This was a seven-day cruise to Bermuda. It would be Norwegian Breakaway's first cruise from New York City since the pause in cruising due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Of my 265 cruises, seven cruises had been on Breakaway prior to this one. Over the years, I have found her to be an enjoyable, mass-market large ship. While the events leading up to this cruise were a gauntlet (discussed below), the actual cruise on Breakaway (discussed in Part II) was one of the best I have experienced on Breakaway.
The threshold issue in deciding whether to book this cruise was whether it was too soon to start cruising again. During the summer, the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) had issued a warning about cruising, However, during the same time period, the CDC was granting the cruise lines permission to restart sailing from U.S. ports based upon evidence produced through a series of test cruises. In addition, the risk did not appear to be any greater than staying at a hotel, using public transportation or going to the theater or a sporting event. Yes, there was some risk but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo's famous admonition kept ringing in my ears: “The timid may stay at home.”
During the pause in cruising, the cruise lines had developed a series of protocols for increasing passenger safety with regard to Covid. I was impressed by the protocols that NCL said it would implement; particularly, that all guests and crew would be fully vaccinated and there would be testing done before passengers boarded the ship. Since the percentage of people in the general population who are vaccinated is considerably less than 100 percent, the community aboard the Breakaway should present less risk than going to the local supermarket. It was also my understanding that the air filtration system aboard the ship had been enhanced to weed out pathogens. In addition, the ship would not be sailing at full capacity, which should not only reduce crowding but result in a safer cruise experience.
One of the things I liked about NCL's approach was that it stated it would handle the Covid testing at the pier, rather than requiring the guests to obtain a negative test result on their own. I was skeptical about a cruise line's ability to administer literally thousands of tests during embarkation but if they figured out how to do it, it seemed better than running around searching for a testing provider, not to mention the cost savings.
After I made my booking, I received a message from NCL saying that it would conduct two Covid tests at the pier. One would be an antigen test, which would produce an immediate result that could be used to determine whether the guest would be allowed to board the ship. The other would be a PCR test, which would produce results before the ship arrived in Bermuda. While two tests might be slightly burdensome, it did not seem unreasonable to ensure safety.
About eleven days prior to sailing (the cut-off for cancelling the cruise was 10 days prior to sailing), NCL sent another letter outlining the pre-cruise requirements. The letter was confusing. Some guests read the letter as saying the Bermuda government was now requiring another PCR test before embarkation day while others read it as simply a reminder that there would be a PCR test as well as an antigen test at the pier.
Upon investigation, the former interpretation turned out to be correct. There would be an additional PCR test. The test would have to be done within four days of embarkation and the test results submitted to the Bermuda government in time for it to issue a travel authorization before the guest boarded the ship in New York. As a practical matter, this meant that the results would have to be sent to Bermuda, the day after the test was done. Furthermore, obtaining this test and applying for the travel authorization would be the responsibility of the guest.
While there are many entities that provide PCR testing in the area where I live, I could find none that would guarantee to have the results of the test in the short time frame required. Even those that I found who offered to do the test quickly would not guarantee that the results would arrive in time.
Therefore, to be safe, I made appointments with two providers for tests. In total, these tests would cost more than $200. However, considering the amount I already had invested in this cruise, it seemed a worthwhile expense.
Four days before sailing, I did a test with a local volunteer ambulance corps in the morning and in the afternoon, I did an observed at-home test with Azova. A paramedic with the ambulance corps conducted the well-known nasal swab test. The Azova observer guided me through a saliva test. As directed, I then took the sample to a UPS store for next-day delivery to Azova's laboratory. The ambulance service provided the results of its test the same day while Azova provided its results the next day.
The next step was to send the test results plus proof of vaccination to Bermuda. This was a multi-step process. First, I had to submit an online application for a travel authorization. ($75.00). Bermuda then emailed me a link that led to a page for submitting the results. The next morning, I received an email saying that my application had been approved. This directed me to a website where I could print my authorization
I did not experience any problems with this process but other guests told me that they had problems with Bermuda's website. Some guests emailed Bermuda but most seemed to call Bermuda. One guest said that when she called, an automatic announcement said that she was number 70 in the queue. All reports were that when one finally got through, Bermuda handled these matters quickly and in a friendly fashion.
