14 things that surprised me on the first Carnival cruise to set sail in over a year

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14 things that surprised me on the first Carnival cruise to set sail in over a year

Many major cruise lines have announced that they're sailing again. I was one of the 2,700 passengers on Carnival Cruise's first ship to leave the US since the pandemic started.

Many major cruise lines have announced that they're sailing again. I was one of the 2,700 passengers on Carnival Cruise's first ship to leave the US since the pandemic started.
The Carnival Vista docked at Cozumel. Monica Humphries/Insider

On July 3, Carnival Cruise Line's Vista ship left Galveston, Texas. The cruise, which was full of vaccinated passengers, was Carnival Cruise Line's first ship to set sail in the US since the pandemic started.

The seven-night cruise made stops in Mahogany Bay, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico.

There were about 2,700 passengers — about 70% capacity — onboard the ship, including me.

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It was only my second time on a cruise ship and my first one after being fully vaccinated. Here's what surprised me the most about the seven-night adventure.

It was only my second time on a cruise ship and my first one after being fully vaccinated. Here's what surprised me the most about the seven-night adventure.
The author in front of Carnival Vista. Monica Humphries/Insider

I've been fortunate enough to travel the world by plane, but cruising is relatively new territory for me — especially compared to cruise superfans that I met on the ship.

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You board the ship a lot earlier than its scheduled departure, so the cruise experience begins long before it leaves the dock.

You board the ship a lot earlier than its scheduled departure, so the cruise experience begins long before it leaves the dock.
Masks were required to board the ship. Monica Humphries/Insider

I naively thought I would be ushered onto the ship just an hour or so before it was scheduled to depart from Galveston, Texas.

Days before the cruise departed, I checked in for the cruise and picked an arrival time. Surprisingly, all my options were hours before the ship's sailing time.

The Carnival Vista was scheduled to depart at 4 p.m., and I opted for a 1 p.m. check-in appointment.

When I stepped onto the ship three hours before it would depart from Galveston, it was already packed. People were stationed at the bars, the pool decks were crowded, and the buffet was already serving food — hours before I initially thought my cruise experience would begin.

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Perhaps my favorite surprise was learning that my luggage would be delivered to my room.

Perhaps my favorite surprise was learning that my luggage would be delivered to my room.
Before I even exited the bus, crew members were loading luggage to bring onboard the Carnival Vista. Monica Humphries/Insider

I opted to take Carnival Cruise Line-hosted transportation from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, to the port in Galveston.

When the bus arrived at the port, I didn't touch the luggage that I had stored underneath the bus. Crew members quickly gathered everyone's luggage, and I later reunited with my carry-on in my cruise cabin.

I easily navigated through the boarding process without my heavy carry-on bag, and it was one less thing to worry about.

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I stepped onto the ship overwhelmed and with no directions. Was I supposed to go to my room? Where is my room key? What is a muster station?

I stepped onto the ship overwhelmed and with no directions. Was I supposed to go to my room? Where is my room key? What is a muster station?
A crowd had gathered at the entrance of the cruise ship when I boarded. Monica Humphries/Insider

I stepped onto the Carnival Vista without a guide of what I was supposed to do. Music was blasting, people were dancing, and there weren't any crew members telling guests where to go or what to do.

I aimlessly walked around for a few minutes until I found a crew member and asked for advice. Since I was early for my check-in appointment, she suggested I go to the muster station first and then head to my room.

I followed her advice and quickly learned that a muster station is where passengers are required to meet during an emergency. Here, I learned how to adorn a life vest, and then headed to my room.

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Once I navigated to my cabin, I was surprised to learn that it would be tidied every single day.

Once I navigated to my cabin, I was surprised to learn that it would be tidied every single day.
A wide-angle image of my cabin room. Monica Humphries/Insider

In the past, my travels have usually involved staying at hostels and budget Airbnbs, so when I met my stateroom attendant Komang, I was initially confused by his questions.

He wanted to know if I preferred mornings or nights, but I wasn't sure what was taking place during these times.

Finally, it clicked. Komang would be entering my room every day to tidy up. He would make my bed, replace the towels, take out the trash, and, of course, leave behind a towel animal.

The turndown service felt like a luxury.

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There were no communal tables in the dining room.

There were no communal tables in the dining room.
The author in Carnival Vista's largest dining room. Monica Humphries/Insider

As a solo traveler, it was easy to meet people and make friends in most areas of the ship. The conversation naturally flowed in the hot tubs and small talk sparked before comedy shows.

Since so many places on the cruise were designed for natural conversation, I assumed the same would be true in the dining room.

But I was wrong. It was the hardest place to meet people. Each night, I asked the hostess if there were any communal tables available — which were common before the pandemic — but I was told there weren't any.

It seemed like the majority of people were eating with their friends and family, so I quickly learned to enjoy the solitude that came with dining by myself each evening.

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Elevators took forever, so I took stairs more often than I expected.

