You've been counting down the days until embarkation day for your cruise, when you get to jettison all your cares behind on land as you enter into vacation mode where the drinks flow freely, the chores are left to someone else and all you need to do is relax and have fun.
That said, whether you take one trip a month or one trip a year, we all know the joy of vacation can still be a little stressful, especially in the age of COVID-19. While you may not be able to control unforeseen circumstances like a flat tire on the way to the port of embarkation, a delayed flight or things that get lost in translation in foreign countries, there are ways to minimize stress when it comes to the things you can control.
The right attitude -- and right preparation -- can go a long way when it comes to embarkation day, and help ensure that your cruise ship embarkation experience, from the moment you step out of your car at the cruise terminal to the moment you step into your cruise ship cabin, is as smooth sailing as possible.
These top 12 cruise embarkation tips will have you saying goodbye to stress and hello to your relaxing cruise vacation in no time.
1. Schedule COVID-19 tests and organize vaccination documents as soon as you book.
COVID-19 has brought along its own new kind of embarkation day stress. Depending on which cruise line you're sailing with, you may need to have proof of vaccination, proof of a negative test taken within a certain amount of days before your departure and/or take a rapid test at the terminal before you're allowed to board the ship.
The best way to handle all of this is to not put it off. Schedule any required COVID-19 tests well in advance so you can be sure you'll get an appointment —— and the results back —— in time. Keep your vaccination records or medical or religious exemptions in one special place, preferably their own special holder or folder that can easily be accessed at the port of embarkation during check-in.
It's also worth mentioning that some cruise lines may require on-site rapid testing at the terminal, so be mentally prepared for that and check your cruise line's specific guidelines, if any, for anything you may need to do to prepare.
Pro tip: Double-check the cruise line's requirements, and then about two week and one week before your cruise, double-check them again as things tend to change quickly these days.
2. Fly in the day before your cruise.
Don't start off your cruise vacation panicking about missing the ship because of a flight delay or cancelation. Get ahead of the stress by arranging to arrive in your port city the evening before your cruise leaves. This also allows you to slip into vacation mode even sooner by leaving home a day early and then having a leisurely breakfast before heading to the cruise terminal for your assigned check-in time.
Driving? Allow extra time for traffic, pit stops and unexpected delays. In general, leave plenty of room in your schedule for any surprises. Best-case scenario, you don't hit any snags and you have a bit of extra time to spend in the port city. If you leave home with exactly enough time to get to the port for the tail end of embarkation, you're asking for trouble.
3. Plan transfers before you travel.
Baggage claim is not the place to first start thinking about port transfers. Whether you book through the cruise line, hire a private transfer, get a hotel shuttle or use public transit or a local cab, have your plan in place before you go. Make your reservation in advance, or at least know which bus line will take you to the port or the approximate taxi fare from the airport to the cruise port. You don't want to be stranded mere miles from your ship.
4. Know your ship's embarkation window and departure time.
A ship's embarkation window and its departure time are two separate things. Embarkation refers to the window of time that people check-in and board the vessel, while departure time refers to the time the cruise officially leaves port and heads out into the water. Your ship's departure time is usually later than the cutoff time for checking in.
In the past, we've recommended that cruisers who want to maximize their time on board should arrive as early as possible to beat the check-in rush, though COVID-19 has tightened up the check-in process across most (if not all cruise lines). Cruisers are now being asked to only arrive no earlier or later than a very short window of their assigned embarkation time in order to streamline the check-in process, minimize lines and keep passengers as safe as possible.
Good to know: Depending on the cruise line, suite passengers, upper-tier loyalty members and sometimes even first-time cruisers may have their own dedicated check-in lines (similar to airport ticket counter and check-in lines) so be sure to make sure you're getting into the right line at the terminal.
