with menus that are nearly identical, save for a few items specific to that venues theme. Normally I would recommend reservations but on our cruise there was virtually unlimited availability. We spent a lot of time at Café al Bacio. This café is located along the Grand Plaza and has specialty coffees along with some amazing sweet treats. They knew our names and preferences from day one and even if we were just walking by on the way to somewhere else we could count on a “Hi Mr. and Mrs. Morris!” from the bar. Another venue that is unique is Eden. It is a 12,000 sq. ft. venue that serves meals, has a bar and also is an entertainment venue. Uniquely decorated and with views of the ocean, Eden is a spot that most people would spend a lot of time at.
Our port stops were Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Only in Mykonos were we limited to taking a Celebrity excursion. You could not go off on your own there due to Covid restrictions. Everywhere else you could come and go as you please, with our without an excursion. The ports were beautiful and the people kind and happy to see us.
To return to the US, we were required to have a negative Covid test and Celebrity had staff on board in our last port stop to get everyone tested. The process was just as easy as it was during our embarkation process. They emailed your results to you. We got ours about 6 hours after the test but honestly there was no rush for them as they weren’t needed until the next day at the earliest.
Disembarkation was done based on luggage tags, pretty much like pre-Covid but with so few people there were no crowds, no lines and no waiting for the most part. Our driver was waiting for us after we left the terminal to take us to our hotel. The Academias Hotel also had fantastic views of the Acropolis and was in walking distance to just about anything we could want.
The airport in Athens was busy but we had passes to the airlines lounge and stayed there until our flight time. People were masked up per requirement at the airport and back on board the plane to go home.
To sum up, in terms of onboard experiences this was one of our best cruises to date. We felt incredibly safe. Nowhere at home can we be assured of everyone around us being vaccinated and recently tested. The service was incredible. Our cabin, a sunset veranda, had amazing views off the back of the ship. I tend to be hard to please with food but the cuisine was good and turnaround times were fast. We sail again out of Miami onboard the Scarlet Lady by Virgin Voyages in October and we will see how that compares.
I did not detail everything or this would have been a LOT longer but I am happy to answer any questions you have. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Until next time stay safe and healthy.
I started my business about three and a half years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew one thing, I was going to do everything in my power to make sure it was successful. I had friends tell me I shouldn’t quit my full time job and dedicate myself to my business. “Do travel agencies still exist? Are you sure you want to do this?” Yes! If I am ever going to start a business, now is the time. I felt like I was getting too old and my employer said I had a home to come back to if I ever needed it. This was my dream and so I ran with it. I love to travel and I love to help people travel. Travel agencies not only exist, they are in demand. It has been an amazing experience so far and I have been very fortunate. I added a Disney specialist. Business was fantastic.
Most people do not realize that for the majority of what we do, we don’t get paid until very close to or even after a client travels. Most of what we had booked over the last twelve months was almost immediately wiped out. A years worth of trips gone and no income to show for it. Most of our suppliers have been amazing to work with and done all they can to help but they are suffering with millions of cancellations. Cruise ships are sitting empty. Resorts are severely limited. Tours, hotels, trains, you name it, the travel and tourism industry is hurting and it will be a while before it recovers fully.
My dream became a nightmare.
Now replace travel with any number of other industries. Replace my dream with theirs. I live in the Short Pump area of Virginia. Too many locally owned businesses are gone. Several major chain businesses are gone too. All of these businesses and all the jobs they created gone due to something that is completely beyond their control.
Everyone is looking toward Washington for help right now. In the early stages I was hopeful. They passed the Payroll Protection Program and while it was far too short a time it was valuable. They extended and improved unemployment. They were asking people to stay home and not work. They were shutting down businesses for the safety of the masses. This was the right move in my opinion. Take the right actions early and we suffer less later. So what happened?
Why have our representatives failed us? I refuse to call them leaders. Leadership is action not position and their actions, both sides, have shown that the needs of the people are not as important as the consolidation of power for themselves. Social media is abound with people talking about how their chosen candidate is wonderful and how the other side is terrible. The truth is far more sad. Both sides care only about themselves and their power. People are suffering. More people will lose their homes, their jobs, their businesses and some will lose their lives. And what does Congress do? They point fingers and refuse to do what is necessary to help the people.
In spite of all this, people have been booking trips into 2021 and 2022 over the last month. They want something to look forward to and I am feeling more confident that we are headed toward better days. I feel confident that my agency will be one of the fortunate ones that make it through to the other end. Cruise lines have recently submitted their recommendations for sailing safely to the CDC and the no sail order is close to being lifted. There are a ton of great resorts that have put protocols in place to ensure safety of their guests. As it has in the past, the travel and tourism industry has adapted to the situation.
I have adapted as well. Its been tough but I am in this for the long haul. I have expanded my knowledge and found suppliers I like that provide more domestic options like cabins and houses. There are a ton of great resort options available and I can guide you to make sure you meet the criteria for traveling. Options for 2021 and 2022 are better than ever before and prices are as low as they have ever been. It’s time to find something to look forward to. I am here and I can help.
