I Kissed a Girl, and I Liked It

I wanted to hate it. I really did. But I liked it. In fact, I loved it. Janet loved it too. We loved everything about it. I’m talking about our voyage on Scarlet Lady. I promised a rundown on our cruise when we got back, so here it is.

It was fresh, it was fun, and I’m looking forward to doing it again in December. Would I recommend it? Absolutely, though not for everyone. If the idea of a drag queen brunch sounds interesting and entertaining, you’ll enjoy a voyage aboard Scarlet Lady. That said, there are some people that should not in a million years cruise with Virgin Voyages. If you are offended by the occasional gratuitous f-bomb, can’t embrace inclusion in all its forms, or find yourself cringing at truly clever yet tame sexual innuendo like the name of Scarlet Lady’s ice cream parlor “Lick Me ‘Till Ice Cream” (sound it out in your head)…without passing judgement, I can say absolutely you’re better off cruising with someone other than Virgin.  You can stop reading now. For the rest of you, here is how I rate our Virgin Voyage:

Overall experience – Great.
Crew – Super! Polite, professional, competent, engaging, and genuine.
Food – Excellent. Possibly the best I’ve had on 50 cruises with over a dozen cruise lines.
Drinks – Excellent. Prices lower than other cruise lines. Creative mixology.
Entertainment – Adult, though no worse than late night TV (mostly). Different, interesting, and quite good.
Demographics – Age is just a number that doesn’t mean much when it comes to a Virgin Voyage. Virgin began this venture targeting younger Gen Xers and Millennials, along with older Gen Zs. Now that they are sailing, they have found they appeal to that entire demographic and more, including older Gen Xers as well as active and young boomers like me and Janet.
Technology – Buggy.
Embarkation – Chaos…needs attention before they start to scale up to higher capacity sailings.
Debarkation – A breeze. Linger over breakfast, leave when you want. No rush to get off, and no line when we did.
Cabin size – Small with way too little storage. Not a deal breaker, but yeah…small. Pack light.
Dress code – Shorts and bathing suits by day, whatever makes you feel good at night, which helps with the packing light thing. A loose country club casual was the rule for evenings during our cruise, and everyone seemed to get it. Not like our cruise last month with Norwegian. Even with a dress code, cruisers on the NCL Gem dressed so poorly and sloppily for the evening they made what I wear to a crab feast seem like formal wear. And that was in the upscale French Bistro specialty restaurant!
Value – Good to excellent.
Wi-Fi – Complimentary Wi-Fi OK, problematic at scale. Go for the upgrade. At $50 it’s a bargain.
Cruise Director – There isn’t one. We didn’t miss it.
Activities – Without a Cruise Director you are largely on your own. Scarlet Lady offers plenty to do without having to resort to a program of belly flop contests and ice carving demos.
Ships’ Photographers – None. Superfluous on a ship full of tech-savvy iPhone-toting millennials.
The App – Needs attention. Great when it worked, not so great when it didn’t which was far too frequent considering how much Virgin relies on it.
The Band – Pleasant surprise. It worked, and it was convenient. A welcome change.
Sexualization – For an adult only cruise, I didn’t encounter anything that made me uncomfortable. I’ve read reviews from people on the same cruise I took that complained about over sexualization…I didn’t see it. I’ve encountered far more boorish and cringe-worthy “get a room” behavior on mass market and premier cruise lines. If you can handle a drag queen brunch, you can handle a cruise on Scarlet Lady.
Drag Queen Brunch – Speaking of…it didn’t happen. Big disappointment…I was really looking forward to it. Drag queen brunches won’t start until sometime after the first of the year. No explanation. Bummer.
Scarlet Night – A fun, ship-wide party. Easy to avoid if you want to, but why would you? The odd consent disclaimer I mentioned in a past post was meant for the after-party dance, where you have people packed into a nightclub setting having a good time. In that context, it makes sense. Go ahead…pack your splash of scarlet and plan to wear it on Scarlet Night.
Fitness and Wellness Programs – This is the one thing on Scarlet Lady that may not scale well. Our voyage sailed at 40% capacity but even with that the gym was busy, and classes were fully booked before we set sail. There is unused capacity so it isn’t necessarily going to be a problem…just a caution.
Spa – Same contracted, overpriced services and high-pressure sales job as every other cruise line.
Gimmicks – Plenty, but I didn’t mind. It added to the fun.

I’ve said on social media that Virgin Voyages isn’t for everyone, and they aren’t. But they appeal to far more people than they targeted when they first started advertising their cruise product pre-COVID. If you think a Virgin Voyage might interest you, give me a call and let’s talk about it. And then let’s get you booked!

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The Final Countdown…

I have just a few minutes to finish this up and get it posted before Janet and I head out to Miami, so I’ll keep this uncharacteristically brief. If you found yourself singing the title of this post (the rock group Europe, 1986…I don’t judge) you are someone that should try cruising with Virgin Voyages.

