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Boarding Your Cruise Ship: Tips & Expectations

NCL Escape Front scaled
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You’ve waited months – possibly a year – for your cruise.

And now it’s here!

You’re excited and nervous at the same time.

That’s because, while you’ve been looking forward to this cruise, you also don’t want to do anything that could jeopardize getting on the ship.

That’s where we come in!

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We’re going to help you by identifying the things you need to make sure you don’t miss your ship.

As well as give you some pointers to make your embarkation as smooth as possible.

Preparing for Your Cruise

Surprisingly enough, the first step for a successful boarding happens before you leave the house.

Roughly 45 days before your cruise is scheduled to sail, you will get communication from the cruise line to complete your online checking.

There are two ways you can do this:

  1. Log onto the cruise line’s website. Follow the instructions (which is in most cases a wizard) that will guide you through completing the process.
  2. Install the app on your phone. You’ll answer the same questions that the website will ask.

You’ll also be prompted to print out your luggage tags so you can attach them to your baggage.

You don’t “have” to do this. The porters at the terminal can do that for you.

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However, I suggest you print them and put them on your luggage.

I have never – not once – had my luggage lost when going on a cruise.

Pro Tip: Print the luggage tags and attach them to your suitcases. It will greatly reduce the possibility that your luggage will be lost. If you need new suitcases, these are some excellent options.

Print Luggage Tags and Apply to Your Luggage

Every single person who I’ve seen or talked to that had their luggage lost had their luggage tags written out by hand.

The tags you’ll print from the cruise line will have your name, cabin number, and ship clearly printed to prevent loss.

There are a few things you’ll specifically want to have available and know about.

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mountains at cruise port viewed from deck of cruise ship

What You Need to Complete the Online Check-in

The first thing you’ll want to have is your passport.

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Yes, it’s true that in a closed-loop cruise (that is, a cruise that returns to the same port it departed from) you can use a birth certificate to board the ship.

However, because no one can foresee the future, you’ll want to make sure you own a passport. It just makes life easier all around.

Another thing you’ll want to do (although it is not necessary) is to take a passport-type photo of everyone sailing.

Again, this isn’t necessary. If you don’t do this during the online check-in, your picture will be taken once you get to the terminal after you go through security.

Now, why would they need your picture?

This is so that when you leave and return from the ship while in port and on debarkation day, the security staff can positively identify you as the person you say you are.

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So, if you handle this during the online check-in, you’ll get onto the ship faster.

You’ll also need to complete your emergency contact information in case something happens to you during your sailing and the ship needs to notify someone.

At this point, some cruise lines will give you the opportunity to add more things to your cruise package.

For example, Carnival will invite you to purchase water, cookies, chocolate-covered strawberries, and other things so that they are waiting in your cabin when you arrive.

Other cruise lines will use this opportunity to get you to purchase the Wi-Fi package, drink package, or specialty dining.

Pro Tip: Purchase any extras – Wi-Fi, speciality dining, drink package, etc – before you get on the ship. The prices will be higher on the ship and reservations for specialty dining may not be available.

Purchase Extras Before You Board the Ship

If you do want any of these extras, now is the time to get them.

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Waiting until you’re on the ship will usually mean higher prices.

And in the case of specialty dining, no more reservations may be available.

Some cruise lines will give you a boarding time.

I’ll be honest with you. You can usually ignore this.

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front of large cruise ship in port

Pre-COVID, some lines were very strict that you get to the terminal at your assigned time.

The truth is, I have yet to board a cruise post-COVID that required this.

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Oh, they’ll still tell you want time to come.

But I wouldn’t concern yourself with it.

Get to the cruise terminal as early as possible.

Because all the ships I’ve been on have been first come, first served.

Arriving at the Terminal

Most cruise ships begin letting passengers off the ship sometime between 7:30 AM and 8:30 AM depending on how long it takes customs to clear the ship.

This means that parking spaces won’t start opening up until this time.

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So you’ll want to make sure you get to the terminal early for a couple of reasons:

  1. The lines will usually be shorter to get into the cruise terminal
  2. It will be easier to find a parking spot.
  3. The sooner you get there, the sooner you can board the ship and begin enjoying your cruise.

As we said, the check-in time you were given in your onboard check-in is just a suggestion. I have never had any cruise line stick to them.

One thing to note is that parking at the cruise terminal is usually very expensive!

Personally, I like parking at the cruise terminal despite the costs.

The reason is that I can jump in my car and immediately get on the road back home.

But it does come at the cost of higher parking prices.

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One way around this is to use a parking service where you can leave your vehicle and get a shuttle to the terminal.

And the cost will usually be cheaper than parking at the port.

Dealing with Your Luggage

Once you get to the port, you can drop your bags off so they can go through the security scanners.

How this process works depends on the port you will be sailing out of, the cruise line, and the actual terminal you’ll be entering.

For example, at the Jacksonville, FL port only Carnival sails from there.

Parking is abundant. The lot is flat; that is to say, there is no parking garage. Just spots like a parking lot.

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Because that’s what it is.

It’s not uncommon for passengers to park and roll their luggage to the porters.

Ft. Lauderdale, is another beast all to itself. And this is one of those “depends on which terminal your ship is leaving from”.

As an example, I sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. The parking was an open-air parking lot right next to the cruise terminal.

When sailing on Holland America – also from Ft. Lauderdale – we had to drive into the terminal, drop our bags with the porter, drive to a parking lot, then get shuttled back to the terminal.

Same cruise port. Different terminal. Night and day difference.

