Dreading cruise embarkation day? Tips for a smooth sail-away

There is something so exciting and yet intensely nerve-wracking about cruise embarkation day. Boarding your cruise ship after months of planning often goes very smoothly – and other times not.

With new rules and check-in procedures following the pandemic, it can take longer to get on board. But with good planning and a vacation mindset that starts as soon as you step foot on the quayside, cruise embarkation day can be frazzle-free.

Then all you need to focus on is the sail-away party.

Below, we answer the top nine questions asked by cruise guests, many from travelers embarking on a first-time cruise.

1. What is the embarkation procedure?

By the time you get to the port, you should have checked in online for your cruise.

Since the pandemic, embarkation procedures have changed. It varies significantly from cruise line to cruise line, just as in the port. But generally, you will first enter the check-in area before boarding your cruise ship.

Here you approach a cruise staff member at a check-in desk and present your passports and cruise tickets. If you have not already registered a credit card on your online cruise account, do this at check-in.

At the end of your cruise, purchases made on board will be charged to your card.

You can check your final bill on your cabin TV screen or the cruise app on your mobile phone. Any discrepancies should be discussed with guest services before you disembark. We recommend you do this the day before your cruise ends.

Why it’s important to check in online before your cruise:

  1. It allows you to double-check all your details in your cruise booking
  2. It speeds up the check-in process at the port.
  3. It lets you see the documents you need when you get to the port. We recommend that you take paper copies and digital copies of your documents. You can keep these digital documents on your mobile phone in a drop box.

2. How long does cruise embarkation take?

You will be allocated a check-in time on your cruise ticket. Some cruise lines even let you choose your own check-in time.

Cruise lines stagger the check-in times to ensure that not all passengers show up simultaneously. Remember that the largest cruise ships that hold around 6000 passengers would have an impossible task if guests were not grouped into time slots. This helps keep queue time to a minimum and avoid long lines at the port.

The truth is that even when you have an allocated check-in time, you can turn up earlier at the port. Most often, if there are no long lines, you can check in and board.

3. What time can we board a cruise ship?

The earliest check-in time is usually around 10 am if your sailing departure is around 5 pm.

We recommend that you do not fly into your departure city on the same day your cruise departs. Flight delays and cancellations could delay getting to the port and result in you missing your cruise altogether. There are no refunds if you booked your flights separately and get to the port too late to board your cruise ship.

4. What is the first thing we should do when we get on board?

As you board your cruise ship, you will be asked to place your hand luggage on the x-ray machine.

You will show the cruise card the check-in staff has already given you. Or you will be blipped through with your cruise bracelet or medallion. Different cruise lines offer different methods of identification.

Once you are through this area, you will be on board. Make your way to your cabin using the elevators.

Once inside your cabin makes sure everything is to your satisfaction. You will most likely meet your cabin attendant, who is usually nearby during check-in.

Do you have enough towels? Are there plenty of coat hangers in your wardrobe? Would you like a different pillow? Is the bedding configuration as you requested? If you want anything changed, ask the cabin attendant. They will take care of your cabin throughout your cruise, so it’s good to say hello.

Many cruise guests take this time to explore the ship. Familiarize yourself with the location of your cabin. Then head to the main deck, where you will find the shops. Continue to the buffet restaurants, where you can have a late lunch and order drinks. Work your way up to the top deck, where you’ll find live music by the poolside ready for the sail-away party.

5. Who takes care of our luggage on embarkation day?

All you want to leave behind as you start your cruise vacation are your worries, not your luggage.

When you are in the initial check-in area at the port, cruise staff will take care of your suitcases. Ensure your suitcases are all clearly labeled. Keep your hand luggage with you.

You should already have tagged your luggage using the tags you received from the cruise line with your cruise ticket. It has your cabin number on it. If you are missing luggage tags, do tell the check-in staff before handing over your suitcase.

Your luggage will appear in your cabin during the afternoon. Don’t worry if it’s a little delayed. Ensure all the things you need immediately on board are in your hand luggage.

6. What should we pack in our carry-on luggage?

Once you get to the cruise port, your larger luggage will be handled by cruise personnel and turn up in your cabin for you. This ensures that cruise guests do not have to haul their suitcases on board and through the ship while looking for their cabins.

Most importantly, elevators and corridors do not become overcrowded with suitcases.

