I spent eight days on the Carnival Vista, the cruise line's first ship to leave the US in 16 months.
The ship sailed from Galveston, Texas, where I experienced a few changes on embarkation and debarkation day compared to pre-pandemic cruising.
Here's what it was like to board and exit the massive ship.
I arrived in Galveston, Texas, on July 3, already sweating from the heat and humidity. About an hour after arriving, I'd be sailing on Carnival Cruise Line's first ship to leave the US in more than 16 months.
Carnival Cruise Lines has officially restarted sailing, and I was aboard its first ship to leave the US since the pandemic started.
The cruise made stops in Mahogany Bay, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico.
The majority of the people on the ship were vaccinated. According to the company, 95% of its passengers and the majority of the crew were vaccinated.
Carnival would be welcoming about 2,700 passengers on the ship, and I was eager to see what the embarkation and debarkation processes were like.
This was only my second cruise, and I imagined it'd be completely different from my 2017 cruise out of Miami, Florida.
This time, vaccination cards were involved, I packed face masks along with sunscreen, and I mentally prepared for crowds.
And the whole journey began with embarkation day.
Before boarding the ship, I selected an arrival appointment and filled out a handful of forms.
Similar to checking in for a flight, a few days before the cruise, I went through a check-in process that had a handful of forms and agreements passengers needed to fill out.
One form included accepting a "COVID-19 risk," where passengers acknowledged that they could come in contact with COVID-19. Another form had me state whether or not I would be fully vaccinated by the ship's departure date.
For its vaccinated cruises, Carnival requires 95% of passengers on each ship to be vaccinated. Passengers with approved exemptions and children under 12 will make up 5% of unvaccinated passengers.
According to Carnival Cruise's website, there is an application process for unvaccinated guests, and the cruise line does not guarantee there will be room on the ship for all the guests exempted from being vaccinated against COVID-19.
Once I completed my forms, I selected the arrival time window between 1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. One of the things that surprised me the most about my cruise experience was that I'd be boarding the ship hours before it was scheduled to set sail at 4 p.m.
After my time was selected, I was all set for the cruise.
I was flying from Denver, Colorado, to Houston, Texas, where I took a Carnival shuttle bus from the airport to the cruise port. Quickly, I realized I shouldn't expect strict social distancing for the rest of the trip.
I opted in for Carnival's shuttle service that would take me to the Galveston cruise port from the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The one-hour bus ride cost $47, which felt like a fair price compared to the cost of an Uber or Lyft from the airport to the port.
Before boarding the bus, passengers were instructed to wear face masks and social distance.
But as soon as I boarded the bus, I saw that social distancing was out the window.
The seats were marked with stickers indicating where passengers should and should not sit, but Carnival Cruise Lines packed the bus until every single seat was full, which completely defeated the purpose of the stickers.
It felt like an indicator to me that there wouldn't be strict social distancing during the rest of my cruise experience.
I arrived at the port, which was one of the few places where masks were required. There, a Carnival worker took my luggage and later delivered it to my cruise cabin.
Before I even got off the bus, crew members were stacking my bag onto a luggage cart. Later, my suitcase would be delivered to my 185-square-foot cruise cabin.
I had the Carnival HUB app downloaded on my phone. Before I went through the boarding process, I received a notification that I hadn't completed my health assessment form. No one seemed to care.
As I stepped off the bus, I received a notification from Carnival's app that my health assessment form hadn't been completed. I thought I had filled out all of my documents days before the cruise, but I must have missed one.
I went to fill out the form, which asked passengers questions like if they had traveled outside of the country in the last 14 days and whether they had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID.
When I tried submitting the form, I received an error message that the form couldn't be submitted.
I assumed at some point during the embarkation process a Carnival employee would have me fill out the form. But no one ever mentioned it.
I headed inside a massive warehouse and went through the boarding process.
Even though I was about 20 minutes early to my check-in appointment, crew members ushered me onto the ship to begin boarding.
There were signs everywhere that indicated passengers should be wearing a face mask for the embarkation process.
While nearly everyone wore a face mask, few people distanced themselves.
