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8 truths of going on a Royal Caribbean cruise in summer 2021

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08Jul2021

I have been fortunate enough to go on three Royal Caribbean cruises so far this summer from North America, and already there are some new lessons learned for cruising right now.

While the basic cruise experience pre-shutdown is still there, there are a few new, altered, or completely different ways to plan a cruise due to new protocols and ways the cruise line is operating.

If nothing else, you should expect changes early and often, so this post may even end up becoming outdated quite quickly with everything Royal Caribbean is doing to get ships operating again.

Based on my experience, here are the top eight new rules I've garnered from going on a Royal Caribbean cruise so far.

Check-in times are much closer to your sail date

Before the shutdown, you could count on online check-in for your cruise opening up 90 days before your sail date, but not anymore.

Right now, there is no pattern to when you can start checking in for a cruise, so you have to keep checking back periodically to see if it has opened.

First and foremost, expect online check-in to open up much closer to you sail date than 90 days. It is not uncommon to have check-in become available just a couple weeks in advance.

Keep in mind that what someone else on another sailing experiences for their check-in date opening may have no bearing on when yours could open up.

Regardless of when online check-in is available, try to get it done as soon as possible. Check-in times at the cruise terminal matter now, and the early check-in times go very quickly.

Don't expect protocols until a few weeks before your cruise

Because of the changing government regulations, new health protocols will likely not be available until at the most a month in before you sail.

Royal Caribbean is in the tough situation of wanting to share what the experience will be like with guests as early as they can, while at the same time trying to adhere to new guidelines and requirements from various health agencies.

In order to avoid creating confusion with changing protocols, Royal Caribbean is waiting until much closer to when a ship may sail to announce what guests can expect onboard.

It may not be idea, but most passengers are not keeping up with every change the cruise line makes, and as a result, the cruise line appears to be doing what it can to simplify messaging.

Windjammer will be closed for dinner until capacity gets up to at least 50%

After speaking with Royal Caribbean executives, it looks like the Windjammer buffet will remain closed for dinner until more guests are sailing again.

All of Royal Caribbean's ships are sailing at reduced capacity, although they have not divulged specific numbers for any ship.

Roughly speaking, the Windjammer will not re-open for dinner until at least half the ship is full again.  This means you may need to spend some extra time planning dinner before you cruise.

If you were someone that usually ate dinner at the buffet, consider specialty restaurant alternatives, going to the main dining room, or maybe just enjoying room service.

A lot of flights are getting cancelled

Never before can I recall so many flights being cancelled arbitrarily close to the departure date than right now.

Airlines are much further along in their recovery from the global health crisis (it helps when your industry gets bailed out with taxpayer money and never had any oversight by the CDC), but that does not mean their operations are smooth.

Anecdotally, a lot of cruise passengers are reporting last-minute flight cancellations for any number of reasons.

The best thing you can do is plan to fly in to your cruise at least one day ahead of time.  If you can manage it, two days in advance would be ideal (especially for sailings out of The Bahamas where there are few flights each day).

Don't rely on booking flights with Royal Caribbean through Air2Sea for the same day as your flight departs.

Cruise planner sales give the best prices

If you want a discount on a drink package, shore excursion, or something fun to do at CocoCay, be sure to purchase it during a Cruise Planner sale.

It was always a good idea to pre-purchase as much as you can to lock in discounts, but the importance of this strategy has gone up quite a lot due to higher base prices for these items than we saw in early 2020.

The good news is there is usually a Cruise Planner sale once every few weeks, and they are almost always offered over any major or minor holiday.

If you know you want something in the Cruise Planner, book it at the current price, and then cancel and rebook later if there is a price drop.

You can do eMuster from anywhere

One of the best innovations to come out of the cruise industry shutdown was eMuster, which allows passengers to do the guest safety drill from anywhere onboard the ship over the span of a few hours on embarkation day.

My advice is to multi-task the process, and go through the eMuster process in your Royal Caribbean app while you're doing something else onboard, such as eating lunch, enjoying the pool, or grabbing a drink at the bar.