All you need is your handluggage. Much like the cabin baggage you take onboard an aircraft. This should contain all your essentials and a few extras you may be glad of on cruise embarkation day:

  • Medication – any medication you use should be in your hand luggage.
  • Money – as always, we recommend that you carry valuables with you until you are in your cabin and can use the safe to store your cash, passports, and anything else of value.
  • Passports – you will need these to board the cruise ship.
  • Mobile phone/camera – of course, you will have this will at all times. Most importantly, to take those vacation photos and ensure you can keep in touch and access valuable information through your cruise line app (download the app before you leave home!).
  • Embarkation documents – you will certainly need these with you, and we recommend that you carry paper copies even if you have them accessible in digital form. And we also mean your printed luggage tags that the cruise line sends with your cruise ticket. These should be attached to your suitcase at the port. That way, luggage is delivered to the correct cabin number.
  • Poolside clothes, spare shorts, and a t-shirt – If you intend to be at the pool deck after checking in, pack your swimsuit, shorts, and t-shirt in your hand luggage. That way it’s a quick change without waiting for your suitcase. Towels are available at the poolside.

7. What are we not allowed to bring on board?

Rules can vary from cruise line to cruise line, but generally, you will not be allowed clothing irons and steam irons in your cabin.

Some cruise lines also limit the amount of alcohol and drinks you are allowed in your suitcase. Check your particular cruise line’s rules and regulations.

Some sports equipment may be allowed, for example, if you are extending your cruise into a land vacation and want to take golf clubs. However, the cruise line will store your golf clubs until disembarkation at the end of the cruise. Before you travel, you must inform the cruise company if you bring special luggage.

8. What should we pre-book before we start our cruise

It always feels good to know that when cruise embarkation day comes around, you have booked all the optional extras you want during your vacation. That way, there are no hidden surprises of extra costs or disappointments when the excursions you wanted are fully booked.

Shore excursions

Whether you choose ships excursions or tours booked through independent suppliers, plan your days before you start your cruise.

Cruise lines often keep a certain number of places open for each excursion. This allows guests to book last-minute onboard at the shore excursion desk. However, it’s risky as available places sell out quickly. Book ahead to avoid disappointment.

Beverage or drinks packages

The topic of drink or beverage packages is constantly discussed.

Is it worth the money? When should I book to get the best price? One thing we know for sure is that beverage packages are almost always more expensive if you book onboard the cruise ship.

Not only will you pay the total price, but you will often be subject to a service charge of around 18% when ordering a drink at the bar.

The best scenario is if you can jump on a particular campaign when booking your cruise vacation and have the beverage package included in the price. Then, if you are interested in upgrading, you pay the price difference for the “luxury” drinks packages. Check the cruise line’s information page to see what is included in your package.

Specialty dining and restaurants

Food is excellent and plentiful on any cruise ship. You will happily eat in the main dining room or the buffet restaurant throughout your vacation.

However, specialty restaurants offer fantastic menus that are hard to resist. For a small extra charge, you can have a unique culinary experience that you would pay much more for at a 5-star restaurant.

If you want to try a specialty restaurant, book before you leave home to ensure you get the evening you wish.

Alternatively, if you are flexible, once on board, ask if any restaurants offer a special price to dine there for lunch, especially on port days if you stay on the ship.

Internet packages

Wifi packages are often the same price regardless of booking in advance or on board the cruise ship. Booking ahead of your cruise is more convenient, and guest services can be busy on embarkation day. Again, check for unique campaigns when you book your cruise to see if you can get a free package as part of a promotion.

9. What are the most common reasons cruise guests cannot board their cruise ship?


Turning up too late on cruise embarkation day when the door has closed, and check-in has finished means that the ship will not allow you to board. You must turn up at the latest time stated on your cruise ticket. This is often earlier than the actual ship’s departure time. The tide waits for no one.

Forgotten travel documents

Most often, passports. Even if you have a departure from a domestic port, your cruise ship may be visiting international ports. Take your passport with you rather than just relying on an ID card or driver’s license. Check your passport is valid for at least six months after the return date of your cruise.

Meet the author: Sarah has created and booked hundreds of travel itineraries for thousands of customers during a career in the travel industry that spans 20 years. Having worked hand in hand with cruise lines, hotels, airlines and tour operators worldwide, she offers inspiring & detailed insights in the world of travel and tourism.

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