I Sailed the First Carnival Cruise to Return. Here’s What it Was Like

For nearly 500 days the cruise industry in the United States sat paused. Now, that’s slowly but surely changing. Several cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and others — are making their comeback as they learn how to sail safely with the health crisis still ongoing.

Among the first cruises back was a sailing aboard Carnival Vista on July 3, 2021. The voyage from Galveston, Texas, marked Carnival Cruise Line’s first trip since it paused sailing in March 2020. After departing the island, Vista sailed to Roatan (Mahogany Bay), Belize, and Cozumel before returning home.

The ship sailed under fully-vaccinated guidelines, meaning at least 95% of passengers had the shot. In addition, a small number of unvaccinated passengers were granted exemptions.

My family and I sailed on this first Carnival cruise to return — including our son who was granted an exemption to sail as he is not eligible for the vaccine just yet. Here’s what the cruise was like.

Boarding Was Similar As Before… If You Have the Shot

Galveston cruise terminal
Boarding was similar to before, except that masks were required in the terminal.

Boarding the ship is always an exciting time. You never appreciate the size of cruise ships until you see them up close. Even after sailing tons of cruises, I’m always struck by how large the ships are. That was still the case after more than a year without sailing.

Entering the terminal for boarding, the only real difference for most people was that masks were required. Everyone — no matter their vaccine status — was masked. From there, you were asked for documents (boarding pass, passport, vaccination card) and then passed through security before meeting with a check-in agent and then boarding the ship.

Our boarding process was slightly different since we sailed with an unvaccinated child. In that case, we were required to show a negative result from a prior test and then have our son tested again at the terminal before boarding.

We were led upstairs to a different waiting area. There, my wife and son were led back to a testing area where he was swabbed. Then, we waited with the other unvaccinated passengers for results, which took about 20 minutes. Once the results came back, we were then sent to the traditional check-in area, took a quick facial recognition picture for boarding, and headed onto the ship.

There Is a New Muster Drill, and It’s MUCH Better

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

As explained in my live-blog of the trip, the muster drill has changed significantly. Before, everything on the ship shut down and announcements were made to head to your muster station. There, passengers would be huddled together while safety procedures were explained.

It stopped the fun, took too long, and wasn’t a nice way to start your vacation. Now, it’s completely different and much better.

On our trip, we simply went to the muster area (ours was in the middle of the casino) and had our cards scanned to show we attended the drill. Then we had some procedures explained and were shown how to put on a life jacket. The entire process took maybe 10 minutes and then we were free to go on about our day.

Not having to stop everything on the ship and wait on stragglers to show up for the drill meant it was much faster and more enjoyable.

There Were Noticeably Fewer Passengers on the Ship

Pool deck with few passengers.
The ship had fewer passengers, but never felt empty except on days in port (shown here) when most passengers were ashore.

One of the ways that cruise ships have changed is that the number of passengers on the ship is reduced, at least on the first cruises sailing. We asked several employees at check-in how many passengers were on the cruise. No one seemed to know an exact number, but gave answers around 2500-3000. The ship holds about 4,000 passengers at capacity. On our last day, we overheard a member of the staff mention 2,815 passengers getting off the ship.

All told, you could feel that there were fewer people on the ship. It wasn’t enough to make the ship feel empty; far from it. Pools, restaurants, and casinos still had plenty of people.

However, there was noticeably more space — especially on days in port when people went ashore. It was never an issue to get a chair by the pool or find a seat in the theater. The buffet had people, but wasn’t crowded as usual. In all, it was actually more enjoyable to sail with fewer other folks.

Life on the Ship Feels Nearly Like Before

Crowd around ice-sculptor
Life on the ship felt largely normal, including an ice-sculpting demonstration on the pool deck.

The biggest surprise in taking the first cruise back? For me, it was that outside of a few changes, life on the ship felt surprisingly normal.

For instance, given this was a fully-vaccinated cruise (95%+ of passengers with the shot), masks weren’t required, nor was social distancing. Want a drink? Just head up to the bar and get the bartender’s attention. The sail away party includes the normal dancing among passengers, and tons of people watching from the rails next to each other. Restaurants feel just like before, casinos were full, and theaters for the big shows were packed.

This honestly led to some conflicted feelings. First, we were sailing with an unvaccinated child, so we tried to keep a little distance for everyone’s sake. Second, even vaccinated, we are still cognizant of space from others. This was by far the most people we’ve been around since the pandemic started and it took time to adjust.

