Cruise Embarkation

Embarkation day is the first day of your cruise, when you will embark your cruise ship. Cruise embarkation day is also be referred to as boarding day. While it’s a busy day and there are embarkation procedures to be aware of, it’s also the start of an amazing vacation ahead.

Whether this is your first cruise or you’re an experienced cruiser, you’re probably wondering what to expect on your cruise embarkation day. There have been a few changes as cruises have restarted, and this is especially true for the first day of your cruise.

Complete Pre-cruise Online Check-in & Health Forms

Before you even get to the cruise terminal to board your cruise ship, remember to complete your online check in on the cruise line website or app. There is important personal information to enter that needs to be done prior to your cruise.

You will also want to familiarize yourself with the cruise line’s current health protocols and vaccine requirements to ensure you have all the documentation you need.

Schedule COVID-19 tests and organize vaccination documents as soon as you book

COVID-19 has brought along its own new kind of embarkation day stress. Depending on which cruise line you’re sailing with, you may need to have proof of vaccination, proof of a negative test taken within a certain amount of days before your departure and/or take a rapid test at the terminal before you’re allowed to board the ship.

The best way to handle all of this is to not put it off. Schedule any required COVID-19 tests well in advance so you can be sure you’ll get an appointment, and the results back, in time. Keep your vaccination records or medical or religious exemptions in one special place, preferably their own special holder or folder that can easily be accessed at the port of embarkation during check-in.

Important Tip: Double-check the cruise line’s requirements, and then about two week and one week before your cruise, double-check them again as things tend to change quickly these days.

Print all Your Documents

Print your cruise documents including boarding pass and luggage tags and be ready for your cruise embarkation day! Do this as early as possible to avoid last minute stress.

Pre-purchase Beverage Packages and Shore Excursions

While you can purchase a beverage package or shore excursions on the cruise, it’s often easier and even a little bit cheaper to book these things on the cruise line website before you board.

However, if you’re not sure which shore excursions you want to take, don’t stress. There will be a crew member working at the shore excursion desk once you board your cruise ship.

Arrive on Time

While in the past I recommended arriving at your cruise port early so you could board your cruise ship as soon as possible, this is no longer the case. As you complete your online check in, you’ll be able to choose an arrival time. By having embarkation day time, there’s less crowding in the cruise terminal and cruise lines can comply with the health and safety measures.

Fly in the day before your cruise

Don’t start off your cruise vacation panicking about missing the ship because of a flight delay or cancelation. Get ahead of the stress by arranging to arrive in your port city the evening before your cruise leaves.

If you’re driving, allow extra time for traffic, pit stops and unexpected delays. In general, leave plenty of room in your schedule for any surprises.

Plan transfers before you travel

Baggage claim is not the place to first start thinking about port transfers. Whether you book through the cruise line, hire a private transfer, get a hotel shuttle or use public transit or a local cab, have your plan in place before you go. Make your reservation in advance, or at least know which bus line will take you to the port or the approximate taxi fare from the airport to the cruise port. You don’t want to be stranded mere miles from your ship.

Don’t forget to keep your documentation and passports on you, and not in your checked luggage!

Know your ship’s embarkation window and departure time

A ship’s embarkation window and its departure time are two separate things. Embarkation refers to the window of time that people check-in and board the vessel, while departure time refers to the time the cruise officially leaves port and heads out into the water. Your ship’s departure time is usually later than the cutoff time for checking in.

Note: Depending on the cruise line, suite passengers, upper-tier loyalty members and sometimes even first-time cruisers may have their own dedicated check-in lines (similar to airport ticket counter and check-in lines) so be sure to make sure you’re getting into the right line at the terminal.

Prepare to wait in line

Though you may take all measures to avoid it, chances are you’ll have to spend some time on embarkation day waiting in at least one line. Be prepared by packing snacks, masks, water, entertainment for the kids and any support you may need, like a chair or cane, if you have trouble standing for long periods of time. At the very least we recommend wearing comfortable shoes, e.g., no high heels, open-toed shoes in cold climates or rain, or stiff business shoes.

Wear an Embarkation Day Outfit

Frequent fliers know that a key to navigating through the airport pre-flight and being comfortable in flight is donning the right kind of outfit. The same goes with cruise embarkation day.

Be thoughtful when putting together your embarkation day outfit. You’re going to want to wear something that is comfortable, has layers in case you’re dealing with both indoor and outdoor lines, and preferably has pockets for easy access to important documents, your phone, etc.

Bring an Embarkation Day Bag

I recommend that cruisers bring a small carry-on with a change of clothes, swim suit, important medications and anything else essential to have for the first afternoon onboard — since you never know when your checked luggage will turn up.

