The most important day of your cruise is about to begin: Embarkation day! Here are some things that you should do to make the most out of your cruise.
*This article has been updated since its original publishing date.
The embarkation day experience on a cruise has changed over the last several years. Various requirements and policy changes have made boarding day slightly different than what you might be expecting.
With all the excitement and anticipation that leads up to this very first day of your cruise vacation it’s important to make sure you’re ready for the all-important embarkation process.
If you’ve ever had a bad embarkation day experience you know how important the information below is going to be to new cruisers. This is essentially the very beginning of your cruise, so making sure it’s as smooth as possible is key.
In this article we are going to cover the 19 things smart travelers always do on the embarkation day of their cruise.
Whether it’s a short 3-nighter or a longer 14-day cruise, the things you do on day one can either enhance or diminish your cruise vacation. Here at Cruise Fever we’re all about helping travelers make the MOST out of their cruise. So, let’s dig into some tips to keep your boarding day painless and stress-free.
The first part of this article will cover things you should do before you arrive at the port.
Actually, the first two items on our list involve things you need to do even before embarkation day. But this had to be mentioned as it will make your boarding day a lot easier.
1. Complete online check-in as early as possible
You don’t get on the ship early by showing up at the port early. In fact, if you show up well before your check-in time you will probably be told to come back later.
Get an early check-in time by doing the online check-in as soon as possible at home. Some cruise lines (like Royal Caribbean) allow you to do this 45 days before your cruise and for others it’s 14 days before, so check with your cruise line so you know how soon you can do this.
More check-in time slots will be available when check-in opens, and those early time slots fill up very fast. The easiest way to do this is through the app, and even if you don’t complete the entire check-in process you can at least lock in the check-in time right away. Often the earliest times are around 10:30am or 11:00am.
Related: Cheapest weeks of the year to cruise
2. Arrive the day before
Here’s another important tip that involves planning before boarding day, but it’s one of my main recommendations when cruising from a port far from home.
Booking a pre-cruise hotel near your cruise port takes all the stress and hassle out of a day that will be rather busy.
I always recommend flying into the city you will be sailing out of 1 or 2 days ahead of time. This way even if there is bad weather and your flight has to be delayed you won’t have to sweat missing your ship.
Additionally, if you book a hotel that is near the cruise port you can often get free or very inexpensive transportation to the port as part of your stay. Even if you drive to the port some hotels will allow you to keep your car there during your vacation.
Just make this extra day or two another part of your vacation.
Read more: 7 reasons you should never fly on cruise day
3. Download the cruise line’s app
You can and should do this step early on as well. The app makes the check-in process very simple and quick, and it allows you to book all kinds of other amenities you may want on your cruise.
You should pre-book everything you know you will want to do or have on your cruise. Things like drink packages, Wi-Fi, spa services, specialty dining, shore excursions etc. are all things you can book through the app or website. Additionally, you can often save money by booking in advanced.
Another perk of booking services ahead of time is having more time-slots to choose from, since certain popular restaurants or excursions could fill up quickly.
The more information you fill out in the app the more time you will save in the terminal. I will mention that a few times in this article, since after all this is all about making that embarkation day as easy as possible
4. Fill out the health questionnaire
This will have to get done anyway, so you might as well get it done early. You can usually do this through the cruise line’s app, but fill out that questionnaire and save time at the terminal.
Most all U.S. cruise ports have done away with COVID testing protocols and extra requirements, so the questionnaire is pretty much like it was before the shutdowns. If you need to fill out the paper version of the health questionnaire with your cruise line just fill it out as soon as you can.
5. Have documentation ready in digital and physical format
Double-check all documents and have both digital and physical copies of each. Even if you don’t have a physical printout of your documentation at least save the files on your phone offline. You don’t want to have to rely on your signal strength and delay the process.
Phone signal or Wi-Fi signal in terminal may not be strong, although many newer terminals have Wi-Fi throughout. You can use the folder on your phone or other apps to have copies of your documents that are accessible off-line even if you don’t have a signal.
I always like to make a copy of my passport as well, and I will keep it in my stateroom safe. So if something happens to my actual passport I at least have a fallback plan to make the next steps a little easier.
And then have all those documents ready to go. You can keep them in a special case or folder, but you don’t want to be shuffling through your bags when you’re being called up.