I’ve shared what I hope to experience on this cruise, and about how different Virgin Voyages is from other cruise lines. Those posts are only the tip of the iceberg. Oops…probably not a good idea to invoke a Titanic metaphor just before boarding a cruise ship. Anyway, for the past few days I’ve been following social media posts from my colleagues who are fortunate enough to be on Scarlet Lady this week, and it has me even more excited to set sail on our cruise tomorrow. Seeing their pictures and videos reminded me of a few things I missed in my earlier posts that I want to quickly share with you now:

*I do plan to visit Squid Ink, the first tattoo parlor at sea. Not sure if I will walk away with any new ink, but I’m open to the possibility.

*I do NOT plan to visit Dry Dock. That’s Scarlet Lady’s hair styling place…I don’t have enough hair left to make that worth anyone’s time.

*I do plan to visit Stubble and Groom, the old-style barbershop, to get a beard trim. I need it.

*I will be going to the gym…y’all talked me into it.

*I will be checking out the fun on Scarlet Night. I bought a scarlet colored shirt yesterday to make sure I fit in.

Well…my suitcase isn’t packing itself and I’ve got a plane to catch, so let me wrap this up and get it posted. A cruise with Virgin Voyages is not something that will appeal to everyone, but I bet it will appeal to some of you. Follow along with me and Janet through our social media channels as we experience all that Virgin Voyages and Scarlet Lady have to offer. I guarantee you it will be different, and it just might be something you want to try!

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Let’s Get Physical…

Well…here I go again. I’ve started thinking about packing for my cruise with Virgin Voyages. We leave for Miami in two days and set sail in three, but I still can’t decide…should I pack my workout clothes or leave them home?

I go about 50/50 on packing gym clothes for cruises but lately it seems like even when I pack for the gym, I don’t make it to the gym. This cruise feels different. Maybe it’s the promise of a new low impact workout using bungee cords to provide a simulated weightless environment. Or could it be the boxing ring and punching bag on Scarlet Lady? Nah…I don’t think so. I’ve never done that sort of workout in my life. It would be just my luck the punching bag would punch back!

Fitness facilities on most cruise ships are full on day one and empty by day two, but Virgin Voyages isn’t like other cruise lines….I don’t think they’re going to have that problem. All of their group fitness classes, from beginner to advanced, are complimentary and there’s no limit. Scarlet Lady also has more deck space allocated to fitness than any other cruise ship with an expanded fitness center equipped with  the most trendy weight machines and cardio equipment. In place of playgrounds for kids, Virgin has built playgrounds for adults that make fitness fun with areas like MyBeast, The Athletic Club, and Training camp. You’ll have to catch my post-cruise review to read more about what you’ll find in each of those areas, and to find out if I’m tempted enough to try any of them.

The Virgin Voyage fitness program is part of an overall Wellness program. Though Virgin leads with Wellness when they talk about their fitness program, I chose to bury the lead in this post because from what I can see it is still subordinate. Yes, there is deck space set aside for Yoga classes and meditation, you can get a massage in the spa that is either delightfully tingly or tortuously painful depending on your preference, and of course you can get a healthy green smoothie in the cleverly named “Gym and Tonic” recovery bar. But in terms of square footage of deck space, fitness is still the majority shareholder on Scarlet Lady.

I can see where fitness fanatics will love a voyage on Scarlet Lady. The question is, will there be enough to entice regular people with Grandad bods like me to hit the gym? And if we try it once, will we return or will we be headed straight to the medical center? I guess the only way I’ll know is if I pack the workout clothes. I’ll let you know what I decide!

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Let Me Entertain You…

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Imagine a cruise where “New York’s best comedy club, Austin’s most talented musicians, a handful of gold medal gymnasts, and the ghost of Studio 54 got together to transform a ship into a series of acrobatic productions, interactive experiences, and soirees replete with constellation-themed cocktails and zodiac stories under the stars.” That’s how Virgin Voyages describes the entertainment program aboard their cruise ship Scarlet Lady. Oh and let’s not forget the Drag Queen Brunch…you’re not going to find that on other cruise ships!

Virgin has a different approach to the entertainment on their ships…they don’t use a Cruise Director. Instead, they assign multiple crew members as co-equals to run different segments of the ship’s entertainment program. It results in an entertainment program with multiple personalities, but rather than being dysfunctional, Virgin views it as advantageous. They believe the Virgin approach to cruise ship entertainment gives passengers (sailors in Virgin speak) multiple options, allowing them to pick the type of entertainment that best fits their idea of fun.  And most importantly, since Virgin’s ships are all adults only, they don’t have to tame anything down or make you stay up for the late night 18 and over version of the shows. Let’s use Virgin’s own words to break it down a bit.

Virgin’s entertainment producers sought out, and found, a NYC comedy club show that fits their idea of fun. Think of the traditional cruise ship game shows like “The Newlywed/Not So Newlywed Game,” remove all barriers and decorum, and that’s what you have in Scarlet Lady’s headliner comedy show, “Never Sleep Alone” also known as NSA. I had no idea! I won’t give away the fun from the teasers I’ve read except to say if you don’t want to be taken out of your comfort zone, don’t go to this show. It is based on the wildly popular book and comedy show originated by PhD sexologist, Dr. Alex Schiller, represented in Scarlet Lady’s show by the character “Dr. A”. That’s a persona by the way, both for the real Alex Schiller and Scarlet Lady’s Dr. A. Neither holds a PhD in anything. Not even an honorary one as Alex Schiller is quick to point out. Nor is either a trained sexologist, at least not in the academic sense. It’s all part of the show as “Dr.” A applies her experience at learning how to “never sleep alone” to your love life in an effort to help you do better. That is if you’re lucky enough to be called up on stage. If the thought of sharing your most intimate dating and seduction secrets in public makes you break out in a sweat, you’ll want to make sure you sit in the “Voyeurs” section.

