Boarding Your First Cruise?

I’ve asked some wonderful friends and guests of ours, Mike and Lee, to share their tips for first time cruisers.  Over LeeMike2the next week, their series of posts will include information about arriving at port, check-in at the cruise terminal, boarding the ship, dealing with lost luggage, what to do when you board the ship, and more.  Enjoy! 

Everything We Wish We’d Known on Our First Cruise

When Mike and I started cruising, we read a lot of reviews, and while people talked a lot about what life was like once you were on the ship or what the ports were like, we wondered about the process of getting on the ship and what the first day was like.  With that in mind, I plan to write in this series of blog posts about the process of getting onboard and making sure you have everything in place to ensure that you have a great time onboard.  Our experience is from 16 cruises on five different cruise lines so far, so I’ll try to write generally enough that it will cover most any ship.

Nearly all ships allow you to fill out your boarding forms online.  In fact, most actually require it now, since they have to provide a manifest to Homeland Security.  This also helps the cruise line to perform check-ins faster and turn around massive ships in such a short time-frame.  Filling out the forms online helps you let the line know important things (how you plan to pay for onboard expenses, your passport information, your post-cruise flight arrangements, etc.) and I like doing it because if they asked me for all of those details at the check-in counter, I’d be rummaging through my notes to find all those answers.

Boarding usually begins a few hours before the time you will see in your cruise documents, typically as soon as they can get all the previous cruise’s guests off the ship.  Most cruises that leave at 5 p.m. will send you cruise documents telling you that you can board at 2 or so.  Our experience is that this generally means that you can board around noon.  Think about it, would it really work if 3400 people showed up at 2 and the ship has to be filled by 4:30?  We tend to show up at 11 or so and are often on by noon.  We remind ourselves that letting us on early is a kindness on the part of the cruise line, so we don’t grumble if things move slowly.  I think that the latest we’ve ever boarded the ship by arriving early is 12:30.

As you arrive at the port, the following process is typical:

  • You will surrender your luggage to the porters as you pull up to the curb in the cruise terminal area.  If you LeeLuggagedidn’t receive luggage tags with your cruise documents (which would be true with electronic documents), don’t worry.   They can give you some blank tags there. Make sure you remember (or write down) what room number you are in; you will have to write the number on the blank tags. (Tip: Print or write your room number and name on labels before leaving home, so all you need to do is peel and stick.)  If you received pre-printed luggage tags, don’t put them on your bags until you leave for the port. If you tag your bag with the cruise line tags before you go to the airport, the airline might remove them to make room for their own tags.
  • When you drop your bags off at their pier when boarding the ship, please understand that it may take up to a few hours after the ship sets sail for you to get the bags. There are several thousand pieces of luggage to deliver by hand and it can take a while. Put your swimsuits, medicines, and maybe a few toiletries in your carry-on bag, just in case your luggage does not arrive until a few hours after sailing. Dinner is usually casual on the first night to accommodate those who have not received their luggage yet.
  • Most people tip the porters a couple of bucks per bag.  While you are not required to, stories abound of those who did not tip finding their shampoo has squirted improbably and thoroughly all over the inside of their bags.  We’re not sure we believe this, but we also don’t want to find out the hard way. 
  • If you drove to the port, just park your car in the parking garage, then it’s an easy walk down to the cruise terminal.  You can either leave your guests at the cruise terminal where you dropped off your luggage, then easily meet them again after parking the car, or just take them with you and walk together to the cruise terminal. 
  • Proceed into the cruise terminal and have your hand baggage scanned by the same type of x-ray machines they use in airports.  Your checked luggage is also subject to random x-rays, so don’t pack anything you shouldn’t or you could be denied boarding.  That includes weapons of any kind as well as travel irons!
  • Next, you will join the line to check in. Different cruise lines sort people for check-in in different ways. Usually suite occupants and passengers in the upper level of that cruise line’s loyalty program board receive priority boarding via a VIP line. Others are usually sorted by deck for boarding or are all lumped into one line. Sometimes, there is a faster line for those who have completed the online check-in. 
  • You will likely be given a questionnaire about your gastro-intestinal health over the past few days.  If you have been sick at all, you’ll likely get a free visit with the ship’s doctor to confirm you are not carrying noro-virus. Ships are very clean places, and the noro-virus noted so often in the news is almost always introduced to the ship by sick passengers.
  • Present a valid credit card to which your room charges will be applied. Cash is only accepted onboard in the casino; all purchases and services will be applied to this your room account. A summary of all these charges will be presented on disembarkation day. On most lines, a cash account can be arranged in lieu of a credit card. You will need to apply cash to this account upon boarding at the pursar’s desk,  and the account must be replenished during the cruise as your cash deposit is used.
  • You will receive your room key, which will also be your ship identification card for the trip. This card will get LeeKey2you into your room, will allow you to make purchases on the ship, and will be a cute souvenir afterward.  Before you step onboard the ship, you will insertyour card in a reader, which then takes a photo of you to record on the card. This will serve to verify your identity as you reboard the ship in your ports of call. We have noticed similar machines also being used to verify the age of passengers attempting to enter certain bars, such as the ship’s disco.  Another way the discourage under-aged drinking is punching holes in the cards of minors.
  • Lastly, you will line up to have a souvenir embarkation photo taken, which you may choose to purchase later.  You are not obliged to purchase one, but if you decide to bypass this portion of the line, try to do so as politely as possible and without the appearance of barging around.  We’ve seen so many people be short with the photographers and literally walk through other people’s photos.
  • A quick skip across the gangway and you’re onboard!  Welcome!!!

Part 1:  Boarding Your First Cruise?

Part 2: What a Beautiful Ship –  First Things First

Part 3:  Lost Luggage? Cozy Stateroom?

Part 4:  All About Cruise Dining!

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of this 4 part series for first-time cruisers written by Lee and Mike, and if you’d like to read some reviews of their past cruises or listen to their podcasts, check out their website,  And, if you need help booking your cruise or resort vacation, please visit my website, Best Cruise Planners.

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