Iceland

Why We Spit on Viking Cruises

What’s the best part of taking a cruise around Iceland right now?

The food? The views? The waterfalls? Take your pick.

We’re fully vaccinated. But were we worried about traveling out of the country when the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t yet officially over?

You bet.

Still, when Viking Cruises sent an invite for a cruise around Iceland on the Viking Sky on one of the voyages in the “Welcome Back” collection, we said yes.

Just getting to go somewhere was an attraction of course. And there are now many researched-during-the pandemic places on our go-there-soon list.

But Iceland went to the top of the list when we took a look at the cruise itinerary and contemplated all the waterfalls, fjords, and elf-anointed landscapes we’d get to visit.

Viking’s Health and Safety program and COVID-19 prevention and mitigation plans, as described, were an attraction too.

Before the cruise, passengers had to provide proof of vaccination and fill out multiple health surveys. (I was a bit late on the uptake with that and got a phone call gently reminding me to get with the program.)

And in addition to wearing masks on board and while out on excursions, we had to agree to daily temperature checks, to wear contact-tracing devices, and to take daily non-invasive PCR tests once on board.

We were assured that crew members would be wearing the contact tracing devices and be tested daily too.

That PCR testing involves spitting into a tube left in our staterooms each night.

And to be honest, filling the tube to the required line isn’t that easy. And it is certainly not ‘cruise fun’ to be reminded by a staff member to take care of this task before leaving the cabin each day.

But it is important.

What happens to all that spit?

All the tubes get delivered daily to the onboard lab Viking has created on the ship. (Each Viking ocean ship has one now.) And the team in that lab uses highly sensitive equipment to test and evaluate all those PCR tests each day.

As we learned a few days into this cruise, this protocol works very well.

Although everyone on board is vaccinated, the lab discovered a suspected positive case of COVID_19 on board.

That fully vaccinated and asymptomatic guest was quickly re-tested and isolated in a dedicated section of the ship. The contact tracing system was activated.

We have another level of safety on board that has been protecting passengers from COVID-19: A pair of UV sanitizing robots, named R2 and D2. While passengers sleep, these efficient machines are sent into public spaces such as the fitness room and the atrium to UV-away any viruses that may be hanging about.

Still, the Icelandic authorities are making the Viking Sky skip some scheduled port visits. But because the onboard protocol is so extensive and efficient, there is no need for the rest of the passengers on board to restrict activities as we head back to Reykjavik.

There is no shortage of alcohol, sushi, or fact-filled lectures. And there are no other cases of COVID-19 discovered. (Yes, we keep spitting).

So we are all fine. It is, after all, a cruise ship filled with wonderful amenities and incredibly enthusiastic staff. There is no need to feel sorry for this merry band of cruisers.

[Update: the bars are now open. And Viking’s Chief Health Officer has arrived in Iceland to meet with officials and ensure the cruise line’s protocols are in sync with the country’s health officials and the Coast Guard. ]

As is their way, the team at Viking Cruises is keeping everyone very informed of what is happening – or not – and offering generous partial refunds (50% ) to customers, many of whom are already talking about their future cruises.

And as I move about the ship I hear disappointment, of course, but barely a grumble.

And that is why we are happy to spit on Viking Cruises.

Travel Tidbits: smuggled finches, Iceland adventures, middle seats, and more

There does indeed seem to be an uptick in travel and travel news. Here’s some of what we spotted today.

Delta Air Lines will stop blocking middle seat starting May 1. They were last US airline still blocking middle seats.

Delta also announced on Tuesday that it is extending the expiration date on travel credits and bringing snacks back starting April 14. Passengers flying Delta One or First Class on select domestic coast-to-coast flights will see hot food options return in early June. First Class customers on some other U.S. routes will be served boxed meals beginning in early July.

Alaska Airlines now part of oneworld airline alliance

As of March 31 Alaska Airlines becomes the newest member of the oneworld airline alliance. That means that “as a Mileage Plan member, you can earn Alaska miles on all 14 member airlines when you fly to as many as 1,000 destinations in more than 170 countries and territories,” the airline said in a statement.

The new membership also means the benefit enjoyed by Alaska’s elite flyers will be honored on other member airlines.

“You’re an MVP Gold? Without doing a thing, you now also have Sapphire tier status in oneworld (75K fliers are Emerald and MVPs are Ruby in the alliance),” the airline notes, and, “Depending on your tier status, oneworld travel priveleges include priority check-in, access to more than 650 international first and business class lounges, preferred boarding, fast track through security, priority baggage benefits and more.”

Hair Rollers harbor finches

People try to smuggle things – foods, animals, drugs, etc – through airports all the time. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently spotted a guy who was trying to 29 finches in these hair rollers.

