Another surprise at the end of summer
Cruise lines have quietly dropped their vaccination requirements. Welcome to the new normal — here's what it means for you
Remember that shocking decision to end masking requirements on domestic flights? Well, the cruise industry had a moment like that last week when it quietly dropped its COVID vaccination rules.
It happened so quietly that almost no one noticed. Carnival said effective September 6, passengers didn't need to get vaccinated. Princess and Royal Caribbean stopped their vaccination requirements September 5. Norwegian Cruise Line eliminated its vaccination mandate as early as September 2.
No masking, no vaccinations, no testing.
It's as if COVID never happened.
Travelers are as divided as ever. And if you don't believe me, read the comments in the Friday Forum. Some think the cruise lines are foolish and greedy to scrap their vaccination requirements. Others believe it's long overdue. We've been having this debate for almost three years, and it's unlikely to get settled today. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. The comments on today’s post are open.
Where does that leave us? COVID safety now becomes a personal decision. Because the siren call of faraway places beckons, even though the costs are higher and the dangers greater.
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COVID gets personal
I saw the cruise industry's new rules this week when I sailed from Kirkenes, Norway, to Bergen on the Hurtigruten MS Polarlys. No one asked me for a COVID test or vaccination card, or asked me to wear a mask, during the five-day voyage along the Norwegian coastline.
A few passengers still wore masks. But most of them acted as if COVID had never happened. Crewmembers were strict about one thing: sanitizing your hands before visiting the buffet. But some passengers even forgot about that and had to be politely reminded.
The Polarlys is a small vessel with only a few public areas where passengers sit to watch the spectacular scenery. A time or two, I found myself next to passengers who sneezed incessantly. That awakened my inner hypochondriac. I snapped my laptop shut and found a quiet corner to finish my work — and fortunately, I survived the cruise uninfected.
But I'm convinced that COVID prevention is now a personal choice. If you want extra protection on a flight, wear a mask. If you need extra space on the observation deck, move away from the crowds. Worried about catching the virus at the buffet? Use plenty of hand sanitizer.
Of course, all that could change at a moment's notice if there's a dangerous new COVID strain or, God forbid, a new pandemic.
Are you done traveling?
Next up: Labor Day. And you know how summer started with a bang? It's ending with a whimper, according to the latest projections.
Searches for domestic flights over the Labor Day weekend are down 31 percent and 9 percent, respectively, compared to the same holiday weekends in 2019 and 2021, according to the metasearch engine Kayak.
Why? Maybe it's because air travel is so expensive. The average price for a roundtrip domestic flight is $372, up an eye-popping 41 percent from 2019 and 20 percent higher than in 2021. Hotel searches are down 11 percent, too. The price for accommodations is also higher: The average price for a domestic hotel is around $291, up 32 percent from pre-pandemic levels and up 6 percent from last year.
Then again, maybe it's not about the money. Maybe after this summer's mass cancellations and dreadful customer service, the wind has gone out of your sails. Maybe you're just not into it anymore.
If that's true, I can't blame you. The summer of 2022 will go down in history as the worst for travelers in every possible way. Higher prices, dreadful service, more uncertainty — the summer of 2022 had it all.
Raise your hand if you experienced a flight delay or cancellation. A hotel room that never got cleaned. If you spent more than a Benjamin to fill your car's tank. Speak up if you or a loved one got COVID. It happened to me this summer.
What is going to happen next?
The Labor Day downturn is a breather, according to the travel industry's soothsayers. In September and October, demand will spike again, and we'll head into the busy holiday travel season with the same set of problems:
Airlines are circling the drain
We have a dysfunctional airline industry that even the hands-off Department of Transportation can no longer ignore. If you thought this summer's wave of cancellations was a problem, wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas. Add a winter storm or two for good measure and we will have chaos — utter chaos! My best advice would be to find alternate transportation or a plan B, particularly during the holidays.
A customer service wasteland
The Great Resignation has created a wasteland of customer service that's being felt everywhere, from the call centers of online travel agencies to the housekeeping departments of motels. There's almost no evidence that the hospitality industry has found a way to fix the real problem, which is that it pays minimum wage for a thankless job. Until it does, expect your overpriced hotel room to receive a minimum of service.
COVID makes a comeback
Here's what I find so unnerving about the cruise industry's throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude. Flu season is just around the corner. People will be spending more time indoors. And that means COVID — which is still with us, by the way — could return with a vengeance. If I were a bettin' man, I'd say things will start getting really interesting in February or March, which is the peak of virus season.
Is it still worth traveling?
Given all this uncertainty and chaos, is it still worth traveling? Definitely.
I didn't fly north of the Arctic Circle to be safe or comfortable. I lost my luggage. I got terribly seasick. I lost two days of work because of the slow internet connection on board. I paid $40 for a ten-minute cab ride in Bergen.
But the adventure had its rewards. I saw days when the sun never set. I sailed through fjords so narrow that you could almost touch the sides of the mountains. I saw emerald water so flat calm that I thought I was on a lake.
I would not give up the adventure for anything. Maybe you feel the same way — that all the hassle is worth it in the end. Because it is worth it.
That's why I publish this newsletter, my friends. I don't want you to stop traveling. I just want you to be clear-eyed about the dangers that lie ahead. There are always risks, but never more than in 2022.
And I will be here for you. Because in addition to this newsletter, I also run a nonprofit organization that helps fix consumer problems. So if you run into trouble, you know where to find me.
What do you think about the fall travel season?
Are you thinking of giving travel a break this fall? Why or why not? What worries you the most about the next few months? Is it the breakdown of air travel, inflation, higher prices, or nonexistent customer service? The comments are open.
About the art
"I wanted to capture what happens when travelers are waiting," says artist Dustin Elliott. Which way is the weather vane pointing? And what are the travelers waiting for? "You'll have to wait and see," he says.
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