Smooth Sailing: How You Can Cruise Through Embarkation Day

Smooth Sailing: How You Can Cruise Through Embarkation Day

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The day is finally here! Your ship has arrived and it’s time to head for the port. You should be able to cruise through embarkation day, right?

While embarking on your cruise is something people look forward to for months, it can also be a little stressful. Last minute packing, transportation snafus, unexpected issues, and long lines can turn an exciting day into chaos. If you are anything like my husband, all you’ll want to do once you are in your stateroom is take a nap (and yes, I bugged him about shoes on the bed).

However, there are some things you can do in advance to make your sail-away day more enjoyable and less tiring. It just requires a bit of planning, being prepared, and a good sense of how embarkation day works!

What to do Before You Fly

Ensuring your embarkation day is “smooth sailing” begins before you even leave home!

  • Check-in to your cruise online. This typically needs to be done between one and three days before sailing. If you do not want to check-in online, call your cruise line to ask about port check-in procedures.
  • Print your cruise documents and luggage tags. Even though you’ve entered all of this information electronically you still need to have the physical documents with you (though some cruise lines will send a mobile-friendly boarding pass). Do NOT attach your luggage tags if you are flying! You risk losing them when your baggage is handled by the airlines.
  • Double-check your assigned check-in time on your cruise documents and decide what time you want to arrive at the port (more on that later). Be sure to give yourself enough time in case of unanticipated delays and heavy traffic.
  • Make sure you have the address of the cruise port with your documents. Do not assume your cab driver will know how to get to the port or what you mean when you tell him to take you to “the cruise terminal”. We once spent an extra hour in a cab in LA because, as it turns out, there are three different ports where ships embark.
  • Learn from my past mistakes and please book your transportation to the port in advance. Unless you are heading directly from the airport to the pier, it’s never a good idea to assume you’ll easily be able to catch a cab, even from your hotel. And if you are planning to take a Lyft, Uber, or similar car service to the ship, please confirm that they are allowed to enter the port in your embarkation city. We scrambled for last-minute taxi in Fort Lauderdale after we learned Uber was not allowed in the port.

What to do Before You Leave for the Port

You’ve arrived at your embarkation city and are ready to cruise! What should you do before you leave for the port?

  • Attach your cruise luggage tags to your bags. If you wait until you are at the port to do this (as my father once did) you will find yourself scrambling to find a stapler so you can attach your tags. Don’t want the hassle? Save your sanity and buy some of these very inexpensive reusable cruise luggage tags.  Also, you are less likely to have the paper tag accidentally ripped from your bag if you use a tag holder.
  • Store medications and valuables in your carry-on bag. You may not see your luggage again for several hours after you drop it off.
  • Double-check to make sure your ID, cruise docs, and the credit card you want to use for onboard charges are close at hand. You will need to pull them out at least a couple of times at the pier. My dad likes an old school manila folder; I prefer something more like this to stay organized (and it has RFID protection).
  • Triple-check your hotel room for anything you may have left behind.
  • If you’ve read my packing list essentials, you know I recommend having $1 and $5 bills with you for tipping. Be sure you have some of that tipping money handy for the porters at the pier.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. This is not the time to wear your brand new fancy “I’m going on a cruise” wedges. You have a lot of standing and walking ahead of you.
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Leaving for the Port

While you have been provided with a check-in timeframe, some cruises elect to arrive early (or later) to the port.

Waiting at the port

Want to be first onboard? Who doesn’t want to start their vacation early, right? Cruise terminals open earlier than the check-in window so it is possible to arrive early so you can be one of the first in line. However, be ready to spend a few hours waiting because the ship probably won’t be ready to board yet.

Please note that the services the terminal provides to passengers are typically limited to a drinking fountain and a bathroom. If you are lucky there may be a snack machine or they might provide light refreshments. That said, it’s wise to bring your own snacks, beverages, and entertainment in your carry-on if you have a long wait.

Hate waiting in line? The later you arrive during your check-in window, the shorter your wait should be. Most passengers arrive early in the arrival time window which can create long waits.

That said, don’t arrive late! This is not the day to try to pack in any last-minute fun in your embarkation city. Boarding is typically closed 60-90 minutes before sail-away so that passenger manifests can be transmitted. DO NOT ARRIVE LATER than this. If you arrive after the window for check-in, you may literally miss the boat even if it is still in port.

