What it’s like to cruise in Europe right nowIn:
I recently returned from an incredible week cruising on Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas. We sailed the western Mediterranean with port stops in Spain, France and Italy.
This was our family’s first cruise since the pandemic. My husband and I, along with our two university-age daughters, explored the region's marvelous food and historic sites. Both the ship and itinerary were fantastic, and we are already talking about another cruise, perhaps to the Greek Islands.
With a bit of planning, we were able to navigate the travel requirements and Covid testing and thoroughly enjoyed our vacation.
Here is a recap of our journey and my thoughts for those wanting to cruise in Europe.
European travel requirements
Having never been to Barcelona, we wanted to spend a couple of days pre-cruise to enjoy the city's famous sites and legendary cuisine.
We did not need to take a Covid test to fly into Spain but had to complete an online form through the Spain Travel Health (SpTH) portal a couple of days prior to arrival. Once verified, you receive a QR code that you need to present upon landing.
Because we flew in early, we had to do our pre-cruise testing in Barcelona. To be honest, it was a little nerve wracking flying all the way to Europe, knowing there was the possibility that we could test positive and not cruise. But after a couple years of lockdowns, we decided it was time to travel again.
Testing in Barcelona
While exploring Barcelona and indulging in endless tapas, we did take some time out to complete our pre-cruise testing. Royal Caribbean recently added Canada’s Switch Health tele-proctored tests as an accepted testing option, so we purchased the kits in advance of our flights. They are available through Air Canada’s loyalty partner, Aeroplan (at a discount for members), 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, that do tests (around 40 euros) and can be booked two weeks in advance. I did not see any testing available at the port.
The cruise terminal is centrally located in Barcelona, and traffic was super light on a Sunday morning, resulting in a quick and easy ride.
We arrived right around our 11 am check-in time, and there were no lines. Staff completed a cursory review of our vaccines, passports, and negative Covid test results with no problems. In less than 15 minutes, we were onboard and enjoyed a delightful brunch at the Mason Jar.
This itinerary was a little unusual in that guests can join in Barcelona or Rome, so while we were getting on, some cruisers were getting off for a port day. Lucky for us, our cabins were ready before 1 pm.
How full was the ship? I spoke to the head of housekeeping and was advised that there were around 4,000 passengers on our cruise. This is well shy of the 6,988 maximum, at 57%.
Unlike many Caribbean itineraries, our western Mediterranean cruise had only one sea day at the end, which meant most days passengers were off on excursions, making it feel even less crowded.
Our only sea day was the busiest on the ship, although there were still plenty of chairs left by the pool mid-morning. As usual, there were some chair hogs onboard.
While the cruise ship did not feel crowded, places like Barcelona and Rome were full of tourists of all kinds. I have previously traveled in Europe 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 wall to wall people, although most wore masks. People have asked me about being nervous about traveling on a cruise ship. Cruising pales in comparison to the density of people in the Sistine Chapel and other tourist hot spots and airports,
Even the famous Trevi Fountain was swarming with people without masks. The close proximity was more alarming than anything on the ship, and with heat in the high 80s, no one wanted to wear a mask.
While masks are optional on the ship, the rules for transportation vary by country in Europe. In our first stops in Palma de Mallorca and Marseilles, Royal Caribbean offered shuttles from the ports to the city centers, We were required to wear masks onboard the busses, but this was not uniformly enforced.
While waiting in line to return to the ship, the bus driver would not let a few passengers on the bus as they did have masks. Apparently, their previous driver had said nothing about the requirements and had let them travel maskless.
I had a few spare masks that I offered to the couple behind me, but some people were left behind. There weren’t many pharmacies close by, an inconvenience to say the least.
Protocols in Italy
Italy had the most protocols for cruise passengers.
We had booked a tour for Rome through Royal Caribbean, and as we assembled in the theatre, they advised that we needed to wear an N95 mask on transportation and in the Vatican, as well as to bring along our proof of vaccination. They provided us each with an N95 mask for our day.
Some of the guests simply walked off the ship, missing this detail, and had issues once in Rome getting on the bus as they did not have N95 masks. It is imperative to review the Cruise Compass for each port day, especially when the requirements change by port.
Staff and service
Having worn a mask during our hot day in Rome made me appreciate the hardworking staff all the more, who wear them all day long on the ship (even outdoors).
The ship was well maintained, with workers constantly cleaning, and I noticed senior crew doing inspections. I chatted with lots of crew, and many mentioned that they were looking forward to going onshore after so much time on the ship. A few commented that the lack of shore leave and expensive internet was an issue for them.
Overall, the food was excellent. We bought the dining packaging for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed trying a variety of restaurants. 150 Central Park was delicious, and we went there twice for dinner savoring beef tenderloin and lobster thermidor. We also enjoyed the Mason Jar.
I wasn’t sure how relaxing the cruise would be if we did lengthy excursions every day, so I booked a couple of activities, and for port stops in Palma de Mallorca, Marseilles, and La Spezia we explored on our own.
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 initially thought we would spend the day sampling pizza in the birthplace place of the famous food, but my travel agent had recommended Pompeii, which is only a 30 minutes drive away. I am glad she did, it was my favorite excursion, and again we had a fantastic guide who made the experience that much better.
Although you pay a premium to book with the ship, not worrying about time and logistics was a major benefit. Thanks to our guided tour, we skipped a lot of lines and had special access to areas at the Vatican.
Activities and Entertainment
There is currently no Broadway show on the ship, but there was plenty of entertainment as always. We really enjoyed listening to jazz in Central Park, and my family raved about the show Intense.
My daughters enjoyed rock climbing and ice skating, and the lineups for activities like zip-lining were not long. There were fewer kids than on the Caribbean cruises we have sailed on previously.
I have to say, having back to back ports, in addition to easily walking 15,000 steps a day, evening entertainment was not the main concern for me. Sunset was as late as 9 pm, so it was lovely to sit out and savor the picturesque views of the Mediterranean coastline and islands.
The worst part of a cruise is the day you have to leave. We carried our bags off early, around 7 am. As you are still in the European Union, you do not need to clear customs/ immigration, just a simple walk off the ship.
There are plenty of taxis waiting at the cruiser terminal, although I did notice that most were not that large, We just fit out four suitcases and us in our car, so I would suggest arranging something specific if you have a large party/ lots of bags.
The airport is about 20 minutes, and check in was quick. Thankfully we did not have to do a Covid test to return to Canada. Barcelona airport has Covid testing that you can pre-book. The lines for those who did not pre-book were quite long, so it may be best to arrange ahead of time.
Some final thoughts
- I strongly recommend using a good travel agent. Connie, my trusted travel agent of nearly 10 years, was invaluable in planning this trip. From hotels to excursion ideas, she was a huge resource.
- Ensure you keep up to date with Royal Caribbean’s communications, as protocols can change at any time.
- Review all your travel requirements and arrange testing beforehand.
- Ensure you have adequate travel and medical insurance.
- If you do excursions on your own, be mindful of distance and traffic.
- The cruise planner has a glitch in the system and did not work well for guests joining the cruise in Rome.
- Many of the excursions involved lots of walking, especially on old cobblestone streets. Make sure to bring good, comfortable footwear.
- Euros are preferred for small purchases and local vendors, especially if you are negotiating price.
- The weather was warmer and drier than normal for May, but it cooled down quickly at night.