“Austin’s most talented musicians” refers to the ship’s effort to recreate the musical component of SXSW at sea. I don’t think there is nearly enough deck space for Virgin Voyages to fully recreate the SXSW musical experience, but as a record label and music production company I’m equally sure the music is one part of Scarlet Lady’s entertainment program Virgin will get right.

Gold medal gymnasts are central to the dramatic performance of “Duel Reality.” This is Virgin’s modern take on the classic star-crossed lovers’ story of Romeo and Juliet. It is described as a fast-paced retelling of the classic story line with an elaborate circus twist as two groups grapple with the desire to rise above one another (both figuratively and literally) through graceful and death-defying acts. In other words, Shakespeare meets Cirque de Soleil…Virgin style. It also takes full advantage of another Virgin cruise ship design innovation…the Red Room. Scarlet Lady has no main theater with soaring three deck high ceilings and tiered seating. It has a more intimate theater-like venue called the Red Room where the audience is seated around, and in the middle of, the action. “Duel Reality” sounds like it was custom made for that venue, which…actually…it was.

The final piece of Scarlet Lady’s entertainment is what Virgin describes as the “Ghost of Studio 54” in a clear reference to the over-the-top NYC opera house turned disco from the late 1970s. It is more a reference to the themed party vibe on Scarlet Lady rather than to a specific venue because parties on Scarlet Lady can pop up anywhere, anytime. From the classic Sail Away party on the pool deck to the soon to be classic Pajama Party under the stars, Scarlet Lady boasts a different themed party each night.

The first true Studio 54-ish event of each cruise is the Retro Glam pool party. This is described as an event where Old Hollywood glamour meets modern Miami pool vibe. The idea is to dress in your most glammed up pool attire and join in the fun of a 1960s themed afternoon Hollywood pool party. Of course there will be a Virgin twist…a Glam squad from the spa will be there, ready to make you up just in time for your Retro Glam photoshoot with the pool as a backdrop. I’ve heard there are pool toys and floaties involved as well…lots of fun.

The signature event aboard each of Scarlet Lady’s sailings will be held on the final night, and it is described as Scarlet Night. This party is so big it can’t be contained to a single area…it becomes a ship wide event. Virgin trades in the boring White Party popular with other cruise lines and dives right into the naughty fun associated with the color scarlet. Sailors are encouraged to wear a splash of scarlet somewhere on their bodies that they are willing to display. Sounds a bit like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day except I’m pretty sure something more naughty than a mere pinch will be the penalty for the non-conformists.

I probably won’t be able to tell you what Scarlet Night is all about. Janet and I lost interest in cruise ship parties about 20 cruises ago. We usually spend the last night of our cruise in the cabin packing, and then walking the deck looking out at the stars. Maybe I’ll bring a scarlet handkerchief along on our walk on the Promenade…just in case the party catches up to us!

That’s just a snapshot of Scarlet Lady’s entertainment highlights. Virgin promises so much more…like the Drag Queen Brunch that I’m still waiting on details for. And the karaoke room. Yes, Scarlet Lady has a purpose built, intimately sized karaoke room that is wired for sound, unlike the large multipurpose lounge most cruise ships use that get pressed into service for karaoke when not being used as the Bingo Hall. There’s the roving band of dramatic comedic performers with pop-up productions all over the ship and…well…SO MUCH MORE!

I’ve cruised on ships before when the experience was outside of my comfort zone…those are the cruises Janet and I take most often these days. We want to use our travel time and dollars wisely, for experiences that don’t necessarily appeal to us but that we know do appeal to some of our clients. Well this cruise goes WAY beyond that. And though it makes me a bit nervous to be taken as far outside of my comfort zone as Scarlet Lady promises, I’m even more nervous that she won’t.

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Deja Vu Dining

Janet and I are now about a week away from boarding Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady on her second sailing out of Miami. I’ve been following the development of Virgin Voyages as a brand since 2018, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to experience it for myself. There is a lot about the Virgin brand that I don’t get, and if I am being honest some of it even scares me a bit. Like the night on our cruise that features a party promising to be so wild it comes with a consent disclaimer. I’m guessing that’s over-the-top hype. Maybe? It is an adults only ship after all.

Seriously though, it sounds like fun. We usually cruise to relax, but not this time. The aspect of Virgin’s approach to cruising that excites me the most is their dining. It took me awhile to figure it out, but I think I’ve got it. Virgin is going for a dining experience that appeals to city dwellers who are used to picking up take out on their way home from a long and busy day at work, but who also want to be able to dine out at the most trendy establishment in the city when it suits them. The marketing line from Virgin that helped me pull it all together went something like, “You wouldn’t eat in the same place at home every night, why do it on vacation?”

