To cruise or not to cruise – that is the question a lot of travelers are asking themselves these days. It’s a big topic, and one Out Travel the System host Nisreene Atassi is grateful to tackle with the help of experts.
Captain Kate McCue shares her insights into life on board and in charge of Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge through her incredibly popular TikTok account. (She had 2.6 million followers when we recorded this episode of Out Travel the System, and that number keeps climbing!)
John Mast has been on more than a hundred cruises, for both fun and work. As Expedia‘s Sr. Director of Global Cruise Marketing, he has his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the industry.
Listen in as they share their insights into how to pick the right cruise for you, how cruising has modernized, and some of the many places cruising can take you. They make the case that cruising may just be the safest vacation you can take right now, and one that can keep everyone in your traveling group happy.
Not sure where to start with cruising? Access more expert and free advice here.
Ready, set, sail! Cruising with Captain Kate McCue
Nisreene Atassi: Maybe you’ve watched a million episodes of Love Boat, or maybe you’ve been listening to your cousin pitching the idea of going on a cruise for your next family reunion. Either way, you find yourself considering getting on a cruise ship. But between figuring out what type would be the right fit and deciding on where and when to sail, it all seems like, well, a lot. To cruise or not to cruise, that is the question – and the answers may just be here in this episode. We’re heading out on this maiden voyage with a couple of experts perfectly positioned to answer your questions. John Mast is Expedia’s Senior Director of Global Cruise Marketing, which means he has his finger on the pulse of the worldwide cruise industry. Welcome, John, and glad to have you on the show with us today.
John Mast: Thanks very much for having me.
Nisreene Atassi: Also, with us today is the one and only Captain Kate McCue. She gives her 2. 6 million TikTok followers the inside scoop on being a cruise ship captain. Very excited to have you. Welcome to Out Travel the System, Captain Kate!
Captain Kate McCue: Thank you so much. Honored to be here, Nissy.
Nisreene Atassi: I just want to take a moment to sort of set the mood here for everyone. [music] That really does set the mood, I have to say. There’s just something about calypso music. It just really takes you to that time and place. So, that is just a little music from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where, Captain, they were so glad to see you and your ship, the Celebrity Edge, that they literally brought out the band.
Captain Kate McCue: Because the Celebrity Edge, the ship that I’m on, was the first ship to set sail from the US in 15 months, the islands that we stopped at, most of the islands, we were the very first ship to sail into those islands. St. Thomas being one of the ones that welcomed us with open arms. They missed us as much as we missed them.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I bet. What’s it been like for you being back on board?
Captain Kate McCue: Sailing out of Port Everglades on that very first voyage, it was every emotion you could think of because I personally spent 318 days on board the ship in 2020.
Nisreene Atassi: Wow.
Captain Kate McCue: We were always looking forward to the day that we would sail again. The littlest things, from setting the gangway, the guests’ gangway, on our deck for the first time in 15 months and welcoming those guests onboard. I mean, as I mentioned, every emotion you could think of. But the great thing that I think is a takeaway, not only from our crew but also our guests, is how normal it feels to be sailing again. We weren’t sure what to anticipate as far as, would it feel strange at a lower capacity or our itineraries are slightly different than they would have normally been. But the feel when you’re on board is completely normal. And it’s so refreshing because I think that’s something that we really missed.
Nisreene Atassi: Before we dive in, I’d love to hear some of your backstory actually, because being a cruise ship captain, it’s probably one of the coolest jobs in the world. How did your path end up there?
Captain Kate McCue: It started as a 12- year- old who went on their very first cruise. And when I got off the ship, we were packing the car to drive home, and I said to my dad, ” I know what I want to be when I grow up.” He said, ” What’s that?” And I said, “You know the person that plans all the fun events onboard the ship?” And he said, ” The cruise director?” I said, ” Yeah. I want to be the cruise director.” And my dad said, ” You can do anything you want in the world including drive the thing.” And that’s where the seed was planted. So I went to a maritime academy. I went to California Maritime Academy. I got a business administration degree and a license to sail anything from tugboat to the world’s largest supertanker, and then I just started working my way from the bottom as a third mate up until I was promoted to captain in 2015. And this is the greatest job in the world.
Nisreene Atassi: What are some of the questions or concerns you’re hearing about cruising, either from guests or on social media?