People Were Definitely Excited About Cruising Again

Guys burger
Everyone was excited about being back on the ship. I was excited to visit Guy’s Burger Joint… multiple times.

It’s not unusual that the entire ship is excited about setting sail. That’s to be expected. After all, it’s the start of vacation. Even so, the energy on the ship was definitely more excited than normal. Lots of people had t-shirts commemorating the event and tons of doors had decorations referring to this being the first cruise back.

Overall, the significance of this being the first Carnival cruise to return was not lost on passengers. There were also large crowds on shore to wave goodbye as we set sail.

There Are Some Smaller Changes Are Around the Ship

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.

So what has changed? We’ve detailed changes in full here, but there were a few that are notable.

Crew Masking: Apart from outdoor crew, the staff on the ship was universally masked. This included bartenders, waiters, room stewards, and more. During the first days of our cruise the outdoor crew were also masked, but they were allowed to go maskless starting the last day at sea.

Removal of Paper Menus/Planners: The first cruise back saw paper menus gone, replaced instead with QR codes that you point your phone at to bring up a menu. As well, the daily planner wasn’t delivered to the room. Instead, you have to find out what’s going on with your phone via the Carnival HUB app. (Reportedly you can get paper menus and planners if you ask for them.)

Mask/Hand Washing Reminders: While life on the ship felt largely normal, there were reminders of the virus everywhere. Just about every screen around the ship had reminders about washing hands and how to wear masks.

Masks Were Required in Port

mask wearing in cruise port
Masks were required indoor and outdoors in port, except when swimming and eating.

While life on the ship may have felt back to normal, that wasn’t quite the case in ports. There, even if vaccinated, you were required to wear masks and distance due to the local regulations. The only time they were allowed off was when eating or drinking, or when swimming.

So while you could go maskless on the ship, you had to wear the mask off the ship. During our cruise, passengers that we saw followed the rules. Things were a bit more relaxed when at the beach, even if not in the water. No, people weren’t wearing masks while sunbathing. However, if they went to the beach bar to get a drink, then the mask was back on until taking a sip.

Sailing Unvaccinated Meant Special Tours to Leave the Ship

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

Sailing with our son meant we couldn’t easily get off the ship as a family. For instance, in Mahogany Bay, Roatan there is a port area for cruise passengers and an easily accessible beach that most passengers seemed to visit. We weren’t allowed to go with our son. (I only visited solo while my wife and son stayed on the ship.)

Instead, Carnival required us to go on a “bubble” tour to get off the ship. There were only four options across three different ports. Given the cost, we only booked a single tour in Cozumel.

There, distancing and masking were strictly enforced, along with temperature checks and constant reminders about the rules. While the beach we visited was nice, the strict rules and rushed atmosphere (we only got a couple of hours at the beach) made the entire experience much less enjoyable.

Vaccinated passengers had many more options on tours.

Testing Was Required Before Coming Home

Starboard view on cruise ship
On the last day at sea, our son required a virus test as per protocols.

On the last day of the cruise, we happened to be in the room changing out of swimsuits when we got a call on the cabin phone. It was the staff telling us they were waiting on us to take our son for the required test before getting off the ship.

While we knew he had to be tested, we received no prior notice before the phone call. I asked how people knew to come down to be tested and was told we should have received a notice at our door. We never got it.

Making our way down, the testing in the ship’s comedy club was easy. There were only a handful of other people, and we were sent to the back corner behind some dividers so our son could be tested. About 15 minutes later we received the negative test and were allowed to leave.

What’s the Verdict on the First Cruise Back?

Carnival Vista docked in Roatan
If vaccinated, the cruise experience was very similar to before. If not, then things were different.

So what’s the bottom line? In our eyes, that depends on if you are sailing with or without the shot. If you and everyone you are sailing a fully-vaccinated cruise, then the first cruise back was nearly the same as before the pause. And who doesn’t like dinner, drinks, beach, and sun?

Things are a little different if sailing with someone unvaccinated. In that case, there was a lot of time spent on the ship with few opportunities to get off in port. The kid’s club (Camp Ocean) was also closed, and there were testing requirements before the cruise, at the terminal, and before getting off the ship.

If you are sailing with someone that can’t get the shot, then shorter cruises seem ideal. That means less time on the ship, so kids will be less bored. While our child had a blast (he still talks about the cruise daily), it was clear he was getting restless being on the ship for all but one day.

But people sailing on vaccinated cruises with the shot? The first cruise back was something to love.

Want to read more about our cruise? See our live blog of each day here:

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