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But let’s get back to the luggage.

Pro Tip: It’s customary to tip the porters $2 per bag when you give them your luggage.

Tip the Porters

Remember I said to print your luggage tags and attach them to your luggage?

If you do this, it will speed up the process of you getting onto the ship.

In addition to speeding up your boarding, you also don’t have to worry about the ship not being able to read the porter’s handwriting.

This is a good time to tell you that it is customary to tip the porter.

The typical tip is $2 per bag.

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And it must be in cash. The porters don’t do credit cards.

What happens if you don’t tip?

Nothing. But you will get some ugly stares.

Once your bags are checked in and you’ve parked, it’s time to go through the security process.

The Check-In and Security Process

Once inside the terminal, you’ll be required to go through security, much like at the airport.

Unlike the airport, you won’t have to practically strip naked to successfully get through.

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You’ll be told to empty your pockets and to send all electronics through the scanner.

Some security checks told us to put laptops, phones, etc. in a bag or carry-on.

Others wanted the laptop out of the bag.

Once you’ve successfully passed through security, you’ll head over to the cruise line employees to check you onto the ship.

Here is where doing your online check-in will be helpful.

I should tell you that every cruise line handles this step differently.

Pro Tip: Even if you use the app for your boarding pass, keep a printed copy with you just in case you have technical difficulties with your phone.

Print Your Boarding Pass

For Carnival, they will scan your boarding pass and double-check your ID (a.k.a. passport).

Your boarding pass can be printed or you can use the app.

Holland America, though was probably the best experience we’ve ever had.

We approached the employee who had a tablet in her hand.

She scanned our boarding pass. And because we had everything already registered, we were given our board time ticket and waited to get on the ship.

It’s a painless and usually quick process.

If you are sailing on Norwegian Cruise Line, it is at this stage that you will be given your room key.

Keep your boarding pass with you. You’ll need it one more time before you are free to enjoy the ship.

Most other cruise lines leave your room key outside your stateroom.

Officially Boarding the Ship

Depending on how early you arrive at the cruise terminal, you will have to sit in the waiting area until your section is called.

If you come after the ship begins boarding, there’s no wait. You just head on up to the ship.

THIS is when your cruise actually begins!

Frist Steps on NCL Escape

The friendly staff will guide you to the steps or elevators to get onto the ship.

You’ll also have photographers encouraging you to take pictures with a cruise-themed background for memories.

You won’t get your pictures right then. You’ll give the photographer your stateroom number and pick them up on the ship.

For a fee, of course.

Remember when I said to keep your boarding pass ready?

You’ll need it one more time so you can be scanned onto the ship.

Once that’s finished, you can officially begin enjoying your cruise!

First Things to Do on Board

The first thing you should do when you board the ship is to find your muster station.

Your muster station will be printed on your boarding pass.

It is not “required” for you to immediately go to your muster station, but I highly suggest you do it when you board the ship.

That is because it IS a requirement for all passengers to have gone through the cruise line’s muster process before the ship can leave.

I think you should know what a “muster station” is before we go any further.

In the event of an emergency on the ship, you will hear 7 short tones and one long tone on the speakers of the ship.

You will hear this no matter where you are. Even your stateroom.

Pro Tip: Visit your muster station as soon as you board the ship. It’s MUCH easier than it was pre-COVID and painless (unless you sail with MSC). You also don’t want to hear your name on the ship’s PA system.

Visit the Muster Station as Soon as You Board

If such an emergency happens, you will need to immediately go to your assigned muster station.

I have yet to be on a cruise where I had to go to the muster station during my sailing.

However, although it is uncommon, it does occasionally happen.

Now that you know what the muster station is, you’ll want to make sure you visit there first.

Because, after you’ve done that and watched the safety briefing on your phone or stateroom TV, you are free to enjoy the ship!

Your cabin won’t be ready if you board before 1 o’clock.

So take this time to learn the ship.

This is a great time to explore because most people will be off somewhere filling their bellies.

Wander the ship. Find the venues you really want to visit. Locate the food establishments.

The ship is literally yours!

Navigating Dining and Activities on the First Day

During this time, you’ll want to address any dining issues you may have.

Perhaps you want to change the dining times or where you will sit.

We’ve got a detailed post about changing your dining arrangements and where we recommend eating on embarkation day to avoid the crowds.

You’ll want to make your way up to the pool deck at the time you are scheduled to leave port.

This is where you’ll find the pool party.

Now, I’ve got to be honest with you. Not all pool parties are built the same.

The most sedate was on Holland America.

And it is universally agreed that Carnival has the best sail-away party at sea.

Although Virgin Voyages would challenge that notion.

You could go to Guest Services at this time if there are issues with your cabin or other things related to your cruise.

However, lines tend to be long on embarkation day.

If you can wait until after sail-away, you’ll have less chance of waiting in long lines.

Let the Festivities Begin!

That’s it!

You are ready to enjoy your cruise vacation to the full!

Remember, the first day of your cruise sets the tone for the rest of your sailing.

Make sure you install the cruise line’s app on your phone and connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi (which is free when using the app).

Explore all the activities that will be offered, the shows, movies (yes, movies!), games, karaoke – everything the ship has to offer.

Then add them to your favorites so you don’t miss anything you want to enjoy on the ship.

Parking, leaving your luggage with the porters, going through security – it’s all a necessary requirement to boarding the ship.

It’s a momentary inconvenience compared to the colossal mountain of food and fun you will enjoy while on your cruise!