My first reaction after reading that, and it was visceral, was that I DO eat in the same place at home every night. It’s called my kitchen, I’m the executive chef, and Chef Jeff makes some pretty damned tasty dishes thank you very much! Then I realized that the comment wasn’t directed at me, but at people that actually do eat food from a different establishment every night. These are food savvy people that don’t have the time or space in a cramped apartment to cook for themselves. They appreciate a quality dining experience but don’t want to spend three hours lingering over a six course meal, dining at the same venue at the same time with the same table mates whom they don’t know and have nothing in common with and served food prepared institutional style by the same wait staff every night for a week. When you put it that way it doesn’t sound all that appealing to me either.

There are a couple of things Virgin wants you to know about how their dining differs from other cruise lines. First, there are no main dining rooms, no fixed seating times, and no specialty restaurants that charge a premium. There are over 20 eateries on Scarlet Lady, all of them complimentary, and each offers something unique. Six of those eateries are upscale dine-in venues where reservations are required. They include the cruise ship equivalent of a pop-up experimental kitchen where molecular gastronomy is front and center, and the menu consists of a list of ingredients rather than dishes. The diner selects the ingredients and the chef is challenged to make a Michelin star dish out of them. While everybody’s watching. Then there is the venue that caters to vegetarian and vegan palates while offering something for the meat eater you might be dining with (that would be me). For those who prefer something a little more traditional but with a city flair, Virgin offers their version of the classic Italian restaurant, an upscale surf and turf type Steakhouse, and a restaurant featuring an elevated version of Mexican street food. If you are one of those people that likes to play with your food you’ll want to try Gunbae, a Korean BBQ where you are the grillmaster and you are welcomed with a complimentary shot of soju (Korean whiskey) to get the party started. Wow…what an icebreaker!

There is no dress code for any of Scarlet Lady’s dining venues or really anywhere on the ship, so you can leave the tux and evening gown at home in your closet. Or in my case at the rental shop…after I downsized my body with bariatric surgery I opted not to downsize my tux. Virgin encourages sailors to dress as you like, but to dress appropriate to the evening’s activities. I take that to be license to go country club casual. There are venues and evening events where some people will dress full on black tie like James Bond, after all even Sir Richard goes black tie occasionally. But you’ll still feel at ease in neatly pressed slacks and a collared shirt. Or so they tell me. #itmightbeatrick #stillnotpackingcoatandtie

Scarlet Lady’s six premier dining venues have some secret powers that will go unnoticed by most sailors but are key to their success. Each has its own dedicated bar so you can enjoy before and after dinner drinks away from the dinner table. It is an approach that encourages fun but discourages lingering at the tables which will be key to Virgin’s ability to turn tables. That’s important because each venue is small, the type of dining establishment you would expect to find associated with a boutique hotel which is what Virgin wants Scarlet Lady to be. In addition to their smallish size, each venue has its own dedicated galley so food can be made fresh and to order, rather than the usual cruise ship institutional approach of finishing to order. You won’t see a waiter trying to balance ten covered plates stacked one on top of the other and all riding on his or her shoulder as they attempt to serve dinner. You’ll see just one plate. Yours.

The other thing Virgin wants you to know about dining on the Scarlet Lady is that they don’t have a buffet. Instead, they have “The Galley” which is a collection of food truck, hawker stand, and boardwalk style venues where you can walk up and get fresh and made to order take-out food quickly. Virgin’s marketing staff describe The Galley on Scarlet Lady as an international market that “could be mistaken for a Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn.” I’ll let you know.

There are three more options for dining on Scarlet Lady, starting with the ubiquitous pizza parlor, which of course has a distinctly Virgin look and feel to it. There are also two dine-in venues that don’t take reservations, a casual indoor Mediterranean style restaurant, and an outdoor mezze lounge. All three of these dining options are located on deck 7 by the promenade giving them a boardwalk feel.

I want to break the magic spell Virgin is trying to cast around their dining program just a little bit. Not to bust your bubble, but to give you a peek behind the curtain. Nothing of what Virgin is trying to do with their food program is new to the cruise industry. Royal Caribbean tried the same approach to dining that Virgin is serving up on Scarlet Lady way back in 2014. They called it “Dynamic Dining” and they purpose built dining rooms and galleys on their newest ship at the time, Quantum of the Seas, to allow them to offer a dining experience that sounds just like what Virgin is promising. It failed miserably. I am hopeful Virgin took a long hard look at what went wrong with Royal Caribbean’s Dynamic Dining concept before trying it on Scarlet Lady. We’ll see in about a week!

All nervousness aside, and it’s real, I’m sure I’ll have a good time on this cruise. I’m hoping I have a great time, and that the dining program is all that Virgin Voyages is hyping it up to be. Stay with me as I continue to post here and to my social media accounts before and during the cruise!

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The Band

Everything about Virgin Voyages is technology driven, and all onboard experiences revolve around two things…The App and The Band. The App is a downloadable…well, app. It helps “sailors” navigate the sea of choices (ugh) Virgin offers in order to make the most of their cruise, even before they board.

If you read through Virgin’s FAQs you’ll see “Use The App” as a response to just about every question. Want a reservation for a show? Use the App. Want to get a tattoo? Use The App. Wait…what? Want a designer hot dog with boardwalk fries? Use The App. When you place a food or drink order using The App, a Virgin crew member will deliver it to you wherever you are or go on the ship, because of…you know, “The Band.”

