Travelers say staff shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks are spoiling their Alaska cruises

The side of a large cruise ship, with passengers visible on balconies and walkways.
The Norwegian Bliss, the first large cruise ship of the season, arrived in Juneau on April 25, 2022. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Mohammad Palwala went on his first cruise last year. The cyber security engineer from Dallas sailed through Southeast Alaska aboard Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas.

“And I told my family, ‘It’s like, the best thing ever. You get a full-on vacation on the cruise,’” he said.

There was lots of entertainment on board and amazing experiences in Southeast Alaska communities. And, as far as COVID-19, it felt safe. Everyone had to test negative before boarding, just about everyone was vaccinated, and the ship was only at 30% capacity. That was in September.

Palwala wanted to share the experience with his extended family of 12. He booked another Alaska cruise on the same ship with almost the same itinerary. They sailed in May. This time, the ship was closer to full, with about 4,000 passengers. It wasn’t like before.

“Very understaffed,” he said. “We did not have shows on — we only had like, two shows on the whole of the cruise. Lack of entertainment, lack of entertainment for kids.”

There were long lines to disembark, facilities on board that were shuttered — even eating became disappointing. His whole family is vegetarian, and he was told the kitchen was too short staffed to cook up proper meals for them.

Day after day, “the SAME thing. I mean, yeah, not even a few things, the same things. So whatever we ate in lunch, we ate in dinner,” he said.

His family ate a lot of lentil soup with rice.

Immediately after the cruise, 10 out of 12 people in his party tested positive for COVID. They were far from alone.

Experienced cruisers say staff shortages mean they’re having less fun. But they were also surprised by how widely COVID-19 seemed to spread. They want the public to know that lots of passengers are getting infected, and that on board, they’re left in the dark as the risk level changes.

Palwala said there was a Facebook group with hundreds of passengers from that same sailing. At first, it was a fun space where people posted what to do in port and shared photos. After the cruise, it turned into an informal COVID tracking site with tips for dealing with Royal Caribbean customer service.

Lorna Bradley from Monterey, California, was on that same cruise, and in that same Facebook group.

“Somebody finally just posted a poll because so many people were reporting COVID,” Bradley said. “So, of the 400 passengers who happened to see the poll, 25% of those, 100 people, came in and said, ‘I’ve got COVID.’ … I would have had no idea if I weren’t in that Facebook group since I didn’t get sick. I would’ve had no idea there was that much COVID on board.”

She later learned through the group that she’d been in close contact with a cabin steward who had gotten COVID. She was never formally notified of it. Even general information about the ship’s COVID status was noticeably absent.

“And it would have been so easy for the captain’s morning announcements to just remind us, you know, ‘Oh, we have 20 passengers on board, you know, currently having COVID symptoms and you know, just a reminder, you might want to wear a mask,’” she said. “I mean, none of that happened at all, which I found surprising.”

Bradley is extra COVID-conscious because she has a medical condition that puts her at higher risk of complications. She also takes care of an elderly parent who’s at even higher risk.

“When there are COVID cases (on) board, on your floor, down the hall, with your cabin steward, passengers need to know so that they can make better choices for themselves,” she said.

Palwala said he wouldn’t have taken his family if he’d known more in advance.

“Definitely not, because of my wife mostly, because she is pregnant. … If I had known, I would have not gone,” he said.

Conditions vary from ship to ship, and from sailing to sailing.

For example, the Carnival Spirit made headlines for a badly managed outbreak when it was coming to Seattle to begin its season in Alaska this year.

Bruce Hogarth had booked the Spirit’s second Alaska sailing this season. He almost canceled his cruise when he heard about the outbreak. He had travel insurance, but it wouldn’t cover a cancellation for fear of COVID. He rolled the dice.

“And for the first four days, it was a wonderful time,” Hogarth said. “We enjoyed it. The service was good. The food was good. It was up to par in my mind. And then I came down with COVID, then three days later my wife came down with COVID.”

He thinks the cruise line could have done more to avoid people getting sick. His isolation went better than passengers’ on the earlier Spirit sailing.

“It was the opposite,” he said. “I had lost my appetite and I wasn’t eating a lot. They would check in and say, ‘Did you want to order anything? You haven’t ordered in awhile.’ So they were very gracious that way.”

Hogarth lives near Victoria, British Columbia, one of the stops on the cruise. He was able to arrange to disembark there and finish his isolation period at home, instead of at a hotel in Seattle. He said a Canadian government official who walked him through his isolation obligations told him 127 customers and 42 crew from the cruise were infected.

Passengers are relying on second hand information like this or Facebook polls because the cruise lines and public health authorities aren’t sharing the information they already have about COVID on cruise ships.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to questions about its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships and data reporting.

The government of Canada addresses the risk with direct language on its cruise ship travel page: “The virus can spread easily between people in close quarters, such as on cruise ships. The chance of being infected with COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you’re fully vaccinated.”

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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