Who wouldn’t be excited about sailing a simulated test cruise? These trips, required by the CDC for ships that plan to return with less than 95% of passengers vaccinated, offer a chance for the cruise line to put in new health protocols and practice them before paying passengers come aboard.
For the passengers on the test cruises, the big appeal is the opportunity for a free cruise. As part of the test, cruise lines are supposed to simulate all aspects of a regular trip. So from dining to bar service to evening shows, it’s just like a regular cruise. The big exception is that passengers are volunteers and sail for free instead of having to pay a fare.
I was fortunate enough to snag a spot aboard one of these test cruises, courtesy of Royal Caribbean. The trip sailed in late August aboard Oasis of the Seas, on a six-day trip from Cape Liberty (New York area) to CocoCay and back.
During that time I got to see firsthand exactly what the experience was like on the ship and the new protocols put in place.
Here’s what it was really like aboard the trip…
Everyone Had to be Vaccinated and Tested Before Boarding
While the simulated cruise is to allow some passengers to sail unvaccinated in the future, everyone on the simulated cruise had to have the shot. Usually, Royal Caribbean requires passengers over 12 to have the shot, but kids can still sail if they are not eligible for the dose. However, kids are not allowed on test cruises, so everyone onboard was vaccinated.
In addition, each person was required to have a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of boarding.
When arriving at the terminal, the results and the vaccination card were checked multiple times. In fact, I was asked for the vaccination card four separate times between reaching the terminal and actually boarding the ship.
Knowing that every person on the ship was not only vaccinated, but also tested did help make me feel more comfortable. I do think it would have been nice to have testing done at the terminal as well, however, as an extra measure.
Passengers Were Treated to a Downtown View Before Departing
Cape Liberty in New Jersey is just south of New York City. From the ship you can see the entire skyline, including the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. To get to the open water, the ship just has to take a turn south and head to sea. What everyone on board got to see was something completely different.
After leaving the dock, the ship took a turn to the north and sailed right by the Statue of Liberty for a photo opportunity, and then did a spin near Lower Manhattan. Everyone rushed to the top deck to get photos and video.
Now if you are from the area, maybe seeing all of this is no big deal. But as someone who had never visited the area, being able to see some of these famous landmarks before the cruise had even started was a dream. The ship could have just gone back to the dock right then and the trip would have been worth it.
There Were Dramatically Fewer People on the Ship (But Full Crew)
For test cruises, ships don’t have to sail with a full passenger load. In fact, while Oasis of the Seas will normally hold about 5,500 passengers at double occupancy, the number of passengers on the ship was just about 600 — about 11% of capacity.
You’d think that would make the ship feel empty — almost like a mall that’s going out of business. That wasn’t the case at all. Between the passengers that were on the ship, the music playing around the vessel, and the full staff of crew, the cruise ship never felt “dead.” But there certainly were plenty of places like the Promenade where you’d expect to see lots of people and there was hardly anyone.
Actually, it made things nice that there was never a line anywhere, you didn’t have to fight to find a spot by the pool, reservations were easily available, and elevators were lightning quick.
New Protocols Were in Place
Of course the main reason for the test cruise is to practice and review the protocols put in place to keep passengers healthy. Over the course of the trip, guests saw a number of changes that show just how things will be different, at least for the time being.
The changes started with wristbands that vaccinated passengers wear around the ship. This band identifies your status, giving you access to areas for vaccinated passengers only, such as the casino.
Around the ship masks were required in indoor areas, except for the “vaccinated only” spots, when dining, and in your cabin. Hand sanitation and handwashing stations are everywhere and whenever you enter a new area, like a restaurant or shop, you’ll be asked to clean your hands.
Distancing is in place with many tables in restaurants closed off, even if nobody else is around. Most food is no longer self-service, unless it’s already served individually on a dish. The staff even gives you a plate in the buffet instead of you getting your own.
There are also some more subtle changes for passengers, such as simply giving your room number to the staff at a restaurant to pay for a meal instead of handing over your card. The crew then checks your photo in the computer to make sure the correct person is making the charge.
Drinks, Internet, & Food Were Half Off Normal Prices
Everyone on the ship was given a great deal with half-off drinks, specialty restaurants, and Internet access. That was a nice perk in addition to being a volunteer on a free cruise.
That did give an opportunity to try some things that normally you might not purchase. For instance, during the break Royal Caribbean rolled out a new drink menu with more than 20 new cocktails.
One that I tried and thought was the perfect pool drink was the Strawberry Blonde. It features Tito’s vodka, St-Germain liqueur, strawberry, lemon juice, and mint. The taste was light and sweet, but despite not tasting a strong alcohol flavor, it definitely packed a punch.
Everything Was Open Around the Ship
Despite only having a limited number of passengers, it wasn’t as if the venues and activities on the ship were closed down due to low capacity. In fact, everything was open and available.
During my trip played in the casino, tried numerous specialty restaurants, multiple bars, ziplining, waterslides, and more.
In addition, there were a number of activities going on around the ship during days at sea, including classics like live music, trivia contests, and more. It did seem like the calendar was a little less full than I’d expect given a ship of the size of Oasis of the Seas, but there were still plenty of things to do around the ship.
Performances Were Still Working Out Kinks
Just like on a regular cruise, Royal Caribbean put on performances, such as the ice show, Aqua 80 (the water show in the Aqua Theater), and the stage production of Broadway favorite, Cats.
The only issue is that with the time before the ship started back sailing real cruises, these performances were still ironing out the details. The Aqua Theater show was flat-out amazing, but was still a dress-rehearsal. It had a couple of pauses during the show to fix some technical issues. (Even with that, it still ranks as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.)
I actually never got a chance to watch Cats as it has multiple showtimes that were cancelled. It was hard to be upset as it’s understandable this was just a test voyage and the performances were still being perfected. Still, it would have been nice to be able to see the shows without a hitch.
CocoCay Felt Like Cruising Before the Pause
While on the ship there were a number of new protocols in place, things on CocoCay felt surprisingly normal.
The six-day cruise featured just a single stop — a call on Royal Caribbean’s private island. While it took some time for the weather to clear so that we could get off the ship, once I was on land, it felt like old times.
Since everywhere on the island is open-air, masks weren’t required. There was also plenty of space for everyone to spread out. In addition, all the amenities of the island were open to enjoy. As a bonus, volunteer passengers on the ship were given free admission to Thrill Waterpark.
The Simulated Cruise Was (Nearly) Perfect
Ok, the obvious thing to like is that everyone on the ship was a volunteer, meaning they didn’t have to pay to take a six-day cruise. Add in discounted drinks and meals, and there’s even more to enjoy.
As for the downsides, I mentioned the glitches in performances since they were still rehearsals. One other issue was that with a large number of crew members on the ship and so few passengers, the service in less busy restaurants could be overwhelming with the amount of attention given. When more passengers do sail, it’s likely to even out to where you can easily get anything you need from the staff without regular interruptions to your meal.
One thing in particular I did like was knowing that everyone on the ship was vaccinated and tested before boarding. It was also nice having to share the ship with so few people. While a larger crowd would have made things feel more lively, it was great to not have lines anywhere and to be able to board and debark in a matter of minutes. Having elevators come almost instantly was also amazing.
In all, the experience of sailing a simulated cruise in many ways felt familiar, just with some new tweaks to sailing. While it’s definitely something that few people will get a chance to experience, being able to enjoy such a large ship with a limited number of passengers was something I won’t forget.