WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The smell of saltwater in the air, the sun shining on deck and a cocktail in hand; cruising in Florida is back.
"Just that feeling when you walk onto a cruise ship and you just instantly feel like you're on vacation," said Stacie Faulds. "I haven't had that feeling in such a long time."
Stacie Faulds was one of the passengers on the first Royal Caribbean cruise ship sailing out of Miami on July Fourth weekend.
"There was clapping as we walked on board. It just felt great," Faulds said.
The three-day cruise was a test vacation for Faulds to decide if cruising is still all it's cracked up to be.
Cruise lines departing from ports all over the U.S. have had to make significant changes, especially in Florida where a state ban on vaccine passports prohibits cruise lines from requiring passengers to show proof of vaccine before sailing.
"For those who are already booked or went direct, most cruise lines are requesting vaccinations and in the state of Florida they are not allowed to require it, but they are allowed to request it," said Michelle Fee, CEO and Founder of Cruise Planners.
All cruise lines sailing out of Florida will ask passengers who say they are vaccinated to submit proof. If they do not, they will be considered unvaccinated passengers and the protocols on board will be different for those passengers starting with the requirement to wear a mask the entire time except for while you're eating.
"There are going to be certain restaurants that are just for vaccinated people, certain areas when you go into the theater that are for vaccinated and for unvaccinated, so there is going to be quite a difference if you do board a ship and you're unvaccinated because the first priority of every cruise line is the safety of their passengers," Fee said.
Fee said vaccinated or not, passengers will be required to show proof of a negative COVID test prior to boarding, and then submit to testing once on board.
"When you go onboard, you'll get a bracelet and if you do in fact test positive once you're on board, they will be able to track you and track everyone that you came in contact with. They will make sure they isolate you and maybe get you off the ship at the next port, but it isn't going to interrupt cruising like it did on the onset," added Fee.
Travel insurance is also being required of passengers in many cases for vaccinated passengers too because the port of calls you're cruising to are requiring it.
"A lot of people don't realize it but when you leave the country, your insurance that you have, that covers you in the U.S., typically does not cover you when you leave the country," Fee said.
Faulds said cruising was simple for her as a vaccinated passenger. Her biggest concern prior to boarding was that even with all the changes, cruising would still be what she remembered it to be.
"I've been cruising with my family since they were babies to adults, and it's always a different experience. It's always a beautiful family memory," added Faulds.
Fee adds that even with changes onboard, cruise lines aim to recreate your most memorable sailing experience.
"They want you when you get on board to make sure that this vacation feels if not just like it, even better," she said.
Back on land, Faulds is already dreaming up the next opportunity to set sail.
"Now that I've done a three-day, I am ready for my seven-day outing," Faulds said. "It's just cruising is the best vacation in my opinion."
One way cruise ships are certified to sail again is that they must meet the threshold of having at least 95 percent of passengers vaccinated. Cruise lines are requiring that all crew members be vaccinated.
If you're cruising out of Galveston, Texas, or Seattle, cruise lines are requiring that all passengers 16 and older are vaccinated to board. Depending on the sail date, cruise lines are also starting to ask for those passengers 12 and older to be vaccinated.
WHAT'S NOTICEABLY DIFFERENT ONBOARD?
What's the first order of business once you get your welcome cocktail onboard a cruise vacation?
The muster drills.
Now, that looks different since you can check in and report to your muster station by using your phone.
It's all part of new protocols to keep passengers socially distanced and avoid crowding.
"There's no longer the need to put on a lifejacket and go and rehearse with crowds of people," Faulds said.
But before we get that far, you have a new item to add to your packing list, whether you're vaccinated or not: a negative COVID test.
"The cruise line will test you once you get to the port of embarkation, and then they'll test you again before you come back into port on your last day," Fee said.
Fee said if you're vaccinated and have shown proof, all the COVID tests will be covered by the cost of your cruise, but it could be an added cost for those unvaccinated passengers boarding cruises in Florida.
Cruise lines have also beefed up their apps to maximize the touchless experience including using it to view videos for the muster drill, scanning QR codes to get menus.
Also, the ability to order drinks and food and have it delivered right to you at the pool has been enhanced.
"I think the biggest question is: what happens when I go to the buffet? Are they going to have a buffet? And the answer is absolutely yes. The difference is the crew member might be serving you rather than you serving yourself," Fee said.
But parents take note, some activities like kid clubs won't be available due to children under 12 not having access to the COVID-19 vaccine right now.
Fee also said for those unvaccinated passengers out of Florida, in addition to wearing a mask at all times, some activities onboard will also be restricted to vaccinated passengers only.
"For instance, the casino might be locked off to those who are unvaccinated, and it's only going to open for those who are vaccinated," Fee said.
But Fee said cruise lines are constantly reevaluating the current restrictions, and she believes by fall that capacity will increase and restrictions will be loosened.
"At some point in time, all of this is going to go away and unvaccinated, vaccinated, is not going to make a difference anymore," Fee said.
For those itching to get back out to sea like Faulds, make sure you speak with a travel adviser to get all the information you need to get the most out of your next cruise.
"It felt so good to be sailing again in the water," added Faulds.