6. Reinforce your luggage tag with a plastic holder
The only thing telling the crew where your suitcase belongs is that luggage tag. You know, the one you printed off at home and is made out of paper. And no matter how many times you staple it and try to wrap it in tape, it can still easily fall off.
Save yourself a trip to guest services by picking up a luggage tag holder so you can secure your tag to your bag. You can pick them up on Amazon pretty cheaply (Affiliate Link).
7. Put the essentials in your carry-on
Since you will probably and should probably have a porter take your large pieces of luggage for you (more on this later), make sure you always keep the essentials on-hand.
On the rare occurrence that your luggage gets lost or does not show up in your stateroom right away you need to be able to have access to any medications, documents, and devices you will need in the meantime. I always like to have an extra change of clothing in my carry-on as well in the event this happens.
Having a bathing suit in your carry-on is always a good ideas as well. The pools, watersides and hot tubs will be open when you board the ship, and many like to enjoy these areas while their staterooms are being prepared. Another perk of jumping in the pool right away on embarkation day is that they aren’t usually that busy.
8. Know what items are not allowed
Packing an item that is not allowed on your cruise ship will just bog down your embarkation process. Know what you should leave at home. Items like irons and steamers, knives, candles, and even certain types of decorations aren’t allowed on board.
Some of the most common items people put in their luggage are extension cords (including surge-protector power strips) and too much alcohol, as cruise lines only allow for a certain amount to be brought on board.
Also know that weapons and any illegal substances in your bags will just slow down your boarding day process (which could be the least of your worries), so know what is allowed and what isn’t.
9. Arrive at the check-time time
You can arrive a few minutes before your check-in time as you allow for the time it takes to park and grab your luggage, but don’t get there too early. As mentioned earlier, you will more than likely be turned away and told to come back later if you arrive well ahead of your check-in time. This can depend on the port or terminal on how they enforce this.
10. Let the porter take your bags
You might want to save a few dollars by carrying all your luggage onto the ship yourself, but don’t. Not only will it be a major pain to walk through the ship with all those bags, it will only make elevators more cramped and be a nuisance to other travelers. You only need to tip a few dollars to the porter and the bags will magically appear in your stateroom. Again, you will want to keep your essential items with you, so keep that carry-on and let the rest go.
Once on board you should do the following things on embarkation day
Note: Once you’re on the ship you may notice how crowded the atrium area can be. The mid-ship elevators can get quite crowded as well, so I will usually walk forward or aft to find an easier way to navigate the ship. You will find elevators and stairwells much more accessible away from the bottleneck of the ship’s entry point.
11. Make your specialty restaurant reservations
While sometimes you can make these reservations ahead of time through the app, most of the time you have to go to a restaurant on board the ship and make them in person. If there is a particular restaurant you really want to try and you have a certain time in mind you should do this right after you get on the ship. Usually you can make reservations at any other restaurants from any single dining venue, so go ahead and get it all done then.
If you have a dining package you should definitely do this right away. Come prepared with the list of restaurants at which you want to eat, including preferred days and times to enjoy your specialty dining experience.
Some of the best times fill up fast, and there is a greater interest in specialty dining on some of the major lines these days.
One quick tip to note is that typically specialty dining restaurants are not as busy on embarkation day so you can try one of those venues on the first night to see how you like it.
12. Complete the digital e-muster drill
The days of standing in a very crowded line on the lifeboat deck for 30 minutes while a list of names is read aloud are over, for the most part.
In the post-shutdown era some cruise lines are still fine-tuning how they carry out these “digital muster drills”. But it’s easier now than ever to comply with the requirements of the “lifeboat drill” using an app on your phone or your stateroom’s TV.
With many lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival, guests simply need to watch a presentation on their phones and find their way to their muster station where a crew member will record their attendance. This can be done at different times as long as it’s completed in a timely manner before the ship needs to set sail.
A problem some lines have run into though is that some passengers still fail to report to their muster stations. And according to International Maritime Law passengers needs to complete the safety briefing before the ship leaves port. This has lead to the frustration of captain and crew as ships have tight schedules to keep.
So don’t be “that guy” that holds up everyone else’s vacation. Get the muster drill completed and enjoy that cruise.
