I spent eight days on Carnival Vista, the cruise line's first ship to leave the US in 16 months.
Passengers told Insider that the experience was similar to previous cruises, but they noted plenty of changes.
Some of the largest differences were at ports, where masks were worn and shore excursions varied.
I spent a week aboard the Carnival Vista, Carnival Cruise Line's first ship to leave the US in 16 months.
For 16 months, not a single Carnival Cruise ship departed from the US.
That changed on July 3 when the Carnival Vista ship departed from Galveston, Texas, and made stops in Mahogany Bay, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico.
About 2,700 passengers were aboard the 15-deck ship. According to the company, 95% of its passengers and 98% of the crew were vaccinated.
Admittedly, much of the experience felt the same, but some things had changed. Here are the biggest differences passengers saw aboard the ship.
From the entertainment to shore excursions, there were both small and large changes in the cruising experience compared to pre-pandemic times.
On embarkation day, passengers had an official check-in time at the port. Before, they could just turn up any time before 3 p.m.
Before arriving in Galveston, passengers had to check in for their cruise.
During the check-in process, each guest was given a handful of options for appointment times.
According to Carnival's website, arrival appointments are a new element of the boarding process. Before the pandemic, passengers could arrive at any point before 3 p.m.
While the appointments were new, they weren't followed strictly. I arrived before my 1:30 p.m. time but was welcomed on the ship anyway.
Boarding the ship was one of the few times when everyone was required to wear a face mask.
For the majority of the eight-day cruise, my masks stayed in my suitcase. The only times I wore a mask were on embarkation day, debarkation day, and on every port day.
As passengers boarded the ship, a healthcare worker verified each passenger's ID and vaccination card.
Passengers said they were shocked 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."
But the quickness of the vaccination check didn't sit well with everyone on the ship.
Some passengers said they didn't feel as though the vaccination cards were thoroughly checked and were surprised that no one took their temperature.
But 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.
Carnival's website says that a medical screening takes place on embarkation day, but I didn't have one — and neither did the passengers I spoke to.
When I boarded the ship, the only form of vaccine verification I encountered was a worker for the mobile medical-services provider Ambulnz who checked to make sure the names on my vaccine card and passport matched. They also checked the date of my second dose to ensure I was fully vaccinated.
Once on board, masks quickly vanished and some passengers noticed a lack of crowds.
Carnival Vista's first ship had about 2,700 passengers compared to its typical capacity of 3,954.
Several passengers noted the lower occupancy.
"The biggest thing is the capacity," James Berggren said, speaking of the differences he had noticed. "It's been really open and a lot less hectic, which has been the nicest thing so far."
Passengers were expected to watch a mandatory safety video once on board. Previously this information would be covered in the traditional muster drill.
When I entered my 185-square-foot room, the TV was on and blaring, so I immediately turned it off.
A day later, I learned that I had turned off the mandatory safety video. Luckily, the safety video was also available on the Carnival Hub App.
While the video was accessible, no one verified that I had watched the video.
The muster drill was also drastically different. Instead of crowding on the outer deck of a ship, passengers went to an area of the ship on their own time and learned how to wear a life vest.
Berggren said the muster drill, which prepares passengers for an emergency, typically takes up a significant amount of time on embarkation day.
Previously, crowds would form on the ship's decks, and everyone went through safety protocols together. For this cruise, guests went to their muster station on their own time.
In small groups, crew members demonstrated how to wear a life vest. The whole process took less than two minutes. After that, the safety discussion was over and guests were free for the rest of their voyage.
One of the biggest changes passengers mentioned was the reliance on Carnival's Hub app.
Whether they were accessing daily agendas or dining menus, passengers on the Carnival Vista needed to have access to their phones throughout the eight-day cruise.
Many passengers said they were unhappy with this change.
Passengers told Insider that they cruise to disconnect and get off of their phones. For some, it was frustrating to have to rely on an app for their vacation.
"The use of your cellphone is the biggest change I've noticed," Rick van Hoon said. "You have to have one."
There were no more paper menus. Dining rooms, spa, and other areas required passengers to scan a QR code.
One guest who was adamant about not carrying around her phone said she discovered that the dining rooms and restaurants had extra paper menus, so she used those throughout her stay. She also learned that guest services would print out the daily schedule, she said.
For the vast majority of passengers, though, phones were at the dinner table so they could scan the QR codes.
The other biggest change on board was that the majority of Carnival employees wore masks throughout the eight-day cruise.
Minus a few exceptions like the comedians and singers, the majority of Carnival employees were masked up.
This was one of the common changes passengers noticed.
Some passengers said it seemed like the Carnival Vista was cleaner.
While some passengers said cleanliness had always been a part of Carnival Cruises, others pointed out that they saw an elevated level of cleaning from staff.
"The only thing I really have noticed that's changed is the constant cleaning and wiping," the cruisegoer Crystal Garvey said.
Tables were wiped the moment people left. Beach chairs were consistently cleaned. Scrubbing and mopping were a constant sight.
