You've started your daily countdown to your next cruise, and you've combed through all the shore excursions to select the perfect one. Now it's time to check in for your cruise.
Here's what you need to know about cruise check in, in order to streamline your time at the port.
4 to 6 months before your cruise
Generally, check-in is available three months out from your sailing date. If you haven't already, check with your cruise line before this date to see whether your trip will require a passport. International destinations most certainly will, but even on a closed-loop cruise (where you start and end in the U.S.), some countries may require a passport.
Next, collect your passport, birth certificate or valid ID and double-check that they aren't expired or will not expire within two months of your travels -- This also depends on where you are traveling. There is nothing worse than being surprised at the port that your documentation is expired or missing.
We recommend making a copy of your passport to stow in your luggage in case it goes missing while you're on your trip. It's a great idea to do it now while you have plenty of time. Are you traveling solo with your kids and without the other parent? Check with both your airline and the cruise line to see if a parental consent form is required. If you have a different last name than your kids, you may need to bring your child's passport and birth certificate to prove that you are his or her parent.
2 to 3 months before your cruise
It's the moment you've been waiting for: Even though it's several weeks away, you can officially check in for your cruise. Note that even if you've booked through a travel agent, you'll do this step on your own.
Each cruise line is a little different, but generally, you'll need to set up an account with a username and password, if you haven't already. Be sure to link your cruise line loyalty number with your account (if you have one) so that you get credit for this and future cruises. If you don't have one, it will be created for you. If you end up cruising often enough, being a loyal member of a cruise line can net you some pretty sweet rewards.
Input your passport information and credit card payment information for making easy onboard payments. You may check in for multiple people in your party who are linked to your reservation, and you can also designate who has spending privileges on your account (for example, you might not want to give your kids unrestrained access).
Some cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, now allow passengers to take their own security photos before arriving at the port. This saves a lot of time by allowing you to bypass what formerly were some of the longest lines. You simply need a cellphone or computer camera, and follow the instructions for taking a photo in front of a plain background.
This is also a great time to lock in any additional shore excursions and make appointments for onboard activities such as specialty dining restaurants or reserved seating events and experiences, such as shows, iFly, cabanas, etc. Some reservations, such as spa appointments, can be booked up to a week before cruising, depending on the cruise line. You can also notify the cruise line if you'll be celebrating any special occasions, such as a birthday or anniversary.
1 to 2 weeks before your cruise
By now you are probably starting to think about your packing list. Don't forget to print your cruise boarding passes and tuck them into a documents folder.
You should also print luggage tags if you haven't received them by mail from your travel agent or cruise line. These go on your bags once you get to the port. (You can purchase special sleeves for the printed luggage tags so they're easier to affix to your suitcase once you've arrived at your destination, rather than worrying about finding a stapler.)
Make any remaining appointments for the spa or specialty dining.
On cruise day, be sure you're at the terminal no later than an hour before the sail time. At this time, you should have your passport or other identification, your printed boarding passes and your bags (with your cruise tags).
The first step is to drop your bags with the baggage handlers at the port. Make sure to keep a carry-on with necessities for the week, such as medications, and anything you might require in the next few hours, such as a bathing suit. Then proceed to the cruise terminal with your boarding documents.
Once you make your way to the cruise terminal, be prepared for something similar to what you typically go through at the airport: security, with metal detectors and x-rays for carry-on bags, followed by check-in stations where you finalize your payment details (if you haven't already), snap a security photo and receive a card or medallion that functions as your payment device, onboard identification and room key.
Though cruise lines are always working hard to streamline the check-in process by making a lot of the check-in procedures available online before you arrive at the terminal, be prepared for some lines (and some waiting) both at security and at check-in.
On sailing day, some terminals can get quite crowded at peak times. It can be hard to predict how long you'll wait. You've probably received a recommended check-in time from your cruise line, but it's generally OK (and a good strategy to avoid longer lines) to arrive at the port a little earlier. If you have booked a suite or have priority boarding status, your wait time will often be shorter, or you'll wait your turn in a comfortable lounge, rather than standing in line.
Regardless, cruise lines are masters of efficiency and moving large groups of people. If you're faced with a long line, keep your cool and know that you'll get on the ship as soon as possible.
The next step: Enjoy your vacation!