Since your luggage won’t arrive at your cabin until later in the day, bring a cruise carry-on bag for the first day of your cruise. Whether you decide to bring a small piece of luggage as a carry-on or a backpack, the carry-on bag is a must.

Things to pack in your embarkation day include medication, valuables, laptops and tech items, sunscreen and a change of clothes. 

Stash a change of clothes in your carry-on, like a sun hat and sunscreen, or a jacket and scarf, depending on the local weather. It’s a small move that can make a big difference if you’re stuck in an embarkation line that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Be ready for the ‘Welcome Aboard’ photos – or skip ’em

Pretty much every cruise line tries to take your photo on embarkation day. Why they think the travel-weary look with carry-ons slung across your shoulder is a good one to memorialize, we don’t know. Consider yourself forewarned: Either throw on some makeup and a fresh shirt, or politely say, “no, thank you” to the photographers and keep on walking.

After check in, expect a photo opportunity just before boarding. The ship’s photographers will have a backdrop set up where you can take an official embarkation day photo!

Cruise tip: If you’d rather not take a photo, simply walk past the photo booth. There’s no obligation to purchase a photo.

Keep all your required documents in one easily accessible place

Aside from your COVID-19 documents — negative test results and vaccine card or exemption letter — you’ll also need to get your usual cruise document ducks in a row.

Before you leave home, make sure you have all the official documents you need — from cruise tickets to government-issued IDs.  There is nothing so dream-crushing as getting to the cruise port only to discover that you left your passport at home or don’t have the right visa to cruise.

We suggest putting them with your COVID-19 documents so everything is in one easily accessible place. You don’t want to be that person fumbling through their belongings, holding up the line.

Important Note: Don’t forget to order or print out cruise line luggage tags, your cruise ticket and any special waiver statements or confirmations of onboard package options you’ve purchased.

Learn your cabin number

Have you ever gotten onboard and headed for the crowded embarkation-day elevators, only to realize you have no idea where you’re going? We have.

You might have memorized everything about the ship and your cabin but can’t recall the exact number of your cabin. Write it down in an obvious spot, and memorize it before you step onto the ship — most cruise lines don’t print it on your cruise card for security reasons. In any event, you’ll need to remember it for the rest of your trip.

Don’t Expect to Go to Your Cabin Right Away

A surprise for many who are new to cruising, your cruise cabin probably won’t be cleaned and ready when you board your cruise ship. Often this means waiting an hour or a bit longer before you can head to your stateroom and put down your bags. However, you can still eat, drink and explore the ship while you wait.

Avoid the buffet if you can

The natural progression after cruise ship embarkation for most guests is to head to their room, drop off their carry-ons and then either head to the bar and then the buffet. While there are several bars set up to serve thirsty passengers, there’s only one buffet, and it can become wildly busy those first few hours on board. Best avoid this madhouse and opt to try one of the ship’s alternative dining options, if they’re open. (It might be your only chance to eat at some of the specialty restaurants, if they’re already booked up for dinners.)

On embarkation day, there’s often more than once place to eat lunch, although it might not be widely promoted. The obvious place to eat is the buffet, however you can expect it to be crowded as most people aren’t aware of the other options.

Often the main dining room will be open for lunch, and you can have a nice sit down lunch while you wait for your stateroom to be ready. There are also casual restaurants open including the pool side grill and cafes.

Put Your Valuables in the Cabin Safe

It’s important to take a few minutes to put your valuable items into the cabin safe. This can include your money and wallet, jewelry, passports and even your keys.

Since any cruise purchases will be put on your onboard account, there’s no need to walk around with a wallet or purse. It’s a great feeling and just one of the reasons cruising is an amazing and pretty stress-free vacation!

Meet your Cabin Steward

On a cruise you’ll have a cabin steward or attendant who will clean your stateroom daily, as well as ensure you have everything you need to be comfortable in your cabin. 

Upon embarkation day, your cabin attendant will introduce themselves. Take a minute or two to chat, however keep in mind that this is a very busy time for them. If you have requests, now is the time to ask.

Check the Daily Planner 

Cruise ships have a type newsletter or planner that will be placed in your cabin each day. It will be a schedule of daily activities that are available, as well as entertainment options, opening hours for the gym, spa, restaurants etc.

However, on your cruise embarkation day, you will receive a planner that is more of a general overview of the big things that you can look forward to during the rest of your cruise.

This will include big productions shows, audience participation game-shows (such as Love and Marriage), and special guest entertainers such as comedians and illusionists. This will help you to plan your time on your cruise week as you look ahead.

Please note that this may change as cruises restart. Many cruise lines have said that they will be working to reduce paper waste and will be encouraging people to use the cruise line app.

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