I Took My Family on a Cruise to Iceland During COVID — Here's What It Was Like

Reykjavik city view from water
Reykjavik city view from water

Tobias Ackeborn/Getty Images

During the first week of April, I received an email from Viking Cruises announcing a trip to Iceland — after a year of pandemic travel restrictions, I was more than happy to see this message pop up in my inbox. My family, long-time cruising enthusiasts, had two cruises canceled due to the pandemic and, knowing future availability would be limited due to the backlog of people needing to reschedule, we jumped at this opportunity.

Like many, Iceland has always been on our bucket list. In April, the country was considered a Level 1 destination by the U.S. Department of State, indicating a low level of COVID-19 cases, making it an attractive destination for our family. The fact that the crew and passengers would be vaccinated prior to sailing, and knowing we could cancel this seven-day trip up to two weeks prior to sailing and take a credit for a future cruise if we got cold feet, made this offering even more enticing.

So I booked the July 17th sailing, choosing the last of the four weeks offered in hopes any post-COVID-19 hiccups would be worked out before our departure.

My husband Marc and I have taken our kids on small-sized ships since they were young, and next to their education, we tell people it's the best investment we've ever made for them. They learned early on how to be good travelers, have visited culturally unique and historically important places like Malta, Cuba, and Normandy, and have made international friends along the way. Some of our happiest family memories have been made at sea.

But that didn't mean I didn't second guess my decision to bring my family on a cruise during a pandemic. For weeks prior to booking, I'd pepper Marc with lots of "what ifs" in bed at night: what if there's an outbreak of COVID-19 and we end up like those people stuck on cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic? What if one of us tests positive — will that person end up alone in some dark and dreary quarantine building in a desolate part of Iceland? What if we find the whole experience more stressful than fun due to pandemic restrictions? I played out every possible negative scenario again and again.

Fast-forward a few months and we have just returned from our trip. Ahead, I share some insider tips for anyone contemplating taking a cruise with their family (or with a partner or even solo).

You will have to fill out lots and lots of forms prior to sailing.

From downloading an app called VeriFLY (a third-party vendor that digitally pre-verified our vaccination status), to filling out a Viking Health Survey, to completing an Iceland Pre-Registration Form before we sailed, the emails never seemed to stop coming, particularly the week before we departed. My husband and I opted to fill out our boys' forms (Jack and Luke) as we didn't want to risk any errors along the way (nevertheless, at one point, Marc accidentally submitted the wrong vaccination date for Luke) so we had double the paperwork to deal with. Additional emails arrived from Viking including preparation checklists, an ask for proof of an authorized COVID-19 vaccine, and a barcode that needed to be printed out and shown at the airport in Iceland that confirmed our pre-registration confirmation. We understood the importance of completing all the paperwork, but it was somewhat stressful dealing with it as we were readying for our trip.

You will feel safe from COVID-19 once on board.

Prior to sailing, I kept envisioning a substantial COVID-19 outbreak on the ship — it wasn't hard considering what we witnessed with cruise ships early on in the pandemic. But the truth was, from the moment we stepped on board, my husband and I felt safer on the ship than we did at a hotel we stayed at in April for our anniversary. There's a full-scale PCR laboratory on this ship and guests and crew are required to submit saliva samples upon embarkation and every morning thereafter (more on that next) to isolate any cases of COVID-19 and to prevent a potential chain of transmission. We had independent air handlers in our rooms and high-density filters and UV-C lights (which have been shown to disinfect nonporous surfaces and reduce the spread of bacteria) had been placed in all the public air handlers. At night, two Roomba-like robots roamed the ship sterilizing all the public spaces using the UV-C light technology. Plus, everywhere you turned, there were crew members sanitizing with rags and spray bottles of Oxivir Plus, a broad-spectrum disinfectant. From the deck chairs to the dining tables, from the door handles to the rails in the hallways, it was non-stop cleaning. Our family worked out at the gym together, and oftentimes, as we finished with a piece of equipment, an attendant would appear to wipe it down. In our rooms, we found sanitizer sprays and wipes, along with a generous number of complimentary masks.

You will need to take a test every day.

