Your cruise line or travel agent may alert you to some of the rules you need to know for your next vacation at sea, but you can't count on them to tell you everything. It's best to educate yourself on the latest travel guidelines, especially as getting things wrong can lead to more travel hassles, extra expenses and possibly being denied boarding at the pier.
At best, the overview provided here is a snapshot. You'll want to double check the rules as they pertain to your specific travel plans. To that end, we've provided you with your very own toolbox of Internet resources, in addition to our general overview of rules and regulations. For more on ensuring smooth travels, check out our article on Nine Steps to Stress-Free Travel.
Passports: For U.S. citizens, passports are necessary for travel by land, sea or air anywhere outside the United States. U.S. citizens may opt instead to use a U.S. Passport Card when traveling by land or sea (not air) between the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Approved by the Department of Homeland Security, the card is a limited-use passport reduced down to the size of a driver's license. Most cruise lines require that the passport or passport card be valid for at least six months following the completion of your travels.
One exception to the passport or passport card rule applies to "closed-loop" cruises -- itineraries that begin and end at the same U.S. port. Passengers on these cruises still need to present a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, certificate of naturalization or similar documentation), but they are not required to carry passports. However, we recommend passports even for closed-loop sailings because in the case of an emergency -- such as an injury or illness that forces you to debark in a foreign port -- a passport will make it much easier to handle unexpected travel.
Passengers without acceptable identification will not be allowed onboard and will not receive a refund if they miss the cruise for lack of correct documentation.
For more information, check out IndependentTraveler.com's Passport Center.
Visas: For Americans, a few "typical" cruise destinations require visas. The most common are Turkey, Russia and Brazil. Check with your cruise line because country policies can vary. For instance, in Russia, if you plan to purchase a ship's shore excursion, the visa requirement is waived. If you choose to tour with an approved independent tour operator, you may also bypass the visa restriction. But if you plan to wander around St. Petersburg on your own, you'll have to secure a visa ahead of time. Contact a consulate or embassy near you. Visas also can be obtained through visa services like Zierer Visa Service or G3 Visas & Passport; you will pay an extra processing fee for the convenience.
Other countries, like Egypt and Turkey, will allow cruise ships to acquire "blanket visas" that cover all passengers. In this case, you typically won't have to do a thing (though do check with your cruise line beforehand, just in case).
Some countries may be choosey about which travelers are eligible for visas. If your Mediterranean itinerary offers a call at Libya's Tripoli, you'll be denied entry if you have an Israeli visa or entry/exit stamps in your passport. (Some other countries in the Middle East and Africa have the same rule.) In the past, Americans weren't even allowed to disembark in Libya at all.
Bottom line: The visa requirement is your responsibility, not the cruise line's. Double-check any information given to you by the cruise line regarding visas, and if you think you might need to apply for one, make sure you start the process well in advance of your trip.
Proof of Vaccination: Generally, vaccinations are not required for travel to cruise destinations. The main, albeit rare, exception is for yellow fever inoculations. If you are traveling to or recently visited one of the 29 African countries or 14 South or Central American nations where there is a risk of yellow fever, you may be required to present proof of vaccination to visit other nations or return to the United States.
Useful Web Sites
Foreign Entry Requirements by Country
Center for Disease Control
Be forewarned: Airline regulations vary wildly. Here we're offering a sampling, culled from American and Delta. (If you're flying with another airline, check for their own specifics.) For more information, check out IndependentTraveler.com's What to Expect at the Airport.
Checking In: The recommended time to arrive at the airport is currently 90 minutes before departure for domestic (60 minutes if not checking bags) and two hours before departure for international flights.
However, there are important exceptions to this rule. From certain foreign departure cities, recommended arrival time at the airport for return flights to the United States exceeds two hours. For example, Delta and American recommend showing up three hours ahead for flights from Dublin and Paris (Charles de Gaulle); travelers flying to the United States from Istanbul should allow 3 1/4 hours.
Remember, requirements can change on a moment's notice. If you are returning to the States from any foreign destination, check with your airline for its current arrival requirements.
Bags are accepted for check-in until 30 to 90 minutes prior to departure, depending on the airport and whether you're traveling in the U.S. or internationally. While the airlines officially state that a passenger must have checked in at least 30 minutes and be at the gate no less than 15 minutes prior to departure for a domestic flight, we suggest allowing far more time, especially during busy holiday seasons. For good measure, aim for one hour.
Carry-On Restrictions: All liquids, gels and aerosols being carried on must be in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers (half-used containers with 3.4 ounces or less remaining do not count), and they must be packed in a single, one-quart-sized, clear zip-top plastic bag. Exceptions include liquid medicines and baby milk/food. For more information, visit Airport Security Q&A from IndependentTraveler.com.
Other rules: Both American and Delta limit carry-ons to one (plus a personal item). Personal items include laptop computers, camera cases, purses, briefcases and the like. Items including crutches, canes, wheelchairs, walkers, one food item (for onboard consumption), outer garments and one item of reading material are exempt. Many airlines also do not count items for lap infants, such as diaper bags, umbrella strollers or safety seats, but check with your airline for their specific regulations. (Strollers and car seats can often be gate-checked.)
Anticipate a weight maximum of 40 pounds for that carry-on. There's also a size restriction. Maximum linear size (length + width + height) for the carry-on is 45 inches. On some aircraft, especially older ones, this must be derived from a size that will fit under the seat in front of you (9 by 14 by 22 inches).
International flights and carriers may have different carry-on restrictions than domestic ones; first and business class may have different restrictions than coach. Be sure to check with your airline regarding your specific situation.
Checked Luggage: Most airlines charge you to check bags. Both Delta and American charge economy class passengers $25 for the first checked bag and between $30 and $60 for the second bag, depending on the destination. (Checked bags are free for business-class and first-class travelers, holders of certain airline-sponsored credit cards and elite-level frequent flyers.) Average weight maximums are 50 pounds for domestic travel and up to 70 pounds on some, but not all, international flights; otherwise, plan to pay a surcharge. Travelers should also be aware that, during the heaviest travel days around Thanksgiving and Christmas, airlines reserve the right to refuse to take excess baggage in numbers or weight, regardless of whether the traveler is willing to pay a penalty surcharge.
Again, check with your airline. Some airlines like Southwest don't charge bag fees at all or allow the first checked bag free. International travel will have different requirements than domestic.
To avoid paying the fees, check out IndependentTraveler.com's Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees.
Packing Restrictions: There are certain items that cannot be packed in your checked luggage. This list, which is too long to print here, changes periodically, so it makes sense to check with DHS and TSA (the agency responsible for airport security).
Useful Web Sites
Airline 800 Numbers and Web Sites
Transportation Security Administration
Passenger Limitations: Many cruise lines will not allow women to sail in the third trimester of pregnancy; depending on the cruise line, you must be 23 to 26 weeks pregnant or less on the day of disembarkation. Some cruise lines require written approval from a doctor.
Babies must be at least 12 months old for transocean or world cruises and 6 months old for all other cruises. Disney is the exception, taking babies at just 3 months. Some adult-oriented ships don't allow children at all.
A single parent traveling with children -- on some itineraries -- may be required to show a letter of permission from the second parent (and it may need to be notarized). This would apply to both boarding the cruise ship and boarding an airplane.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Requirements: The DHS requires cruise lines to provide a final passenger manifest two hours before departure. The tight deadline is one reason why cruise lines have offered incentives to passengers to provide their personal information well in advance.
Useful Web Sites
Department of Homeland Security
Cruise Line Web Sites
-- by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, Cruise Critic contributor