Captain Kate McCue: Health and safety being paramount, one of the questions I get asked quite often is if we had an incidence of COVID on board our ships, would I let them know. Would I let our guests, would I let our crew know. And I can say with every confidence that being transparent, it makes the environment a much more better place to be because everyone trusts the process. They trust the procedures. They trust the protocol that we have in place. And so when people ask me do I think cruising is safe, I can say with every confidence that I believe it is the safest vacation that you can currently take in the world, because a ship is a controlled environment. We can control who comes, who goes, how they come. If something popped up, we have a proven plan in place to protect the health and safety of the people on board.
John Mast: People don’t realize that cruise ships include full medical hospitals, doctors, staff, and the like so that if, god forbid, something did happen they’re in good hands immediately. It’s not about finding a port.
Captain Kate McCue: We actually have upgraded our medical facilities as well, post- pandemic, so we have two full- time doctors, three nurses, a medical secretary. We also have an outsourced testing agency who conducts our PCR or antigen test onboard the ship. And then the ports that we sail to or the itineraries that we’re on should we require shore- side medical attention, for specialists, for example, or air ambulances, we have those at our disposal as well.
John Mast: We’re finding there really are two camps. The people that have been on cruises and understand it, are so overjoyed to get back they don’t seem to need to be convinced about the health and safety protocols. New cruisers, however, they still have some of the visions of some of the news that came out in the early parts of the pandemic, and they seem to have more questions about health and safety. With the work that the industry has done, it’s quite easy to get them over that consideration. And then I think the next thing that we’re seeing from everyone is, what are the cancellation or change terms of a booking because people, I think, are used to, in life now, things changing at the last minute, and they just want to know that they’ve got some flexibility there. And usually up until a few days or certainly a week, you’ve got full flexibility in terms of perhaps rebooking at a later date or changing your plans without a big penalty.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. Peace of mind, I think is the phrase of the year, right? You want that whether it’s health and safety and hygiene standards, or flexibility with your booking and things like that, so , it sounds like the cruise industry has really taken that into account. Captain, through social media, you really get to share a sense of what life is like on board the ship for both the crew and the passengers. I want to play just another piece of audio here.
Captain Kate McCue: I invited all of our guests and crew to get out into the fresh air for this sailaway because we are going to safely maneuver the Celebrity Edge between the Celebrity Equinox and Reflection, horns blaring, and thousands of crew members out on deck all to say thank you for being such an important part of the return of cruising.
Nisreene Atassi: It sounds like you have so much fun, and I love how you sort of share this with everybody. It’s so great. Captain, why do you think people are so interested in cruise life?
Captain Kate McCue: Well, you mentioned The Love Boat earlier on in the intro, and when I was growing up, The Love Boat was the only thing I knew about cruise ships until I actually went on one and experienced it for myself. So, social media really is a way to show an inside glimpse because there are so many phenomenal things that happen every single day. Keeping a finger on the pulse of what was happening onboard the ships, but also letting people know that it was only a matter of time before we came back. Instill the hope that that day was coming. Every night at 7: 30 one of the things that we lived for was our hope floats horn salute, where we would just blow the horn. And we did that every day. I considered it a good day if I could look back on the things that I had posted and I saw people that said either they missed cruising and they can’t wait to come back or, because of a post that we put out, they never thought about cruising before, but because of that post, that was going to be their first vacation when they were able to travel again. And that meant the world.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, of course. Oh, my goodness. That’s great.
How has modern cruising perhaps different from what people have seen on TV or in the movies? Or what they would have experienced maybe even a decade ago?
Captain Kate McCue: I think number one would be technology. And I can relate back to when I first started sailing and you would make a mad dash for a bank of payphones on the pier because you didn’t have the ability to call from the ship. Or if you did, you were doing it via telex. It’s $ 7 per word. Technology has evolved quite a bit. It’s enabled us to keep communication with our loved ones from the guests’ perspective to experience things and have their connection while they’re on vacation.
Also, the idea of cruising. The ships themselves have become such an incredible destination in their own. Whereas before, you would get on the ship and you would go from port to port. But now, the Celebrity Edge, for example, we’re a $ 1. 2 billion ship that feels like a boutique hotel, making the ship the destination in itself, is something that people really appreciate because there’s so many different offerings on board, whether it’s the 25 different dining and bar options that you have. The entertainment which rivals Las Vegas. And I can say that because I live in Las Vegas for the last two decades. And having all of that in one place, I think, the companies have really focused on bringing the experience on board the ship and the guests just love that.
Nisreene Atassi: John, there’s a wealth of choices out there when it comes to cruising. Where do you even start, when it comes to figuring out what is the right choice for you?
