I was one of 2,700 passengers on Carnival Cruise Line's first ship to leave the US in over 16 months.
During the seven-night cruise, I explored every inch of the Carnival Vista ship.
From boarding to ports, here is what the entire adventure was like.
On July 3, the Carnival Vista sailed out of Galveston, Texas. Onboard were 2,700 people - including me. Together, we were Carnival Cruise Line's first passengers in more than 16 months.
Earlier this year, major cruise lines started announcing return dates. The cruising industry had come to a grounding halt due to COVID-19, but with vaccinations on the rise, cruising felt like a possibility once again.
It was scheduled to be the first Carnival cruise to leave the US in more than 16 months and followed Royal Caribbean in the restart of cruising.
As a travel reporter, I was curious what changes passengers would experience and if cruising would look and feel the same in a vaccinated setting. So I purchased a ticket and prepared to embark on the Carnival Vista.
Less than two weeks before the cruise set sail, I purchased my ticket for $1,300.
I navigated through Carnival Cruise Lines' website where an array of cruises are scheduled for this year. I quickly found the Carnival Vista cruise, although nothing indicated it was Carnival's first cruise out of the US.
The seven-night stay in an interior stateroom cost $1,288 including gratuities and vacation protection when I booked it for my trip that left July 3. The cruise would be stopping in Mahogany Bay, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico.
As I booked the cruise, I searched the website for any indicators that Carnival Vista would be operating at a lower capacity. Nothing on its website indicated any capacity restrictions, so I mentally prepared for a packed ship.
By the time I boarded, I learned from a Carnival spokesperson that the ship was at 70% capacity, so there would be about 2,700 people onboard. Typically, the Carnival Vista holds 3,934 passengers.
Before booking, I double-checked that I'd be on a vaccinated cruise.
Cruise lines and ports are taking a different approach to vaccine requirements. At the time of booking, I felt safest on a ship where the majority of passengers were vaccinated. Now, as the Delta variant spreads and new cases of COVID-19 rise in the U.S., I'm not sure I would board a cruise again — vaccinated or not.
But in mid-June, I decided to rule out cruises leaving from Florida where lawmakers banned businesses from forcing customers to be vaccinated.
Carnival's first cruise departed from Galveston, where vaccines would be required to board the ship. At the time of writing, Carnival requires 95% of passengers on each ship to be vaccinated. Passengers with approved exemptions and children under 12 will make up the 5% of unvaccinated passengers.
According to Carnival Cruise's website, there is an application process for unvaccinated guests and there's no guarantee there will be room on the ship for all the exempted guests.
A few days before the trip, I checked into the cruise just like I would for a flight.
A week or so before sailing, cruise passengers were able to check in for the cruise, which was similar to checking in for a flight. During the check-in process, passengers opted for an arrival time.
This was one of the dozens of new changes passengers would experience on the first cruise since the pandemic.
The check-in process also involved filling out a few forms, including accepting a "COVID-19 risk," where passengers acknowledged that they could come in contact with COVID-19.
After that, I was all set until embarkation day.
When I arrived at the port, I went through the boarding process and a healthcare worker checked my vaccination card.
Even though I arrived 20 minutes before my check-in appointment, I was ushered through the boarding process anyway.
There, a healthcare worker checked my CDC-issued vaccination card. She studied the card, made sure the name and birthday matched my passport, and checked the date of my second dose. According to Carnival Cruise's website, copies and photographs of your vaccine card are not accepted.
The verification process took about 30 seconds, and then I went through the rest of the boarding process.
Multiple passengers Insider spoke with said they didn't feel like the vaccination verification added much time to the embarkation process, but that also concerned a few passengers who said they wished the vaccine verification would've been stricter.
Prior to boarding, guests are required to fill out a health questionnaire, which asks questions about recent travels and whether a person has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID in the last two weeks.
Before boarding, I received a notification through the Carnival HUB App that I hadn't completed the form.
I went to fill it out, but the app wasn't working and I couldn't submit the form. No one ever followed up about the COVID questionnaire, which was a bit alarming.
The rest of the embarkation process went like normal.
The rest of the boarding process was quick and I was on the ship in 20 minutes. After getting my vaccine card checked, I went through security, a digital face scanner, and finally, a crew member checked my boarding pass and passport.
Throughout the entire embarkation day, the lines were not socially distanced, which foreshadowed the entire cruise.
The passengers Insider spoke with all agreed that the vaccine verification did not add much time to the boarding process, and the lower-capacity ship also helped lines move quickly.
Once onboard the Carnival Vista, masks quickly disappeared.
The second I stepped onto the ship, masks came off. And for the rest of the cruise, there were only a handful of times passengers needed a mask.
Besides embarkation day, guests wore masks to disembark and while exiting the ship at every port. Depending on your shore excursion and port activities, face masks were also required.