Doing this allows you to be more efficient with your time, and get it taken care of sooner.

You can ask for printed menus

I love how Royal Caribbean is coming up with new ways to make its app more useful, but reading menus while in a restaurant missed the mark, in my opinion.

When you go to any restaurant on a Royal Caribbean ship right now, there are QR codes you can scan to get a copy of the menu.  Alternatively, you can ask for a printed menu.

I am all for keeping everyone healthy, but contact-based spread of Covid-19 is pretty darn remote, and Royal Caribbean's printed menus are now made of a material that is unconducive to spreading germs.

More importantly, reading a restaurant menu from a phone just is not easy, and I think a big part of the dining experience is holding a menu in your hands.

Book cruises early or they will sell out

While ships are sailing at limited capacity, sailings are selling out incredibly quickly.

Pre-shutdown, you could usually find at least something to book closer to your sail date at the last minute, but that just is not a thing right now.

Sailings from Florida are especially popular, so if you think you might want to go on a cruise soon, book it now.

Top 8 things you should know about going on a cruise in 2021

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15Jun2021

Royal Caribbean has restarted cruises from North America with Adventure of the Seas, and with it comes some expected changes to the experience.

The good news is cruising today looks a lot more like cruising in 2019 than we might have thought it would, but there are a few changes, differences, and good advice everyone should heed going forward.

If you have a cruise coming up this summer, or are thinking about booking something, here are early lessons learned from being on a cruise ship in 2021.

Limited capacity means having the ship to yourself

On the first Adventure of the Seas sailing, there is just about 1,000 passengers on a cruise ship designed for over 3,000 passengers.  This means the lack of crowds, lines, or wait times very noticable.

Anyone that has cruised often will likely relish the opportunity to have less of a wait for things like elevators, pool chairs, or water slides.

If you are going to cruise soon, you will likely be able to take advantage of shorter lines and it is a really nice "side effect" of Royal Caribbean's attempt at promoting social distancing by reducing the amount of guests onboard.

At Perfect Day at CocoCay, the lack of crowds is especially noticable when you go on an island designed to easily handle 7,000 - 9,000 guests.

No one knows exactly when Royal Caribbean will go back to full capacity, but in the meantime going on a cruise this summer is likely to see shorter waits all around.

Testing requirements may change

One constant early on has been change, and if you cruise this summer, you should expect plenty of changes.

Health protocols are paramount to the cruise industry, and we have seen the requirements for guests boarding a ship change a few times.

While Royal Caribbean will communicate these changes to guests and travel agents booked onboard, expect to get new changes sent at any time, even just a few days before you set sail.  There is no minimum threshold for when they wont change a rule, because if they see an opportunity to improve or enhance a policy, they will.

There is more demand for specialty dining than normal

On these first Adventure of the Seas sailings, the Windjammer is closed for dinner due to the lack of guests onboard.

During our cruise, Royal Caribbean International's Vice President of Food & Beverage Operations Linken D'Souza mentioned they were seeing higher demand for specialty dining on Adventure of the Seas, but was not sure why exactly.

It could be a reflection of the lack of the Windjammer option, or perhaps many guests finally having the chance to get back on a cruise ship again and splurging more than before.

Whatever the reason, make reservations early for specialty dining.

You should still fly a day in a day before your cruise

A lot of cruisers have discovered Royal Caribbean's Air2Sea program, which allows anyone to book their airfare through Royal Caribbean and similar to a shore excursion, get a promise that the cruise line will get them on the ship if there is a delay or cancellation.

Unfortunately, some people are booking flights not only on the same day of their cruise, but very close-in to departure times and in my opinion, that is playing with fire.

Airlines are changing flight times and canceling flights a lot due to a variety of reasons.

Regardless of if you book with Air2Sea or not, do yourself a favor and fly in at least a day ahead of time to protect yourself against travel delays.

Yes, there is still a buffet

One of the early concerns was what would happen to the buffet on a cruise ship, and it is still there as an option.

