All you need to know about boarding cruise ships

The arrival and check-in process for your cruise can seem overwhelming and chaotic, but it’s actually a well-oiled system that has been honed over years of experience 

28 March 2017, 8:00am
You’ll likely enter the ship in a public area, such as the main atrium, near elevators and staircases, and crewmembers will be available to point you toward food options or your cabin
You’ll likely enter the ship in a public area, such as the main atrium, near elevators and staircases, and crewmembers will be available to point you toward food options or your cabin
Your cruise line will send you information about when to arrive at the port, giving a several-hour window, typically from late morning to mid-afternoon. You can show up at any time during that window. Arrive too early, and you might have to wait around. The beginning of the check-in window is often the busiest; arrive later for shorter lines, but understand that if you arrive after check-in has ended, even by just a few minutes, you likely will not be allowed to board.

When you arrive at the cruise terminal, the first thing to do is to locate your boarding documents (either mailed to you or printed out at home) and your identification (passport or driver’s license and birth certificate), and keep them handy.

Upon entering the terminal, you’ll need to show your cruise documents and go through a security line. You will need to pass through an x-ray machine and have your carry-ons scanned, but the process is not as rigorous as at the airport. (You likely won’t need to remove your shoes, for example.) Then you’ll enter a large open space with roped-off lines and check-in stations. Cruise line staff will be on hand to direct you to the correct line; suite passengers and high-status past-passengers will typically go into a shorter line or separate waiting area, while regular passengers join a main line.

The beginning of the check-in window is often the busiest
The beginning of the check-in window is often the busiest
At check-in, you will present your ID and documents for the representative to check you in. You will also be asked to fill out a form stating whether anyone in your party has been sick lately; this is for the cruise lines to guard against illnesses which are easily spread in confined places. In turn, they will take your picture for security purposes, give you your cruise card (an all-in-one electronic card used as your boarding card, room key and onboard credit card) and give you a schedule of the day’s events and possibly a handy map of the ship.

If you are worrying about the cruise terminals and if they have bathrooms, they usually do. They also might have some juice, coffee or cookies available. Food will always be available once you board the ship, regardless of time.

Once you have checked in and have your cruise card, you will either follow signs and staff members to directly board your ship, or you’ll be directed to a waiting area with instructions on when to board. On your way to the ship, you’ll encounter the ship’s photographers asking passengers to pose for a picture, often with a backdrop of the ship or a ship’s life ring. These photos will be available to purchase onboard, and if you do not want to take one, you can simply say “no, thank you” and pass by.

Once you’re cleared to board, you will follow a gangway up to the ship. There, crewmembers will check you in via your cruise card. You’ll likely enter the ship in a public area, such as the main atrium, near elevators and staircases, and crewmembers will be available to point you toward food options or your cabin. 

When you arrive at the cruise terminal, porters are available to take your large suitcases and transfer them to the ship. You are not required to hand your bags over, but you’ll likely want to do this, as cabins are often not ready when you board, and you’ll be left lugging your heavy suitcases with you for a few hours. Have a few small bills ready to tip the porters.

Your luggage should be delivered to your cabin by dinnertime. Because you’ll be without your suitcases for several hours, you’ll want to pack a carry-on bag with everything you’ll need for the first afternoon (such as a swimsuit, change of clothes, camera and cell phone), as well as any important items you cannot lose (medications, ID, etc.).

If you, or someone in your party, cannot stand for a long time or walk long distances, you might want to bring a walker with a seat or foldable stool, as procedures vary by terminal, and there might not be expedited boarding or appropriate seating options. Additionally, you might want to request a wheelchair; while some might be available at the port, you are better off alerting your cruise line in advance.