The big day is approaching, and you're finally getting ready to head to the cruise port and board your ship. How can you ensure you're prepared to start your vacation on the right foot? You'll need a plan for getting to the port and some knowledge about the embarkation process, including your cruise ship boarding time.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, cruise lines would often allow passengers to show up at the terminal on embarkation day whenever was convenient for them within a half-day window.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, lines began assigning boarding times to passengers or, more commonly, asking them to choose the window of time that they'd prefer in order to stagger the crowds. The new method has worked so well that there's a good chance it will remain in place.
But what time do cruises board, and is there a best time to board a cruise ship? Read on to find out the answers, as well as when you should plan to arrive in your departure city before you set sail.
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When to arrive for a cruise
Ask "when should I arrive for my cruise?" and you likely mean one of two things: When should you arrive in your ship's departure port city before your sailing or when should you arrive at the cruise terminal on embarkation day?
The answer to the first question depends on how far of a commute you have to the cruise port. If you live within driving distance of your departure port, it's acceptable to make your way there the same day your ship leaves — unless you're looking at a multi-hour ride and don't want to cut it too close to boarding time.
If you're catching a plane, when to fly in for your cruise depends on several factors. I always advise flying in at least one day before you're scheduled to embark, just in case you encounter any delays or cancellations. That way, you have time to rebook yourself on a different flight if something goes wrong.
Related: Should I buy my flights through my cruise line
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However, adding the cost of a pre-cruise hotel stay onto the overall bill isn't always doable for every traveler, especially those on tight budgets. If that's the case and you can find a super-early flight that gets you to your port city with some wiggle room, flying in the same day you sail is totally possible.
Either way, I recommend purchasing travel insurance (through a third party, not through your cruise line) that will protect your investment if something happens and you miss your ship.
What time do cruise ships board?
As for when to arrive at the cruise terminal on embarkation day, the answer depends on your boarding time.
Cruise ships usually begin boarding an hour or two after all passengers from the previous voyage have left the ship. Disembarkation generally wraps up by 10 a.m. at the latest, and some extra time is allowed for the crew to start on tasks like provisioning (restocking of supplies and food), bunkering (refueling) and cleaning of the vessel's cabins and public areas to ready them for the next round of guests.
Related: 27 cruise ship embarkation day do’s and don'ts
Boarding begins roughly between 10 and 11 a.m., depending on the ship's schedule and how long it takes everyone from the last cruise to debark. Most cruise ships require all passengers to be on board no fewer than one to two hours before the scheduled departure time, which is almost always in the late afternoon or evening.
Best time to board a cruise ship
The best time to board a cruise ship is obviously when there are few lines and short waits. The trick is knowing when that will be.
Unfortunately, it can vary from port to port and ship to ship, but I tend to prefer arriving in the early afternoon, usually around 1 or 2 p.m.
By then, the morning rush of "me first" passengers has usually died down, and it allows enough time between your arrival at the port and "all aboard," the cutoff for when all passengers and crew must be on the vessel. (If you're someone who prefers to spend as much time as possible on board, you can elect to choose an earlier boarding time, but be warned that there could be long lines and wait times.)
Alternatively, if you have upper-tier loyalty status, you're booked in a high-end suite or you've purchased one of several perks packages (like Carnival Cruise Line's Faster to the Fun, Royal Caribbean International's The Key or Norwegian Cruise Line's Priority Access), you can arrive at any time to take advantage of priority boarding or special embarkation lounge access to make your wait more comfortable. The latter often includes a separate sitting area with snacks and drinks.
There are several other tricks — like completing check-in online or via your cruise line's mobile app before you show up — that you can employ to speed up the embarkation process.
What to expect when boarding your cruise ship
When you arrive at the terminal facility in your port of embarkation, you can expect the scene to be chaotic. Follow signs for the applicable arrival channel, whether that be parking or drop-offs via taxis, Ubers and shuttles.
Before you head inside, leave large bags with the porters, who will make sure they're safely loaded onto the ship. (Although it's not required, it's nice to give a dollar or two per bag as a tip.) You can't miss the porters and their baggage carts as they line up on the curb by the terminal.