Many feared a staple of the cruise dining experience would be lost due to health protocols, but there is still a buffet on Royal Caribbean's ships.

There are two major changes to the buffet that you should know about.

First, you have the option of making a reservation for the Windjammer.  Royal Caribbean limits capacity to ensure it does not get overcrowded, and similar to a specialty restaurant, you can make a reservation to assure yourself of a spot.  You can make reservations via the Royal Caribbean app or in person at the entrance.

On our sailing, reservations have not yet been necessary, but it is something that exists.

Second, the buffet is all full service.  Instead of you serving yourself, crew members will place food on your plate.  This is easy enough, as there are plenty of crew members to assist.

There is a larger emphasis on using Royal Caribbean's app

Royal Caribbean has invested a lot of time and effort into its app, and going on a cruise now means the most emphasis ever on guests using their app.

The app has gone from something you can use onboard to an essential must-have.  So many of the functions go through the app now, including check-in, the Cruise Compass, menus, and reservations.

Royal Caribbean has always felt the app was a helpful asset for guests to reduce friction and speed up things, but now it is more useful as a great touch-free point.

There are some guests who prefer not to use a smart device while on a cruise, and yes, you can go on a cruise without using it, but you are really putting yourself at a disadvantage in terms of time wasted by not using the app.

Be sure to download and install the app before the cruise, and do every step you can before you sail through it to ensure a very smooth and fast process.

The crew members are really happy to be back

Something very noticable is how excited the crew members are to have guests back onboard.

Just like the cruise ships, crew members have been without work since March 2020 and so many crew members loved working on cruise ships as a way to generate a good income and support their families.

While crew members are wearing face masks onboard, their enthusiasm is apparent in conversations and greetings you see around the ship.

The experience is more similar than different

If you were expecting some kind of a locked down, limited cruise experience going on a ship this summer, it is really anything but that.

Surprisingly, the differences and changes onboard are minimal, and going on a ship today has a lot more in common with going on a cruise ship a few years ago.

While there is social distancing, a few digital additions, and other changes, the truth is the day-to-day experience onboard (especially once you get past embarkation) is very similar to what it used to be.

It remains to be seen what the cruise experience may be like exactly on every ship that restarts, as Royal Caribbean has not announced health protocols for its ships sailing from the U.S. or Europe this summer.  But if everything continues on its current trajectory, it appears we can expect almost the same cruise vacation fun we did before the industry shutdown last year.

Travel experts: Expect higher airfare prices in 2021

In:
Category: 
20Apr2021

With some cruise ships resuming service this summer, and perhaps more later in 2021, booking flights sooner than later may save you money.

With the bulk of the  United States public beginning to achieve access to the Covid-19 vaccine on a wide scale, travel is starting to seriously pick up and that means airfare prices are likely to rise to match demand.

Air travel has not returned to the numbers once seen before the global health crisis yet, but is on its way up. Last week, more than 1 million people were checked by Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, which is 30% less than in 2019.

United Airlines told investors in a regulatory filing that they expect a major rebound this year, "While it will take time for the vaccine to be widely distributed, the Company’s confidence is even stronger in the recovery and the trajectory of the rebound in 2021 and beyond."

Moreover, United reported last month that its bookings for the third quarter of 2021 are only down 40%, compared with the 70% decline in bookings in December and January.

Prices for flights are still low right now

Despite a general sense of recovery in many aspects of life, prices for flights remain lower than typical for this time of year.

Hopper economist Adit Damodaran said "good" prices for roundtrip airfare are 25% lower today than they were in 2019, "In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in Spring 2020, roundtrip airfare dropped around $60 with lower travel demand

"Similar to past years, we saw price increase into the summer, fall during the autumn shoulder season, and rise again into the holidays."

Willis Orlando from Scott’s Cheap Flights sees a different scenario playing out for international flights, "Airfares to Europe, Africa, and Asia have generally been higher than pre-pandemic levels."

Mr. Orlando believes widespread deals that occurred relatively frequently prior to 2020 on international rates "have been super rare."