Our room attendant, Juan Carlo, would drop off the individually labeled plastic tubes along with the next day's itinerary and any other cruise correspondence in the evening. In the morning, we'd unscrew the caps before brushing our teeth, then spit into the tube. Unless you have a really dry mouth, or like to sleep in on vacation, this was nothing more than a minor inconvenience prior to breakfast. Viking doesn't share your COVID-19 results — no news is good news — until the day before departure where you'll receive the previous day's results to present at the airport. My husband generously tipped our attendant Juan Carlo at the end of the trip because he was often tasked with waking our sons to retrieve the samples (we were in separate rooms) by 9:30 a.m.

You will need to wear a mask.

Although there were no mask or social distancing restrictions in Iceland at the time of our sailing, we needed to wear a mask on the ship in public places (we could remove them in our staterooms or while dining). Once, I took inventory on a tour bus and noticed at least 20% of the passengers were not wearing masks at all. I was concerned my sons, who live in an area where masks were no longer mandatory, would be lax in their mask wearing or be called out at every turn if they didn't have their masks on. (And candidly, I didn't want to spend my vacation nagging my kids to wear their masks.) But my boys got used to wearing their masks when necessary and staff members were polite when reminding passengers to mask up. There were times when I forgot to grab my mask from my room, but at every turn there was a crew member who would happily hand me an envelope with one inside.

You will not see any self-serve buffets.

At first, I thought this would create longer food lines but there was never a wait, only eager attendants asking if they could assist with plating. Compared to past cruises, passengers seemed to make quick decisions as they were served food from behind each station. Everyone in our family felt this was a positive aspect of the pandemic as guests were not touching and sharing utensils. It also seemed like everyone was eating less — rarely did we see someone with a plate overflowing with food — when they weren't serving themselves. A win-win: fewer germs and less food waste.

You will need to wear a tracking device.

Before we boarded the ship, we were sent to an art center in Reykjavik where we had our pictures taken and were handed a red lanyard attached to a small, white disc. We weren't exactly sure of their purpose as we draped them over our necks, but we soon learned they were COVID-19 tracking devices that would identify people within a six-foot distance of someone infected with COVID-19. You could wear the device around your neck or keep it in your bag or pocket — nobody ever asked to see it. Because carrying the trackers was based on an honor code, I often wondered if people always adhered. Honestly speaking, there was a day when we went on an excursion where I realized I accidentally left mine in the room.

You will have your temperature checked.

Initially, this was confusing. Before our first meal on the ship, we had to position our faces up to a monitor, tap and hold our room keys, which would then register our names and temperatures. We were doing this at every meal until someone informed us we just needed to do so at the first meal of the day.

You will need to make a reservation if you want to use the gym—and pool access is regulated.

We only found out about this prerequisite once we set sail, after many of the preferred time slots had already been filled. There were 870 passengers on board (the ship holds 930 but Viking reserved rooms for possible quarantine), yet only 10 people were allowed in the gym at one time, in 45-minute time slots. We're a family who likes to exercise, so initially this was a concern. But given there were many older passengers on the ship who were not utilizing the gym, we never had an issue with access. And, in the two pool areas, only four people were allowed in the pool at one time and only two were allowed in the hot tubs.

I can't say the same for the thermal suite, which houses a vitality pool, sauna, steam, cold plunge pool, hot tub, Snow Grotto (yes, exactly what it sounds like), and heated loungers. Only eight people were allowed in this area at one time, and in some instances (like the steam room) you were only allowed two people from the same family. Although they extended the hours to allow for greater access, there was only one day where we were able to book a time in the thermal suite that worked within our schedules. On a positive note, it was nice, once you were in the suite, to have it pretty much to yourself.

You may not get the excursions you want.

When cruising with kids, fun and exciting excursions can make or break the experience. Yet paying for excursions can get pricey when you're traveling with multiple family members, which is why the one included excursion Viking offers at every port is a major perk. Yet these excursions tend to be low-key walking or bus tours, which is why we always try to book some additional thrill-seeking adventures. A few days before we were to leave on our trip, we received a note from Viking saying we were free to explore Iceland on our own after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eased travel advisory restrictions. But my husband and I were so focused on wrapping things up at home and at work (and filling out all those forms!) that the thought of researching last-minute excursions on our own felt overwhelming. So sadly, our family never got to fully appreciate some of Iceland's most iconic features — we didn't see a volcano or a frozen glacier or a Puffin — but we did manage to book an ATV tour in Isafjordur, which was fabulous. As a side note, we had a one-night stopover at the end of our trip at The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon Iceland, where we swam in the silica-filled blue waters and slathered our skin in mud and clay masks. It elevated our whole trip in terms of doing something extraordinary and ended our journey on an adventurous note.

