When you buy through our links, Insider may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.
- Norwegian Cruise Line is sailing from US ports again with a 100% vaccination policy, no exceptions.
- COVID-19 tests are still given so everyone may cruise without social distancing or wearing a mask.
- I traveled on Norwegian and felt so safe with the guidelines, I can't wait to sail mask-free again.
I'm an avid cruiser with dozens of sailings to my credit across multiple cruise lines. So, I was thrilled to be among a small group of media guests invited to join the first comeback cruise from a U.S. port with Norwegian Cruise Line on the Norwegian Encore, sailing from Seattle to Alaska.
I've sailed with NCL many times, but this one felt extra special as the cruise line made its long-awaited return to my home port of Seattle. This was also my first time cruising since COVID and I was curious to see whether I would feel safe enough to enjoy it.
NCL's health and safety protocols are operating with reduced capacity and require all guests and crew to be fully vaccinated, with no exceptions. Still, guests must undergo rapid COVID testing on the day of embarkation, which not only reassured me but meant we could go mask-free while on the ship.
I loved sailing with these new protocols and can't wait to sail mask-free with NCL again. Here's what my experience was like.
Here's what it was like to sail on Norwegian Cruise Line ship for vaccinated guests.
I arrived at the cruise port early because I wasn't sure how long it would take to board with the new pre-cruise testing requirements. During the embarkation process, rapid antigen tests were administered and paid for by the cruise line. All I had to do was complete the online registration and show up a little earlier to allow time for test results to come through.
Pre-boarding COVID testing
A lengthy line led into the testing center, located within a conference room at a neighboring port hotel. But considering a few thousand people were getting tested on the same day, the experience was quite efficient and the test itself only took a minute.
I waited for my results in a crowded room of eager cruisers, but everyone wore masks so I wasn't too worried about the large group.
Test results take anywhere between 15 minutes to two hours, depending on how many were being conducted at a given time. My own negative results came through about an hour after arrival.
Checking in to my stateroom
At check-in, I was surprised to find that there was no line. I walked right up to the desk, received my stateroom key, and immediately boarded. It was one of the fastest processes I've ever experienced on a cruise.
I was booked in a standard balcony stateroom on Deck 11, Forward, with approximately 300 square feet and one Queen bed. I dropped off my luggage and briefly met my cabin steward who noted rooms would be cleaned once per day. As expected, mine was already sparkling clean with a towel animal on the bed to greet me.
The pool deck
Next, I headed to where I always go first after boarding a cruise — the pool deck.
With a reduced capacity sailing, I was overjoyed to see there would be no rush to secure a lounge chair by the pool. Likewise, there were no waits to zip down the waterslide.
There were several pool options on the Norwegian Encore, including a splash pad dedicated to the children. However, due to the vaccine requirements, there were no small kids on my cruise.
Dining on board
With reduced capacity, there was never a wait to be seated at dining venues.
There were several free dining venues on Encore, in addition to a la carte specialty restaurants including Italian fare, traditional Mexican, a steakhouse, and fine French dining. There were also two options for outdoor seating and taco and pizza spots for quick bites.
And since everyone on board was vaccinated, guests were able to partake in the classic cruise buffet experience. The Garden Café buffet was easy to navigate with several food stations and the crew was always on hand to tidy spills and routinely replace utensils.
Celebrating missed milestones
On the first full day of sailing, the buffet served a special lunch to help guests celebrate all the milestones and celebrations missed during the pandemic.
There were stations dedicated to anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine's Day, Christmas, New Year's, graduation, and more.
While guests don't need to wear masks, even at indoor venues, the crew consistently wore them. The crew must also be vaccinated, but this extra layer of safety seemed to put some guests at ease.
It was wonderful to see how happy the crew were to be back to work. They put a smile on my face every day, whether it was hearing them sing their "washy washy" song by the sanitizer stations or creating cute towel animals in my stateroom every day.
Also included within the cruise fare was an endless list of entertainment options, like The Choir of Man musical on the main stage, in addition to variety and comic performances, interactive game shows such as "Deal or No Deal," and social mixers like trivia, karaoke, and dance lessons.
Activities at sea
Add-on activities were available for an additional fee, including virtual reality in the Galaxy Pavilion, Norwegian Encore Speedway — the largest racetrack at sea — and wellness offerings at Mandara Spa.
While massages are always a nice treat, I opted for a weekly spa pass to use the therapy pool circuit and dipped into a rejuvenating body temperature pool every day after returning from port.
In port: Ketchikan, Alaska
During my sailing, NCL unveiled a new port just outside of Ketchikan, Alaska. During the ribbon-cutting at The Mill at Ward Cove, local tribal members joined the celebration and guests seemed to really love the new facility, which offered quick access to area attractions like Tongass National Forest.
While masks weren't required on the ship, they were required while visiting Alaskan ports
However, for those who wanted to go into downtown Ketchikan, the shuttle bus system was quite time-consuming.
Guests were required to first receive a ticket for the shuttle, then wait to board, and then take the drive into town, and then endure a lengthy wait to return, all of which ate up valuable port time. This was really the only time I saw people clustered together.
In port: Icy Strait Point
In Icy Strait Point, passengers were able to spread out a bit more thanks to a new free gondola ride that transports guests across the destination, from port shops to the zipline and museum attractions.