John Mast: Cruise ships range from a few hundred guests to a few thousand guests and go everywhere on earth, practically. Why are you going on vacation? That’s the first question. And if someone says, “well, I really need to relax”, you might recommend something different for them. If they say, “oh, my goodness, we’re going with our extended family, we want to get together”, you might, again, recommend something different. But then most importantly after that I think is, “where would you like to go?” Because a cruise ship can take you almost anywhere in the world. And if you have those two questions answered, then it’s pretty quickly, easily to narrow down your options. I have two kids and when they were quite young, the childcare facilities on the ships are incredible. From infants to teenagers, they have different setups where your kids can go. So when our kids were very little and my wife and I were exhausted, we would put our one- year- old in the childcare, which was literally just down the corridor from a beautiful Italian fine dining restaurant. And they would give us a ship phone so that if our son needed anything they would just text us, and we could run down the hall. But we could actually have an adults night and reconnect.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, I love that.
John Mast: Yeah, it’s amazing. And then 10 years later, my mother, my brother, and my sister and I, all three of my siblings, we each had a ten- year- old daughter celebrating their birthday, and they’re all cousins. And we actually traveled to Europe and sailed from Barcelona to Rome aboard the Celebrity Edge as a getaway for the girls to celebrate their coming of double digits. Every night we met for dinner, talked about the adventures we had in the different ports, and it really can serve up an experience for everyone in your party depending on what their vacation needs are from activity to relaxation and all points in between, I think.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, and now your daughter gets to say, ” Oh yeah, my 10th birthday, no big deal. I was sailing around Europe.”
John Mast: Honestly, it sounds extravagant, but when you look at the value that a cruise to Europe or lots of places offers, it includes many of your activities, all of your meals, your transportation from city to city to city to city. It’s opulent and wonderfully down to earth all at the same time. And I think she’ll remember that trip for her entire life.
Nisreene Atassi: All right, well, we are going to keep on cruising with this convo by talking about whether there are any deals to be had when cruising, so stay with us. We will be right back.
Nisreene Atassi: All right, well, we are going to keep on cruising with this convo by talking about whether there are any deals to be had when cruising, so stay with us. We will be right back. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System. If you feel the burning urge to travel but aren’t quite sure yet where to direct your attention, we are the podcast for you. We deep dive into both domestic and international destinations to give you the details you need, whether you’re deciding to hop on a plane tomorrow or planning ahead for a bucket list trip a couple of years from now.C heck out our ‘Only In’ series featuring some of the best cities to visit in the US and our other episodes this season about Spain, Australia, and France. Don’t forget to like and subscribe to Out Travel the System so you’re always in the travel loop. All right, we are back. I’m here with cruise ship captain and TikTok sensation, Kate McCue, as well as John Mast from Expedia. John, let’s continue our conversation about how travelers can help narrow down the right cruise for them. Pricing is obviously a huge part of the decision- making process. How do you recommend people filter through all of the information that’s out there?
John Mast: I think one of the most interesting developments in how cruises are sold over the last probably five to seven years is this new way that everything can be included in your fare. In the old days, you would just pay your cruise fare and then you would get on board. And every time you wanted to have a diet Coke or a beer or a glass of wine, you would pay for it. If you wanted to leave gratuities for the staff, you would put them in little paper envelopes, cash in the old days, and hand them out. Today, it’s completely evolved to a la carte all- inclusive opportunity to travel. You can buy a package that includes all your onboard beverages, that includes your gratuities, often includes a shipboard credit that you could spend in the spa. The fare that you pay upfront ends up being the fare that you actually end up spending on board, save a few souvenirs and things. The meals can be included. The drinks can be included. And so when you’re thinking about a vacation, you don’t get off the ship at the end of your week with a great big surprise bill. You’re able to go to all these wonderful places and have the confidence of knowing that what you paid upfront is the vast majority of what your vacation is going to cost. I was talking to my neighbor the other day. He says, ” Well, John, these packages are great, but we don’t drink. I said, ” That’s okay. You can pick an amenity package that doesn’t include alcohol and still have the value of that inclusive fare.”