Part of the reason international flight prices remain high is because of various restrictions governments have placed on travel to curb the spread of Covid.

Expect higher prices later in 2021

While prices are still lower now, expect airfare prices to go up throughout 2021 as case numbers begin to fall.

Kayak reports searches for summer travel have been up 27% each week since President Joe Biden earlier this month said all American adults will be eligible for a vaccine by May. In addition, airfares for top 100 most-searched U.S. destinations are up 7% month-over-month.

JP Morgan airline analyst Jamie Baker, said discounts for flights are becoming less prevalent, "Domestic airfares are rising. While discounts can still be found, they’re no longer falling into consumers’ laps."

"Discounted fares increasingly require a hunt, and for many consumers that have been locked up for a year, they’re probably not up to the effort."

With lower demand due to the global health crisis, airlines reduced the number of flights offered and grounded aircraft. The reduced supply of available seats helped keep prices from plummeting.

Airlines are expected to add more seats as the peak summer season approaches.

Check the fine print before booking flights

If you are looking to book a flight for a cruise this summer or later, be sure you are clear on the terms if you change your mind and want to cancel later.

Many airlines relaxed their cancellation or change terms during the global health crisis, but some are rolling those changes back.

Depending on the airline (or the website you book your flight through), there could be new conditions and/or less means to get a cash refund.

Price flights through Royal Caribbean

While not new, Royal Caribbean's airfare booking program has become much more useful for cruisers looking to get a good price now for a sailing later in the year.

Royal Caribbean's Air2Sea program allows guests to book flights through the carrier for a small fee. In many cases, Royal Caribbean has either negotiated better rates with select carriers or subsidized the prices to spur bookings through Air2Sea.

One really nice benefit of booking through Air2Sea is you can book flights with no money required until the cruise final payment date. In addition, Royal Caribbean will let you cancel your flight without penalty before your cruise final payment date.

If Royal Caribbean cancels the sailing later, it will refund you the money for the flights.

Plus, Royal Caribbean has always promised guests that book through Air2Sea will be accommodated if their flight is delayed and it impacts their ability to get to the cruise ship on time.

Why you should be looking at booking a cruise for 2023 now

In:
Category: 
04Mar2021

Over the last few weeks, Royal Caribbean has been releasing new sailings in 2022-2023, and this is actually the best time to book new cruises.

It's difficult to plan any trip more than a year and half away, especially when we are still dealing with a cruise industry that is shutdown due to the global health crisis, but if you are looking for the best prices on a cruise vacation, planning early is the best strategy.

There is a lot of renewed optimism about the trajectory of where things are headed in terms of a cruise industry and societal recovery, and with that in mind, getting a jump start on your cruise planning now may save you money later.

The rule still applies

One of the best tried and true strategies for getting the lowest price on a cruise is booking as early as you can.

For years, expert cruisers knew to jump at the opportunity when new sailings are released to get the best prices, especially on high demand staterooms.

Prices for cruise fares tend to go up over time, so booking early ensures you get a good price now, and can reprice the cruise later if there is a sale or price drop.

With the cruise industry shut down and no window of time when they might restart, it seems as though perhaps this rule would not apply any more.

However, booking trends have not changed, and surprisingly, prices are still going up for cruises in the future.

Royal Caribbean Group executives have talked about the fact that prices for cruises in 2022 and beyond are rising compared to what they were in 2019.

So why are prices still going up year over year, despite a horrific year for cruises?

First, pricing has always tended to go up each year to match demand.

Second, demand is still very present despite the cruise industry's recent struggles, largely because of a lot of people are eager to move past the global health crisis and begin planning their lives going forward.

Royal Caribbean has referred to this as "pent-up demand", which comes from everyone essentially wanting to make up for the lost time of little to no vacation in 2020.

During Royal Caribbean Group's fourth quarter 2020 earnings call, bookings for 2022 were once again brought up as being very much in demand.

The increase in bookings point to a "pent-up demand for vacations," noted Chairman and CEO Richard Fain. "People are clamoring for opportunities to have experiences outside their home."

