What a Europe Cruise Looks Like Right Now
Just returned from an amazing week of cruising on Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas. We sailed in the Western Mediterranean with stops in Spain, France and Italy.
It was our family’s first cruise since the pandemic. My husband and I, along with our two college-aged daughters, explored the wonderful food and historical sites of the area. The ship and the itinerary were fantastic, and we are already talking about another cruise, maybe to the Greek islands.
With a little planning we were able to navigate the travel requirements and Covid testing and thoroughly enjoyed our holiday.
Here is a recap of our trip and my thoughts for those who want to cruise Europe.
Travel conditions in Europe
Having never been to Barcelona, we wanted to spend a few days before the cruise to enjoy the city’s famous sights and legendary cuisine.
We did not need to take a Covid test to travel to Spain, but had to complete an online form through the Spain Travel Health (SpTH) portal a few days before arrival. Once verified, you receive a QR code which you must present upon landing.
Because we arrived early, we had to do our pre-cruise tests in Barcelona. To be honest, it was a little nerve-wracking to fly all the way to Europe, knowing there was the possibility that we could test positive and not on a cruise. But after a few years of confinement, we decided it was time to travel again.
Trials in Barcelona
While exploring Barcelona and indulging in endless tapas, we took some time to complete our pre-cruise testing. Royal Caribbean recently added Switch Health telemonitored testing from Canada as an accepted testing option, so we purchased the kits before our flights. They’re available through Air Canada’s loyalty partner Aeroplan (with a member discount), or through Switch Health.
We did the tests in our hotel room, and they were quick and easy, with results in less than 15 minutes.
There are also many places around Barcelona, in central tourist areas, which do tests (around 40 euros) and can be booked two weeks in advance. I did not see any test available at the port.
The cruise terminal is centrally located in Barcelona and traffic was very light on a Sunday morning which made for a quick and easy commute.
We arrived around our 11am check in time and there were no queues. The staff did a quick review of our vaccines, passports and negative Covid test results with no problems. In less than 15 minutes we were on board and enjoyed a delicious brunch at the Mason Jar.
This itinerary was a bit unusual in that guests can join in either Barcelona or Rome, so while we were embarking some cruisers would drop off for a day in port. Luckily for us our cabins were ready before 1pm.
How full was the ship? I spoke to the head of housekeeping and was informed that there were approximately 4,000 passengers on our cruise. That’s well below the high of 6,988, at 57%.
Unlike many Caribbean itineraries, our Western Mediterranean cruise only had one day at sea at the end, which meant that most days passengers were out on the excursion, making it even less crowded.
Our single day at sea was the busiest on the ship, although there were still plenty of chairs by the pool mid-morning. As usual, there were chair hogs on board.
While the cruise ship didn’t feel crowded, places like Barcelona and Rome were full of tourists of all kinds. I have traveled to Europe before during the peak summer season and was surprised at how busy things were, especially in Rome.
The Vatican was like nothing I had ever seen with people wall to wall even though most were wearing masks. People have asked me about being nervous about traveling on a cruise ship. The cruise pales in comparison to the density of people in the Sistine Chapel and other tourist hotspots and airports,
Even the famous Trevi Fountain was teeming with people without masks. The closeness was more alarming than anything on the ship, and with the heat in the 80s, no one wanted to wear a mask.
Although masks are optional on the ship, transport rules vary between countries in Europe. During our first stops in Palma de Mallorca and Marseille, Royal Caribbean offered shuttles from the ports to the city centers. We had to wear masks on the buses, but this was not uniformly enforced.
While queuing to return to the ship, the bus driver would not let a few passengers board the bus as they had masks. Apparently their previous driver had said nothing about the requirements and let them travel without masks.
I had a few spare masks which I offered to the couple behind me, but some people stayed put. There weren’t many pharmacies nearby, a downside to say the least.
Protocols in Italy
Italy had the most protocols for cruise passengers.
We had booked a tour to Rome through Royal Caribbean, and when we met in the theater they advised us to wear an N95 mask in transport and in the Vatican, as well as bring our proof of vaccinations. They provided us each with an N95 mask for our day.
Some of the guests simply left the ship, missing this detail, and had problems once in Rome getting on the bus as they did not have N95 masks. It is imperative to review the Cruise Compass for each day in port, especially when requirements change by port.
Staff and service
Wearing a mask on our hot day in Rome made me appreciate the hardworking staff all the more, wearing them all day on the ship (even outside).
The ship was well maintained, the workers were constantly cleaning, and I noticed the senior crew doing inspections. I spoke with many crew members, and many mentioned that they were looking forward to disembarking after so long on the ship. A few commented that the lack of shore leave and expensive internet was a problem for them.
Overall the food was excellent. We purchased the catering package for the first time and really enjoyed trying a variety of restaurants. 150 Central Park was delicious, and we went there twice for dinner enjoying a beef tenderloin and a lobster thermidor. We also enjoyed the Mason Jar.
I had no idea how relaxing cruising would be if we did long day trips, so I booked a few activities, and for port stops in Palma de Mallorca, Marseille and La Spezia, we explored on our own- same.
For Rome, we chose a small group tour to visit the Vatican, Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. The day started at 7 am and it took us almost 2 hours to get to Rome, but it was an unforgettable experience. Our guide was top notch, an art historian at the Vatican Museum.
For Naples, I originally thought we would spend the day enjoying pizza in the birthplace of the famous cuisine, but my travel agent recommended Pompeii, which is only a 30 minute drive away. I’m glad she did, it was my favorite excursion, and again we had a fantastic guide who made the experience even better.
Although you pay a premium to book with the ship, not worrying about time and logistics was a major plus. Thanks to our guided tour, we avoided many queues and had privileged access to areas of the Vatican.
Activities and Entertainment
There are currently no Broadway shows on the ship, but there was plenty of entertainment as always. We really enjoyed listening to jazz in Central Park and my family loved the Intense show.
My daughters loved rock climbing and ice skating, and the lines for activities like ziplining weren’t long. There were fewer children than on the Caribbean cruises we have sailed on before.
I have to say that having back to back ports, besides easily walking 15,000 steps a day, evening entertainment was not the main concern for me. Sunset was as late as 9pm so it was nice to sit and savor the picturesque views of the Mediterranean coast and the islands.
The worst part of a cruise is the day you have to leave. We took our bags early, around 7am. As you are still in the European Union, you do not need to clear customs/immigration, just a simple walk out of the ship.
There are plenty of taxis waiting at the cruiser terminal, although I noticed most weren’t that big, we just fit four suitcases and us in our car so I would suggest arranging something specific if you have a big party/lots of Bags.
The airport is about 20 minutes away and check-in was quick. Fortunately, we did not have to do a Covid test to return to Canada. Barcelona Airport offers Covid tests which you can pre-book. Queues for those who didn’t book in advance were quite long, so best to plan ahead.
Some Final Thoughts
- I highly recommend using a good travel agent. Connie, my trusted travel agent for nearly 10 years, was invaluable in planning this trip. From hotels to ideas for excursions, she was a huge resource.
- Be sure to keep up to date with Royal Caribbean communications as protocols may change at any time.
- Review all your travel requirements and arrange testing in advance.
- Make sure you have adequate travel and medical insurance.
- If you are doing excursions on your own, pay attention to distance and traffic.
- The cruise planner has a problem in the system and did not work well for customers joining the cruise in Rome.
- Many excursions involved a lot of walking, especially on the old cobbled streets. Be sure to bring good comfortable shoes.
- Euros are preferred for small purchases and local sellers, especially if you negotiate the price.
- The weather was warmer and drier than normal in May, but cooled rapidly overnight.