The local staff made sure to limit how many people boarded each gondola, so there were never more than four people on each ride during my visit.
In Icy Strait Point, I actually spotted Harry Sommer, the president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line. He was there with his family, enjoying the sights and celebrating the latest developments of this cruise port like any other guest.
The return of cruising
I wasn't at all surprised to see Harry Sommer enjoying the cruise with his family, as I knew he was aboard the Encore to celebrate the comeback cruise. I even had a chance to sit down with him for a few minutes where he shared his excitement about returning to cruising. Sommer had already sailed with the Greek cruise comeback, but his wife insisted they enjoy the Alaska cruise, too.
How much it costs to cruise
A weeklong cruise to Alaska with NCL starts as low as $399 per person and includes meals in three different dining rooms, the buffet, and 24-hour pub fare, and daily entertainment.
Caribbean cruises start as low as $299 per person, while sailings along the Mexican Riviera start at $489 per person.
Cruisers can also take advantage of booking deals right now, and Norwegian offers a wonderful selection of cabins for solo travelers, which most cruise lines do not.
The bottom line
On this reduced capacity sailing, there was never a wait for anything, whether in the spa, on the pool deck, or even in the casino.
And, with staggered entry and exit at ports of call, there wasn't the usual mad rush to get off the ship. There was some crowding in ports, but mostly due to a shuttle system that could use improvements.
Mostly, though, I loved sailing on a 100% vaccinated cruise. I felt confident in NCL's health protocols, and safe knowing that everyone around me was vaccinated and tested negative prior to boarding. Most of all, I appreciated that I could enjoy going mask-free without lines or venue restrictions.
I've heard of no COVID cases on my sailing, either. That doesn't guarantee that no cases happened, but to my knowledge, none were discovered. In fact, the only NCL cruise that has reported a positive case was one where a vaccinated guest tested positive prior to the cruise and therefore couldn't board.
Finally, right now is a great time to sail with fewer crowds and many deals, including discounts on purchases made on the ship.
I simply can't wait to book my next mask-free cruise.
Book a Norwegian Cruise Line sailing starting at $299 per person
FAQ: Norwegian Cruise Line
When is Norwegian Cruise Line sailing again?
Now! Norwegian Cruise Line first returned to sailing in the Greek Isles this summer, while their first cruise from a U.S. port in over 500 days started in Seattle in August 2021 to relaunch the Alaska cruise season. The first sailings to relaunch from Los Angeles will take place in October 2021 aboard the Norwegian Bliss.
Will Norwegian Cruise Lines require a COVID vaccine?
Yes, Norwegian Cruise Line is sailing with a 100% vaccination requirement for crew and guests, no exceptions. While that means younger kids who don't yet qualify for vaccination aren't able to sail quite yet, it does mean guests are assured that all fellow passengers are completely vaccinated.
Ships have also been fitted with medical-grade air filtration systems and are constantly cleaned and sanitized. A dedicated Public Health Officer oversees each sailing to ensure no suspicious sniffle goes undiagnosed.
I'm vaccinated. Do I still have to take a COVID test before sailing on Norwegian Cruise Line?
Yes, in addition to the 100% vaccination policy, all NCL guests must currently take a pre-cruise COVID test on the day of embarkation. This test is administered and paid for by the cruise line, so passengers won't have to make their own arrangements or spend extra money. Rapid tests are conducted at the port, prior to boarding.
My kids aren't vaccinated. Can they cruise with me?
Since the policy prohibits minors who aren't yet eligible for vaccines to sail, only vaccinated children can cruise right now. The youngest cruisers I noticed during my cruise were tweens and teens.
Are masks required on board Norwegian Cruise Line?
At no point aboard the ship are passengers required to wear masks. The vaccination and testing requirement combined means guests can enjoy all parts of the ship without social distancing or wearing a mask.
However, when visiting ports of call, passengers will need to follow local health guidelines, including mask mandates where applicable.
How else is NCL ensuring guest safety aboard their cruises?
Norwegian Cruise Line has a new, staggered embarkation process to streamline check-in and get passengers on their way to vacation fun faster than ever. Boarding documentation is handled electronically to speed up the process and reduce touch points.
On board, guests will enjoy a reduced capacity sailing, which means there's never a wait for the water slides or finding loungers by the pool. Reservations for specialty restaurants are all done electronically, too, with the Cruise Norwegian App, which is free for everyone to use, no internet required.
Is Encore the newest ship from Norwegian Cruise Line?
Norwegian Bliss debuted in April 2018 and then Norwegian Encore first set sail in November 2019 as the newest ship, right before the pandemic hit.
The next ship to debut from NCL is Norwegian Prima, which will start its inaugural celebrations in late 2022 before home porting in Galveston, Texas for the 2023 and 2024 season. Tony Award-nominated musical "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" will be the headlining show for Norwegian Prima, and ports of call will include Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Roatan Island, Honduras; and Harvest Caye, Norwegian's private island destination in Belize.
Sign up for Insider Reviews' weekly newsletter for more buying advice and great deals.
You can purchase logo and accolade licensing to this story here.
Disclosure: Written and researched by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our partners. We may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at email@example.com.