I was a band geek in high school and when someone says “the band,” I think of lugging my trombone across the football field trying to march and play at the same time. In time. Right about now a dozen of my facebook friends from high school are thinking “Oh THAT’S who he is” because my facebook profile pic looks nothing like that guy from the class of whatever, but they friended me anyway. No, The Band is not a marching band on a football field, nor is it the 1960s and 70s rock group. The Band is another Virgin turn of phrase that refers to the wrist band they developed to serve as your key to everything on the cruise. It opens the door to your cabin, it serves as your debit card when you charge drinks to your bar tab, and it gets you checked on and off the ship when you do “Shore Things” (aka shore excursions).

Psst…The Band doubles as a secret tracking device that allows “them” to know where you are at all times. Creepy, but convenient. Especially when you use The App to order something to eat and want it delivered to you whether it be pool side or at Squid Ink as you get that new tattoo in the first ever tattoo parlor at sea. They jury is still out on whether or not THAT is a good idea.

Not to be a Debbie Downer (inside the family joke) but The App and The Band combo is something Virgin did not get right. Feedback from the Brits during their Summer Soiree sailings in August was pretty brutal and blamed most of the problems on The App. Older generations couldn’t figure out how to use it, probably a clue they should have picked a different boat. Younger generations found it too slow to be useful and that’s not good.

No worries. Virgin Voyages and Scarlet Lady might be newcomers to the cruise industry, but the technology behind The App and The Band is not. Disney pioneered it over a decade ago and had their share of problems when they first started using the Disney Magic Band and the My Disney Experience app in their theme parks and on their cruise ships. Disney figured it out, and I am sure Virgin will as well. In fact they probably already have. Last week I wasn’t able to make dining reservations for my cruise that leaves in about 2 weeks, even though I should have been able to make them at 45 days out. I was told that Virgin was working on an update for The App and that once it was deployed everything would work just fine. I installed the updated version of The App a couple of days ago and viola! It works. Sort of. Capability seems to be rolling in gradually. I’ve been able to make dinner reservations for three of the five nights of our cruise and I got my top three choices, so I’m happy.

There will be other glitches that don’t get fixed before I sail. I know that. I’ve done inaugural sailings before. It happens. But in exchange for putting up with the glitches, I get to experience something nobody else does. I get to discover Scarlet Lady and all she has to offer before reading about it in travel journals or on someone’s blog. No spoiler alerts necessary…it will all be fresh. The good, the bad, and the ugly, but mostly the good. I hope.

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Like A Virgin

I’m nervous. I want to be excited. Really, I do. There’s nothing like one’s first time. But I’m nervous. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and I’m not sure it will be able to live up to all the hype. Everybody with more experience than me tells me it is the greatest thing ever, and that I won’t regret it. Still, I’m not sure I’m ready.

Sorry…I couldn’t resist. I’m talking about my first cruise with Virgin Voyages, of course. Virgin Voyages is Sir Richard Branson’s newest venture in the hospitality industry. When he isn’t galivanting around the cosmos in one of his spaceships, he’s christening another of his new ocean cruise ships. Sir Richard’s first cruise ship, Scarlet Lady, docked in Manhattan last week for a three-day, red-carpet gala event and is now in her home port of Miami preparing for her first revenue sailing. In typical Virgin style they are referring to Scarlet Lady’s first sailing out of Miami on October 6th not as her inaugural sailing, as every other cruise line would, but as her “Mer-maiden” voyage. Get used to the cheeky play on words…Virgin has thrown an entirely new lexicon at the cruise industry that I still haven’t fully assimilated. Janet and I are fortunate to be booked on Scarlet Lady’s second sailing out of Miami, departing October 10th, and we are looking forward to sharing that experience with you. Check back for more!

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Vaccine Passports and Travel

Vaccine passport….two words that mean completely different things depending on which side of the COVID vax debate you place yourself. If you are vaccinated the vax passport means opening doors, but if you are unvaccinated it means having those same doors slammed shut in your face. And before anybody gives me a hard time about sharing “personal” info on this blog because I posted a picture of my CDC COVID card, the only personal information on it is my birthday. Facebook reminds the world of that factoid every year. And as I noted in my prior post, I don’t use the lot numbers from my COVID vax in any of my passwords…sorry to disappoint.

My purpose in writing this article is not to change anyone’s mind on whether or not they should get vaccinated against COVID. Everybody has staked out their positions on the subject and nothing I say is going to change any minds. Obviously I am vaxed. My point here is to lay out the current state of play when it comes to COVID vaccinations, COVID testing, and COVID restrictions in the context of discretionary leisure travel.

The COVID “passport” isn’t so much a thing as it is a policy, and in this country we don’t have anything close to a coherent national policy regarding the use of a COVID vaccine passport.  We have the beginnings of one, for better or worse, with the President’s recent Executive Order requiring COVID vaccination in the workplace. But when it comes to access to public venues like bars and restaurants, it is up to the states. Only four states…California, New York, Oregon, and Hawaii…are using residents’ COVID vax status to limit their access to varying degrees to public venues. Meanwhile, 20 states either have legislation or executive orders against the use of anything resembling a COVID passport. The other 26 states either haven’t decided, don’t care, or are too careful to step a toe into that politically charged minefield, though private businesses in those states are imposing their own COVID driven restrictions.