Nisreene Atassi: I distinctly remember being younger and my sister and I wanting to order like virgin daiquiris and things like that, and my parents being like, ” no, they’re so expensive,” and all that kind of stuff. So I can absolutely see how being able to choose an all- inclusive package that suits your needs can probably just alleviate so much stress, because you’re totally right, John – y ou go on vacation and a lot of people, they don’t actually think about, ” okay, so here’s my upfront cost,” which is basically the hotel or the flight or whatever, but then there’s like a second cost that happens throughout the trip which can probably be a burden for a lot of people. So, relieving that stress and having it all taken care of upfront, I think can actually be really helpful. John, one thing that I think is really interesting that I wanted to ask you about is, international travel is quite complicated right now, especially for travelers looking to do multiple destinations because that means lots of paperwork, frankly, regarding vaccination requirements or negative COVID tests and things like that. And I wonder if actually taking a cruise might help to alleviate some of that stress and allow you to do a multi- destination trip without having to worry about all of the different red tape and paperwork as it relates to proof of vaccination and testing requirements. Do you have any insight into how the cruise lines are actually managing this for travelers?
John Mast: It’s typically before, during, and after your trip that you’re going to need to get a test, especially if you’re into international travel. It’s been our experience that a cruise can actually help minimize (it). I’m traveling out of Barbados, and so the first thing I needed to know was the vaccine requirements for Barbados and the testing requirements for Barbados. The cruise line that I’m going with has provided me that information. I need a test to enter Barbados, and I need to download their app and upload my vaccine information. I get to the ship. I will then, and they’ve informed me, be asked to do an antigen test with a quick test. It’ll take under 15 minutes and then I’ll be able to board the ship. And I think it’s reasonable to expect perhaps halfway through the trip, spot tests. And then during your trip, as you’re embarking out into these destinations, I can rest assured that the vaccines that I have are good and that they have registered my proof with those countries so that I can come and go from the ship without having to go through a bunch of rigmarole, if you will. That said, with a cruise today, you will be in a little bit of a travel bubble, so you’ll be doing trips off the ship with other guests on buses. And then further, if I want to have a beach day, they’ll have a beach arranged that’s safe and clean. To get home, I live in Vancouver, Canada, Canada requires me to take a test before I land in the country, and the cruise line will actually administer that test for me on the last day of my trip for free, and those tests can be expensive if you’re traveling independently, and get me my results so I’m all set to fly home. So, I think the cruise industry has rallied around travel and testing and vaccine requirements and made it as simple as it can be. But it’s still something people are going to have to be aware of and address if they want to travel over any borders at the moment.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. Okay.
Captain, I want to ask, because I think a lot of the hesitancy that some people may have with going on a cruise might be that they’re afraid that they might get seasick. Are there things that the ship does to help combat that for cruisers?
Captain Kate McCue: Absolutely. From the ship design itself, for example, the Celebrity Edge, we have the bow of our ship. If you see pictures, it’s a very distinctive bow, and it’s called a parabolic ultra bow. And the neat thing about that is it doesn’t matter what the draft of the ship is, how far the ship sits in the water, it’s safer, it’s smoother, it’s more fuel- efficient. Honestly, that design, I’ve sailed on quite a few ships, and it brings so much comfort. But we also have stabilizers. We can shift water and liquids from side to side using healing tanks and ballast.
But we also have a weather forecasting system in our Miami office, so when we’re looking at itineraries and it’s hurricane season, for example, and you can anticipate that a particular itinerary might encounter inclement weather, we can actually see that in advance and alter our itineraries. People experience the ship in a really pleasant manner.
Nisreene Atassi: Where would you recommend that people think about going and checking out?
Captain Kate McCue: I have so many favorites because there are certain itineraries that I think are magical for different reasons. For example, Alaska, because of the nature. And it’s, honestly, something like I’d never seen in my life before I’d gone to Alaska. And it’s one of these really unique places where if it’s gray, if it’s overcast, if it’s cloudy and rainy, anywhere else in the world, that’s not great weather, but in Alaska it makes the icebergs pop. The Mediterranean for a completely different reason, for the architecture, for the food, for the history. I also have a bucket list and that’s the Galapagos. Much like Alaska, because of the nature, the untouched nature, but just to be able to see the animals in their environment.
Nisreene Atassi: John, how do bookings for cruise evolve from a seasonality perspective?
John Mast: There has never been a more forward demand for our product in the history of the business. We’re seeing more interest and earlier bookings to the tune of well over a year in advance, in many cases, for the popular sailings. And the really popular sailings, the itineraries get released in batches. Maybe they’ll release Alaska at a certain time of year and then the Caribbean and some of the more exotic itineraries. The most popular itineraries, things that people have on their bucket lists, are selling out in four hours.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, people just want to go big. I get that. I want to go big.