Arriving at the Port

Get your camera ready since this will probably be the first time you will see your cruise ship! Whether you arrive via cab, shuttle, Uber, or friend; you’ll pull up to a drop-off zone at the port where you and your baggage will be unloaded.

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You will be promptly greeted by a porter (employed by the port or city) who will load your bags onto a cart to be transported to the ship. Note that unlike a valet at a hotel, using a porter is not optional. This is how your luggage will get to the ship, Please tip the porter and keep your carry-on bag with you. You will not see your luggage again until it has been delivered to your stateroom and this process can take several hours.

Entering the Terminal

At this point, it’s imperative to have your package of documents and ID within hand’s reach. You will meet several friendly port employees who will need check your cruise documents so they can help direct you to security and check-in.

Before you reach check-in, you’ll be asked to fill out a short health form (sample here). On the form, you’ll be asked to give your stateroom number so be sure to have that information at hand.

Security and Check-in

Checking in took two hours in Vancouver BC.

Remember I told you to wear comfy shoes? Here come the lines!

Security is usually your first stop. It’s much like airport security except you can keep your shoes on and don’t have to worry about your liquids (unless you are packing booze in your check-in bag). Your boarding pass and passport will be reviewed, you’ll pass your carry-on items through a scanner, and you will pass through a metal detector.

Keep your ID and cruise docs at hand because check-in is next. In addition to your documentation, the counter agent will also ask for the credit card you wish to use while on the ship. They may take your photo for security depending on the cruise line and their security process. Last, you’ll be given a map of the ship and your all-important cruise card.

If your cruise is starting and ending in different countries, you’ll also need to go through customs and border patrol of the debarkation country. For instance, we are US citizens and did a one-way cruise from Vancouver BC to Anchorage. Because we were leaving from Canada to travel to the US, we had to go through US Customs & Border Patrol before we could board the ship. This was an odd experience since we had only been in Canada for roughly 2 hours (much of which was spent in line at the cruise terminal).

Once you are through security and check-in, you’ll have the opportunity to have an embarkation photo taken in front of a backdrop by a ship’s photographer. You can say no if you are 100% certain you won’t want to buy a copy of the photo. Though we have yet to buy a copy of the embarkation photo, we usually stop and put on a giddy grin for the camera just in case. Frankly, by the time we’ve checked-in I’m feeling less than camera-ready but it’s always fun to take a look at the photo in the gallery later.

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Boarding the Ship

The magic moment has arrived! Cruise card in hand, it’s time to board. Now what?

Once you are onboard, you have plenty of options! Explore the ship’s common areas, head to your room, relax on the deck, or head to the buffet. Pools, hot tubs, most bars, and other services should be open as well. If you have your heart set on shopping, you’ll need to wait until the ship reaches open water for the shops to open. Hoping to gamble? You’ll need to wait for the ship to sail into international waters for the casino to open.

No matter which cruise line you are on, there will be sail-away activities including drink specials and bon voyage parties. Our last Holland America cruise featured delicious appetizers on deck as we left Seattle!

Afraid of missing out? Visit your stateroom or the passenger services desk and read your ship’s newsletter. It will list the events of the day so you can plan your activities. That said, definitely be sure you are on deck when it’s time to embark!

When you are out and about, it’s likely that there will be several crew members selling everything from beverage cards to spa packages all over the ship. You can get a decent deal on some items on embarkation day so it’s worth a look. Don’t be surprised if you are approached multiple times. They want to get to passengers early on in the cruise.

Mom & Dad have the muster drill down.

After everyone is aboard but before sail-away, the ship’s crew will hold a mandatory muster drill. The muster drill ensures you know where to go and what to do in case of an emergency during your cruise. Depending on the cruise line, you may need to return to your room to get your life vest for the drill. And yes, you must attend. The crew will either scan your cruise card or do a roll call to ensure all passengers are present.

Your baggage will be delivered to your room in the hours following check-in – they may even beat you to your stateroom! It’s important to note that your bags will be waiting outside of your stateroom door and not in your room. I never thought of this as a problem but I know this makes some cruisers nervous. If you are at all concerned you may want to wait in your room until they arrive or invest in a good TSA approved lock. That said, we’ve never had any theft issues.

What are your embarkation day tips? Did I miss anything? Please leave comments below!

How You Can Cruise Through Embarkation Day: What to expect, how to prepare, and what you should have with you to ensure you are a stress-free cruiser!

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