Unvaccinated passengers were required to wear a face mask indoors. From what I saw, no one enforced this policy, and I didn't see any way Carnival Cruises was differentiating between vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers.
Social distancing was nearly impossible throughout the seven-day cruise.
Within two minutes on the Carnival Vista, I was bumping elbows with people in a cramped elevator, and I quickly had to accept the fact that social distancing wasn't an option on the ship.
The shows and entertainment were not socially distanced and any time people disembarked the ship or a nighttime show ended, crowds naturally packed the hallways of the ship.
The muster drill was another element of the cruise that was drastically different.
Before a cruise departs from its home port, every passenger goes to a muster station, where they learn about safety procedures for emergencies.
On a pre-pandemic cruise, the muster drill takes up a significant portion of the afternoon. This time, it took just a few minutes.
Instead of going through safety procedures in person, Carnival Cruises released a safety video. The video was playing on TVs when guests arrived at their rooms and it was also available on Carnival's HUB App.
In theory, passengers watch the video and visit their muster station where a crew member shows guests how to wear a life jacket.
I missed the memo to watch the safety video and no one on the ship verified that I had watched it. When I arrived at my muster station, I joined five other people, and we watched the vest demonstration.
The whole process was smooth and took less than two minutes, but I thought it could have been a bit more thorough since I missed some of the information from the video.
Inside my cruise cabin, I noticed very few changes.
I spent the seven-night cruise in an interior stateroom on deck one of the Carnival Vista. For one person, the 185-square-foot room was plenty of space for the week.
The biggest changes passengers noticed inside their cabins was that room-service menus were available on QR codes and turndown service only happened once a day compared to twice.
Cruising is all about sunshine and swimming, and the pool areas looked no different compared to pre-pandemic cruising.
There are three pool areas on the Carnival Vista included in the cost of the cruise and one adults-only area that comes with an additional price.
Passengers told Insider they were shocked at how empty the pool areas felt. They shared stories of passengers waking up at 6 a.m. to claim pool loungers and waiting for a spot in the hot tub. Since the cruise was at 70% capacity, there was always an empty chair and plenty of room in each pool.
Like the rest of the ship, these areas weren't spread out or socially distanced.
Some passengers said they felt like the entertainment was lacking on the ship compared to pre-pandemic trips.
This was only my second cruise, and truthfully, I don't remember the entertainment. While I had little to compare it to, a handful of experienced cruisers told me that they felt like the entertainment lacked.
There were two main shows during the cruise, one was rock-and-roll themed and the other incorporated songs from popular movies. Each show was performed twice.
On a typical cruise, experienced passengers told me they would expect a show every night the cruise was at sea.
At these shows, there was no social distancing. The maskless entertainers were required to stay five feet apart from guests.
Dancing, karaoke, and comedy shows were available and packed every night.
Nearly every minute of every hour was packed with activity. Whether it was a nightly comedy show or a band playing at the Havana Bar, there was almost always a crowd.
Even the typical, large parties still happened on the Lido Deck. The first night, I was overwhelmed watching how quickly people were willing to dance and sweat with strangers.
Some passengers said the food was pre-pandemic standards and others thought it was subpar.
Similar to the entertainment, some passengers told Insider that they felt like the quality of food lacked a bit from the previous cruises they had been on.
Other guests mentioned that they had expected more of an "abundance" on the first cruise back, especially when it came to food.
One piece of advice I was given from experienced cruisers was to try a variety of restaurants, dining rooms, and buffets on the ship. From the array of food, I definitely noticed that the quality changed from place to place.
Cruises are known for their buffets, and Carnival Vista's buffet hadn't changed.
The buffet felt nearly identical to pre-pandemic buffets. Everything was self-serve, and the only difference I noticed was that crew members wore masks.
And onboard restaurants and eateries like Guy Fieri's Pig and Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse were up and running like normal.
The Carnival Vista has more than a dozen eateries for passengers to choose from, some of which are free and others came with an added cost.
Every eatery was up and running on the ship, and while you could make reservations for places like the steakhouse, there was typically enough seating for everyone.
I even got to try cuisine from celebrity chef Guy Fieri's eateries in the middle of the ocean.
Inside the dining room, I noticed some bigger changes.
The No. 1 complaint passengers told me was that the dining room service was slower. But passengers said they expected a few hiccups on the first cruise in 16 months.
Guests used a QR code to gain access to the dining menu, there were no communal tables available, and linens no longer adorned each table.
The gym had 180-degree views of the ocean and was almost always empty.
I went to the gym three times on the seven-night cruise, and it was almost always empty. This made it easy to stay apart from the other passengers, even though the gym didn't enforce social distancing.
The gym itself was beautiful. There were more than a dozen treadmills, plenty of ellipticals and bikes, and an area for weightlifting. I ran on a treadmill and soaked in the 180-degree views of the ocean.
