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What to Do on Cruise Embarkation Day

Some simple tips make embarkation day easier and less stressful for anyone going on a cruise.

Even people who have already gone on a few cruises discover new ways of starting the cruise that make it a better experience.

It helps to understand the process that cruise passengers take when they arrive at the cruise terminal, which can take 30 minutes to two hours. That process includes the following steps:

  • On arrival outside of the terminal, a baggage handler should tag each bag with your name and room number before taking the bags away. IMPORTANT: Make sure the handler tags the luggage. Ours almost walked away without tagging them on our last cruise. Luggage without tags may take longer to reach the rooms.
  • Cruise line employees will direct you through the terminal to a security checkpoint where employees scan bags and people.
  • Next you will go to a line of people waiting for processing at a long series of desks. Sometimes the line consists of hundreds of people.
  • An employee at the front of the line will direct you to the next available desk.
  • There, an employee will review your tickets and passports. He or she will take your photo to include in your account. It may go on your ID as well.
  • In turn, you will receive a ship ID and room key card that has your room number.

What happens next may depend on the cruise line. For example, on some cruises we had waits of more than an hour before reaching a processing desk. On other cruises, we zipped through security checkpoint and processing line only to join many hundreds of people who were sitting and waiting to get on the ship.

Each one was given a group number. An employee on a PA system announced when a group was allowed to board, one at a time. At the gangplank, we passed through security one last time after showing our ID and room key card.

Best Time to Arrive

The single most important tip is choosing the best time to arrive at the cruise terminal to begin the process.

Ships will begin boarding people when they are good and ready. The trick is finding the right time to get there with as little wait as possible.

Cruise lines normally provide information about the best time to arrive after passengers buy their tickets. For example, they may recommend that you arrive at 1 p.m. to board ship to avoid a lunchtime rush. Sometimes their advice works and sometimes it doesn't.

In general, the best time to arrive at the cruise terminal is either late morning or late afternoon. The worst time to arrive is lunchtime because many passengers want to eat their lunch on the ship.

Hotels with 11 a.m. checkouts mean that some people will start arriving at the terminal by 11:30, which adds more people to the lunchtime rush. It is better to check out a little early and arrive by 11. Otherwise, check your bags at the terminal and go shopping or out to lunch for a few hours and come back to the ship by mid afternoon.

Do check with the cruise line before the trip to see what time you are allowed to arrive and what time they begin processing and boarding. Times vary somewhat depending on the cruise line and specific cruise.

Getting to the Port on Time

In our experience, the worst way to start a cruise is by flying into the port on the same day as the cruise. If the flight is late, the risk of missing the cruise goes up. Even if it's possible to make it to the ship after a delayed flight, the amount of stress isn't worth a tight timetable.

Besides, most cruise embarkation ports have plenty of attractions to make them worth visting for a full day or more. We have spent as much as four days at the better embarkation ports to take advantage of what they have to offer.

The night before, stay in a hotel near the cruise ship terminal. Just as flights have delays, taxis and other transportation have delays because of rush hours or traffic accidents that can delay arrival.

The return trip is a different matter. Cruise ships usually arrive on time early enough in the morning to allow passengers to get to the airport on time for their afternoon or evening flights. be sure to allow plenty of time between the ship arrival and flight departure.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

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February 17, 2020
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