Iceland is hot right now

If Iceland wasn’t high on your travel list before now, the volcanic eruption going on now should be grabbing your attention. Another reason to make plans to head that way: this package offer from Icelandair available to book through April 13 for travel from 10 US cities. Along with roundtrip airfare and three nights hotel, with breakfast, vaccinated travelers get a visit to the new Sky Lagoon, a Northern Lights Board Tour and a one-day pass for the Hop On Hop Off city sightseeing bus.

Icelandair welcomes its first 737Max

Icelandair took its first new Boeing 737 MAX 8 on a celebratory flight on Saturday, flying north from the in-city Reykjavík Airport for a one-hour special flight over stunning mountains and landscape before returning to the airport for a welcome party that included tours of the aircraft for hundreds of invited guests.

I was fortunate to go along for the flight.

All Icelandair planes are named after Icelandic volcanoes, glaciers or other areas of Iceland’s landscape and this new Boeing 737 MAX 8, is named Jökulsárlon, after a glacial lagoon.

Here are some more snaps from the flight:

Invited guests on the flight got to taste a special 737 Transatlantic Pale Ale, which will be available for purchase onboard Icelandair flights, starting at the end of May, for a few months.

 

Sigurður Helgason, Icelandair’s past CEO and Bjorgolfur Johannsson, the current President & CEO, toast the new plane with cans of the special 737 Transatlantic IPA.

 

Hundreds of invited guests came to the airport to welcome the plane and lined up for a tour. But first the red carpet had to put out.

 

This is the first of 16 737 Max airplanes Icealandair will receive over the next four years, so keep an eye out for them in the skies and at your airport.

 

Love the layover: Iceland

[My story about Iceland tourism first appeared on NBC News)

You’re not imagining it if it seems like everyone you know is either planning a trip to Iceland – or just got back.

The Nordic island nation – population 350,000 – has seen tourism numbers explode from under 500,000 in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2016, with more than 2.4 million tourists expected to visit this year.

Iceland’s stunning glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, lava fields, geothermal pools and geysers have always been there, of course. But it took global news coverage of the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, cameo TV and film roles for Iceland’s scenery and some quirky tourism campaigns to really grab the world’s attention.

“At first it was crisis communications,” said Inga Hlin Palsdottir, Director of Visit Iceland and Creative Industries at Promote Iceland, “Our tourism industry was having difficult times after the 2008 recession and in 2010 things were just beginning to pick up. Then the volcano starting erupting right before the peak summer tourism season.”

Iceland’s tourism industry and the government banded together to try to save the summer season, eking out a tiny 0.1 increase that year. They continued to work together, with a focusing on raising Iceland’s profile as a year-round destination and getting tourists to venture outside of Reykjavik.

“Before Airbnb was even booming, we had locals invite tourists to their homes. Then we asked tourists to rename Iceland, because the country really doesn’t have that much ice,” said Palsdottir, “Now we have the Iceland Academy,” which is a series of short, offbeat videos on everything from “How to Eat Like an Icelander,” to the essential “How to Avoid Hot Tub Awkwardness.”

Now music fans want to see where Björk, Of Monsters of Men and Sigur Rós came from. TV and film aficionados want to see for themselves the Icelandic scenery that appears in hits such as HBO’s fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ and the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’

And going somewhere where there’s a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights is on the bucket list of almost every traveler.

Foreign and local tour operators have greatly expanded schedules and itineraries throughout Iceland and the inventory of hotel rooms and vacation rentals have grown.

Courtesy Promote Iceland

Helping to fuel in the influx of visitors from North America is the increase in air service to Iceland, especially by Wow Air and Icelandair, two Reykjavik-based airlines that route their flights through Iceland and offer passengers the option of an Iceland stopover for no additional airfare charge.

Wow Air flies to Iceland from ten North American cities, while Icelandair serves 13 U.S. airports (Philadelphia services starts May 30; Tampa services kicks off September 7) and five in Canada.

“Who doesn’t love a two-for-one deal?” said Pauline Frommer, Editorial Director of Frommer’s guidebooks and Frommers.com, “Most travelers are jazzed by the idea of getting to see an additional destination on their way to Europe – and one that hugely popular right now.”

Icelandair, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, has been promoting its stopover option since perhaps the early 1950s or mid-60s, said airline spokesman Michael Raucheisen, “We’ve always encouraged passengers to come experience Iceland for a few days, fall in love with it and come back for a full trip. And that model has worked well over the years.”

For passengers who don’t choose to stopover, Icelandair has two planes offering flyers a taste – or a tease – of the Iceland experience.

The carrier’s northern lights-themed plane was introduced in 2015 and earlier this month the airline launched a glacier-themed plane (named for Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier) that has images of the glacier hand-painted on the exterior and, inside, ice-blue lighting and headrests, cups, napkins, lavatory décor and even airsickness bags with a glacier motif.