Updated February 21, 2020
Embarkation day means leaving all your cares behind as you enter into vacationland, where the drinks flow freely, the chores are left to others and all you need to do is relax and have fun. At least, that's what we all want it to be.
Travel always has the potential to be stressful. From a flat tire halfway to your homeport to a miscommunication with your airport transfer in a foreign city and the general hassles of herding your travel companions into yet another long queue, embarkation day can throw some nasty curveballs your way.
Until you (and your luggage) are safely onboard, fate can conspire to prevent you from making it to your vacation... or at least send your blood pressure soaring. The right attitude and the right preparation can go a long way in minimizing stress and coming as close to a seamless embarkation as possible. Here are our top tips for saying, "Goodbye stress. Hello relaxing cruise vacation!"
1. Fly in a day early.
Don't start your cruise panicking about missing the ship when your flight is delayed or canceled. If you're flying, arrange to arrive in your port city the evening before, and start your vacation with a nice dinner and leisurely breakfast before heading to the terminal. If you're driving, allow extra time for traffic, pit stops and unexpected delays. In general, leave plenty of room in your itinerary. If you leave home with exactly enough time to get to the port for the tail end of embarkation, you're asking for trouble.
2. Get cash in advance.
If you're flying into a foreign city to catch your cruise ship, consider acquiring some local currency before you leave home. In most cases, you can find an ATM at the airport, but Cruise Critic editors have had some white-knuckle moments overseas when airport ATMs were on the fritz.
Related: 7 Dumbest Cruise Mistakes Ever
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 what time embarkation starts and ends.
Your ship's departure time is usually later than the cutoff time for checking in. Double-check embarkation times and plan to show up with at least half an hour to spare.
5. Show up early ... or late.
Most cruisers want to maximize their time onboard. They all show up at the port right when check-in begins, leading to crowds, long lines and lots of wait time. If you want to breeze through embarkation, show up on the later side when most people are already onboard. Or, if you must be the first onboard, arrive at the port super early. You will wait, but you'll be the first in line to board.
6. Be a VIP, or buy your way to faster embarkation.
Many suite passengers and upper-tier loyalty program members get access to priority embarkation. Depending on the port, these special people can check in via dedicated VIP queues or in exclusive and comfortable lounges. Some cruise lines -- think Carnival's Faster to the Fun program -- allow regular passengers to pay for the same privileges. If you just can't stand to wait in line, consider upgrading for special treatment.allow regular passengers to pay for the same privileges. If you just can't stand to wait in line, consider upgrading for special treatment.
7. Bring a change of clothes, a jacket and a hat.
Cruise terminals are not always the most climate-controlled spaces. Some even make you wait outside if you arrive too early. As the temperature at the cruise port might not be the same as in your hometown, we recommend stashing a change of clothes in your carry-on. You might want to throw in a pair of shorts and a sun hat for warmer climes and a jacket and possibly a warm hat for breezier or chillier destinations. It's a small price to pay to keep the kids from whining, "I'm hot! I'm cold! Can we get on the cruise ship NOW?"
8. Prepare for queues.
Chances are, you will have to spend some time on embarkation day waiting in line. We say: Cruise like a Boy Scout and be prepared. Bring snacks to keep the munchies at bay, drinks to stay hydrated, entertainment for your impatient kids (or spouse?) and even some sort of travel stool/folding chair if you have trouble standing for long periods. Plus, you can make the lag time go faster if you have a good attitude and use the opportunity to chat with your soon-to-be shipmates, find out what people are doing in port and plan your afternoon onboard.
9. Have your official documents in order.
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. Before you leave home, make sure you have all the official documents you need -- from cruise tickets to government-issued IDs. Don't forget to order or print out cruise line luggage tags.
10. Know where those documents are.
Once you have all your papers in order, put them all together in an obvious section of your carry-on. Don't be that person frantically strewing underwear and electronics all over the terminal as she digs through a suitcase looking for her cruise docs. Affix luggage tags at home or at the airport so you don't have to chase down a porter to make sure your bag gets to the right cabin.
11. Don't try to smuggle contraband onboard.
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.)
Related: What Not to Pack for a Cruise
12. 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.
13. 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. But if you bring a heavy shoulder bag or an overstuffed roll-aboard prone to topple, you'll likely find yourself getting grumpier the longer you have to schlep it through the terminal and around the ship. Employ smart packing strategies and bring a light backpack or smooth-rolling carry-on for maximum convenience.
14. Know 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 and still can't recall the exact four-digit cabin number -- and most cruise lines don't print it on your cruise card for security reasons. Write it down in an obvious spot, and memorize it before you step onto the ship. In any event, you'll need to remember it for the rest of your trip.
15. Avoid the buffet if you can.
Most cruise travelers board their ships and head straight to the buffet (occasionally the bar, then the buffet). This practice makes the buffet a madhouse for a few hours, with tray-toting passengers tripping over stray carry-ons, and disoriented travelers not watching where they're going as they try to work out where the pizza counter or deli bar resides. If your ship has an alternative dining venue open, head there instead for a more Zen-like first meal onboard.