9 Must-Know Things That Changed on the First Carnival Cruise to Return

Nearly a year-and-a-half since its last sailing, Carnival made its first cruise since 2020 — and we were onboard to experience the whole thing.

The first official Carnival trip departed Galveston aboard Carnival Vista on July 3, 2021 on a 7-day cruise to Roatan, Belize, and Cozumel. While the ship normally holds about 4,000 passengers, a smaller capacity crowd (we were told between 2,500-3,000) set sail on the historic trip.

Smiling in front of Vista
What’s changed on the first Carnival cruise back? I experienced the differences first-hand.

So what was it like? You can read our daily run-downs of the trip here for full details. But from the sail away party to hanging out poolside, watching shows, eating dinner and playing in the casino, the overall takeaway is that the experience is very similar to what you might have known before the pause.

That said, there are some aspects that are different you’ll want to know about before you sail. With that in mind, here are nine things that changed on the first Carnival cruise to return.

Muster Drill Is Completely Different

Muster station on Vista
Muster is now done individually. Head to the station and you’ll get a life jacket demonstration.

Muster drill — the emergency briefing that all passengers are required to attend before sailing — has been reworked. Before, everything on the ship would stop, and passengers would all congregate on deck, lined up together to learn about safety procedures. Obviously in the age of COVID, that’s not a great idea.

Instead, muster is still required, but you can attend on your own time (as long as it’s before the ship departs). You head down to your assigned station on your own, instead of meeting with a big group. Then, your card is scanned to show your attendance, and it’s explained that this is where you would go in case of emergency. After that, there is a presentation about the life jackets, including how they work and how to put them on.

All told, the procedure takes about five minutes and is much more convenient compared to having to wait on everyone else for the safety briefing.

Kid’s Areas Are Closed

Carnival is electing to start back sailing with vaccinated cruises where 95%+ of passengers have the shot. But a small amount of exemptions for people ineligible for the dose are allowed. This includes kids too young to be vaccinated.

If you are traveling with a kid who is granted an exemption, then know that Camp Ocean wasn’t available for our cruise. In other words, your kid is by your side the entire trip. While this certainly could change in the future, for now at least it’s a little harder to relax or attend late-night activities when having a child in tow 24 hours a day.

Masks and Distancing in Ports of Call (Even If Vaccinated)

Mask and distancing in port
Masking and distancing are required in ports of call for all visitors at this time.

A big part of cruising is visiting foreign ports. The great news is that’s still the case. However, other countries — which have lower vaccination rates than the United States — are enforcing mask and distancing restrictions.

If you are on the ship then masks and distancing aren’t required (they are recommended for unvaccinated). However, even if you are vaccinated, the ports will require you to wear masks and keep space from others. This includes both indoors and outdoors. The one exception is in water/beach areas where the rules about masking are relaxed. But if you are walking around a port or on an excursion tour, then expect to have to be masked up from the time you leave the ship until you return.

Masks for Crew Members

On the ship, you’ll notice that most crew members are masked up now. That includes everyone from the cabin stewards to the waiters to entertainers if they bring someone up on stage. The masks are ubiquitous across the staff. In fact, many also have a small pin that shows a picture of them unmasked so that passengers can see their face.

During our cruise we did notice that toward the end the rules were relaxed to allow outdoor crew — such as cleaning staff and lifeguards — to go maskless. One poor staff member had a massive tan line from wearing the mask outside on previous days.

Apart from that and the performers during stage productions, everyone else on the crew was masked up the entire cruise.

Masks in Terminals For Everyone

Right now there is a federal rule that says masks are required at “U.S. transportation hubs.” That’s why when you are in an airport or on a plane, you have to mask up, no matter if you’ve had the shot or not.

This same rule applies to cruise terminals. Even though we didn’t have to wear a mask when on the ship, it’s not the same in the terminal when embarking or debarking. There, everyone had to wear a mask until they boarded the ship, but there was no distancing in place. It was the same procedure when debarking. Masks were on until we were clear of the terminal building.

Printed Menus Are Gone

QR code menus on a cruise
Printed menus are no longer around. Instead, you scan the image above with your phone to see the menu.

If you are cruising, then you’ll need to bring your phone with you. That’s because paper menus are no longer in use for the time being. Instead, there are small stands with QR codes to scan. You point your phone at the image, and it opens up a link on your phone with the menu. This goes for all the bars and restaurants on the ship — including the room service menu in your cabin.

It’s a quick process and not that big a deal. However, it is a pain to not be able to leave the phone in the room anymore and truly disconnect. Sometimes you just want to go at the spur of the moment around the ship and not have to worry about if you left your phone in the room.

No More Printed Daily Schedule (But No More Junk Mail)

Another casualty of the pandemic is that on the first Carnival cruise to return there were no more printed daily schedules. It used to be that each day the room steward delivered the following day’s schedule, showing all the things going on around the ship.

On our cruise that schedule was no longer printed and delivered. Instead, you have the schedule on the Carnival HUB app on your phone. Again, it’s another reason why you’ll need your phone with you practically all the time while you sail.

If no printed menus and schedules are a downside, one upside? No more junk mail. Remember all those flyers for sales and advertisements about art auctions? They weren’t a thing on our cruise. It was refreshing not to have a mountain of paper that immediately goes in the trash.

New Rules If Unvaccinated

Tickets to a bubble tour
If unvaccinated, the only option to get off the ship was a “bubble” tour.

Sailing unvaccinated or with an unvaccinated person in your group? As mentioned, Carnival is allowing a small number of people who can’t receive the shot — such as children — to sail. But there are some strings attached.

First things first, life on the ship is largely the same. Since nearly everyone is vaccinated, things like masks and distancing for the unvaccinated are recommended, but not required. There are no areas that are off limits. Want to go to the pool or eat in a restaurant? It’s the same as before.

However, those without the shot required testing 72 hours before boarding, at boarding, and at the end of the trip before getting off the ship. But the big difference centered around getting off the ship.

In our case, unvaccinated passengers were only allowed to get off the ship on a limited number of “bubble” tours. Simply getting off the ship to explore the port wasn’t allowed. In total, there were only four of these excursions offered in total across three ports, while vaccinated passengers had dozens more options.

And even when on one of these tours, distancing and masking were strictly enforced, both indoors and outdoors.

More Expensive Beer

What does more expensive beer have to do with the cruise suspension and health crisis? Absolutely nothing. But one thing we did notice is that the self-serve beer stations were now pricier than when we last saw them well before the pause in sailing.

Back in late 2018 aboard Carnival Horizon, you could get one of these self-serve beers at the beer station in the buffet for about $4 a glass. On this first cruise back aboard the Vista, the self-serve beer station is still in use, but now the cheapest price is $5.25. This could have changed before the suspension, but either way, the cheapest beer on the ship is now a bit pricier.

What to Take Away From Carnival’s Return

View atop waterslide on Carnival Vista
The main thing to know? Most changes are minor, making the experience very similar to how it was before the pause.

While we’ve focused on what’s changed with the first Carnival cruise to return, the overall takeaway for those who are fans of the cruise line is that — assuming you’re vaccinated — the experience is largely the same. Whether you enjoy going to the spa, or eating in the restaurants, playing in the casino, dance parties or just hanging out and working on your tan, it’s all available to enjoy.

The only real differences are relatively minor or only apply to those without the shot.

Now, what’s yet to be seen is how rules might change in the future. Should cases rise, then more restrictive rules may be put in place in order to keep sailing safely. And if cases fall, well then the changes that have been made may revert back to how they were before the crisis.

For now, however, there are some definite differences in sailing but the most important thing — the fun of cruising — is still there on the ship.

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