When you enter the terminal building, you'll have to show your ID and boarding documents and proceed through a security check. Your carry-on bags pass through a scanner, and you must walk through a metal detector. Although it's similar to the procedure at airport security, you won't have to take your shoes off or remove laptops or liquids from your bags (unless they find contraband alcohol or something else that looks suspicious).
Then, you'll proceed to the check-in desk, where an agent will help you complete the process. If you've already checked in online, the process will be faster. Exceptions are more advanced ports or cruise lines (like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity) that allow you to skip the check-in desk if you've already completed everything (check-in, onboard account setup and security photo) ahead of time using the app.
In cases where you don't receive a keycard at check-in, it will be waiting for you either at your cabin door or inside your room.
After check-in, you'll head up the gangway and onto the ship, where security will scan your card to log that you've boarded. (Each time you disembark or re-board in a port of call, you'll also have to swipe your card, so be sure to keep it with you.)
How long does it take to board a cruise ship?
The length of time it will take from curb to gangway will vary based on several considerations, including:
- Whether you're traveling light. If you have a carry-on only, you can proceed straight into the terminal building. If you have larger luggage, you'll have to leave it with a porter outside, which can take a few minutes.
- How technologically advanced the cruise terminal and cruise line are. At terminals where facial recognition is used, you can board a lot faster, as is the case for cruise lines that allow check-in and the setting up of onboard accounts via mobile app prior to the day you board. Technology allows passengers to skip traditional check-in methods, which usually involve waiting in line to speak with someone at the check-in desk.
- Whether you have priority boarding. If you're in the upper echelons of the line's loyalty program, purchased a package that includes priority embarkation or you're staying in a high-end suite, you'll have the privilege of boarding before most of your fellow cruisers, and the process will be expedited with dedicated lines and lounges.
- Whether passengers actually adhere to their assigned boarding times. The goal is to stagger the number of people arriving at any given time so it's more comfortable and streamlined for everyone involved. If people disregard their time, it can cause bottlenecks and slow down the boarding process.
- How crowded it is when you arrive. If there are lines for passenger parking, drop-off or check-in, obviously, it will take longer for you to make your way on board.
- How prepared everyone is. If travelers aren't organized and spend extra time rifling through their bags for their cruise tickets, passports and other items necessary for verification, it affects the flow of traffic at the terminal during check-in. This also applies to passengers who pack contraband in their bags, thereby holding up the security line.
It's a good idea to show up in your city of embarkation the day before your cruise if you're flying in. Ships usually start boarding shortly after the final passenger has disembarked from the previous sailing, usually sometime between 10 and 11 a.m. Adhering to your assigned embarkation time will help to keep the boarding process running smoothly. (When choosing a time, aim for something in the afternoon, after the morning rush has died down.)
To ensure the shortest wait possible, make sure to check in and set up your onboard account online or using your cruise line's mobile app ahead of time. Also, have your ID and other boarding documents handy, and don't pack anything in your luggage that could cause you to be flagged at security.
Have more cruise questions? TPG has answers:
- More banned items: What not to pack for a cruise
- Man overboard: Why do people fall off cruise ships?
- What is baked Alaska, and why is it paraded around cruise ships?
- What are the largest cruise ships in the world?
- What is a gentleman host on a cruise?
- What is the Jones Act and how does it affect cruise ships?
- What is a lido deck on a cruise ship?
- What's a cruise cabin guarantee and will it save you money?
- What's the difference between a cruise concierge and a butler?
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
How early should you arrive to board a cruise? ›
Most cruise ships require all passengers to be on board no fewer than one to two hours before the scheduled departure time, which is almost always in the late afternoon or evening.What do I need to know about cruise embarkation day? ›
Embarkation day is the first day of your cruise. It's the day you arrive at the cruise terminal to embark on your vacation. Disembarkation, similarly, is the last day of your cruise, when you disembark from the ship, whether you're staying an extra day in port or catching a flight back home.What is the earliest you can board a Carnival cruise ship? ›
Find a cruise.