Bookings for future cruises increased 30% since the beginning of 2021 compared to November and December, when the global health crisis was getting worse.

The trends "are building confidence that we’re getting closer to the other side of this and people are beginning to realize that travel should be here sooner rather than later," said Jason Liberty, Royal Caribbean Group Chief Financial Officer.

The smart way to book cruises early

When Royal Caribbean releases new sailings, you want to take advantage of good prices, but not paint yourself into a corner either.

First and foremost, book refundable cruise fare whenever possible.  While suites require non-refundable fares, if you are booking anything else, the flexibility of refundable fares are a must-do.

Plans change all the time, and when trying to pick a sailing for 18-24 months from now, it is more likely that you will change your mind than not.  

While the potential savings of going with non-refundable cruise fare are attractive, your best bet is to book refundable just in case.

In addition, I always recommend anyone booking a cruise work with a good travel agent to ensure the booking process is smooth.

Moreover, there is a good chance you might have a future cruise credit laying around from all of these cancelled cruises, so a travel agent makes redeeming them very easy.

What to do if the price is lower later

Booking now is a solid strategy for locking in a good rate, but inevitably prices do fluctuate and sometimes do go down.

The good news is you can always reprice your cruise if there is a lower price later without penalty.

Traditionally, this option was limited to residents of North America and a few other countries.  However, one of the new policies added during the global health crisis has been an expanded and improved Best Price Guarantee program.

It allows everyone to take advantage of a better price up to 48 hours before your sail date, even residents of countries where this did not apply before, such as the U.K.

If there is a better price, you can contact your travel agent or Royal Caribbean and have the new price applied.

If there is a price drop and you re-price the cruise, you will receive the difference as a non-refundable onboard credit inside final payment or rate adjustment outside final payment.

Read moreHow Royal Caribbean will let you take advantage of a price drop up until 48 hours before your cruise

Mailbag: What's worth paying extra for on a cruise?

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03Feb2021

The four most important words for any consumer are "is it worth it", and that applies to cruise ships too.

Each week I answer questions our readers have sent to the RoyalCaribbeanBlog mailbag to answer for the benefit of everyone.

I just booked my first Royal Caribbean cruise, and there are so many tours, packages, and activities I can buy before my cruise begins. Which of these are absolutely worth paying extra for? - Laura S.

Royal Caribbean structures its cruise fare and overall experience to be very modular, and that leaves guests with plenty of addons to consider buying. 

Laura is right that there are lot of choices to consider paying extra for before and during your cruise.

Before your cruise, you can access the Cruise Planner site for the opportunity to purchase many cruise add-ons, which are broken down into a few key categories:

The question of which are "absolutely worth paying extra for" boils down to personal preferences in many cases. After all, an unlimited drink package, photo package, or wifi access will all save you money compared to paying for these items individually, but do you want/need all of it?

Generally speaking, purchasing any of these items before your cruise will save you money compared to waiting to buy it onboard.

In fact, the drink package, wifi and even some shore excursions will cost you more if you wait to book onboard the ship.  Some options, like The Key or select photo packages are not available to book on the ship.

Read moreIs it better to book excursions through the cruise ship?

Moreover, waiting to book onboard may run the risk of these options selling out.

At worst, nothing you pre-pay will cost you more compared to onboard. The spa treatments are mostly a wash in terms of saving money compared to booking onboard, but it does allow you to reserve a specific time.

What is definitely worth it to pay extra for?

Assuming you are interested in reaping the benefits, I wanted to share the Royal Caribbean add-ons that I believe will absolutely save you time or money by pre-purchasing, and are indeed worth it. 

Some of these items may not make sense for everyone, like an unlimited drink package if you do not like to drink that much liquor.

Here is a list of my go-to cruise add-ons that I will almost always pre-purchase myself because I think they are worthwhile.

Here is a list of things I think are worth buying once, but not every cruise

And here are two add-ons that I do not recommend purchasing

  • The Key - I don't think it as lucrative as it sounds, and there are ways to get a lot of similar benefits
  • Arcade credits - You will always end up with leftover credits, and thus, wasted money.