Unmasked entertainers were required to be 5 feet from the audience, but that rule didn't seem to be applied consistently throughout the week.
Carnival provided guests with COVID-19 information, and one protocol was that guests would remain at least five feet away from entertainers.
But this wasn't always the case in my experience. I saw unmasked comedians standing close to the front row of guests and unmasked dancers flooding the floor below the stage for the ship's shows.
I also saw the rule being followed on plenty of occasions, though. For example, when the magician Glenn Foster brought crowd participants up to the stage for a trick, he immediately put on his mask.
Some areas of the ship had signage that indicated unvaccinated passengers were supposed to wear a mask, but no one appeared to enforce the policy.
Throughout my cruise, I saw about a dozen people wearing a mask aboard the ship.
Since there weren't seemingly any measures in place to know who was and wasn't vaccinated, there wasn't any way to know whether unvaccinated passengers were wearing a mask indoors.
For this ship, places like Camp Ocean for kids were closed or operating at a lower capacity.
Many of the unvaccinated passengers on the ship were children under 12 who were too young to receive a vaccine.
In an effort to minimize the risk for children spreading COVID-19, supervised children's programs were put on hold, according to Carnival's website.
The teen club, arcade, and other kid-centric places on the ship were still open and operating.
There was also only one turndown service, instead of the typical morning and evening service.
When I arrived, my stateroom attendant, Komang, introduced himself and asked if I preferred to have my room tidied every morning or every evening.
The passengers Michael Foster and Lynn Michael pointed out that this isn't the norm and that before the pandemic, guests could expect both a morning and evening turndown service.
The goal was to limit contact between crew members and passengers, so Komang entered my room only once a day. If I needed anything, he was just a phone call away.
Some areas of the ship had been transformed. For example, a popular bar in the casino was replaced with slot machines.
Denise McGraw told Insider that she was shocked to step onto the Carnival Vista and learn one of her favorite bars had been removed.
The popular bar in the casino had been replaced with a set of slot machines.
McGraw guessed that it could have been a measure to prevent crowding and smoking in the enclosed space.
Other changes were apparent on port days, when passengers were required to wear masks when leaving the ship.
Ports were one of the few places where masks were required. Before leaving the ship, Carnival crew members made sure everyone was disembarking with a face mask.
At each port, COVID-19 precautions were taken seriously. There were plenty of sinks for handwashing and signage reminding people of the safety measures, and port employees were constantly spraying hand sanitizer.
Across the ports, signage at nearly every store reminded guests to wear their face masks when entering.
Hand sanitizer and sinks for handwashing were also in abundance.
Immediately when I entered Melisha Benguche's souvenir shop in Belize, she sprayed my hands with hand sanitizer. This was a common practice for most stores at the ports in Mahogany Bay, Belize, and Cozumel.
Some ports felt deserted. A number of shops were closed, and since Carnival Vista was one of the few ships docked, not many tourists were out exploring.
The ports at Mahogany Bay and Belize both felt deserted. Carnival Vista was the only cruise ship docked, and port workers and tour operators told Insider the ports were used to having two to three cruises each day instead of one every week.
With fewer tourists, the ports felt empty, and many shops remained closed.
Depending on the activity, the mask requirement was sometimes enforced.
Both excursions I embarked on involved tourists wearing masks for part of the adventure.
A kayaking and snorkeling day in Mahogany Bay started off with a van ride from the port to a shore in Roatán, Honduras. As we entered the van, the driver made sure every passenger used hand sanitizer and masks were on for the entirety of the 30-minute ride.
Once we got to the park and started kayaking, the masks came off.
Other passengers told Insider that their tour operators were more strict with masks, and some passengers said they wore their masks for the entirety of their excursion.
On port days, the 5% of unvaccinated passengers could either stay on the ship or opt for a Carnival-approved "bubble tour."
Unvaccinated passengers had fewer options when it came to shore excursions.
They were limited to Carnival's "bubble tours" or they had to remain on the ship. Unvaccinated passengers were also not allowed to independently explore port cities or book private tours.
According to a June Facebook post from the Carnival Cruise Line ambassador John Heald, these bubble tours will operate only during July and August.
On debarkation day, passengers masked up once again and exited the ship in crowds.
Just as passengers had to don a mask to board the ship, they had to put them on to depart.
Every guest no longer had to fill out a customs form. Instead, only those who had exceeded a spending amount had to declare and fill out forms.
According to the cruise director, Kyndall Fire, this was a new practice on the ship. Previously, every passenger would have to fill out a customs form.
Now only passengers needing to declare items had to fill out the form. And once those forms were filled out, the cruise was officially over.
The majority of passengers Insider spoke with said the changes felt minor and that the core of cruising hadn't changed.
This wasn't the case for everyone. Some passengers said they expected a bigger celebration for Carnival's first cruise, adding that they wanted tighter restrictions on vaccine verification and social distancing.
But many of the passengers Insider spoke with said they were shocked at how little their cruising experience changed and were happy to be back in open waters.
Read the original article on Insider