Guests who miss their cruise due to travel delays can contact the Emergency Travel Team (ETT) to discuss their options going forward. In specific situations, when the guest has the proper documentation, it is possible to join the cruise at the next port of call, but all options must be discussed with ETT.Should I Hotel night before cruise? ›
Bottom line: It's a great idea to find a cruise hotel to stay the night before your ship departs.Do you need to bring toothpaste on a cruise? ›
Beyond hair products, you'll want to bring toothpaste, a toothbrush and floss; glasses, contacts and contact lens solutions; a razor and shaving cream; makeup and moisturizer.How much extra cash should you bring on a cruise? ›
Many people suggest $100 per day, and this has generally worked well for me in my cruising experiences, but there are a lot of variables to consider. Here are some guidelines to help you decide how much money to bring on a cruise.What are the things to do before boarding a ship? ›
- Exchange Contact details with your Family. ...
- Give Bank Account Details to Your Family. ...
- Photocopy Your Documents. ...
- Keep a Small Pocket Diary. ...
- Carry an International Credit/ Debit Card. ...
- Keep a Pair of Clothes and Boiler Suit with You While Boarding the Plane.
By 1pm, your stateroom will be ready and that means you can check out your new home, drop off any carry on luggage you brought and start enjoying the benefits of your room.Can I bring snacks on board Carnival cruise? ›
Can I bring my own food on a Carnival cruise ship? Carnival's cruise fare includes plentiful snacks and food, available nearly 24/7. However, for passengers who just have to have their favorite pretzels or chips for a midafternoon snack, Carnival permits cruisers to bring onboard prepackaged, ready-to-eat snacks.
Can you bring a 12 pack of beer on a Carnival cruise? ›
Bringing Liquor and Beverages On Board - Embarkation
A small quantity is considered a maximum of 12 sealed, unopened cans/cartons of 12-ounces/354-ml each or less, per person.
U.S. citizens on closed-loop cruises will be able to enter or depart the country with proof of citizenship, such as an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL), a government-issued birth certificate (issued by the Vital Records Department in the state where he or she was born) or passport, and if 16 or older, a government ...How much time do you have between boarding and departure? ›
Most flights start boarding 30 - 50 minutes before scheduled departure, but the exact time depends on your destination and plane. Boarding ends 15 minutes before departure.Can I be late for boarding time? ›
When it comes to being at the gate, all customers must be on board the aircraft 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time for flights within the U.S.Do cruise ships wait if you are late? ›
Delayed Shore Excursion
The only time a cruise ship will wait for late passengers is if they are on a ship sponsored shore excursion, meaning the tour was booked and operated through the cruise line.
On formal nights, proper attire includes tuxedos, suits or slacks (jackets required) for men and evening gowns, cocktail dresses or dressy pantsuits for women. Jeans are welcome in all dining venues during the day, but they're not appropriate in any public venues for dinner or cocktail hour.How many evening outfits do I need for a cruise? ›
If you're cruising for 7 nights, that means you'll need about 7 different outfits to wear to dinner. With longer cruises, I will typically re-wear a dinner outfit to save suitcase space. I've found that casual dresses are perfect for dinners on a cruise.
You can get away with wearing jeans to the Main Dining Room on formal night. However, it's a good idea to make sure the jeans are fairly nice and do not have any holes or rips in them. A dark-washed jean will look more formal, although you will likely not be turned away with any type of jean.What should you not wear on a cruise? ›
T-shirts, swimsuits, robes, bare feet, tank tops, baseball caps, and pool wear are not allowed in the main restaurant or specialty restaurants at any time. In addition, shorts and flip-flops are not permitted during the evening hours.How many outfits do I need for a 7 day cruise? ›
Bottom Line: As a rough guide, for a 7-night cruise you will need to bring enough clothing for at least 4 formal or semi-formal nights, a couple of casual evenings, pool and loungewear, and practical clothing for excursions on dry land.