Obtaining a travel authorization was an anxious process as a problem at any one of the steps could have meant that, as a practical matter, there would be no cruise. NCL seemed to take the attitude that obtaining a travel authorization was a matter between the government of Bermuda and the guests. It did not offer to do the required tests nor did it offer assistance in finding providers who would guarantee to produce a result in a timely fashion. It also made no offer to facilitate the process of obtaining a travel authorization once a guest had obtained a negative test result. The only communication I received from NCL was a robo-call the night before the cruise saying that guests who failed to obtain a travel authorization would not be allowed to embark.
In order to avoid chaos at the pier, NCL had required each guest to select a specific time for arriving at the pier. Because one cannot control traffic or public transportation, I had allotted plenty of time to get to the ship by the specified hour. As it turned out, my transportation ran smoothly and I arrived early. There is no convenient place near the Manhattan Cruise Terminal to wait so I decided to go ahead and begin the embarkation process. I need not have worried, no one checked whether I was in my time slot at any point during the embarkation process.
I went to the lower level of Pier 88, the pier where Breakaway was docked. One of the baggage handlers directed me to a man who told me that guests first had to go to Pier 90 for another set of Covid tests. The information that I had received from NCL said nothing about Pier 90. However, it was only a short distance away so I had no problem rolling my bag to the next pier. I did wonder what someone with more bags would have done.
The operation at Pier 90 appeared to be well-organized. I took an elevator to the second level where I was directed to a series of desks along the south side of the pier. A rep looked at my travel authorization and various other documents relation to Covid. I was then directed further down the pier to a series of booths where providers hired by a company working for NCL were conducting tests. Dressed in full surgical gear, a rep conducted both an antigen test and a PCR test on me.
Following the tests, I was directed to a seating area on the north side of the pier. A screen and audio announcements told the guests when the results of their antigen tests were ready. Assuming that the result was negative, the guest could then walk down to the entrance of the pier where he or she would be given a wristband that would allow them to go to Pier 88 for the usual cruise check-in.
I waited about a half hour until I heard my number announced. However, when I arrived at the wristband desk, the rep said she could not find any record of me. I was told to stand off to one side where a group of about 50 other problem guests were standing. A supervisor arrived and took everyone's name and disappeared off to look for their results. Someone told me they had been waiting there two hours. Another supervisor arrived and again took everyone's name. At about this time, I received an email from NCL's provider saying that I had tested negative. Armed with this, the supervisor was able to find my results and I was given a wristband.
The final hurdle was the check-in on Pier 88. This has never been the best part of an NCL cruise out of New York and this time it was slower than usual. Several of the reps appeared to be new. Also, NCL had introduced new technology into the process that seemed to befuddle the reps. Oddly enough, even though each guest who checked in had undergone at least three Covid tests in the last few days - - some of which were done only minutes before - - the reps insisted on taking each guest's temperature.
Guests were still boarding long after the ship was scheduled to sail and long after darkness covered Manhattan. One could see activity going on at Pier 90 from the ship. In addition, I was told that attempts were being made to get travel authorizations for some guests who arrived at the pier without one.
In sum, while NCL's plan looked good on paper, it was not executed well. There were too many problems with the testing done at the pier. In addition, the cruise check-in process was slow. Hopefully, these problems were due to the fact that this was the first NCL New York cruise and as the personnel become more experienced, the process will run more smoothly.
With regard to the travel authorization process, I would have liked to have seen NCL step up and take ownership of the process rather than leaving it to the guests. This may have involved additional costs but it would have been good customer relations at a time when all the cruise lines striving to persuade customers to start cruising once again. Furthermore, an issue that affects all the passengers sooner or later becomes the cruise line's issue.
Cruise ship review - - Norwegian Cruise Line - - Norwegian Breakaway - - Restart Bermuda Cruise 2021 - - Part I