We do have a set of national level COVID policies impacting travel that are based on guidance and requirements from the CDC. If you want to use commercial or public transportation in any form, whether that be a bus, train, or plane, you must wear a mask. If you want to take a cruise, at least 95% of the people on each cruise ship departing from a U.S. port must show proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID. If you want to travel outside of this country, you must show a negative COVID test report as a condition for being allowed back into this country. Those are all national policies that carry federal penalties for failure to comply, though I think everyone can agree enforcement is uneven at best.

When it comes to international travel things are better defined. You can’t enter another country without complying fully with that country’s entry requirements. For just about all countries that means showing a passport at your first point of entry. For some countries it also means getting a Visa, and for a few countries it used to mean showing certification from a World Health Organization approved immunization center that you have been vaccinated against locally endemic diseases such as Yellow Fever, usually in the form of the “yellow shot record.” The oldest vaccinations on my yellow shot record, the original vaccine passport, date back to the early 1960s with my measles, DPT, polio and smallpox vaccinations. Yellow fever, cholera, and hepatitis were added later. So vax passports aren’t new…they go way back, and we’ve lived with them and the restrictions they’ve been used to enforce just fine.

You don’t need to get jabbed as many times as I have to travel…you get the vaccinations you need based on the countries you want to visit. The list of countries requiring proof of vaccination against anything used to be very short, but since COVID it has grown quite long and it continues to grow. It doesn’t matter what your personal feelings are about vaccinations in general or the COVID vax in particular…if you want to travel to a growing number of countries, being fully vaccinated against COVID is a condition for entry. That includes much of the Caribbean and most of Europe, with the exception of Croatia and Greece but even they have other restrictions. For many countries you have to show a recent negative COVID test as well. Some countries offer unvaccinated visitors the option to quarantine between 5-14 days and then get tested, but who wants to spend their vacation time in quarantine? Many Asian nations remain closed entirely to tourists regardless of vaccination status. Mexico and the Dominican Republic are about the only popular vacation destinations U.S. travelers can visit with virtually no restrictions…you don’t even need to get a COVID test to get in. But you do need one to come home and that has been problematic for many unvaccinated Americans.

Travel is difficult for the unvaccinated. Even if you find a country that will let you visit without a lengthy period of quarantine, you are likely to face additional restrictions, and the rules are constantly changing. The destination you booked a few months ago that had a permissive environment for unvaccinated visitors at the time may be imposing a long list of restrictions requiring proof of COVID vax today, even while they still allow unvaccinated visitors into the country. And what do you do if the COVID test you are required to get prior to your return to the U.S. comes back positive? I’ll cover that in another article but that alone is reason not to travel if you feel strongly about remaining unvaccinated. And while the current travel environment may feel restrictive for the unvaccinated, it isn’t a forever thing.

We will not defeat COVID. I’ve never thought we would. It will eventually be an endemic disease which means we have to learn to live with it. Not just as Americans, but as a global community. And we will. Until then, we have to learn to live in this uncomfortable “between” space we find ourselves where the disease is more lethal now than it will be in a few years’ time, yet more of us want to pretend that we are already there when we aren’t. That’s really all COVID vaccination passports are about…allowing us space to begin getting our lives back to normal with the fewest COVID deaths possible.

Make your travel plans! We can travel, and for the vaccinated it is a relatively low risk activity, though you should still check with your doctor and take into account your personal risk tolerance. COVID is something we all have to live with, but you don’t have to let it keep you home. We’ll help you ensure you travel responsibly and thoughtfully, protecting your health as well as that of the citizens you encounter at the destinations you visit.

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Your Mobile Digital Vaccination Record

As Janet and I have resumed traveling, we’ve had to show our CDC COVID vaccination certificates prior to boarding international flights or boarding a cruise ship. Increasingly, providing proof that you are fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus is required to gain admission to a range of venues. The trend to require proof of vaccination to gain admission to theaters, concert halls, restaurants, and bars hasn’t hit Maryland to the extent it has other states, and maybe it won’t. If it does, I’d rather not have to carry my CDC COVID card around and risk losing it. Sure, I can replace it. But what a pain!

I took a snapshot of my CDC card and saved it as a PDF that I can access on my phone. I know there are all sorts of articles cautioning against that, but give me a break. The only personal information is my name, my birthday (which facebook spreads around to the entire interweb every year anyway) and the lot numbers of the serum in my shots which, spoiler alert…I don’t use as the basis for any of my online passwords. Carrying a PDF of my CDC card on my cell phone is far safer than the risk of losing it IMHO. BUT…if all you need it for is to get a beer at a bar, there may be another way.

Recently Janet and I discovered a tool called MyIRmobile (IR=Immunization Record). Maryland is one of over a half-dozen states and D.C. that participate in the program which makes individual immunization records stored in state electronic health records (EHRs) available through a convenient cloud-based web service you access on your cellphone. There is no cost to sign up. You just go to the website and create an account, enter information specific to your state, authorize the MyIR service to access your state EHR, and you’re done. Once your account is set up you can access whatever immunization records the state has on file for you, which include your COVID vax. You can even use MyIRmobile to bring up a PDF display of your Maryland COVID vaccination certificate…which by the way I didn’t even know that was a thing.