The phone rings. Fortunately this has been happening more as of late. Maybe its because people are starting to go stir crazy from being confined. Maybe it's because people are feeling more confident that we are starting to get past this pandemic. It's probably a combination of both. Demand for planning trips for 2021 has been steadily growing and for that I am thankful.
“Thanks for calling We Book Travel, this is Jesse, how can I help?”
It’s a previous client.
I am a sales person. But I am also a relationship builder. Over the first month of the lockdown I received calls from clients just checking on me. I have always felt like I was pretty good at building relationships but these calls still catch me off guard. Yes, our industry has been hit very hard but ours isn’t the only one. More than 30 million people are sitting on the sidelines unable to work. Small businesses are struggling to stay afloat all over the country. Yet, these people took the time to call me just because they care. I am not an emotional guy but these calls make me feel a certain way. There must be dust in the air. However, I know what’s coming next.
“How are you?”
The most rhetorical question ever asked. Think back to every call you have answered or made. “How are you?” is a question that factors in most of them and yet, no one is really looking for an answer. However, at this moment, the standard “Fine, how are you?” feels inadequate.
How am I? I am angry.
It is no ones fault but I just hit my three year anniversary of starting this journey and I am having a hard time accepting that something so completely outside of my control has decimated my business. It would be easily to accept had I done something wrong or made a critical mistake. That’s just not the case. Looking back on the last 3 years, prior to this pandemic, we have grown significantly. It hasn’t been perfect but the mistakes made were all learning opportunities and not crippling. There was so much I didn't know when I started and still quite a bit I don't know now, but I could confidently say we have been successful. Now, I am almost back to square one and on a razor’s edge between survival and total failure.
How am I? I am sad.
So many of my colleagues, people I consider friends, have been directly impacted by Covid-19. It's not just their businesses, it's their lives. They have friends and family who have been sick and died due to this virus. We all tend to live in a bubble and worry most about what impacts us directly. Maybe thats how we cope because the alternative is worse.
How am I? I am lonely.
We are social beings at heart. We crave interaction on some level. Social media and video chatting can only do so much. My wife and I were supposed to have our 25th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii. This had to be put aside for the time being. For good reason of course but still something we were looking forward to. I am used to interacting with people several times throughout the day. I am likely driving my wife insane. She is driving me insane too (don't tell her I said so). We need others, travel helps us fulfill that need and that just can’t happen now.
How am I? I am scared.
These are a time of uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear. No one knows when this will end. We know that it will but at what long term cost. How many people must suffer? Rationally I know that things will improve but fear isn’t rational and neither am I right now.
How am I? I am disappointed.
Surprise would have been a good word to describe my reaction to the Federal Governments initial response with the passage of the CARES Act. It appeared that they had done something good and in a bipartisan manner. But all I see now are politicians passing the buck. So many people are still waiting for the relief that was promised. The disaster loan advances for $10,000 became far less. The delivery of these advances promised within a few days stretched on into weeks. The loans themselves for many are just another unfulfilled promise. The Payroll Protection Program, designed to help small businesses, went to large companies (many of whom had to return the funds) and the little guy was left out on the cold. Now both programs are out of money and new legislation is being debated with battle lines drawn. Several states still have not figured out how to deliver the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and good people are struggling to make ends meet. I don't care which side of the aisle you stand on, they don't stand in the same aisles as we do.
How am I? I am ashamed and proud.
While many companies have acted admirably too many have chosen positions that leave clients out in the cold without refunds for unfulfilled travel. I wont point fingers, but they (and their former clients) know who they are. I am ashamed for our industry that while few, these companies put a blight on all of us. At the same time that shame only extends so far. My colleagues have answered the call to help their clients at a pace and fury that will help elevate us all. Travel advisors have proven time and again that we will not allow our clients to suffer, we will stand up for them and do all we can to help.
How am I? I am hopeful.
I have been on conference calls with cruise lines and resorts all over the world. The plans they have to facilitate reopening have been inspirational. They are looking at the problem from all directions and creating processes and plans to ensure that their guests, their employees and their communities are protected to the fullest extent possible. They aren’t going down without a fight. I plan to fight too.
How am I? I am excited.
I am looking forward to my next trip. It's going to be different. We will have to adapt. People keep talking about “the new normal” and boy do I hate that phrase. It is important that we improvise, adapt and overcome. The challenge of crafting solutions to this new reality can be exciting. Yes, we would have preferred that it hadn’t been necessary but wishing for something to be true will not make it so. Burying our collective heads in the sand will not make things better. We must do what we do best and that is rise to the challenge.
How am I?
Well, this is an interesting question isn’t it? Rhetorical as it may be, it's the question that has been keeping me up at night. I am all the above and more. My answer to my client however is “I am hanging in there, how are you and your family?” I ask because I really do care. It's part of relationship building. It's a tough time for us all but together we can and will overcome.
How are you?