They can once again take part in unrestricted hop-on, hop off shore excursions. And crew — who also are required to be vaccinated— won't need to wear masks, either.
These changes apply to all Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland river sailings embarking from today.
American Empress travelers on the Columbia and Snake rivers will still have to get the PCR test at their pre-cruise hotel due to Washington state guidelines.
'It's huge, phenomenal!'
'It's huge, phenomenal!' Shawn Bierdz, president, AQSC, said of the no-testing, no-mask update. 'Our decision in February (to require full vaccination as of July 1 sailings) paid off,' he added, even though it wasn't known at the time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would allow these freedoms for vaccinated cruisers on ships with at least 95% vaccinated crew/passengers.
According to the CDC, 78% of US residents over 65 are fully vaccinated, and seniors are AQSC's core demographic. The company's mandate has been well-accepted, and Bierdz said he knew of just three people who were turned away because of medical conditions that wouldn't let them get the shots.
'Being able to create an environment where guests feel safe has helped us,' he said.
In order to adhere to the 100% vaccination policy, travelers must show proof by uploading an image of their COVID-19 vaccination card prior to their pre-cruise hotel check-in. Those who fail to provide proof will be denied boarding and subject to full cancellation penalties.
Masks are no longer required on board after embarkation, but a face covering must be worn during boarding and on shore excursion motorcoaches per CDC's transportation guidelines.
With demand for cruises strong right now and reduced inventory, AQSC is nearly sold out for 2021. To encourage people to book for 2022 and celebrating its new test-free/mask-free policy on the eve of the July 4 independence day, the company rolled out a 'Freedom' sale. This offers savings of up to $2,000 per stateroom for select 2022 bookings made by Aug. 31, 2021.
Bierdz said the typical booking window has stretched considerably and people are booking now for late 2022. Some of that is driven by international travelers — a 15% chunk of AQSC's market — who haven't been able to sail during 2021. They favor the September/October period as fall-foliage sailings are an added attraction.
The brand-new American Countess and boutique riverboat American Duchess began sailing in March under AQSC's SafeCruise protocols, calling at ports like New Orleans, Memphis, Louisville and Pittsburgh. American Empress in the Pacific Northwest welcomed its first guests June 14 with the vaccination mandate starting then for that vessel.
'We can now see guests' smiles'
'As we reintroduce our hop-on, hop off tours, it is exciting for guests to once again take in the cafés of Natchez, visit the antique shops of Cape Girardeau and stroll the Cincinnati waterfront "bubble-free,"' said Kari Tarnowski, SVP marketing, AQSC. 'We can now see guests’ smiles on board and I encourage cruisers to take advantage of our "Freedom" sale to secure a 2022 sailing with these savings.'
The 'Freedom' sale also applies to sister brand Victory Cruise Lines' 2022 itineraries including new expedition ship Ocean Victory and its inaugural season in Alaska, as well as a new cruise-land program in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and sailings in the US Southeast.
What's it like to cruise the US rivers now?
Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc. in Fort Worth, Texas, recently sailed on American Countess in the Lower Mississippi as a reward for being designated a Virtuoso Cruise Icon, granted to the top 1% of all Virtuoso advisors in North America who plan cruises.
'It was one of the best cruises I've ever had, and I've sailed on more than 100 cruises during 42 years in business,' Turpin said. She cited 'the best food I've had in many years, including the Regents and the Crystals, and a very health-conscious approach ... I watched our housekeeper clean one day and she got every nook and cranny ... and followed an extensive checklist. I felt extremely safe.'
Turpin also praised the on-board Riverlorian, a lecturer who made the history come alive.
Ninety-five percent of the American Countess travelers participated in organized excursions, Turpin estimated, and her favorites were a visit to Vicksburg Battlefield with a superb guide and to Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from St. Francisville. Natchez, 'a fabulous little town,' was her favorite port.
Turpin has clients sailing on American Empress and American Countess and hopes to put together a group through a Fort Worth bank's club for solo travelers whose tour leader said they seek something closer to home.
People want to stay close to home
'Even though things are opening in Europe and the Caribbean, people want to stay close to home,' Turpin said. 'American Queen has a wide range of itineraries ...
'I have no hesitancy to send people on cruises. People are much safer right now on ships.'
Turpin added that she's had zero pushback from clients about AQSC's vaccination mandate. All her clients are vaccinated, she said, and such a policy 'gives them added comfort.'