At the first stop, I showed my vaccine card.
A healthcare worker checked the date of my second vaccine dose and made sure the names on my vaccine card and passport matched.
After she confirmed that information, she stamped my printed boarding pass, and I continued through the line.
The entire vaccination verification process took less than a minute for me, and some people I spoke with on the Vista ship told me they were surprised the vaccine card check wasn't more in-depth.
Other passengers told me that they were surprised that no one took their temperature.
As Insider's health correspondent Hilary Brueck has reported, temperature checks are nothing more than pandemic security theater. Not every infected person will have a fever, especially if they are young or have been vaccinated.
After that, I went through security, where my backpack was scanned and I stepped through a metal detector.
Just like airport security, I placed my backpack onto the security belt and stepped through a metal detector.
Luckily, I didn't have to remove my shoes.
Then, my boarding pass and passport were scanned.
A Carnival Cruise worker asked to see my passport and boarding pass, which was one of the final steps before actually getting onto the ship.
Finally, I had my face scanned and received the green light to board.
Carnival Cruise Line uses facial-recognition technology to make the embarkation and debarkation process faster.
All I had to do was step up to a computer where an image of my face was snapped. It was that simple.
Carnival says on its website: "Each time you board or leave the vessel, another photo will be taken for identification purposes, and your location status (on-board or off-board) will automatically be updated."
I walked through the gangway and boarded the massive ship.
And by the time I stepped onto the Carnival Vista, the party was in full swing. People were already dancing and a crowd had formed at the bar.
Overall, I found the boarding process to be shockingly fast, which was likely because the ship was at 70% capacity.
From start to finish, the entire process took 20 minutes.
Multiple passengers told Insider that they were surprised that the boarding process was so fast.
"I thought it'd be temperature checks and questionnaires," Miriam Grammar told Insider. "I had my expectations, but it was so smooth."
Eight days later, when the cruise was over, I found myself doing the whole thing again. But this time, it was even more simple.
The night before we arrived back at the Galveston port, I packed my bags and prepared for more lines and more crowds.
On disembarkation day, people were ushered off the ship by their cabin number and whether or not they had luggage.
Guests could choose either to have their luggage delivered from their cruise cabin to the port or opt to carry it off the boat themselves.
Since I only had a carry-on bag, I opted the roll it off the ship myself.
The ship docked more than an hour late due to weather, and from my understanding, the disembarkation process carried on like normal, which meant I waited my turn based on my cabin number to leave the ship.
I spoke to numerous passengers who missed their flight or had to reschedule due to the delayed ship docking.
When my deck number was called, I grabbed my carry-on, put on my mask, and a crew member scanned my Carnival room key one final time.
I awaited for deck one to get called and raced downstairs to exit the ship.
Then I went back through the massive warehouse, where luggage was waiting for some guests.
Hundreds of suitcases were waiting for passengers as they disembarked from the ship.
I joined lengthy lines and went through the facial-recognition system one more time.
This part of the disembarkation process also wasn't socially distanced, in my experience. People gathered in crowds through the cruise port's marked warehouse, eager to get off the ship and get home.
One of the few disembarkation changes was that every passenger no longer needed to fill out a customs form.
Before disembarking, Carnival Vista Cruise Director Kyndall Fire hosted a presentation to tell passengers what they could expect on debarkation day.
Before the pandemic, every passenger needed to fill out a form declaring — or not declaring — items they purchased during the trip that they were bringing back home.
But one of the biggest changes of the entire cruise was that passengers who didn't have anything to declare weren't required to fill out a customs form and could skip the customs line altogether.
Only those who exceeded a certain allotment of goods needed to fill out the form.
For example, if a US passenger brought back more than 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars, they would need to declare that purchase, the US Customs and Border Protection website states.
Since I didn't have anything to declare, I simply exited the building, said goodbye to the ship, and navigated my way back home.
I waited with other passengers in the hot Texas sun for a bus to arrive to bring us to the Houston airport.
Fortunately, I made it just in time to catch my flight and headed back home to Denver.
Read the original article on Insider