There is risk in any travel, whether hitchhiking through South America or a penthouse stay in Dubai. This fact was sadly validated for us when our recent luxury cruise turned from dream to nightmare.

In these never-ending pandemic times, we knew that cruising included the risk of contracting Covid. But, like millions of other travelers, we did our best to mitigate that possibility by getting vaccinations and boosters and judiciously masking up. The cruise line reassured us that our fellow passengers to show proof of vaccinations and a negative Covid test before boarding. Taking a cruise was safer in many ways than going to the store for a loaf of bread. At least that was the theory.

We also incorrectly assumed that cruise lines, especially premium ones like the one we had booked, would have protocols in place to treat any unfortunate guest who contracted Covid with professionalism and compassion.

Sadly, we were wrong as we discovered when we both contracted Covid during our voyage from Miami to Montreal. While cruise lines tout their efforts to keep passengers safe, they don’t share what happens onboard when you test positive. Truth is, we learned, that you go from honored guest to outcast. And that’s not just standard practice on the ship we sailed, but an industry-wide dirty little secret, as we learned from friends and acquaintances who also endured Covid while on a cruise.

We suspect that we contracted the virus while waiting nearly three hours in a crowded cruise terminal room to check-in. Even though we had tested negative twice before boarding, we both would test positive less than a week into the voyage. Read about our experience in detail in the last story of this magazine. In short, we were both unceremoniously perp-walked in shock from our suite to isolation in an ocean-view cabin, where we would spend most of our remaining days at sea.
Once locked away, regardless of your loyalty status with the cruise company, you are a ghost passenger without a key card. There’s no housekeeping, no fresh air, no entertainment beyond TV, and no company. Your phone is your lifeline for meals and medical care. It is surprisingly difficult to endure. For days on end.
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Our beef is not with isolation. It’s a necessity for pandemic-era cruising if the crew and fellow passengers are to be protected. No, it’s how they treated us while we were Covid positive, from the time they told us we were ill until the required quarantine ended. Plus, despite the significant outbreak on board, fellow passengers were not alerted and cautioned to wear masks and take other precautions.

Once we were in isolation cabins, the cruise line’s lack of planning, communication, coordination, or compassion compounded the difficulties on shipboard Covid. No one explained what we were to do, and who to contact with a problem. There was a lot of buck-passing as it became clear no one took responsibility for the welfare of Covid passengers. Call the doctor? Call the concierge? Check with housekeeping? Tell the nurse? They left us in the dark or given conflicting information right up until we disembarked and afterwards.

Once you’ve experienced isolation, you understand its use in prisons. It’s a punishment – with consequence. Most reviewed studies of Covid isolation reported negative psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress symptoms like confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, and stigma. The lack of fresh air and exercise compounds these stressors. Some of those feelings linger well after the experience. We are reluctant to board a cruise ship anytime soon, and never will book an ocean view cabin.

We are not the only unhappy cruisers who endured mismanaged isolation, not by a long shot. We reached out to a couple of friends. Martha and Sunny are avid cruisers and hold the highest loyalty rank possible for their respective cruise lines. Both tested positive around the same time we did.

Sunny, with some 200 cruises under her belt, rated here treatment during 10 days in isolation as “appalling . Since I was in the red zone on a crew member deck, I was only allowed room service, and all the meals were served cold. Cold inedible food with cold coffee. The isolation cabins were not scheduled for any cleaning or linen changes, and I had a difficult time even getting toilet paper. Housekeeping and room service departments were unprepared and woefully inadequate to treat anyone in quarantine. On day three of quarantine, the Hazmat team showed up with a spray bottle and cloth, telling me to spray and clean the cabin. Food trays and red trash bags cluttered the hallway, which cannot be very sanitary.”

Martha wrote a strong letter to the cruise line president about experiences onboard and in the hotel the company had arranged for Covid passengers to complete their quarantines on land. Despite the number of Covid-positive cases on the ship, “Your captain and his management team failed to communicate this Covid outbreak, failed to require or even encourage masking, and failed to suggest that passengers test for Covid,” she wrote. “By failing to act, the inaction of your employees exacerbated the outbreak that was detected five days into the cruise. Knowing the advanced age and poor health of so many of my fellow passengers… The least that they could have done was to inform us of the outbreak of this highly transmissible disease and warn us to mask and get tested once it was detected. But your captain and management remained silent and did nothing.”

At disembarkation, Martha and “those of us (three mini-bus loads) who remained in isolation at the end of the cruise were shuttled off to [a hotel to complete quarantines].This less than desirable hotel threatened us in a letter with fines up to one million dollars and substantial prison terms and stated that they were placing cameras and security guards outside our door.” Later, she learned that there was a way to mitigate the time in quarantine working with local authorities. By then, she concluded, “Our ship had sailed away, leaving us adrift in a foreign country.”
“I’m trying not to take this personally,” Martha told us. “It’s a corporation, not a family member, but I have so many great memories of past cruises where we were treated like royalty and we became personal friends with the crew. These trips completely changed my view of the world from provincial to global, and I sang their praises to everyone. This is like losing a close friend, but I will move on and it will get us traveling with other companies.”

We understand. The cruise industry needs not just Covid prevention protocols, but Covid care protocols. They need to be spelled out to passengers so they understand what a positive test means for them onboard. They’ve had years to put these in place. That they have not is a slap in the face to loyal and dedicated travelers who are keeping them afloat in pandemic times.