John Mast: The most popular booking time of the year we call wave season. And that tends to begin December 26. People get the holidays over with. They probably got together as a family or a group, or saw their friends and thinking, ” what are we going to do for the coming year?” So, from late December right through March, we see our highest bookings really for all destinations. People haven’t been able to travel a couple years, so you got a couple of years worth of travelers kind of booked in. Places in Western Europe are very safe, and people have booked heavily into those itineraries. Places like Kate mentioned, like the Galapagos or maybe circumnavigating Australia on a journey or doing something that doesn’t have as many sailings and is further flung, are going to be the highest demand product. The people that run the pricing are very clever, and if that ship’s filling, the price can increase closer to sailing, kind of like a plane ticket. If you book early, you’re going to get the best value. You’re going to be able to put down a small deposit and then you don’t make your final payment till much closer to sailing. So, you can put, with a small deposit, your mind to rest by knowing your vacation is booked, and you can begin adding all those ancillary trips and start dreaming about the tours you’ll do and the places you’ll visit. So, if you’re planning a ’22 or ’23, you need to be thinking about doing that now, quite frankly.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. That’s a really good, really, really good tip. And something that I feel like most people probably don’t know, that cruise ship pricing is just as dynamic as other travel pricing. What you just described, John, is supply and demand.
Captain, I wanted to ask you, are you all seeing that same energy and vibe in terms of how your guests are really maximizing their time on the ship?
Captain Kate McCue: Absolutely. Our suites are completely sold out. On board the Celebrity Edge, the suites come with a special retreat access, which is their own restaurant, Luminae, their own pool, their own deck. People taking the time and also putting the vacation priorities of having that space and really enjoying the ship itself is a big thing.
Nisreene Atassi: One thing that I think is super helpful for travelers, is being able to describe an experience to them in depth that they can actually really envision it. Describe your perfect moment onboard a cruise ship.
Captain Kate McCue: When our crew are joining the ship since post- pandemic, we go into quarantine for 15 days, which means we go into a stateroom. It’s a guest stateroom, and we stay in that room for 15 days. And the last time I joined the ship, we were at anchor outside of the Bahamas, and I walked out onto my balcony and there was no sound from the ocean, from the sky. There was no sound from the ship. It was silence like I had never experienced in my life. And in that moment, I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to have cruises to nowhere, where people could actually experience this. And that moment will stay with me forever because even if I locked myself in a room, I still wouldn’t have that view. I wouldn’t have that salt air smell in my nose. I wouldn’t have the warm breeze on my skin. It was the most perfect moment I think I’ve ever experienced.
John Mast: The power of the sea, it just grounds you. For me, I’m not bragging, I’m just stating facts. I’ve been in this business for over 20 years, and I’ve been on well over a hundred cruises in my day. Probably four or five years ago, we did a multi-gen trip if you will. So, my parents came, my brother and my sister and our full families all did a trip. And we were sitting around the dinner table. It must’ve been a table for about 14 people, kids at one end and adults at the other. And we were recapping on our day, we had gone to Mexico, and my parents were listening to the kids talk about the adventures they’d had. I was looking down the table, and I noticed they’d put lids on the kids’ drinks, which I was like, ” oh, thank goodness,” because they’re going to knock them over. And just sat back and I just watched everyone interacting and having a lovely, sharing moment of family and adventure together that was just really satisfying. And I still remember it, and I always will. And I knew that everyone was being taken care of. And as I looked even further out, I saw other large families doing the same things, and I thought, that’s just one of the wonderful truths of getting together on a ship as an extended group is that everyone can be taken care of and have a good time on their own terms. So, for me, that’s a memory.
Nisreene Atassi: A very special thank you to John Mast, Senior Director of Global Cruise Marketing for Expedia. Really appreciate you sharing all of your insights with us, John.
John Mast: Oh, my pleasure.
Nisreene Atassi: Captain Kate McCue, thank you so much for sharing your cruise life insights with us today on the show. It’s been so great having you.
Captain Kate McCue: Thank you, Nissy. Pleasure’s all mine.
Nisreene Atassi: We’ll link to Captain Kate’s massively popular TikTok account in the show notes, so you’ll get to see all of shenanigans that she gets up to with her crew. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System, brought to you by Expedia. Happy travels.
Nisreene Atassi: Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia. Our showrunner and executive producer is Claudia Kwan. Our associate producer is Katie Doten with sound engineering from Jill Constantine. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.