View of a Viking Cruise Ship sailing by Dubrovnik with "Viking Cruise Lines" written in white

How Viking Cruises Safely Navigated Uncharted Waters in a Pandemic

The line's robust health and safety measures let cruising feel normal again

It's 8:30 a.m., and someone is knocking on the door of my cruise ship's cabin. The gentle sway of the vessel has me sleeping more soundly than I typically do at home, so I'm jolted by the harsh wake-up call. I open the door to see my cheerful cabin steward, holding up a handful of small plastic bags, each one containing a vial of saliva. He's here to collect mine.

It's a strange routine on a ship—waking up and spitting in a tube—but it's perhaps the most intensive health and safety measure that Viking Cruises, whose ships I've sailed on twice in 2021, has enacted to keep its passengers safe from the spread of COVID-19. Cabin attendants collect these vials from each passenger every morning, where they're then whisked off to the onboard lab for analysis.

This measure, and several others, has allowed the cruise line to largely restart its sailing operations with minimal drama and fanfare, something that can't be said for many of its larger competitors. You can splash by the pool, you can listen to the smooth sounds of guitarist Lawrence nightly in the Explorers' Lounge, and enjoy the famous Norwegian waffles at Mamsen's for breakfast, just as you would have a few years ago before a global pandemic altered the state of travel and the world.

View of rooftop pool with the skyline of a near by city in the backgroudn

Courtesy of Viking Cruise Lines

This sailing, which took guests from Viking's newest homeport of Malta to Montenegro and Croatia, was part of Viking's "Welcome Back" collection, a means for the company to welcome back American guests on its ocean ships after more than 15 months and to test the waters—pun intended—with its new protocols, developed in partnership with an international team of medical advisors, including Raquel C. Bono, M.D., Viking's chief health officer and a retired vice-admiral of the United States Navy Medical Corps.

With a full-scale laboratory on every Viking ocean ship (and dedicated shoreside labs for its river ships, which resumed operations in July), the cornerstone of Viking's health protocols are unlike anything any other cruise line has done: all guests and crew receive the daily, non-invasive (albeit slightly gross) saliva PCR tests.

Other measures on board the ship, which requires guests to be fully vaccinated, include mask-wearing in common areas, except when outdoors or eating and drinking; social distancing measures such as spaced out seating in lounges and public spaces; daily temperature checks and health surveys; and perhaps the most dystopian of them all, the carrying of a silver dollar-sized plastic disc, a device that silently "pings" other passengers when you come within a certain distance, later allowing Viking to download data if needed and thus, effectively contact trace in case of an outbreak. (New air purification technology was also installed, and all guest staterooms always had independent air handling units.)

Viking's chairman and Norwegian businessman Torstein Hagen said that electing PCR testing over less sensitive antigen or rapid tests was a deliberate move, despite the additional costs. "We spend as much money on testing as we do on fuel," he added.

Using PCR testing, Hagen explained, allows the line to rapidly isolate passengers who test positive, often before they are symptomatic or contagious to others—something crucial to eliminating the community spread that we saw aboard Diamond Princess in spring 2020. While saliva testing might be less common than the nasopharyngeal swab we've all come to know and love, Hagen made a conscious choice there as well.

"[Nasopharyngeal testing] is so uncomfortable that people shy away from it, and the people who administer it don't like it," Hagen said. "So in theory, the saliva test is as good as the 'up-your-nose' test, and in practice, it's much better."

Three Viking Cruise ships sailing beside each other with a quote written in white on top

Photo: Courtesy of Viking Cruise Lines

Viking's own medical modeling showed daily testing, instead of solely pre-embarkation testing or only testing symptomatic passengers, also helps keep community spread low, if not non-existent.

"What other big lines have done is say, 'Oh, we'll just offer short cruises,' but the passengers go onshore and spread it," he added. "With testing daily, you can go on as long of cruises as you want with no community spread."

I witnessed this first-hand on my first sailing on Viking back in July. While circumnavigating Iceland, a passenger tested positive for COVID-19, was immediately isolated, and life onboard went on. While some panic and miscommunication with the Icelandic coastguard and health authorities resulted in a few missed ports of call on the latter half of the itinerary, life aboard the ship continued as usual with no further positive tests. (And Viking went above and beyond when it came to compensating us for the disruption.)

Viking's numbers back up my first-hand experience: out of more than 19,000 passengers tested, just a handful have tested positive, and an even smaller number were symptomatic. "[The asymptomatic passengers] would've been roaming around spreading it," Hagen added. "Our protocol works. No doubt about it."

Additionally, under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 travel advisories, passengers visiting ports of call rated with a "Level 4" advisory may not explore freely and instead must stick to Viking's pre-approved shore excursions. It's a minor inconvenience for sure, but it's a stance I predict the line will soften on future sailings—and with excursions like sipping prosecco in the gardens of a Maltese palazzo, there are worse ways to spend your time.

A Viking Cruise ship sails by a waterfall

Courtesy of Viking Cruise Lines

Even before the pandemic, cruises sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to health and hygiene. Horror stories of norovirus and the negative moniker "floating Petri dish" get tossed around casually by cruise haters. But Hagen's not hearing it.

"The bullshit that's been spread that cruise ships are a petri dish, it's just untrue," Hagen said. "Some cruise ships are Petri dishes, but if you do it properly, if you test daily, then it's not a Petri dish at all. As a matter of fact, it's safer than being at home."

Of course, my argument for small-ship cruising (river line AmaWaterways and luxury ocean line Regent Seven Seas round out my top three picks) largely involves the unrivaled perk of falling asleep in your floating five-star hotel room and waking up somewhere stunningly beautiful—and feeling incredibly safe while doing so, despite a turbulent, ever-changing world.

You may have been to Montenegro before, but have you woken up at 7 a.m. and enjoyed your coffee on a balcony while your floating hotel room glides into the breathtaking Bay of Kotor? I'd suspect not—and that's why Viking Cruise Lines is a 2021 TripSavvy Editors' Choice Awards Industry Leader.

"We've been given the choice between doing the right thing and doing what looks good," Hagen said. And it's apparent which one Viking chose.