You will get a great family deal on a 5-star experience.

One of the reasons we like to cruise as a family is because when you do the math, the savings are always there. To give you an idea, our son Jack, a 21-year-old rising senior in college, received a $500 cruise discount for booking, on top of a $200 previous sailing bonus, which resulted in a $342 per day cruise rate which included his accommodations, meals, wine and beer at lunch and dinner, a daily excursion, plus access to all the ship's amenities, including the gym and entertainment. Once home, we joked Viking may have lost money on Jack simply based on the amount of BBQ wings he consumed at lunch each day.

You may have to deal with someone testing positive for COVID-19.

A few days before our trip, we received an email from Viking sharing that there was a positive COVID-19 result on that week's sailing. I actually spoke to a woman who was on the ship at the time (she stayed on for a second week thanks to a cancellation), and she shared people were disappointed that visits to the last two ports (Djupivogur and Heimaey) were canceled but that everyone commended the staff on how well they handled the situation. "The level of communication was excellent," she noted. "The captain came over the intercom and advised that one fully vaccinated and asymptomatic guest had been immediately quarantined to an isolated area of the ship and we also received an email that went into more detail and included a 50% discount on future sailings." Lucky for her, she immediately applied her discount to a successive week in Iceland. Lucky for us, there were no positive cases during our sailing.

You will need to stay up to date on COVID-19 testing requirements and restrictions.

At the time of our sailing, there was no testing requirement to enter Iceland, making it easier for our family to travel. But as with everything COVID-19 related, things change daily. As of July 27th, vaccinated and recovered travelers must now present a negative COVID-19 (PCR or antigen) test taken within 72 hours of departure in order to enter Iceland. And when leaving Iceland, you'll need to show a negative COVID-19 test result, taken within 72 hours of departure, which Viking provides. (Upon landing in Newark Airport, our family was pulled aside in customs and asked to show our negative COVID-19 results.) New COVID-19 requirements in Iceland were also taking effect as our trip ended — restaurants and bars will now close at 11 p.m., public gatherings will be restricted to 200, and the one-meter (a little over three feet) social distancing rule was reimposed. So it's wise to check for COVID-19 updates and restrictions prior to sailing.

You will see firsthand how much the staff missed you.

My husband and I have never been on a ship where some crew member hasn't made a lasting impression on our kids — as an example, we still keep in touch with Bogdan, a waiter we befriended on a Uniworld river cruise in Paris. Anyone who has sailed knows that crew members are trained to say "have a good day" at every turn but this crew truly meant it. Many were out of work during the pandemic, many were from countries where the vaccine isn't readily available and were grateful to the cruise line for providing them the protection they needed, and all went out of their way to make our experience memorable. This included Aleen, our dinner waiter, who never frowned as our family kept an empty restaurant open late night with our three-hour spirited conversations (mom's favorite part of the day); Juan Carlo, our room attendant who had to step over piles of clothing in our sons' cabin every time he cleaned and who was soon joking with the boys about their morning sleep-ins; and the ever-present head chef who was constantly out and about greeting diners. I heard stories of how Satheesh created a special meal for a couple longing for Indonesian food, how he went out of his way to appease two foodies from Canada with unusual pizza requests, and I saw how his off-the-menu Bolognese sauce made my son happy on a night when Jack just wanted some pasta for dinner. In the end, it was inspiring to see how joyful the staff was to be back at work. As JoJo, a consultant who books trips on board the ship, and who lived alone in Holland throughout the pandemic so aptly noted, "The hope is there."

You and your family will relax.

On the last day of our trip, the seas were too rough to tender in Heimaey and the captain made an announcement that we would be sailing straight to Reykjavik, basically creating our only day at sea. My boys lounged around the ship — at times, I found them swimming in the pool, working out in the gym, and, of course, eating. Luke said he was content with doing pretty much nothing. "In a few weeks I'll be back in college writing 20-page papers and wishing I had nothing to do," he commented. I realized on this trip that my boys, albeit older, were still the same travelers who could make and find their own fun on a cruise ship. On this day, my husband went to a lecture to hear a historian reflect upon Norway's role during WWII, and I finished a novel that had been sitting on my nightstand for six months. Despite all that was going on in the world, we were doing exactly what we'd been doing for years on cruises: relaxing, destressing, and bonding as a family.