Where do you put your suitcase on a cruise? ›
There are closets in every cabin that can hold a suitcase or two. You can also store them under the cabin bed so that you don't have to worry about it taking up valuable space. Now that you know about the luggage and baggage rules, see our list of 39 useful things to pack for your cruise.How do you get free stuff on a cruise? ›
- Be Brave and Get Onstage for Free Prizes. ...
- A Spa Tour Just Might Come With Free Perks. ...
- Proving Your Cruise Line Loyalty for Free Stuff. ...
- Score Freebies Shopping on Your Cruise. ...
- Win Prizes at Onboard Trivia and Other Games. ...
- Attend an Art Auction for Free Bubbles.
The higher the deck, the better and, often, more panoramic the view. Cabins on top decks aren't always the best on the ship, but many suites and specialty cabin categories are typically located on upper decks.How much does a housekeeper make on a cruise ship? ›
Average American Cruise Lines Housekeeper weekly pay in the United States is approximately $922, which is 65% above the national average.What do you say when boarding a ship? ›
Upon reaching the Quarterdeck, salute, and say "request permission to come aboard, sir." In some cases, the person manning the watch may be junior to you or in some cases, may not even be an officer.What is the first thing you do when you go on a cruise? ›
- Drop your bags in your cabin. Depending on your cruise line, you may be able to access your cabin as soon as you board, at least to drop off your bags. ...
- Put away your valuables. ...
- Freshen up and change your clothes.
In general, expect to spend about 15 minutes on the boarding process if lines are short (usually when boarding later), or at most about 45-60 minutes if lines are long (usually when boarding earlier). When you arrive to the cruise port can make a big difference in how long you'll wait to board.Should I check-in early for my cruise? ›
Arrive to the pier early
By arriving early, you will beat the big crowds that descend upon the cruise terminal later in the day, and you also get the added benefit of having some extra time onboard the ship.
Check-in opens up 45 days before your cruise begins. Depending on when you go to select a time, there will be variety of 30 minute windows for you to choose from. What is this? You'll want to do this as early as you can in order to get an early check-in time and avoid wasting time in the cruise terminal.What months should you not go on a cruise? ›
Storms in August and October have a moderate risk of developing into hurricanes while September has the highest risk of all. For these reasons, September is the worst month of the year to take a cruise.
Is it better to board cruise early or late? ›
Avoid arriving at peak boarding time
We recommend getting to the terminal either early, before the rush, or late (after 2 p.m.), when most people are already onboard. You might still have a little wait, but it won't be anything compared to peak boarding time.
Passengers are encouraged to wear them during embarkation and disembarkation, as well as in areas where there are large crowds. Masks may also be required when ashore, per local guidelines. Cruisers must wear masks in the onboard medical center.How many people go missing on cruise ships every year? ›
Based on the reports that have been filed, we can estimate that around 200 people go missing from cruise ships each year. This shows that these cases are more frequent than most people realize.Do I need to print cruise documents? ›
Don't forget to print your cruise boarding passes and tuck them into a documents folder. You should also print luggage tags if you haven't received them by mail from your travel agent or cruise line. These go on your bags once you get to the port.Can you take cash on a cruise? ›
Cruise ships do not accept cash onboard because all onboard purchases are charged to passengers personal cruise accounts. Cruise accounts are usually connected to a credit or debit card which is much easier for the cruise lines to process.Who gets priority boarding on Royal Caribbean? ›
Priority embarkation is offered to suite guests (except Junior Suite) and Crown & Anchor Society members on the following tiers: Platinum, Emerald, Diamond, Diamond Plus and Pinnacle. Flexible Arrival is offered to Crown & Anchor Society Pinnacle Club members only.Can you board Royal Caribbean before your scheduled time? ›
Please note: All guests must be checked-in and onboard the ship no later than 90 minutes prior to the published sailing time or you will not be permitted to sail. If you choose to fly ChoiceAir, Royal Caribbean automatically displays only the airline schedules that will enable you to meet your cruise.What time does Royal Caribbean start check in? ›
Depending on your ship and departure port, that can range from 10 am to 3 pm.