A few cautions are in order…MyIRmobile wants to be much more than it is. It wants to be an app, but it isn’t. It is a mobile enabled web service that you have to access using your phone’s web browser. It wants to be a complete immunization record for residents of the participating states, but it isn’t. It is only as good as the data in your state EHR. In my case that included my last flu shot, my pneumonia vaccination, and an old DPT booster from way back in 1979 …how did that get in there? My actual hardcopy shot record is as long as my arm. I know because I checked. It also wants to be a reminder service to let you know when you are due for any vaccination the CDC or HHS recommends for your age which I find most annoying. I don’t need that. Convenience aside, unlike your CDC COVID card there are real privacy implications if you worry about things like that, but I’ll post about that in a separate article.

The MyIRmobile service works whether you got your COVID vax at a state run vaccination center or a pharmacy like CVS, but it doesn’t work if you got your vax out of state. Participating states include Arizona, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Dakota, Washigton (both state and D.C.), and West Virginia. If, like many snowbirds, you live in Maryland but were vaccinated in Florida, you are out of luck.

MyIRmobile is a tool that Janet and I find useful, for now. Whether it’s usefulness will continue past the point where COVID is endemic is another story. For now, it’s another way I can avoid having to carry my CDC COVID vaccination certificate.

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Pandemic Cruising: COVID Safety

Janet and I just returned from our first cruise in over 18 months, and I want to share our thoughts and experience with pandemic cruising. Let me just say from the outset that we had a great time. To be clear…no cruise line can guarantee zero risk of passengers being exposed to COVID while on a cruise, no more so than any land based public facility can. What they can and are doing is take steps to minimize that risk, and each cruise line has adopted precautions that meet and in most cases exceed CDC requirements. Cruise lines have put up an impressive track record of safe cruising since they resumed sailing from U.S. ports earlier this summer, and Janet and I both felt quite comfortable with the risk throughout our cruise. So much so that we will be cruising again in October.

The CDC requirements are rigid, but they allow space for cruise lines to make trade-offs between more restrictive screening measures up front vs more restrictive protective measures once guests are onboard. We chose Norwegian Cruise Lines for our first pandemic cruise because they take the approach of requiring the most restrictive screening measures up front. Norwegian requires all crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated, and they require all passengers to test negative for COVID at a pier-side testing center prior to checking in for the cruise. That approach allows Norwegian to offer an onboard experience most similar to pre-COVID cruising without compromising passenger safety.

Pre-Boarding COVID Precautions and Check-in

You’ll probably face a greater threat of exposure to COVID during your trip to the cruise terminal than you will at the terminal or at any time onboard the ship. As part of the online check-in prior to arriving at the cruise terminal, Norwegian Cruise Lines assigns arrival times for each guest allowing them to control social distancing. There were no crowds when we arrived at the port of Miami for our cruise, partly due to the fact that ships are sailing at reduced capacity and helped along by the staggered arrival times assigned by the cruise line. I noticed that all workers at the port, whether they be porters, port authority, or cruise line employees, were properly masked the entire time we were there.

Upon arrival we were directed toward the cruise terminal entrance, but before we were allowed to enter the building someone verified that we had our CDC issued COVID vaccination cards. One important point to note…passengers are required to wear face masks from the beginning of check-in until after boarding the ship. We noticed a few people not wearing masks as we walked up to the cruise terminal to check in for our cruise, and they were not permitted to enter the terminal building until they masked up. If anyone took their mask off once in the cruise terminal other than for identification purposes, they were admonished to wear their mask and wear it properly.

Norwegian contracts out their required pier side COVID testing to CVS’s MinuteClinic, and their operation in the terminal was efficient. We passed through several checkpoints on our way to the COVID test stations to verify that we had filled out the necessary pre-test forms online, and to have our CDC COVID vaccination cards checked. For our cruise, only original CDC COVID vaccination cards were accepted.

After verifying we were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, we were directed to one of several test stations where our CDC vaccination cards were once again checked along with our passports to verify our identity. Each test station was staffed with three people: one person to verify our identity, provide test instructions and monitor us as we self-administered the nasal swab, a second person to prepare the test cards and apply the sample when we handed over our swabs, and a third person to make sure the test cards were read at the proper time and to record the results.

Once we handed over our sample and it was processed, we were directed to a waiting area until the results were available, about 15 minutes later. A unique identity code was assigned to each person tested, and we were given a card with that code and the time of our test to take with us to the waiting area.

The test result waiting area was the only time during our check-in that social distancing was not observed. The waiting area consisted of rows of portable plastic seats. At this point even though we weren’t socially distanced, the risk of being exposed to COVID was minimal. Everybody in the area was fully vaccinated and although we were all waiting for the results of COVID testing which theoretically could be positive, all wore masks, the room was a large open air high-bay warehouse space with good air flow, and our time in that space was limited to 15 minutes.

As test results came in, identity codes were displayed on a screen and announced over a loudspeaker. When your identity code was called you got a pink wristband which you wore until completing the rest of the check in. The wrist band marked you as being fully vaccinated and testing negative for COVID. Guests whose code wasn’t called within 20 minutes of being tested were directed to an area adjacent to the test waiting area for further instructions. That meant you tested positive for COVID and wouldn’t be allowed to take the cruise.