13. Make reservations for shows and activities on the app
Even for some of the free shows on cruise ships it’s recommended that you make a reservation to make sure you have a seat. This will vary by cruise line, but I recommend you get on the app and see what activities or shows you want to try out that require a reservation. Some of these can only be booked once you’re on the ship’s Wi-Fi and can’t be done ahead of time.
14. Check your table assignment in the main dining room
If you have a fixed dining time for your cruise you can head over to the main dining room and see where your table is. This will help you know its exact location and also if the location needs to be changed for one reason or another. This is especially important if you’re traveling in a group and would like a table to seat everyone, or even if you’re traveling as a couple and would like a table for two.
15. Check out the kid’s area
If you’re traveling without children you can skip this one, but if you did happen to bring those precious little angels with you, you should definitely check out the kid’s club.
These areas are like an open-house on embarkation day so you can get a tour of the facilities, meet the staff that will be working with the children, and check out the hours of operation.
This is also when you will get your kids signed-up and, you can go over any allergies or limitations with the crew. It will take a few minutes to fill out a few forms, but doing this on day one makes it easier later on when it’s time to drop your kids off and scurry away to watch a show.
Your kids will get a wristband and be all set for drop-off later on that night. I also find that it’s good for the kids to get to meet the staff and see all the cool toys and games so they are more familiar with the area and will even be excited about it (hopefully).
16. Enjoy some lunch
Most passengers head straight for the buffet area, so that will be the most crowded place to eat. But many ships have other places you can grab a bite to eat on embarkation day as well.
Many don’t realize that even main dining rooms are often open for lunch and it’s a much quieter way to get some sustenance after a long day of handling logistics. Wherever you decide to eat make sure you do take the time to start enjoying some of the hard-earned money you spent on the cruise.
17. Explore the ship
This is my favorite part. It’s something I do after all the other “business” areas are taken care of. I might check out a few deck plans ahead of time, but mostly I just peruse the ship and get familiar with my home-away-from-home for the week.
It’s important to do this on day one so you know what the cruise ship actually offers. I’ve come across many cruisers who found their favorite venue on day 4 or 5 of a cruise and wish they knew about it sooner.
Sure, you can do some of this ahead of time by watching Youtube videos on your cruise ship, but by walking around and exploring in person you will get a better feel for the layout of the ship and spend less time backtracking later on.
Make mental notes along the way of places you want to check out later and just soak it all in. There’s nothing like that excitement of being on a cruise ship for the first time.
18. Meet your stateroom attendant
In all the hustle and bustle it’s important not to forget the person who will be cleaning up after you all week. Meeting your stateroom attendant is not only a nice gesture for the crew, but it also helps to iron out any issues you might have. If you need the room setup a certain way, need extra pillows, or have any other kinds of needs you can let them know on day one.
And it’s always nice to put a face with a name for a more personal experience. I always try to make sure my first encounter with my cabin steward is a positive one, not one where I have this huge problem and need it fixed right away.
19. Check out some embarkation day deals
The cruise ship is always abuzz on embarkation day, and it won’t take long to come across some day 1 deals. This is especially true in the spa area. On most cruise ships there is some kind of raffle in the spa on boarding day, and you simply need to enter your name and show up for the drawing.
There are also sales on retail items throughout the ship and many limited time offerings. So, you might as well take advantage of them.
20. Put your phone in airplane mode
You don’t have to do this one right away, but sometime before the ship leaves port you will want to enter airplane mode on your devices. I’ve known many to rack up huge phone bills because their phone connected to the cruise ship’s towers and ran up some serious charges.
And even if your phone does not connect to the ship automatically it will just drain the battery by looking for a signal. Just go into airplane mode, turn on Wi-Fi to connect to the ship, and enjoy your vacation. Remember, you don’t actually need to sign up for a Wi-Fi plan to connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi. It’s just a great way to see what’s going on around the ship and stay on top of your account.
Related: Tips for using Wi-Fi on cruise ships
Embarkation day is an exciting part of the cruise experience. It’s important to take the time to enjoy the process and make the most of the day. Make sure you are prepared with all necessary documents, have a plan for getting to your departure port on time, and come with a positive attitude.
While embarkation day can be stressful, it is also a great opportunity to get acquainted with fellow passengers and explore the ship before setting off on your journey.
And yes, there are actually 20 items on our list. Consider it a bonus ;).