A lot happens on embarkation day, and it can feel a bit daunting the first time you cruise or when you try an unfamiliar port and ship.
However, the process is fairly consistent and well managed as the cruise lines are experienced at turning over entire passenger loads within the few hours they have between docking early in the morning and departing late in the afternoon, often called "turnaround day."
Sailing for the first time? Here are 7 things you can expect on embarkation day:
On arrival at the port, you will hand your suitcases over to porters, who will take them to be screened by security and loaded onto the ship. The next time you see them will be outside your cabin. It's essential to make sure you have the cruise-supplied luggage tags firmly attached to ensure the staff members know where to take your bags. They can be delivered any time during the afternoon and occasionally may arrive after departure.
You should hold onto your carry-on bag, which contains your valuables, passport and other important documents, credit cards, cash and possibly prescription medicines. You should also hang onto items you may need before your bags arrive, such as swimming gear.
You're usually given a suggested time to arrive for check-in, which enables the cruise line to stagger the arrival of passengers, minimizing waiting times. Frequent travelers and those staying in premium suites usually have access to dedicated fast-track desks and priority boarding.
Most cruise lines ask passengers to complete check-in formalities online before embarkation day and to print out a completed e-ticket. This has to be provided along with your passport or other approved ID; a signed form advising if you have been suffering from any vomiting or upset stomach in the last 48 hours, and a credit card to cover onboard expenses.
Cruise lines prefer credit cards to debit cards or cash payment, and some insist on it. A hold will be requested with your provider on the card. If using cash, you'll have to make a deposit.
At the time of boarding, you'll be given a cruise ID card — which the cruise lines call by various names — that acts as your onboard ID, cabin key and charge card for all expenditures. You have a photograph taken, which is associated with this card within the cruise line's system to identify you when boarding and leaving the ship. Some ships also use facial recognition software based on this image to identify you in photos taken by the onboard photographers so they can associate any taken during your vacation — for example, if you'd like to purchase the photos at the end of your voyage.
You may be given a number and have to wait for it to be called before you can board. Before getting on the ship, you will pass through airport-style security screening. It is also common for photographs to be taken of you and your party in front of an image of the ship before boarding.
Before you step onto the ship, your cruise card will be scanned and checked. While some premium guests may be escorted to their cabins, it is more common for you to have to find your own way. The elevators near the boarding point will be busy, so it's a good idea to use those at the front or rear of the ship.
Depending on what time you board, you may have to wait before you can go to your cabin. They are usually available after 1 or 2 pm, so most guests explore the ship or go eat in the buffet or main dining restaurants.
Promotions & offers
You'll likely encounter quite a few promotional offers and events on embarkation day. While some cruise lines have booths prior to boarding where they will be selling drink packages, excursions, spa treatments, laundry deals and taking bookings for specialty restaurants and kids’ clubs, most offer these details on board and in printed materials — or on screen — in your cabin.
You should spend time reviewing the promotions and selecting which (if any) are suitable, as there will be additional benefits to purchasing them on embarkation day. Some offers will only apply to this day, such as bonus minutes on Internet packages.
All passengers are required to attend the safety drill, or muster drill, that is required to take place before departure. There will be details in your cabin and announcements will be made before the event. The location of your muster station is on a sign on the back of your cabin door, and life jackets are usually in one of your cupboards. You may or may not be required to take these to the drill, where you will be shown how to put them on. Check-in is often required at the drill to verify everyone has attended.
Typically there will be a party to coincide with the departure of the ship, called a sailaway. If the weather is good, it may be held on deck. These are popular events and are often accompanied by entertainment and music.
Most cruise lines run orientation events for passengers new to the line or ship on embarkation day. These include hosted tours of the ship, spa and fitness center demonstrations, a cyber cafe help desk, excursion talks, lessons in the casino for those who want to brush up on their poker or blackjack skills, and an evening welcome show in the theater to introduce the senior crew and entertainment team, singers and dancers.
How about you? Have any tips for newcomers on embarkation day?
In our New to Cruising series
- 10 tips to make your first cruise go super smooth
- What to expect from your first cruise
- 10 cruise tips every beginner should know
- How to find a cruise ship size that's right for you
- 5 tips on how to make the most of your time on a cruise
- What kind of people go on a cruise?
- What you can do in port during a cruise