The entire process was quick. We arrived just a few minutes before our assigned arrival time for testing of 10:00AM. We passed through the initial screening quickly and by 10:12AM we were both tested and waiting for the results. Our tests came back negative and by 10:30AM we were at the security checkpoint getting our carry-on bags screened. The rest of our check in was equally uneventful and by 10:50AM we were sitting in the departure lounge waiting for boarding to begin. Boarding started at 11:14AM, and we were on the ship enjoying lunch by 11:45AM.

Onboard COVID Precautions

Norwegian has made their COVID screening strict so that once onboard, the guest cruise experience is as close to pre-COVID as possible. As soon as the ship’s security logged us aboard the ship, masks became optional. The crew was masked for the entire cruise, but once onboard we removed our masks.

With all guests and crew fully vaccinated and guests having a negative COVID test pier-side, the onboard experience was as close to a normal cruise as I would have expected. There was no requirement for masking or social distancing once onboard the ship, and with the ship sailing at half the usual passenger capacity, it wasn’t an issue most of the time. The popular bars were full, as were the elevators at times and though a few people opted to mask up, most did not. Passengers who chose to wear masks were treated the same as those who didn’t…there was no stigma either way.

Once onboard the ship there was just one more difference in our cruise from pre-COVID times. The mandatory Coast Guard safety drill was no longer a mass gathering. Instead, each guest was required to report to their assigned muster station at some point between boarding and before the ship set sail. Crew members were present at each muster station to go over the drill with guests on an individual basis. I found that to be a much more effective approach to the usual mass safety briefing and I hope the Coast Guard allows it to continue.

Port Calls

Our ship made four port calls in three different countries. Each port call was docked rather than tendered, and each country had its own COVID protocols. Based on what I read prior to cruising, I was expecting to wear masks for debarkation, but none of our stops required that. That being said, you would be wise to ensure you bring your mask when getting off the ship just in case. Guests were not required to book excursions through the cruise line and were free to explore on their own at each port call. Masking requirements were based on a combination of local requirements and the nature of the excursion with anything requiring transport requiring masks while in the vehicle, whether booked through the cruise line or independently. We booked two excursions with the cruise line but chose to explore on our own in Cozumel and had no issues or concerns at any time we were off the ship. The use of masks by locals at each of our port calls was about 50/50 or higher.

Enhanced Sanitation

I have generally been impressed with how diligent cruise ship employees are with cleaning and this cruise was no exception. I did not see any futuristic UV sterilizing robots or remote sanitizing foggers like I read about early in the pandemic…just the usual thorough sanitization, and admonitions to use hand sanitizer when entering and leaving any of the dining venues as well as the bars and lounges.

The one major surprise for me was the buffet. I fully expected buffet service to be crew served, and perhaps on ships that don’t require all guests be vaccinated that is the case. On NCL Gem with all passengers vaccinated, the buffet was self-serve though there seemed to be more crew members monitoring the buffet stations to make sure guests used the serving utensils rather than their hands.

Debarkation in Miami

The CDC and DHS requirements for our return to the U.S. were as dynamic and subject to change as were our departure requirements. Two things I expected to go through at the end of our cruise we did not…I’m not sure why, but I’m not going to complain. First, we didn’t have to go through the COVID testing the CDC requires for citizens returning to the U.S. after international travel. Second, we were able to walk off the ship without having to go through the usual immigration checkpoint or having to fill out and hand in a customs declaration form.

Our cruise was a closed loop cruise…we returned to the same port we departed from, and no passengers were permitted to begin or end their cruise at any of the port calls we made except in cases of medical emergency. While in the past such cruises were subject to the same DHS entry checks as if we arrived on an international flight, this time we were not. I hope that becomes the norm for cruising. Before you go crazy in the duty-free store and overbuy way past your legal duty-free allowance, customs agents were in the terminal building and some form of spot checking was taking place.

That’s a Wrap

Everybody’s risk tolerance is different. I can’t tell you it is safe for you to cruise…only you can decide that. What I can tell you is that for the foreseeable future I expect the cruise lines to require all adults be fully vaccinated, and to have a negative COVID test prior to or as part of checking in for each cruise. COVID safety measures imposed by the CDC and the cruise lines are changing on a nearly daily basis, and our experience with Norwegian Cruise Lines won’t be the same as someone cruising with another line. Norwegian Cruise Lines has made the business decision to limit passengers on their ships to fully vaccinated only. Other cruise lines that market to families, such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are allowing up to 5% of their guests on any cruise to be unvaccinated, as permitted by the CDC. For now, unvaccinated passengers on those lines are limited to children under 12 years old who are not eligible to get the COVID vaccine, and they are imposing additional testing requirements to further mitigate risk.

Janet and I felt comfortable with the risks we faced in taking this cruise, and with the risk mitigation measures the cruise line took to ensure our safety. Even so, we purchased an at home COVID test kit and after we returned from the cruise we tested ourselves for COVID before getting together with friends and family. After having taken the cruise, I feel even more comfortable with our decision to continue cruising. Our next cruise is just a few weeks away and I can’t wait!

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