A lineup of paid and free fitness classes happened every day in a tiny studio.
From yoga to cycling, the Carnival Vista hosted fitness classes every day of the cruise.
The classes were held at normal capacity if enough people showed up. However, the two yoga classes I went to were deserted.
The fitness instructor said fewer people join classes on the final days of the cruise. On the sixth day, I had a private yoga class, and on the seventh day, it was me and one other passenger.
The spa was welcoming.
The spa was also similar to a pre-pandemic cruise. There was a QR code guests could scan to check out the spa's offerings, and there were always people there to answer questions.
Familiar sounds of slot machines rang through the casino and dealers wore masks.
The gamblers Insider spoke with said the experience at the casino was similar to a cruise before the pandemic. "You win some and you lose some," one passenger told me.
Before the pandemic, one guest said there was a bar in the center of the casino where passengers would gather to drink and smoke.
Carnival Cruises removed the beloved bar and replaced it with a set of electronic gambling machines.
One passenger said that the vanished bar was the most drastic difference she noticed during her entire cruise.
But don't worry, waiters still served drinks from a nearby bar.
Because of the vaccine requirement, few kids were spotted throughout the ship.
Many of the unvaccinated passengers on the ship were children under 12 who were too young to receive a vaccine.
Supervised children's programs were put on hold in an effort to minimize the risk for children spreading COVID-19, according to Carnival's website.
The teen club, arcade, and other kid-centric places on the ship were still open.
Disembarking for ports felt similar - but this time with a mask.
Crew members made sure every passenger was wearing a mask before they stepped off the ship.
As people roamed around the ports, you were required to continue wearing your face mask.
Although some ports felt deserted, the workers at every port told Insider they were thrilled to have tourists back.
I noticed the most COVID-related restrictions while exploring the ports. Outside of every store were signs reminding customers to wear their masks and social distance.
Everywhere I looked, I saw hand sanitizer and sinks, and many workers stood outside stores to spray sanitizer before you stepped into their store.
According to employees at shops and businesses at the ports that spoke with Insider, the vaccine and testing requirements varied from port to port. In Belize, for example, one souvenir shop owner told me that every person working inside the port was required to be fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, in Cozumel, workers had regular testing. One worker said he hadn't been vaccinated but that he was tested before coming back to work and would continue to be tested on a weekly basis.
Many shops remained closed, so some areas of the ports felt deserted. The port workers told Insider that before the pandemic, they would expect two to three cruises arriving every day versus once a week.
Your options for shore excursions depended on your vaccination status.
Before the pandemic, passengers could choose to go on Carnival-affiliated excursions, book their own excursion through an independent operator, or roam freely through the port city.
For the cruise I went on, passengers had different options depending on whether they were vaccinated or not.
Excursions for vaccinated passengers were similar to excursions before the pandemic. You could choose from any of Carnival's excursions, an independent tour operator, or explore independently.
For unvaccinated cruisers, things looked drastically different. Unvaccinated people had a smaller pool of "bubble tours" to choose from and they could not leave the port area.
While the excursions were similar to pre-pandemic adventures, some passengers told Insider that there were a few hiccups. I heard stories about both boats and taxis breaking down.
In Roatán, Honduras, I went on a kayaking and snorkeling tour guided by Roger Miranda, and in Cozumel, I went scuba diving. Both of my tour guides were thrilled to welcome tourists back and we had no issues.
As the cruise came to an end, debarkation day lacked custom forms.
Due to weather, the Carnival Vista arrived back in Galveston, Texas, more than an hour and a half later than its scheduled arrival time.
This caused a stressful debarkation process for cruisers trying to catch flights back home. I nearly missed my flight, and you could feel the frustration in the air as we stood in 90-degree heat waiting to get on a bus to the airport.
However, the disembarkation process went as usual: passengers were able to exit the ship based on their cabin location.
Guests were required to wear masks in the Galveston port area and on the shuttle bus to the airport, but they were quickly forgotten in the heat.
The other difference compared to pre-pandemic cruising was that every guest no longer needed to fill out a customs form. Instead, only those who had exceeded a spending amount had to declare and fill out forms.
While some cruisers were happy to be back at sea, others felt like the experience wasn't the same.
The majority of people Insider spoke with voiced that they were simply happy to be cruising again.
But a handful of experienced cruisers didn't think the experience met the same standards as pre-pandemic cruising.
"I hope that first-time cruisers don't judge the experience based on this," one passenger told Insider. "Because this isn't cruising."
The same passenger said she felt like crew members were trying their best, but that elements — like the dining room and entertainment — fell short. She added that this experience wouldn't stop her from cruising in the future.
Overall, I didn't think the COVID changes majorly impacted my July cruise experience. But my takeaway was that it will take the cruising industry — crew members, entertainers, chefs, tour operators — time to get back into the swing of things.
So packing your patience isn't a bad idea.
Read the original article on Insider