5. Prepare to wait in line.
Though you may take all measures to avoid it, chances are you'll have to spend some time on embarkation day waiting in at least one line. Be prepared by packing snacks, masks, water, entertainment for the kiddos and any support you may need (like a chair or cane) if you have trouble standing for long periods of time. At the very least we recommend wearing comfortable shoes, e.g., no high heels, open-toed shoes in cold climates or rain, or stiff business shoes.
Pro tip: Use this time in line to try starting up a friendly conversation with your fellow passengers in line. Ask them what they're excited to do or see on the ship or in port. You just might learn something new or make new friends.
6. Plan to wear a cruise embarkation outfit.
Frequent fliers know that a key to navigating through the airport pre-flight and being comfortable in flight is donning the right kind of outfit. The same goes with cruise embarkation day.
Be thoughtful when putting together your embarkation day outfit. You're going to want to wear something that is comfortable, has layers (in case you're dealing with both indoor and outdoor lines) and preferably has pockets for easy access to important documents, your phone, Chapstick, etc.
Pro tip: Stash a change of clothes in your carry-on, like a sun hat (and sunscreen) or a jacket and scarf, depending on the local weather. It's a small move that can make a big difference if you're stuck in an embarkation line that doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
7. Pack a lightweight carry-on with essentials.
Cruise Critic always recommends that cruisers bring a small carry-on with a change of clothes, swim suit, important medications and anything else essential to have for the first afternoon onboard -- since you never know when your checked luggage will turn up. Bringing a heavy shoulder bag or overstuffed rollerboard suitcase will likely become a burden the longer you have to schlep it through the terminal and around the ship. Instead, flex a smart packing strategy and limit your carry-on to a light backpack or smooth-rolling carry-on for maximum convenience.
8. Know the carry-on limits and don't try to smuggle contraband onboard.
One sure-fire way to muck up your embarkation day is by smuggling illegal substances or going over your allotted amount of carry-on alcohol. Embarkation day will be much more peaceful if you don't get busted by ship's security. Whether it's drugs, alcohol or a clothing iron -- leave it at home. (For the lowdown on what beverages you can bring onboard, see our story on cruise line alcohol policies.)
9. Be ready for the embark photo -- or politely skip it.
Pretty much every cruise line tries to take your photo on embarkation day. Why they think the travel-weary look with carry-ons slung across your shoulder is a good one to memorialize, we don't know. Consider yourself forewarned: Either throw on some makeup and a fresh shirt, or politely say, "no, thank you" to the photographers and keep on walking.
10. Keep all your required documents in one easily accessible place.
Aside from your COVID-19 documents -- negative test results and vaccine card or exemption letter -- you'll also need to get your usual cruise document ducks in a row.
Before you leave home, make sure you have all the official documents you need -- from cruise tickets to government-issued IDs. There is nothing so dream-crushing as getting to the cruise port only to discover that you left your passport at home or don't have the right visa to cruise.
We suggest putting them with your COVID-19 documents so everything is in one easily accessible place. You don't want to be that person fumbling through their belongings, holding up the line.
Pro tip: Don't forget to order or print out cruise line luggage tags, your cruise ticket and any special waiver statements or confirmations of onboard package options you've purchased.
11. Learn your cabin number.
Have you ever gotten onboard and headed for the crowded embarkation-day elevators, only to realize you have no idea where you're going? We have.
You might have memorized everything about the ship and your cabin but can't recall the exact number of your cabin. Write it down in an obvious spot, and memorize it before you step onto the ship -- most cruise lines don't print it on your cruise card for security reasons. In any event, you'll need to remember it for the rest of your trip.
12. Avoid the buffet if you can.
The natural progression after cruise ship embarkation for most guests is to head to their room, drop off their carry-ons and then either head to the bar and then the buffet. While there are several bars set up to serve thirsty passengers, there's only one buffet, and it can become wildly busy those first few hours on board. Best avoid this madhouse and opt to try one of the ship's alternative dining options, if they're open. (It might be your only chance to eat at some of the specialty restaurants, if they're already booked up for dinners.)