Elevators took forever, so I took stairs more often than I expected.
One of the rare times I was in an elevator alone. Monica Humphries/Insider

The ship is divided into three sections: forward, middle, and aft. Each of these sections has its own set of elevators.

With more than a dozen elevators on the ship, I assumed I would never have to wait. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case, there was almost always a line for an elevator.

About a day or two into the cruise, I realized that waiting wasn't worth it and opted for the stairs.

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In fact, I was shocked by how much I walked throughout the seven days.

In fact, I was shocked by how much I walked throughout the seven days.
A screenshot of my steps during the week of the cruise. Monica Humphries/Insider

I knew cruise ships were enormous, but I didn't realize the extent until I was running around the 1,055-foot-long boat.

I constantly found myself hopping between pools, running downstairs to grab something from my room, and grabbing a bit to eat at a restaurant across the ship.

All that added up in steps. Aside from disembarkation day, I easily averaged more than 10,000 steps every single day of the cruise.

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You had to have your phone with you everywhere you went.

You had to have your phone with you everywhere you went.
A QR code in the dining room, which I scanned to access the brunch menu. Monica Humphries

One of the biggest changes passengers noticed on the first cruise since the start of the pandemic was a reliance on the Carnival HUB App.

The app was home to the daily events list and guests used it to book excursions, check-in for dinner, and watch safety videos. I also used my phone at almost every eatery on the ship because I needed to snap a picture of QR codes to access menus. I even found the spa's offerings with the help of a QR code.

Luckily, you didn't need WiFi, but I was disappointed with how often I needed my phone. Other passengers I spoke with on the Vista agreed.

They said cruises are all about disconnecting, so needing your phone made that a lot more challenging.

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Many people didn't leave the ship even when it was docked at the destinations.

Many people didn't leave the ship even when it was docked at the destinations.
The deck on the Carnival Vista cruise ship. Monica Humphries/Insider

Before this trip, I had always thought of cruising as a way to explore new destinations and travel to new locations.

While some passengers said that's their favorite part of cruising, others told me they never even left the ship.

In fact, some of the cruise-goers I spoke to said that port days are their favorite because that's when the ship is at its emptiest. The bars are deserted, their favorite slot machines are open, and there are no crowds in the pool.

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While some activities were packed and crowded, I was surprised by how empty the gym and fitness classes were.

While some activities were packed and crowded, I was surprised by how empty the gym and fitness classes were.
The empty gym. Monica Humphries/Insider

Each time I went to the gym, it was practically empty. I was the only runner on the treadmill, and during my 30-minute run, only three other people entered the facility.

I also took two yoga classes during the week. For the first class, I arrived early to find my ideal spot in the studio, but to my surprise, it was just me. The $17 class felt like an even better price knowing that I was getting one-on-one help with my warrior-two pose.

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In general, I found ample places for alone time on the massive ship.

In general, I found ample places for alone time on the massive ship.
I worked from a deck that was entirely empty. Monica Humphries/Insider

With about 2,700 passengers, I assumed my only moments of solitude would occur inside my cabin, but I was wrong.

Throughout the seven-day cruise, I found myself alone in hot tubs, on entire decks without people, and exploring the arcade all without another passenger in sight.

This was in part because the cruise was at 70% capacity, but even at maximum capacity, I think I would still be able to find isolated spots.

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On the flip side, I was shocked by how comfortable everyone seemed with the lack of social distancing.

On the flip side, I was shocked by how comfortable everyone seemed with the lack of social distancing.
Crowds on Carnival Vista's Lido Deck. Monica Humphries/Insider

It was impossible to social distance throughout the entire cruise, and since this was one of my first vacations since the pandemic started, I was amazed at how calm and comfortable everyone seemed with crowds.

There were a few moments throughout the cruise — when shows would end and everyone would file into the hallway or when everyone tried to exit the ship at the same time — that overwhelmed me.

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Your room key controls everything on the ship.

Your room key controls everything on the ship.
A crew member scans my sail and sign card. Monica Humphries/Insider

Besides your phone, I was surprised the only other thing I ever needed on the ship was my sail and sign card, which acted as a room key, credit card, and cruise ID.

The plastic card controlled everything. This made life on the ship easier, but also more stressful. I managed to misplace my card multiple times, which left me frantically rummaging through my bag in hopes it wasn't permanently lost.

I was also surprised by how much I could learn about other passengers from just the color of their card. Carnival Cruise Lines has a guest recognition program, and the color of your card indicates how many days each passenger has spent at sea.

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I woke up every day refreshed and ready for adventure thanks to a surprisingly good night's sleep.

I woke up every day refreshed and ready for adventure thanks to a surprisingly good night's sleep.
The author in Roatán, Honduras. Monica Humphries/Insider

One of the few things I remember from my first is just how easy it is to fall asleep. I stayed in a 185-square-foot, windowless stateroom, and the darkness worked to my advantage.

That, paired with the rocking of the ship, had me asleep in minutes. Honestly, the deep sleep is one of the things I miss most about the entire cruise.

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