My list is not the end-all, be-all of what everyone should or should not purchase.  You have to decide for yourself which add-ons make sense based on the type of cruise you are on, who you are sailing with, and your preferences.

If you are cruising with a group of friends, a drink package may make more sense than if you are doing a getaway cruise over the weekend. Pre-purchasing shore excursions makes more sense in Alaska or Europe than it does in Nassau, Bahamas. A spa appointment is much more important to newlyweds or someone on their anniversary.

Aside from The Key and arcade credits, I think pretty much anything else you could purchase has the potential to save you money compared to buying it onboard the ship.  To me, that is the definition of being "worth it."  They better question is if you will take advantage of the purchase to get the value out of it.

More mailbag questions:

Mailbag: Should I make final payment for my cruise?

In:
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11Jan2021

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the RoyalCaribbeanBlog mailbag, in which I answer a question our readers ask about a Royal Caribbean cruise.

The final payment date is coming up for my cruise this spring, and I really don't think it will sail. Should I make final payment? - Maureen White

While Royal Caribbean has made a lot of changes to its policies to add a great deal of flexibility, one area that has not changed is the cruise line's final payment deadline.

The final payment date is the day a few months before your cruise (typically 90 days) where you must pay off the entire balance of your cruise or lose your reservation (and perhaps incur a penalty).

In a world where we still do not know when if any cruise (outside of Singapore) will actually sail, it can be a real gut check for some if they should make final payment for a cruise they are not certain will actually occur.

Certainly Royal Caribbean has issued refunds and future cruise credits once cruises are cancelled, and the turnaround time has been generally quick (although there are some outliers that wait months for a return).  Royal Caribbean's official stance is to expect a refund within 45 business days.

With spring break cruises coming up for final payment, a lot of cruisers (including myself) are faced with this dilemma.

Do you want to go on the cruise?

The best way to answer this question is to ask yourself if the cruise were to actually sail, would you want to go on it?

For me, I am still making final payments for my upcoming cruises because if they do actually sail, I want to go on them.

While the short term future of cruises being able to restart is murky at best, eventually one of these sailings is actually going to happen.

On the chance the cruise ship does sail, making final payment is what you will need to do in order to be onboard.

However, if the ambiguity of the whole situation right now, or even perhaps some of the potential changes onboard do not sit well with you, canceling before final payment would be the right course of action for you.

Keep in mind that if you cancel before Royal Caribbean cancels the cruise, you are not eligible for any compensation options offered to guests at that point, including 125% future cruise credit or a full cash refund.

Simply put, the decision to make final payment or not is based on your feelings about going on the cruise if it were to sail.

Your deposit type might force your hand

Something else to think about is what type of cruise fare you initially booked.

If you had booked non-refundable cruise fare and you want a full cash refund for money paid, making final payment and then waiting for Royal Caribbean to cancel the cruise is the only way to get all your money back.

Of course, you could get a 100% future cruise credit or Lift and Shift the reservation to another cruise next year.

By making the final payment, you are assured that when the cruise is officially cancelled by Royal Caribbean, you have the choice to get a full cash refund.

The danger with this strategy of calling the cruise line's bluff is that if the cruise actually sailed, you would then be committed to it (although the Cruise with Confidence program allows you to cancel and get a 100% future cruise credit up to 48 hours before your cruise sails).

My choice

I was facing this exact scenario a few weeks ago  that Maureen is facing today, as final payment for my family's spring break cruise in March on Harmony of the Seas arrived.

Ultimately, I chose to make final payment for the exact reason in this post: if the cruise were to sail, I would want to go on it.

There is lots of uncertainty in all of our lives right now, but I feel you have to make plans to live your life and adjust them when it becomes clear those plans are no longer practical.

It certainly helps I have other cruises that I can roll any future cruise credits forward to, but at the end of the day, I want to get back onboard and am willing to roll the dice on the possibility it may sail.

What would you do?

Share your advice for Maureen in the comments below!

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